Eva Stachniak interviews Caroline Adderson, the author of The Sky is Falling.
Eastern European characters rarely make it into Canadian fiction, thus the idea to present the novels and short stories which feature immigrants from behind the former Iron Curtain. In the near future, I’ll introduce Andrew Borkowski’s collection of short stories about growing up on Roncesvalles after World War II. Today, I am talking to Caroline Adderson. The heroine of her latest novel, The Sky is Falling, is a daughter of a Polish immigrant.
Caroline Adderson is one of the most interesting Canadian writers. She has written novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice), short stories (Bad Imaginings, Pleased to Meet You), and several books for young readers. Her books have been nominated for prestigious literary rewards. She is a winner of Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and CBC Literary Awards, and the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award.
E. S: Jane Zwierzchowski, or Jane Z, the heroine of The Sky is Falling, is a peace activist in 1980s Vancouver. Her involvement with the peace movement is the focus of many interviews and reviews your novel has generated, but I want to ask you about the Zwierzchowski connection. Why did you chose a daughter of a Polish immigrant as a heroine of your novel? And why is she studying Russian?
C. A.: At the start of The Sky Is Falling, Jane is an outsider in a house full of committed peace activists. She is utterly apolitical during what was a very political time. I felt there had to be something in her background that made her so disinterested, or at least reluctant to get involved. Immediately I understood that it was because of her family background. As an immigrant from Poland, her father would be naturally distrustful of the peace movement which was often accused (not altogether without reason) for being soft on communism, or even pro-communist. He also has a temper (not necessarily a Polish trait!), which makes both Jane and her mother reluctant to rile him up. However, it is the very fact of her having an “unpronounceable” Polish last name that eventually gets her accepted into the group of activists; because she is studying Russian and Russian literature, they think she is Russian and find her much more interesting for the mistake.
There is also a level of irony added to the novel because of her half-Polishness. Jane in the present time sections of the novel (2004), looks back on her youth with some dismay. At 19, she thought she could stop World War 3 from happening, yet she never really grasped until adulthood that the father she dismissed as reactionary had actually survived a world war. Of course, none of this I knew when I started writing the book. In everything I write the characters reveal themselves as I go along until I finally understand what they are about.
E.S: Jane’s father would also be very distrustful of the Russian studies. I am seeing irony in your novel on many levels. Jane is, like many children of immigrants, blissfully unaware of the complexity of her father’s world. I laughed when she praised her mother-in-law’s “incomprehensible” and almost mysterious ability to gather wild mushrooms Jane’s own father must have gathered as a matter-of-fact, or as if she never read Nabokov’s Speak Memory. And, of course, in 1984, Poland is under martial-law, Solidarity has been crushed, Russian tanks are still at the Polish border, many Polish activists are imprisoned or forced into exile for wanting to live in a free country outside of Russian domination. Jane never reflects on any of it. She is like her name, simplified, cut to the bone. How many non-Polish readers would pick this aspect of your novel? And do you mind if they do not?
C.A: I am absolutely thrilled that you are understanding the backstory! It is true, however, that many readers won’t. Younger readers, for example, probably won’t even understand our level of fear at the time, much less the political nuances. That is really the challenge writing historical fiction. (I feel funny even calling this novel historical, because it is set such a short time ago — just 25 years — but in terms of the political landscape it might as well be a century.) Every writer has to grapple with how much factual information to put in to bring a particular period to life. I put in as little as possible because that is my preference as a reader. When I read something set in the past, I don’t want the narrative broken up to be taught something; I’d rather be immersed in the narrative the way I would be if the book had been written in the past. Inevitably that means that some readers will miss certain things. I can only hope the novel has enough levels to keep most of them reading.
E.S.: Polish readers will have no trouble perceiving Jane’s predicament. She may even make them reflect on their own Canadian-born children, and their understanding of the country their parents have left. Let me ask what made you interested in the Slavonic Studies at UBC and what has the program taught you?
Back in the early 1980s at UBC I signed up for a survey course because I wanted to understand what it was we had to fear from the Soviets. I had a wonderful professor who was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. I remember him describing when the tanks rolled in in 1968 and thinking it sounded tremendously exciting, and how wonderful it would be to live through something like that, which appalls me now, of course. What I got most from the course was a love of Russian literature. Before that, I was a pretty lazy, on-and-off again kind of reader. Until Anna Karenina and Dr. Zhivago, I didn’t know what it was to be swept up completely by a book. This was several years before I began writing myself. Slavonic Studies made me an impassioned reader. Reading lead me to writing. Interestingly, writing finally led me to a less romantic understanding of what it must be like to live in a totalitarian state. Writing and publishing is so fraught as it is, even in a liberal democracy. To add on censorship, self-censorship, and even the possibility of being imprisoned for what you write — well, I am truly humbled. These days, when my students complain that they don’t have the time or self-discipline to write, I remind them that Solzhenitsyn wrote A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch in the Gulag, in his head. That usually shuts them up!
E.S. Thank you!