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My Mennonite Father

Why Andreas Schroeder's 'Renovating Heaven' couldn't be printed for 15 years.

By Deborah Campbell 14 Apr 2009 |

Deborah Campbell won the Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award for her 2008 article on Iraqi refugees in Harper's magazine.

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Novelist Schroeder: Family secrets.
  • Renovating Heaven
  • Andreas Schroeder
  • Oolichan Books (2008)

At the midpoint of Renovating Heaven, Andreas Schroeder's tragicomic autobiographical novel of a German Mennonite family adapting to life in British Columbia, the narrator describes how his emergence as a young man with nascent literary ambitions set him and his traditionally minded father on a collision course: "I seemed to be developing every characteristic that was likely to offend him. He considered me sloppy, imprecise, hasty, shallow, insincere, disobedient, disrespectful and lazy. He found my susceptibility to the blandishments of English culture alarming, and my interest in the arts an obvious ploy to avoid real work. It didn't help that he was probably right on most counts."

If fathers lived forever -- and for their children, they frequently do -- such honest recollections would rarely be written. Composed as three linked novellas, the book begins as the father wins an outrageous prize (an island) around which his long-repressed dreams coalesce. In the book's final section, based on a trip Schroeder made to Germany where his family became refugees after the Second World War, the narrator discovers a secret about his mother, who had abandoned a promising music career for an unlikely marriage that entailed tremendous sacrifice. That final section, "Toccata in 'D'," was about to be published as a stand-alone novella when Schroeder, alarmed at the consequences its revelations might have for his elderly father, withdrew it. In the end, the book -- his 22nd -- had to wait 15 years before his father's death ensured that it could be published.

Currently short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Renovating Heaven is not only a captivating family narrative but a moving portrait of the immigrant experience and a son's acknowledgment that his fate "was bought at such a price -- our parents laying their lives into the muck so we could cross over on dry feet."

Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Schroeder, speaking from his home in Roberts Creek:

On the perils of peacemaking

"I disagree with the Mennonites on many issues, but there are some things I respect, such as their idea that there are probably better ways to solve disputes than by killing people. The Mennonites are a Protestant sect that refuses to serve in the military, which is why they were eventually driven from more than 30 countries. They just wouldn't play ball. My people came from West Prussia, which is now Poland. During the Second World War, the Germans came in and put a stop to any deal-making with pacifists. My father told me how they came through the village and said, 'It's 2 o'clock. By 3 o'clock those of you who don't join the army will be strung from the lampposts.' And that's what they did. So my father joined up as a cook. It was the best he could negotiate. He didn't have to actually pack a gun."

On the gangplank of history

"After the war my family ended up in refugee camps in Germany and applied to emigrate to Canada, but the Mennonites were on a list of persona non grata that included the Japanese and Jews. Our luck was that Prime Minister Mackenzie King's electoral district in Kitchner-Waterloo included many Mennonites as well as Amish Mennonites. Though the veterans had campaigned to keep the Mennonites out because they wouldn't fight, he signed a secret order in council in 1948 allowing them to sneak in the back door for the next three years. Later the edict was reversed, and they were banned once again.

"My own history begins when we were on the gangplank entering the ship to Canada. At that moment the edict came down that no more Mennonites would be allowed into Canada. Those of us standing on the gangplank were allowed to get on the ship and everyone behind us was turned back. We were one of the last families to get into Canada before it all stopped."

On truth in fiction

"About 85 per cent of the story in the book is true. My purpose was not to tell history but to use my life as the basis for a story arc, and where ordinary life didn't provide the level of intensity and efficacy, I substituted imagined elements. I tried to stay true to the people in particular. In the novel my father wins an island but in reality the prize he won was a sports car. It was of no use to us and was sold immediately to pay down the mortgage, so the story ended before it started.

"I was looking for a prize equally absurd to our life situation as farming people yet one that would challenge us as the sports car would have if we'd taken receipt of it. Had he kept it, I know exactly what would have happened. A day later the church elder would have come by and told us it was unconscionable and to get rid of it. So the prize of an island, which was self-evidently impossible, wasn't morally reprehensible since it was land, after all, and it wasn't immediately in view of others. I kept every other character in place with their attitudes and ideologies and let it play out.

