The Ottawa Review of Book' Menaka Raman-Wilms had the pleasure to interview Governor General finalist Harold R. Johnson on his last book, Clifford.
ORB: Clifford is described as a memoir, a fiction, a fantasy, and a thought experiment. Why was it necessary to meld all those genres together?
HRJ: That goes back to why I wrote it. And there’s never one reason for writing a book, there’s usually several. One of the prominent reasons was I wanted to honour an older brother. Pure memoir wouldn’t do that. A recounting of events, a telling of his deeds, would miss a whole bunch of who he was. You’d miss his potential of what he could achieve. So to write Clifford was a way for me to have a conversation with my brother, to share ideas.
ORB: Is this form then also an acknowledgement of the ways in which memory is imperfect?
HRJ: I’m trying to draw a line between fiction and non-fiction. It’s impossible to write pure fiction, to create worlds and populate them, without reference to anything else. Writers don’t do that. We delete from our experiences bits and pieces, and we string them together and create from there. So even as a fiction writer, I’m borrowing from reality. I have to. There’d be nothing to connect to if what I was writing was pure fiction.
Non-fiction is also impossible to create, mostly because I have absolutely no control over what the reader is going to infer from what I put down. The reader is going to create meaning, and I have no control over what that is. To me, there’s no such thing as pure fiction, and there’s no such thing as pure non-fiction. So it was easy to depart from the strict lines of genre.
ORB: I would imagine that writing Clifford was different than the process you went through to write your other books. Did you approach the act of writing Clifford differently?
HRJ: This is the weirdest book I’ve ever written. With my other books, I’d sit down and write them, beginning to end, and then usually send a first draft to the publisher. I don’t do a lot of editing. But Clifford was different. I wrote a book that included some of Clifford and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was about stories and the power of story, and it didn’t feel right. I sent it to a friend to read, and he said it was three books. And Clifford was one of them. So, I tore it all apart and started writing Clifford.
Eventually, I managed to get a good draft done that I felt was honouring him. There was a scene at the end where you find out the brother is dead, but my agent said it could be a more powerful scene at the front of the book. So I tried that, and it worked. Then I was able to put my grief into the book.
When we got to the editing with the publisher, we decided to move that scene to the back of the book again. So the reader knows something has happened to Clifford, but not what, and it made the book even stronger. But there was something else that needed to be said. So I included the scene where I betrayed my brother. Then it felt honest. It took a long time, four years.
ORB: Clifford passed away in the 1980s. Why were you compelled to write this story now?
HRJ: Because I could. I couldn’t have done it closer to the time. To get past
things we have to go through them, there’s no avoiding it. And it took that much time to get through it, to get past it. But maybe we’re never past it because in writing it, I re-experienced the grief again.
ORB: The book is grounded in the image of the chair with three legs. What does the image of the chair mean to you?
HRJ: I didn’t know when my father was sick. Years later, after my father had passed away, my mother told me then that he had sat in a wooden chair and held on while he had a heart attack. He told the little ones to go outside so that we wouldn’t watch him. Back then there were no bypasses, there were no transplants. All they had to give him was Aspirin. Years later, putting everything together, I always had the image of my dad sitting in the chair, holding on, and not wanting the children to see. That’s what that chair means to me.
The legs are a metaphor for my father, my mother, and my brother, Clifford. The leg that’s broken is the death of my father and my brother.
ORB: Is the reception you’ve received for Clifford different from the response you got to your other books?
HRJ: Yes, it’s getting attention. I’m just a writer from Northern Saskatchewan and I was happy if my books did well here in Saskatchewan and were shortlisted for Saskatchewan book awards. That felt good. I have my cabin and my trap line, and I was putting my work out there, I was happy with that. Now I’m getting national and international attention to my writing. The stage is bigger, and the pressure is on to write a bit better.
ORB: Is there anything that you wish I’d asked that you’d like to talk about?
HRJ: The science. To me, Clifford was a vehicle to write about ideas. Most of the reviews get caught up in the powerful story of a brother and his demise, in the family and the biography part, but what I also wanted to do was to make people think.
I wanted people to imagine a different way of looking at the universe: a different way to imagine space, and the opposite of space. What is a void, and what happens when we have no space? Looking at quantum physics and the uncertainty principle, there’s the fact that they never know the position and velocity of an electron when it’s in a void because in a void nothing can have position. Things in a void are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. That’s what I wanted to do with Clifford.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)