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'The Order of Good Cheer'

Novelist Bill Gaston on rewriting history, burning your books, and why Prince Rupert is depressing.

By Michael LaPointe 7 Jul 2008 |

Michael Lapointe is The Tyee books editor.

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Victoria novelist Bill Gaston.
  • The Order of Good Cheer
  • Bill Gaston
  • House of Anansi (2008)

Facing the winter of 1607, Samuel Champlain looked around at the Port-Royal colony, and knew he had to get creative. Champlain had previously experienced the ravages of scurvy on the island of Saint Croix -- a scourge that claimed more than half of the colony -- and felt that a similar fate was in store for the settlers of Port-Royal. His solution: the founding of l'Ordre de Le Bon Temps ("the Order of Good Cheer"), a fellowship devoted to good food, wine and company. The goal was to raise morale, but Champlain's feasts inadvertantly staved off the scurvy.

In Victoria-based author Bill Gaston's new novel, celebration is the way to surmount ruin -- whether it be from scurvy, global warming, or a broken heart. Split between two timelines -- Port-Royal in 1606, and Prince Rupert in 2006 -- The Order of Good Cheer is fiction on the grandest scale. In two distinct, fluid prose styles, Gaston charts Canada since colonization from coast to coast, re-imagining history and offering a fresh vision of the modern world.

In a daring move, Gaston casts Samuel Champlain as the protagonist of the Port-Royal passages. While such a choice, in less careful hands, might undermine a novel's authenticity, Gaston masterfully coaxes Champlain from the history books and imbues him with vitality. The Champlain of The Order of Good Cheer is not a historical institution, but a man -- fallible, sympathetic, and compelling. Through him, the reader is able to behold Canada anew, as a land of unspeakable mystery and potential.

Contrasted with Champlain is Andy Winslow, a down-on-his-luck grain worker in down-on-its-luck Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Andy's life is characterized by entropy, the slow decay of Canada's mystery. With global warming encroaching on his land, Andy spends his life at the height of a grain elevator, reading Champlain's journals, and nursing a broken heart. As his grip on his loved ones becomes increasingly tenuous, Andy invokes Champlain's Order in a final bid to fend off emotional ruin.

The disparity between these two narratives, separated by four centuries and a continent, illustrates Gaston's major strength as a novelist: an intense interest in both coasts of the human character. Thus his book is populated by noblemen and brutes, braniacs and alcoholics, all sketched with due colour and compassion. This diversity is present in Gaston himself, who moved throughout Canada as a child, experiencing the nation's different dimensions. No wonder, then, why Gaston can be the inaugural recipient of the Timothy Findley Award in 2003, then wax poetic about beer and hockey in 2006's Midnight Hockey.

And though The Order of Good Cheer seamlessly unifies diverse characters, narratives, and styles, Gaston is humble about his approach. "A lot of my writing is very instinctive," he says. "This book in particular. It's not all that well planned out, actually." For Gaston, the process of writing the novel was "a kind of exploring," much like Champlain's. In its drive to explore the variety of Canada's coasts and cultures, The Order of Good Cheer becomes its title, a celebration of the diversity that unites and nourishes our world.

I spoke with Bill Gaston from his home in Victoria. Here is what he had to say...

On spying on the people of Prince Rupert

"I flew up to Prince Rupert with no real expectations. I guess you could call it research, but I just wanted to hang out in the town, and absorb what it feels like to be there. I hung out in the Tim Horton’s and the restaurants. I walked endlessly. I rented a car and zoomed off to Terrace, just to pretend that I was bored of Prince Rupert and had to get out of town for a while. I didn't aggressively interview people, I just met them here and there. I got all sorts of nice colour from them. One person in particular, who worked at the hotel I was at, she had a really nice overview of what it meant to live there.

"I became attracted to Prince Rupert, because it's, in a word, depressing. That'll anger some people who live there, but a lot of people who live there would agree with me. It rains all the time, and it's dark and the economy is in the tank. When it came time to write, I tried not to stereotype anything, and I think I caught it pretty accurately -- the depressed population, people going a bit nutty. I'd be interested to hear what [people in Prince Rupert] think."

On why he chose Samuel Champlain for the protagonist

"Champlain is an icon. He led the expedition, the first permanent habitation of Europeans in Canada. But more than that, I found him fruitful because his journals are so empty of real meaning, and real description. It's just bare facts. He's really quite colourless. So there's no real record of what Champlain was like. That freed me up to create a human being.

"Although the French weren't as bad as the English, in terms of their imperialistic regard for aboriginals, Champlain is vilified by some. Pierre Berton called him 'that assassin.' I believe he killed some Iroquois. And Champlain married a 12-year-old when he returned to France, when he was in his 40s. So obviously the creature I created has nothing to do with the real Champlain. But it was 400 years ago, so I don't feel any responsibility to history, or the truth, or anything."