"I'm in well-travelled territory. When Margaret Laurence wrote the Manawaka series she absolutely insisted that the characters were all invented. And those of us who knew her and knew her life recognized that this was hooey. Yet she was the most honest woman. She didn't see that she was drawing from autobiography. Most novels do. There is much less invention in most novels than writers are willing to acknowledge."

On the decision not to publish

"I originally wrote 'Toccata in 'D',' the third novella, fifteen years ago, though I had envisioned the entire book all along. It all happened very quickly. I went to Europe, stumbled across the story of my mother's affair, and it made sense of so many things about their life together. I sat down to write about it and this story poured out. I had barely typed the last period when I was invited to a reading. Ron Smith [the publisher of Oolichan] was in the audience and wanted to do it as a book. Normally I'd have gone to my sisters and we would have discussed what was acceptable to write but the whole process happened so damn fast that I didn't get through all the steps, and when the blue line showed up a couple of weeks later, I was shocked. Here we were on the doorstep.

"So I showed it to my sisters and they blew up. Then I went to my very sensible aunts, expecting them to smooth things over. I didn't believe they would say, as my sisters did, that my father would commit suicide if it was published, but they had the same opinion. I sat down dazed, wondering what I'd done. And the more I thought about it the more it dawned on me that these women were right.

"My father did have that depressive capacity. The fact of the story coming together so smoothly had overwhelmed my normal caution and I was in a hell of a fix. I called the publisher and fortunately he quite astoundingly agreed not to distribute it and stored it in the warehouse, saying, 'You tell me when to publish it.' I wrote eight books between then and now, but I kept this book on a low flame, making notes now and then. And finally when my father died, I sat down and wrote the other two sections non-stop."

On the power of the pen

"Once something ends up in print it has tremendous power. Someone once described it by saying that a writer has a Colt .44 in each holster while the people he writes about have toothpicks. Because we produce so much of it and often feel the world disregards it, and find our work as often rejected as accepted, we underestimate it."

On losing his religion

"My father and I were in a state of active wrestling that continued for most of his life. As he got older, I kept trying to help him with things but he wasn't able to accept my help, perhaps believing my sisters were more suited to that. So every time I walked through his door to visit him he would grab me by the throat and tell me he didn't have much time left, that I had to believe as he did or not only would I go to hell, so would he. I experienced this as a form of blackmail. It was a set of rigid rules he made up and attributed to God.

"My sisters tried to reason with him and finally brought in the elder of the church who told him there was no theological basis for this belief, but nothing worked. He probably didn't keep in mind that I'm his offspring and have a fair chunk of his DNA so he was getting back a mirror image of his attitude. Ultimately I wasn't prepared to sacrifice my life for his and that's something I don't feel guilty about."

On redeeming the past

"When I had a chance to think through what kind of man he was, I realized I had learned many things from him. A work ethic, for instance, the relentless perseverance required in the life of a writer, where sixteen hours days are a minimum -- all of that comes from my upbringing. That level of obsession and intensity was not something I picked up from the culture around me. I never saw hard work as a chore and that's necessary for the writing life. I'm grateful because I've seen how others have struggled to live up to the requirements of this career.

"And the Mennonites strove for self-sufficiency. When my father rebuilt our house, he did everything himself, and whatever he didn't know how to do, he learned. I took that from him. I have built or renovated three houses myself and I fix my own machinery, including my motorcycle. It's the only way I would ever have been able to afford a comfortable life and be able to write. This will become more crucial for subsequent generations, because straight hard perseverance just isn't enough anymore."

On the nature of writing

"I sought to portray my father in a humane way, without overt judgment, partly out of conviction and partly from a basic sense of decency because when any conflict is disengaged, one sees that one isn't ever completely as correct as one thought. Of course he would have seen what I wrote as an act of disloyalty and betrayal. That's the nature of writing. If we all behaved in a quote-unquote 'responsible way,' most of the important literary works of the human race -- and I'm not saying this is one -- would never have been written. The only time you really hit pay dirt in understanding human nature is to dig into the painful places that show us who we really are."