Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Peter Behrens

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Peter Behrens (photo credit: Winky Lewis)

Peter Behrens's first entered the CanLit landscape with his Governor General's Literary Award-winning novel The Law of Dreams, and has been a favourite fixture ever since. His newest book, Carry Me (House of Anansi) tells the story of Billy Lange, the son of a yacht racer. Billy falls in love with Karin, the daughter of the baron who owns his father's boat. It's a rich, complex story that spans the First World War and the violent march towards the Second as Billy and Karin dream of escaping Germany. The book has received widespread praise, with Publishers Weekly declaring that Carry Me "revitalizes the war epic".

Today we're speaking with Peter as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to authors about their new books, their writing process and more.

Peter tells us about the powerful, moving encounter with his father that inspired Carry Me, how a book about fathers and sons became a love story instead and the "whole round world" a great book provides.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Carry Me, and how it came to be.

Peter Behrens:

The afternoon my father was dying in Montreal in October 1988 — moving in and out of a coma — he kept insisting I get his suitcase out of the closet and pack it so he could get to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to catch the train and get across the Dutch border before it closed. I realized that — on his deathbed, in The Royal Victoria Hospital — he was mentally back in Frankfurt just hours before the start of WWII and in a panic to get out of Germany and to Rotterdam before the frontiers shut. After that, I always knew I’d write a book about the German world he grew up in and left.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


What is the nature of human attachment — sexual, moral, political, social attachment? What gives us the courage or the imagination hold onto something/someone larger than ourselves? Why do we hold on to certain people and/or ideas as though we don’t have a choice, even if we do have a choice? I learned what this book was about, slowly, as I wrote it, slowly.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


Yes it was conceived about a book about fathers and sons set in the context of Europe’s horrid epoch 1910-45. The father and son are still in there but the unusual, hard-to-define “romantic” relationship between Karin and Billy is now at the heart of the book. As Billy says, “her story is the armature my life has wound itself around”. I began writing Carry Me at Marfa, Texas in the winter of 2012 and dotted the last i’s and crossed last editorial t’s in December 2014. But I’ve been thinking about it forever because it considerably inspired by family history.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I need as simple and routine and plain a life as possible when writing a book. I need to be in a landscape where I feel at home, in Marfa, or at our house in Maine. For some weeks at a time I can write in any surroundings, but over the long haul I need to feel grounded in a place that feels like home, and in routine, almost ritual. I have a studio that is part of the house and I work there. I love that room, but if I could afford to have an office separate from my home I probably would. Less distraction. I work on my laptop unless I’m really stuck then I will let it flow on yellow pads. Morning is the best. I don’t always like writing but love having written. When I’m in a book I try not to go for more than 2 days at a time without writing. I have to balance the work with exercise every day. I swim and ride a bike. In the summer I try to sail for a couple hours every afternoon usually alone. I need a good glass or 2 of red wine in the evening. Gin and tonic for about a 4 week period, midsummer.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Blast through the impossible parts. Attack them head-on, even in the bluntest dumbest silliest way possible. Just go at them. Do not be afraid of writing badly, terribly. Do not be afraid of what you don’t know. Forward! Advance! After you reach the other side of the swamp then you will know what you know, and then you can rewrite.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


A great book gives you a whole round world. The first book that ever did that for me was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was thirteen. Sentimental? Maybe. But she created a world. She gave me Williamsburg, Brooklyn 75 years before Willamsburg was hip. Another novel that gave me a world: John McGahern’s Amongst Women. And it is not a big thick long novel. It is slight. It is set in the middle of Irish nowhere, County Roscommon. And it is perfect. So is Alice McDermott’s Weddings and Wakes. One of my favorite novels is James Gould Cozzens’s The Just and the Unjust. Set in a small town during a criminal trial, it is the opposite of a whodunit. It is a novel about self-discovery, maturity, and realizing when it is time to put away childish things and accept responsibility as a member of a community.


What are you working on now?


My fourth novel, called The Truth, which is about a family living in Montreal and inheriting all the history I wrote about in my first three novels.

Peter Behrens’s first novel The Law of Dreams won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, and has been published in nine languages. His collection of short stories, Travelling Light, was reissued in 2013, and his second novel, The O’Briens, was published in 2011. His stories and essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Brick, Best Canadian Stories, Best Canadian Essays and many anthologies. Behrens is a native of Montreal and was educated at Lower Canada College, Concordia University, and McGill. He has held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University and was a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He lives in Maine and Texas.

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