On what connects New France in 1606 to Prince Rupert in 2006

"The end result of Champlain's l'Habitation was to have people living on the west coast of the continent. That's the continuation, Prince Rupert is about as far as you can get. So if I have a story in the present day, and a story in the first year of colonization, spanning the continent, in a sense the two stories contain all of European Canadian history, everything that's happened from coast to coast. There's a ghost of everything that happened in those 400 years, residing between the lines.

"When you keep that in mind, events begin to repeat [in the two narratives]. For example, Champlain's men are searching for China around the corner of a river. Going upstream, they think they can find China. Then here we are in modern-day Prince Rupert, and they're still looking for China, for China's trade. That's why Prince Rupert was built, to ship Canadian goods to China. The town is actively courting China, they're still searching."

On exploring the world, versus exploring in books

"One of the main contrasts between Samuel Champlain and Andy Winslow is how they explore. Champlain actually makes physical maps of the planet, whereas Andy doesn't even leave Prince Rupert. Andy's explorations are all fake, they're in books. He's not proud of it, he knows his limitations. When you're in a book, you're in an illusion. Finishing a book, or burning a book, you're free of the confines of those illusions, you're free to really act. Of course I'm not saying books are bad, or education's bad, but the book poses the question, 'Is this kind of life a waste?'"

On whether The Order of Good Cheer is a doomsday book

"It has a slightly apocalyptic feel, sure. I don't want to have this big western European guilt trip about how we've destroyed the planet, but the facts are the facts. I can't deny global warming. What I think as an author doesn't really matter, but there are some [interpretations] I'm afraid of. For instance, I can see someone reading the book and thinking it's about, 'Well, if everything's going to shit, let's have a party!' That's certainly one reading, but it's a negative take on the book. I'm not making a big statement, but what I'm really trying to get to is that it's important to celebrate. This sounds corny, and I hate that word, 'celebrate.' But it's really important to enjoy the moment, and see that you don't need a reason to celebrate. I really hate that word, though."

On the fruits of research

"All of the major Canadian authors have written historical fiction. I have no idea why. All I can guess is that it's really fun, and you get to do research. What I discovered, having done this for the first time, is that research gives you wonderful ideas that you wouldn't have come upon yourself. For example, I was researching out in Nova Scotia, where they had built a reconstruction of Champlain's l'Habitation. Some of the houses of the nobles had glass windows, while others just had oiled parchment. So I asked the guy how accurate this was. I didn't even know if they had glass back then. In any case, he replied that they did have glass, and it was brought over the sea in barrels of molasses. There's no way I would have known that. So then I thought, 'How would they clean the molasses off?' and I invented this scene, in which characters lick it off the glass, and get in trouble."

On taking liberties with history for the purpose of fiction

"Obviously there are a number of removes from the actual history. To begin with, they spoke French, and I'm writing in English. And nobody knows what they sounded like, really. Maybe some researchers do. It was probably a sort of French Shakespearean. But I didn't want to go that far, to write Shakespearean English, so I guess I went for a pre-Jane Austen English, a sort of translated French. I inverted a few subject predicates, and put in a few 'needs musts.' Then I invented some expressions, because surely they had expressions. Someone says, for instance, 'We'll be tits up.' Who knows when that was invented? It might have been just 30 years ago, but maybe it was around [in 1606]. Because of these removes, the historical sections are more a figment of my imagination. Writing them was a kind of exploring, it was really fun, and free. Everyone knows what [the modern] world is like, so it's easy to make mistakes depicting it. But nobody knows what it was like back then, so I could mess around with it. That's the joy of writing history."

In defence of creative writing programs

"A fair number of people comment on how the creative writing course has influenced Canadian literature, how Canadian stories get written. They see a story and say, 'This looks like a creative writing story.' But I don't think these people know what it's like in creative writing workshops. I've gone through the Creative Writing MFA, and I've taught it for a long time. To my knowledge -- this is from Iowa, to New Brunswick, to UBC -- no one's promoting a certain kind of story, the 'creative writing story.' These courses haven't hindered the scene at all. Some people, who read and write a lot, don't need them, but it's useful for others, to have a deadline, and feedback from their peers. It's good to be with cohorts, going to the bar and talking excitedly about writing."

On his next novel

"I've been thinking about a new novel for about a month, which might be about D'Arcy Island in British Columbia, which was a leper colony 100 years ago. It's in the percolating stage. I've got some characters in mind, and some scenes. The working title is The World, that's what the lepers called their island. There were 40 men, and one woman. The island got a supply ship three times a year, which would bring three things: grain, opium, and coffins. There's all sorts of neat stuff feeding that. Imagine a leper's opium dream. That might be fun to explore."  [Tyee]