The Gallery of Lost Species is about addiction and family life
Nina Berkhout is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Elseworlds, which won the 2013 Archibald Lampman Award. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, she now lives in Ottawa, Ontario. The Gallery of Lost Species (House of Anansi), set for release this January, is her first novel.
Julienne Isaacs: You have a degree in Classical Studies and another degree in Museum Studies. How directly does The Gallery of Lost Species draw on your own education and professional interests, and how much did you have to supplement that training with additional research?
Nina Berkhout: The novel greatly draws on my own education and interests. In the first half of the book my protagonist, Edith, gets a part time job in a coin shop. This was easy for me to write about. During my undergraduate years, I worked with a numismatics collection of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine coins at The Nickle Arts Museum on the University of Calgary campus. Ancient mythology—often portrayed on coinage—is what drew me to a degree in Classics in the first place. It’s been over 15 years since I left that job, but the coins, and the stories portrayed on them, stayed with me. I always knew I’d incorporate numismatics into my writing one day.
The second half of the novel is situated, in part, at the National Gallery in Ottawa, where Edith gets a data entry job. It’s a fictionalized version of the Gallery but I drew my inspiration from working there myself over the past several years. Through my Museum Studies degree I’ve been lucky enough to work in some truly unique places with amazing collections, which have frequently wound up in my writing. So Edith’s time spent in storage didn’t require much research. Although I don’t work with the physical collections at the National Gallery (I have a desk job in the New Media division), I based Edith’s experience on my time working with collections at places like the Royal Ontario Museum, La Maison Gabrielle Roy, and the Glenbow Museum. I’ve also done thousands of hours of data entry and artifact condition reporting over the past two decades, so that wasn’t hard to describe either!
JI: Have you always been interested in cryptozoology?
NB: I didn’t know what cryptozoology was until it arrived in my inbox as a dictionary Word of the Day (a daily email subscription offered by online dictionaries, featuring the meaning and etymology of a single, random word). The practice of the cryptozoologist—someone who searches for animals whose existence or survival is unsubstantiated (such as Nessie or Bigfoot)—captivated me. Such a vocation requires true passion and unfailing belief. There is also an element of hopelessness to it, since these animals are endangered, extinct, or nonexistent. Some cryptozoologists have spent their entire lives trying to track down animals for which there isn’t any concrete scientific evidence. Animals known only from legends, stories from locals, and oral histories. Again, it’s the mythological aspect of cryptids that drew me in. This required a lot of research. I probably did about a year’s worth of reading and taking notes, before I felt I had a grasp on cryptozoology.
JI: In The Gallery of Lost Species, Edith is herself a kind of repository for her family’s griefs: she is the one who carries the weight of their collective brokenness. But she is also a collector/cataloguer of oddities, and her vocational growth is an important aspect of the novel. Do you see The Gallery of Lost Species more as a novel about grief and loss or a novel about vocation? Do you think anyone will call this a novel about addiction? Would they be right?
The loup garou is one creature you might find in Berkhout’s gallery of cryptids
NB: In part, the novel explores how a vocation can provide relief from grief and loss. Theo, the old cryptozoologist that Edith meets at the Gallery, is an example of someone who has devoted the greater part of his life to tracking down cryptids, to mitigate personal loss. And the younger Edith learns firsthand from her father, who avoids the reality of his crumbling marriage by hunting for antiques and artifacts, that collecting can provide an escape from despair. Edith is able to forget her messed up family when her mind is occupied with acquiring and organizing objects. Later, when she’s trying to help Vivienne, her troubled sister, Edith finds solace at the Gallery. Art saves her. She also finds hope in Theo, who’s at the Gallery to research a mysterious bird that was painted by Paul Gauguin. Edith forms a bond with Theo as she gradually learns that he is similarly trying to rescue animals from extinction, just as Edith is trying to rescue her sister from death.
