1. Many readers want to know what happens after Coming Ashore. What came next?
I finished my Ph.D. on Darwin’s Influence on Freud, and after I got my doctorate in psychology, I went into private practice as a psychologist in downtown Toronto. While practising I also did some journalism, writing for publications like the Globe and Mail, and for fifteen years I penned the psychological advice column for Chatelaine. Finally, at the age of fifty, I began to write books, beginning with Too Close to the Falls.
On a personal front, I stayed married to Michael (we’re now in year forty), raised a family, and still live in downtown Toronto — only three blocks from Rochdale! My athletic endeavours continued with coaching soccer and fifteen years on a competitive rowing team with weekly racing. Ten years ago, I fulfilled a dream and bought a working farm in Creemore, Ontario. Not surprisingly, the old farmhouse resembles the one I mentioned in Coming Ashore, owned by Kathleen Coburn, my Coleridge professor.
2. This book sees you travel through three countries and settle in Canada. After decades in your adopted country do you still feel like an American in Canada?
I think in a way I’m a women without a country. But that’s part of my often being a fish out of water. I just did a publicity tour in America and loved the friendliness of Americans, since I’m outgoing myself and can become garrulous even with an elective mute. However, when I was trying on pants in a department store in Florida, a woman stormed into my dressing room and yelled, “Do I look fat in this dress?” I felt like saying, “I’m Canadian! Don’t invade my private space.” So I think wherever I am I feel slightly at odds with the culture.
3. Which one of your friends from this period do you think had the biggest impact on your life?
For sure that would be Louise Greenberg, who’s called Leora in the book. We have been friends since junior high — she was one of the few people who shared my off-the-wall humour and could respond in kind. We both value loyalty and friendship. There are few friends that you can remain close to for well over half a century: at each stage of your life both of you have to grow in the same direction. Also Louise is unfailingly kind. She always sees the best in people and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. I learned a lot about kindness and tolerance from her and she learned, well, God knows what from me.
4. What’s the most important thing you learned during this period in your life?
You never know what a deal breaker is until a deal is broken. Then you learn what is important to you. After the situation with Clive and the roofer, I realized that the values of my parents, particularly of my dad, who always insisted on kindness and equality, were paramount. Class differences are something we should be trying to obliterate, not cherish. Clive, when the chips were down, did not always share those values. You don’t realize exactly what your values are or how firmly you have adopted them until you hit a wall and say, “Wow, that is not me.”
Another thing I eventually learned was that there are people just like me in the world. I spent so much time thinking I was odd or strange when I was in a small town, at Catholic school, or an undergraduate at a big midwestern university. Yet, as I got into my twenties and embraced my graduate program and my somewhat unusual interests, I found people who shared my enthusiasms. I realized I wasn’t that weird at all. There were people just like me; I just had to find them. That’s one of the reasons I included meeting Michael at a film festival titled “John Ford’s German Influence.” Here we were, two unusual people with shared esoteric tastes who found each other.
5. If you could go back and give yourself some advice at this age, what would it be?
Always remember life is short — shorter than you think it will be. If you argue with someone, forgive them post haste . When you are young, you think being right is important and that you have the rest of your life to repair a relationship. The rest of your life sounds infinite. I argued with my dad about all the things a teenager argues with their dad about — only knowing me from the book, you can imagine it was worse than most fights. Then he lost his mind through a brain tumour, and we never had the chance to make up. We were frozen in time with me angry and him bewildered and hurt. If you’re reading this and are mad at someone — make up in short order for you never know how long the rest of your life will be.
6. How do you decide which episodes to include in the book?
I let my unconscious rule what I should include in the book. As long as I stay out of the way and let my fingers wander randomly over the keys, the right episodes come to life. Also I have three readers who read my final draft before it goes to the publisher. All three felt one chapter in the Oxford section of Coming Ashore could be eliminated. As Roy used to say, “If one person tells you you’re drunk, don’t worry; if two tell you, listen; if three tell you, sit down.” So I listened to them and took out the chapter about a professor at Oxford. I tried to build the book like a Bildungsroman, the German form where the protagonist learns something about their own moral development as the story progresses.
Editors can help you whittle things down and keep to the spine of the story. My editor for Coming Ashore felt that I had too much about my life as a psychologist at the psychiatric hospital. So I cut out two chapters. She was right when she said, “This is about your development as a person, not about your life working at a hospital.”
7. How have you remembered so much of your youth?
When readers see a whole book before them, or in my case three volumes, they think that I have remembered every day of my life. In fact, each one of my memoirs has about ten episodes that I develop. Everyone can remember ten episodes from their life! You remember the times when you felt threatened and the great moments when all the stars aligned for you. We all remember national traumas and triumphs. For example, where were you when Kennedy died or when 9/11 happened? Where were you during the moon landing? I bet you remember sad and great moments, for they get a lot of memory space in our brains. (Darwin says we have to learn from trauma or danger so our brain stores those memories in a lot of places.) Almost everyone remembers the death of a loved one or the moment they fell in love. The trick in writing a memoir is not remembering things, but writing them so others can relate to your memories. I believe that people read memoirs to in some way verify their own memories. I think it is normal, as far as I know what normal is, to want to know that others have shared your feelings.
