Patricia Westerhof, describing how she subdued a giant sewer lizard while conducting research for The Dove in Bathurst Station.
The Dove in Bathurst Station by Patricia Westerhof came out just a few months ago with Brindle & Glass. We covered the launch on the Town Crier but we wanted to get a more in-depth look at the creative multitasking mind of this talented local writer.
Town Crier: The Dove in Bathurst Station takes place in Toronto and you must have done much research to write about the underground tunnels. What was that research process like? Has your other work required as much investigation? Do different kinds of stories (the real compared to the invented) necessitate particular ways of creating locales?
Patricia Westerhof: I studied maps of underground Toronto and read the accounts of people who have traveled the drain tunnels. But as I began to write the underground scenes, I noticed gaps in the research. For instance, my character is a musician—a failed folk singer—and in one scene, she sings underground. So I needed to know about the acoustics in the tunnels. Also, the urban explorers whose descriptions I read were all male, while my character is a woman from a Dutch-Canadian background, where cleanliness is next to godliness. She would care, I believed, about how things smelled and what, exactly, was splashing around her boots. So I went underground myself. I researched the smells, the temperature, the quality of darkness, the sounds. This firsthand research allowed me to write the underground scenes with the sensory detail that invites the reader to journey with the character.
I love settings in books—I don’t think I would ever write a book set in a generic town or city. I’m fascinated with the ways in which people interact with settings. I’m the person whose neck cranes to see the top of a building, who peers down alleyways, who searches for cornerstones to date a building, who notices which parts of the building are old and which are new. I am especially interested in what people do to their environments over time. So, yes, all my work necessitates research, and I prefer doing firsthand research if possible. My current project is a novel set partly in Rogers Pass, B.C. and partly at the Homer Tunnel in New Zealand. I have visited both places and done extensive historical and geographical research as well. Not all writers work this way, but it’s my preferred process.
TC: Your novel also deals with spirituality. When you are writing a novel or a story, is it important for you to pin down your characters’ relationships with god and religion? In an increasingly secular world, do you think writers will continue to examine spirituality or do you perceive a change in how the “spirit” will be treated?
PW: I don’t start a story or a novel trying to pin down the characters’ relationships with God, but the topic seems to creep in. Writers tend to have issues and themes they return to, and humankind’s relationship with the divine is a preoccupation of mine.
While I agree that our society is becoming increasingly secular, I think people are as spiritual as ever. The rejection of traditional religious institutions has not removed the basic human impulse to search for meaning and purpose. So I believe that writers of literary fiction will continue to deal with spirituality, in all the various forms it takes.
TC: Your novel also includes many epigraphs from T.S. Eliot. Why did you include him and what role does intertextuality play in your writing?
PW: Marta, the main character in The Dove in Bathurst Station, journeys into the hidden parts of the city, and she also journeys into her own psyche. I used The Four Quartets because it, too, uses journey motifs to explore profound questions. Also, “Little Gidding” (the fourth poem in The Four Quartets) uses a dove symbolically, and it, like my novel, quotes Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well.” More importantly, my novel in some ways mirrors the philosophical themes in the poems. I hope readers familiar with the poems will draw connections between Marta’s journey toward wholeness and Eliot’s ideas about renewal and about the source of grace and healing.
While I want the epigraphs to add a layer of meaning and aesthetic richness to the novel, the educator in me hopes that explaining the connections between the epigraphs and the novel will never end up being a question on an essay test. Epigraphs should be like allusions—if you get them, great. If you don’t, it’s okay to have someone point out the connections. But the explication will fall as flat as having the punch line of a joke explained.
TC: Not only are you an author, you are also a teacher and a mother. How do you balance being a writer with all of your other responsibilities? What is your writing regime?
PW: I wrote my first book, Catch Me When I Fall, in my head during my kids’ swimming classes, piano lessons, and play dates. I typed the stories up on Saturday mornings, working away from home to minimize distractions. Now my kids are much older, and I have more time to write. I still have an almost full-time teaching job, so I need to be disciplined. But I have found that a tight schedule works well for me. In fact, the few times I’ve had a week or two of wide open writing time, I have been spectacularly unproductive. So I write in a few three-to-four-hour blocks a week, whether I feel like it or not. I recently wrote about my writing space and process for Open Book Toronto.
TC: As a creative writing teacher, what would be the most important piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?
PW: Beginning writers need to figure out what makes good writing good. I think aspiring writers should read a lot, write regularly, and find other writers with whom to explore craft and revision techniques. Creative writing workshops and classes can help, too, but I would never encourage young writers to major in creative writing in their university studies, since it’s very unlikely that such a degree will lead to paid work. Here in Toronto, there are multiple ways to get feedback on your work, such as the Toronto Public Library writer-in-residence program, various writers’ groups open to new members, literary festivals (like Word on the Street) that offer free workshops, as well as courses taught at Toronto’s colleges and universities by published authors.