I do think some will say that this is a novel about addiction. I hope the book will contribute to the discussion on young women and alcoholism, since there’s still a huge stigma surrounding it. Women tend to hide it more from family and friends, and women reach late-stage alcoholism a lot faster than men. The debate of whether it’s a weakness or a disease is one of the questions Edith grapples with as she tries to come to terms with Viv’s situation. For me, the book is about family relationships and how addiction impacts a family, and in particular, siblings. It’s also a coming of age story, and it’s about Edith’s struggles to find herself as she takes on her family’s problems. And there is a love interest in the story—Liam—who greatly impacts Edith’s life. So she learns some lessons about the unfairness of love along the way to finding her voice and her independence. But, ultimately, yes, the heart of the story revolves around Edith trying to save her sister from addiction, despite the fact that addiction isn’t something that you can save someone else from.
JI: You’ve published several collections of poetry. When did you realize that The Gallery of Lost Species was a novel, not a poem? Which characters did you find most compelling to write?
NB: I knew this would be a novel from the time Edith’s voice entered my mind. She was the most compelling for me to write about—thankfully, or it would have been a long three years—followed closely by Constance, the girls’ overbearing mother, which I hadn’t anticipated. Initially Constance was going to be just a foil to the sisters’ story, but she sort of took over, gaining complexity in my mind. On the surface she might be perceived as a monstrous backstage mother. Yet she’s also a victim of her circumstances and her upbringing with her own horrible mother. She gave up her dreams of becoming famous to raise her kids, and she tries to reshape these dreams in Vivienne by forcing her into the world of child pageantry. In her own warped way, with her harsh advice and dictatorial methods, she’s trying to help her daughters make it in life. Later, Viv’s medical situation probably impacts her as much as it impacts Edith. Even if she tries not to show it, she is broken. By the end of the book I’m hoping readers will actually sympathize a bit with “the Con,” as Viv calls her.
Vivienne is the character I found most draining to write, because of her basically all-around crappy life, from reluctant childhood pageant kid to struggling artist, to addict. Each Viv passage left me feeling emptied out. Theo was my remedy to Viv. I loved exploring cryptozoology through him. Edith is curious about Theo from the moment she meets him at the Gallery. Gradually he opens her eyes to a world she didn’t know existed. Yet there’s a mystery surrounding the old man, who gives Edith advice while managing never to disclose details about his own history, which Edith only finds out about at the end of the book. Through Theo, I wanted to explore the psychology behind those who fixate on their lifework to the point of obsession, to try to forget the past or avoid coping with a personal tragedy. Is it worth it? Is it possible?
JI: In an interview with Rob McLennan for Open Book Toronto, you mentioned that being overly biographical in fiction can be disastrous, whereas poetry is often autobiographical. Can you talk about the risk that the autobiographical carries for you as a poet? As a novelist?
NB: The risk that the autobiographical carries for me as a poet is that it reveals my life and my personal experiences to the reader. The poems I write tend to be confessional in nature, which means I can be left feeling exposed. Usually I try to begin with a personal experience which leads to a general comment, truth, or idea that readers can relate to, or have felt themselves. So another risk of the autobiographical in poetry is that it remains just an anecdotal, trivial story, without going any further than that. If it’s only a poem about my own life, it becomes egocentric. Striking that balance between touching on my life and then going beyond it can be tricky.
As with poetry, there’s also a fine line incorporating the autobiographical into fiction. With both forms, I write what I know, and my fiction does contain elements of my actual experience. The risk with writing what you know is the danger of entering into autobiographical fiction. I’d never want to pass my life off as fiction because my life is boring! But I do think that adding autobiographical elements to a novel can make a story richer and more believable. Another risk, going this route, is subjectivity. With fiction, I find I need to distance myself from the personal experiences I choose to incorporate, to be objective about them and to have a clear perspective.
Writing a novel in the first person means another risk is that readers will assume that the novel is autobiographical. While my real experiences inform my writing, that’s where it ends. I then try to create a new world and interesting characters and a story, with fictional devices and an impactful narrative. Also, since art and artifacts have always informed my writing, from my first poetry book to this novel, I suppose another risk is that I’m in danger of repeating myself. But art and artifacts are what I’m passionate about. I can only write about what moves me, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take!