Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Contained In Time Past with Alissa York, Daniel Poliquin and Katherine Govier

A church whose roots reach back to the early 19th century seems a more than appropriate setting for a discussion of historical writing. It is a blessedly mild Saturday evening in April, and a large crowd is eager to hear from three of Canada’s most esteemed writers of fiction, to learn about what the concept of time has meant to their writing.


Stephen Brockwell presents us with an introduction to the historical novel, a genre that goes back to The Iliad. He wonders why we as readers are so interested with the past, musing on a few possible answers. For him, historical fiction may represent an illusion of the so-called golden age, serve as a way for us to reflect on the past, or lastly, provide a vessel for us to criticize what we have come from. The answer is likely to be a combination of all three.


Each guest is introduced briefly, a daunting task considering their combined honours. First we meet Katherine Govier, a much-lauded author and chair of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. Her latest novel, The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel takes place in early twentieth-century Banff, a setting rife with interesting characters, or as she describes it, a ‘novel begging to happen.’ Katherine is brief, explaining that she tends to frame her historical works with beginnings and endings that are grounded in the present. The excerpt she chooses to read is equal parts charming and atmospheric. She captures the voice of her main character, a poacher-turned-trail guide, with expert precision.


Next is Daniel Poliquin, a novelist, translator and recipient of the Order of Canada. His latest novel, The Angel’s Jig, tells a story set in New Brunswick in a time long after the abolishment of slavery when orphans and the elderly poor could be auctioned off into indentured servitude. He goes into greater detail regarding his process, explaining that he views his works not as histories, but as stories. He cautions that writers must be careful to avoid anachronisms in their historical writing, especially when it comes to language. Language hides ideology, he warns, citing Hollywood’s tendency to push American ideology on otherwise historical settings. His excerpt is brief and light, despite the subject matter. His main character Fidèle appears somewhat ambivalent towards his servitude, and has a wry but simple sense of humour. Fidèle’s voice, more than anything else, effectively transports the reader to an entirely foreign time and place.


Lastly, the audience is introduced to writer Alissa York, a Giller Prize nominee for her 2007 novel Effigy. She speaks the least, offering up only that her books require an exhaustive amount of research. She explains that she must be fascinated with a subject matter before deciding to write about it. Her latest novel, The Naturalist, is set in the Amazon partly because of Alissa’s deep interest in the river. What she lacks in introduction is more than made up for when Alissa reads her excerpt. It is a scene in which her characters are winding their way along the vast river to collect live specimens. Alissa creates a world that breathes and comes to life. With a narration the borders on omniscient, the specific voice of her characters is harder to pinpoint, but it isn’t necessary, the audience is spellbound regardless.


Stephen Brockwell returns to the stage to lead a round of questions, which range from each authors representation of time to each authors use of nature as a framework. He is a practiced interviewer, building upon previous queries to dig deeper and elicit a more layered response. 


By the end of the night, three authors of history occupy the stage, representing a collection of stories that span centuries. Each has deftly given a voice to the past and brought to life the dead and forgotten for a new audience. T.S. Eliot wrote: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.” It isn’t hard to see our authors as commanders of all three.