It all started with a fire.
About four years ago, Bill Gaston was smoking salmon on the sundeck on his Gordon Head home. Afterwards, he dumped ashes from the smoker onto the dirt of a big plastic planter on the deck.
The ashes had not fully burned out. That night, an ember somehow ignited a fire on his sundeck. It spread to the house. At dawn, when a Times Colonist delivery person banged on the door, Gaston awoke to find his home in flames.
The house didn't burn down. However, the fire did cause $280,000 in damage.
"It was almost a rebuild. It was one of those coin tosses," said Gaston, interviewed at the University of Victoria, where he chairs the creative-writing department.
For most, such an experience might settle into the fabric of family history, a bona fide tragedy along with deaths, divorces and serious illnesses. Writers process this stuff differently, though. Soon after, Gaston felt compelled to write 20 pages about the fire. Now the story has resurfaced - albeit in fictionalized form - in his new novel The World.
A central character in The World is Stuart, a high-school teacher who retires early. Recently divorced, Stuart buys his own little house. But it burns down in a fire caused by an ash in a planter. Unfortunately (unlike Gaston) Stuart had neglected to pay his home-insurance bill, so he lost out on being compensated. Baffled both by the tragedy and battles with insurance company bureaucracy, Stuart sets out on a car journey across Canada in his junky old Datsun.
The novel takes other inspiration from Gaston's life. Stuart is on a mission to reunite with his old friend, Melody, who is dying of throat cancer (Gaston's own brother is a throat cancer survivor). Melody's father, Hal, is a Buddhist suffering from Alzheimer's disease (both Gaston's parents suffered from dementia).
The World is both funny and sad. An impressive aspect of the novel is the complexity of its structure. Gaston has a fistful of different yarns on the go simultaneously. There is also a novel-within-a novel: Hal wrote a book, also titled The World, that tells of a woman who lived in the leper colony on D'Arcy Island off the Saanich Peninsula (there was a real-life leper colony there until 1924).
His ability to keep half a dozen plates spinning reflects the skill of a veteran writer. Now in his late 50s, Gaston has published more than a dozen books - half of them novels, half short stories. A critical favourite, he's been nominated for two of Canada's top literary honours: the Giller Award and the Governor General's Award.
He's a down-to-earth fellow. Writerly, of course, but also a guy's guy. Early on, Gaston played semi-pro hockey, participating in leagues that took him to Europe (his hockey adventures are recounted in his 2006 memoir, Midnight Hockey). In his younger days he was a logger and a professional fishing guide, running his own company. Back then he mooched with live herring, a skill requiring considerable expertise.
Asked in 2007 what he'd do with his $5,000 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize for his short story collection Gargoyles, Gaston told a reporter he'd get a haircut.
Gaston, chatting in his UVic office, was friendly and unpretentious. When I asked him about being shortlisted for top literary awards, he confessed it suddenly made him care about such contests. Now he feels "like a giant loser" upon failing to make a prestigious literary shortlist. Partly hyperbole, of course. Yet Gaston is also a man who doesn't mince words.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, he lived in Winnipeg for most of his childhood. His heroes were hockey players and writers. Gaston says he read a lot because the family's black-and-white TV offered few good programs.
Not many jocks become literary writers. Gaston played on the hockey team while studying English literature at the University of British Columbia. His teammates were mostly taking degrees in physical education or business. "I think they called me 'Professor' sometimes, that kind of s--t. It was still OK. I was a normal guy."
When it came to writing, Gaston was serious from the get-go. To finish a novel started in university (later published as Bella Combe Journal), he rented an isolated waterfront cabin for $75 a month at Pender Harbour. Pre-computer. No radio. Just a typewriter.
Later, teaching a writing class at UBC, Gaston encountered a promising student his age who'd written four novels. The student had, in a way, followed Gaston's Pender Harbour footsteps, renting a sod hut on the Saskatchewan prairie for six months in order to follow his muse.
So far, he'd had nothing published. It was sobering to Gaston, still struggling to make his own name.
"You'd wonder, that's his life and it's not co-operating at all," he said.
For Gaston, there was no giant epiphany, no big sign from the universe that writing was to be his destiny. He got "just enough crumbs" to nourish his ambition. The occasional story would get published, or someone would toss him meaningful praise.
"It's still like that in a way. I'm always on the verge of quitting. Well, kinda," he said.
His wife is Dede Crane, a former ballet dancer who became a writer in her early 40s. The pair met at a Buddhist retreat in Colorado. It was supposed to be a day of silence.
"She asked me for a smoke. I think she said 'Sailor' at the end too," Gaston said with a laugh.
One benefit of a writer marrying a writer - you understand one another. Gaston said when fully immersed in a writing project, he inhabits characters in a way comparable to method acting. Crane approaches her fiction writing with similar intensity.
"One of us becomes a zombie," he said. "We call it 'the novel face.' "
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