1. How did I become a writer:
That’s easy: by writing for many hours every day for years, and rewriting, as it often seemed, without end. It helps to be obsessive. The more complicated question is a blend of that “how,” and why. Let me try to be simplistically organized about it:
i) Growing up as the youngest child on a homestead bush farm in Saskatchewan, being mostly alone and reading anything I could find.
ii) Speaking three closely related but distinct languages (Russian Mennonite Low German at home, High German in church, and English when I started Grade 1) and hearing the poems and stories of the Bible read, preached and sung in four-part harmony every Sunday.
iii) Being able to continue school (rather than leave in order to earn my keep as my siblings did by their middle teens) and having outstanding teachers – both in grade school and university– who taught me how to read as a writer and encouraged me to try to write myself.
iv) Studying in Germany and travelling for a year in Europe during the late ’50s, where I began to recognize the absolute uniqueness of the northern prairie Canadian world I had been born into, and the Mennonite heritage I had – but recognized also the profound, common humanity that shapes us all, despite the horrible wars (World War II, the Korean War) we had just experienced, whose destruction was then still visible everywhere, especially in the consciousness of people.
2. Where did this particular book begin?
I had already published several novels about Mennonite situations and characters (Peace Shall Destroy Many, 1962; The Blue Mountains of China, 1970; My Lovely Enemy, 1983), but this novel started with my belated!) discovery of my (family name, Wiebe. All the way back to the 1500s in Harlingen, Friesland – now the Netherlands – and the historical Wybe Adams, a brilliant water engineer who, during the Thirty Years War that devastated Europe between 1618 and 1648, invented the cable car to move masses of earth to build and strengthen the walls of the city of Danzig. The city named one immense city bastion and the whole western wall of its fortifications after him. No army broke through them for almost two hundred years.
A writing practice of mine is to travel to all the places where the story (or what I imagine it may be) in one sense has already happened. For instance, while writing The Temptations of Big Bear I travelled to every spot on the Western prairies where I knew Big Bear had lived a century before. For me, place is in many ways more significant than either gender, race or age in trying to understand the people living there. So while writing Sweeter Than All the World I travelled to Russia and the remote villages where my parents lived north of Orenburg; to Paraguay again, to northern Alberta and Chile, etcetera. But somehow, I did not want to visit modern Gdansk (Danzig); even though I was nearby in Germany many times and more or less flew over it in spring, 2000, going to Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Call that avoidance irrational (as writing instinct often is); though I may go there now, look for a possible bit of Wybe Adams’s wall and spend some days travelling through what remains of the Mennonite villages on the Werder; visit Malbork (Marienburg).
3. What am I exploring in Sweeter Than All the World?
Memory, love within a family. Further, by using a kind of double-strand of narrative – one in the twentieth century, one reaching back to the Reformation – I am also trying to chronicle the saga of Russian Mennonite history and, within that construct, understand the characters of a double strand of family [Wiebe and Loewen] as they weave through known European/Canadian history. As it grew to be, in the writing of it, all in this novel seemed to become double. To explore this idea further, you could look in a mirror: you, your image before you, and also all that is visible behind you.
4. Who is my favourite character in the book?
This question does not make much sense to a writer. You have worked with them all, for so many years, that the word “favorite” – no matter how you spell it – smears itself into a blob. All I can say now, barely two months since I worked through the whole manuscript one last time, is that I don’t think it is the contemporary Adam.
5. Any tips for discussing the book?
I believe that a good novel should guide you into how to read it; in other words, how to most enjoy it. Usually a reader shouldn’t need any special knowledge, but in the case of Sweeter Than All the World it would broaden comprehension to have some knowledge of the stories and poetry of the Bible, of European history and geography, and particularly of the tangled, enlightening, contradictory and sometimes horrifying story of how Europeans have practised Christianity just before, during and after the Reformation.
The novel itself touches on specific periods, places, characters; the historical parts of it can be relied upon in terms of their accepted facticity: all historical characters actually lived, the events did happen, the places described exist. Though of course, as is explained at the bottom of the copyright page, for purposes of this novel they are also “constructs of the author’s imagination” and “used fictitiously.”
When reading Sweeter Than All the World, especially the “I was born . . .” chapters, it might be useful to know one William Faulkner interview comment about the past (he was actually responding to a question about why he wrote such long sentences): “. . . to me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing as was because the past is. It is part of every man, every woman, and every moment”" [emphasis added].
6. My favourite interview story.
The question I most indelibly remember happened live on radio with Peter Gzowski in November 1973. We were talking on This Country in the Morning about The Temptations of Big Bear, then just published, and he said to me, “If Big Bear were alive today, what would you ask him?”
Our heads were bent close together, across a small table in a closet-sized room in the old CBC building on Jarvis Street, facing each other through a Canada-wide microphone. All I could say was, “I’d ask him, ‘How can I live a good life?’”
7. Questions never asked, but wished for:
My first novel was published in 1962, and I suppose over the decades I’ve been asked almost every conceivable question. Sometimes, if at the moment I don’t feel comfortable with what is asked – the personality/manner/interest of the interviewer often make a question palatable or not – I respond by turning the question in the direction I prefer, and answer that. This happens particularly when the interviewer barely knows what the dust jacket of the book explains.
In the ’60s and ’70s interviewers rarely asked questions about personal beliefs or religious concepts – sex was much more likely to bob up – but that has changed in the past decades and clearly, with the kind of novels I write, that is all for the better. Lately, pop psychology has given us whole series of canned, supposedly enlightening, questions like “What is your favourite colour?” or “Do you prefer oysters or shrimp?” or (if you’re a man) “In the toilet, do you sit or stand when you urinate?” I find such questions merely silly, though useful if you can turn them into a laugh.
8. Has a review or profile ever changed my perspective on my work?
I think every reader reads his or her own particular novel; certain basics of the story are given, of course, but the feelings and experiences these basics create are – and rightly so – very individual. That is why I read reviews and articles and theses about my novels: I want to know how careful, literate readers experience them. I find it vaguely grotesque for a writer to assert that he or she never reads reviews – if you care nothing about how your book is read, why not shove the manuscript away under your bed? Why inflict it on the world by publishing it? Just for the money it will earn you? In an important sense, to publish (that is, to make public) a novel means you feel it is not complete without a reader; for me that means I should respect readers enough to listen to them when they talk back to me about what they find I have written.
9. Which authors have been most influential for my writing?
Perhaps scholars who have read everything I have published (that would be a job!) could answer this more accurately than I. To my way of thinking, in literary terms they would be Leo Tolstoy in the nineteenth century and William Faulkner in the twentieth. Regarding the Anabaptist/Mennonite understanding of the teachings of Jesus, particularly their pacifism, it would be the philosopher/theologian John Howard Yoder, 1927—1997.
10. If I wasn’t writing, what would I want to do for a living?
Sing. Be an opera tenor, living and dying for undying love with endless magnificent sopranos in front of thousands of dressed-up people. In 1962, on the basis of a trial tape, I was invited to study voice at one of the best music academies in Germany; however, the publication of my first novel that fall lured me in a different direction. Deo gratias.
11. If I could have written one book in history, what book would it be?
This, like # 10, sounds like a canned question (cf. # 7). In the continuing spirit of serious silliness, I say I would want to have written the Bible– an inexhaustible library of the human experience.