8. You’ve now written about twenty-five years of your life: what part would you most eagerly return to?
The best time of my life were those years after I’d left my parents and finished my undergraduate schooling. I’d jumped through all the hoops and now I got to study what I wanted to know. It was my turn to lock myself away in a tiny carrel in the University of Toronto library and study Darwin and Freud, two of the most fascinating characters in intellectual history, for five years. My entire job was to learn how the world works. The best part was that I didn’t yet have to work at a job to make money, pay a mortgage, be married, or have children. My entire raison d’être was to figure out what the world was about, without having to be a cog in it. I could stand aside and watch it spin, but I didn’t have to push it myself.
Of course, as I mentioned in the book, the worst thing about the best time of your life is you have no idea it is the best time while you’re living it.
9. What’s the most difficult part about writing memoir, specifically? What’s the best part?
The hardest part is definitely writing about people that are still alive and share your life. Every person has their own set of memories and no two memories are alike. Yet my friends and family have agreed to live with my interpretation of their lives. Not only do they have to live with them in print, but also they have to agree to let thousands of readers see only my interpretations. That is a lot to ask of anyone.
The best part of writing memoir is that the story already has a spine. Coming Ashore already had three parts: Oxford, Cleveland, and Toronto. All I had to do was flesh out the story. The arc was drawn before I sat down to write. When I wrote my novel, Seduction, I found it much more difficult: I got lost in my own subplots and finally had to start over. In the end it worked out, but I was happy to scurry back to memoir, where the story was set, and write Coming Ashore.
10. Now that you’re done with your memoirs, do you have any plans for another book?
I have one non-fiction project on the go and one novel on the backburner. The first relies on my years as a therapist and is a book on psychological heroes. It seems to me that in society heroism is often defined by brave behaviour that occurs in short spurts. Some of my patients suffered for their whole childhoods, yet they maintained their sanity, and grasped at whatever straw they could to still be part of this world each and every day. I’ve decided to write a book of cases highlighting psychological heroism that stretched over time.
The second project is a novel about the Underground Railroad. Lewiston, New York, where I grew up, had a station for the Underground Railroad, and my childhood home near the Niagara River actually housed runaway slaves. When I was a child, I discovered the letters Hellop dug out of our mud and stone basement wall. I figured a slave had carved the word, and saw it as a way of saying hello and help me. Our neighbours had three basements and a tunnel that led the slaves out to the shore of the Niagara River, where they were ferried across to freedom in Canada. All of these tunnels, where we used to play, left a deep impact on me and etched some scenes in my imagination.
11. Though you abandoned your career as a professor of literature, you’re still an avid reader. What do you most like to read?
I enjoy memoir since I know the genre, and I like to see how others have dealt with the same issues I’ve grappled with. I also like modern fiction; however, I have a rule (I have many rules) that whenever I read a modern novel, I then have to read a classic. That rule has held me in good stead, and slowly I have chipped away at Dickens, Trollope, Balzac, and my favourite, George Eliot.
I’m not a great non-fiction reader unless I’m working on a book. Then I can be voracious. I have been perusing the literature on psychological trauma and the nature of evil for my next book: it’s a huge literature, and I’m so glad I have a specific focus.
I’m also reading non-fiction about the Underground Railroad, but I realized that I also had to read about what was going on in the States between 1850 and 1860. Now I’m reading about women at the time, culture, dress, and politics, so my character can have all kinds of opinions on topics that range from race relations to bustles.
Book Club Discussion Questions
1. Why do we read memoirs? What qualities are you looking for in one?
2. Coming Ashore is very much a coming-of-age story: what moments or people do you think had the greatest impact on the course of Cathy’s life?
3. As Cathy lives in three different countries, she is positioned as a perpetual outsider. What advantages does that perspective give her in telling the story? Aside from geography, in what other ways does Cathy feel like an outsider?
4. How would Clive describe Cathy? What about one of the Pillars of Salt, or perhaps Ginger?
5. Major world events like the moon landing pop up throughout Coming Ashore. Do those events reflect what’s going on in Cathy’s life at the time? Are there major world events that mark important periods in your life?
6. Though Cathy’s parents don’t appear much in Coming Ashore, in what ways do the continue to influence Cathy throughout the book?
7. When Cathy encounters feminism in her consciousness-raising group, she thinks it’s all rather obvious. What evidence can you find of Cathy’s feminist leanings earlier in the book?
8. Though Cathy isn’t involved in the heavy politics of After the Falls, how does she make her politics known in Coming Ashore?
9. When Cathy is introduced to Michael’s family, a cultural clash ensues. To Michael’s family, religion is paramount. What matters most to Cathy?
10. At the end of the book, Cathy declares that she had been seeking the unconditional love of her childhood her whole life. Do you think that is everyone’s goal? Are there other aspects of her childhood she is trying to hold onto?