Q&A with Susan Swan for ‘The Western Light’
1. In this novel, you’ve returned to the narrator, Mouse Bradford, in your bestseller, The Wives of Bath. Why?
Mouse Bradford is my favourite alter ego. She appeared in The Wives of Bath first. But you don’t have to have read that novel to understand The Western Light. In this book, Mouse tries and fails to get her father’s attention so she turns to a dubious father substitute, Gentleman John Pilkie, the ex-NHL hockey player sent to the local asylum after murdering his wife and child. He’s an ambiguous character who’s emotionally present for Mouse when her own father is too busy working. Is somebody who gives themselves to their community and neglects their family a good role model? That’s one of the questions I explore in The Western Light.
2. Where did Mouse come from?
I knew a girl at school like Mouse. She was shy and walked with a limp. But she had an authority that the other students who were striking poses lacked. And yet she couldn’t play sports. She had a weak leg and she needed to accept her limitations so she could navigate her schoolgirl world. Does accepting what makes you vulnerable help to grow courage? Maybe so.
3. The fifties play a big part in this novel. Toronto reviewer Susan Cole said: “… where Swan’s experience speaks most tellingly is in The Western Light’s vivid evocation of life in the 1950’s and its essential signifiers: the clothes, the hair, the telephone party lines and the all-out-hate-on-between fans of the Montreal Canadians.” Was it nostalgic to write about that time period for you?
I hated the fifties when I was growing up because I was extremely tall and interested in books and ideas when girls were supposed to be breezy five-foot-two cheerleaders. But looking back on it, I realized there were progressive things going on, like the emergence of rock and roll, which gave a voice to young people in a way that hadn’t been done before in human history. And there was optimism, lots of it, and not the cynicism young people experience now living inside a global culture with more competition and a bottom line mind set that wants to run everything like a business, including education.
4. Hockey and concussions are part of the plot in The Western Light. Have the attitudes to hockey concussions changed much since the days you write about?
Not so much. The NHL still doesn’t give players a penalty for a headshot. The penalty is for deliberate intent to injure and that’s hard to judge. The biggest difference now is the salaries the NHL players make and their pensions. In the 1950’s, salaries were small and there were no pensions. Injured players were discarded without compensation; in some ways, those players were gladiators without rights.
5. Is The Western Light a 1950’s hockey novel?
Not really. Another title for this novel could be Girls and Men because Mouse is trying to understand men, especially her own father, and in Canada anyway, understanding men is going to involve understanding hockey. The game is how Canadians express the aggressive side of our character. My usually compassionate father turned into a raging maniac if the calls were going against the Toronto Leafs. Once he smashed a man’s hat in at Maple Leaf Gardens. Another time he climbed up and over the wire fence behind the Habs goal and threatened the referee. So a girl like Mouse Bradford has to figure out how to fit into this male world and decide what she thinks of it. And her relationships with her neglectful country doctor father and the ex-NHL hockey star Gentleman John Pilkie help her to figure this out.
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