ELIZABETH HAY BRINGS FAMILY DRAMA TO LIFE
Ottawa based author Elizabeth Hay has been on the Canadian literary landscape for over 20 years. It all started back in 1997 when her short story collection Small Change won a slew of nominations and awards including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her current non-fiction book All Things Consoled has already won the 2018 Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction and is now shortlisted for the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize.
During a phone interview Hay to discuss All Things Consoled she took time to talk about how winning awards impacts Canadian writers.
She has quite a bit of experience winning writing awards — and that is a good thing. From the Governor General’s Prize to the Giller Prize Hay has been in the spotlight for being one of Canada’s most sought after writers be it fiction short stories or literary non-fiction. “Winning a prize gives you a tremendous boost of confidence and happiness,” Hay shared with me. “In other practical ways winning a prize is very helpful because it means the publisher is more willing to publish you the next time because the book sells better (and money is delightful as well).” Literary prizes, in short, make life less precarious for a writer in this country.
A big prize purse removes much of the economic pressures that come when a writer sits down to write the next book. What winning a prize does not help do is actually write the next book says Hay. “Every book is hard in its own way. When you start on a new book it doesn’t seem to help you much that you have written other books. Each one brings its own crisis of confidence. I don’t think it gets easier.”
Elizabeth Hay has always been a writer in a sense. Since the age of 15 she started writing poetry, which she says was not very good. She started her writing career a few years later as a journalist and writing for CBC Radio. Her earliest books were very autobiographical so her current book, a memoir “is not such a departure.”
All Things Consoled deals mainly with the last years of Hay’s parents’ lives and the pressures put on her when she became their main caregiver. This is a microscopic view of the end times of her loved ones. It isn’t pretty, nor easy looking after a very abusive father and a forgetful mother.
“I was afraid of my father. And I didn’t really get over that fear even by the end, I was uncomfortable around him. Even when we were getting along well and enjoying each others company that slight fear of him didn’t go away.”
Hay believes her story is typical of her generation, a time she says that fathers were allowed to vent their anger in a way they are no longer allowed to do today. The anger of a raging father often caused her to become cowed. “I realize that I have some of my father’s temper. I feel I am half my father, half my mother. I don’t want to die angry at my parents — it is worth getting over. ”
Writing the book was a healing process, although she believes that the word healing has become a cliché these days. Hay does not see her book as a story about abuse. “It’s a story about being the daughter of parents who were really interesting. My father’s capacity for contempt was just one of the elements of his character. It was really hard to live with … but I wanted to give my parents in the book to be everything that they were. It is not a book about my grievances. I was interested in having my parents come alive and live on in the book.”
Hay’s mother was very creative, she managed to come out of a difficult childhood where poverty prevented her from pursuing her interest in the arts. She also raised four children giving her very little time of her own. She managed in her late 40s to find the time to devote herself to her muses and she became a very good painter. In the end, she had a very fulfilling life. “She was a very big-hearted, imaginative woman.”
It was very hard for Hay dealing with the primary burden of caring for her parents in the last three years of their life. As their health failed they left their home in London, Ontario for a retirement home near the author’s house in Ottawa.
“They were the hardest years of my life. It was so time-consuming and draining. I don’t sleep well, it doesn’t take much to keep me awake at night, so the combination of fatigue, worry and resentment of the loss of my own time to write was a very toxic brew. I had to come to terms with it so I could carry on without bitterness. I would tell myself everyone has a burden and this was mine.”
Hay says of the time, “You take on a burden because there is no way around it and then you become bigger than you really are.”
The author gives the reader a key piece of advice when they themselves are facing the downward slide of their parents. “Talk to them and find out what they really want. Know you can’t really know how you are going to react until you are in the middle of the situation.” No one knows how they will react until they are in the middle of the crisis. “Relax a bit with it.”
The RBC Taylor Prize winner will be revealed at a gala luncheon on Monday, March 4th, 2019 at the Omni King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto.