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Off the Record, edited by John Metcalf

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Off the Record presents six award-winning Canadian authors describing what led them to be writers. As it happens, all are women: Caroline Adderson, Krysten Dunnion, Cynthia Flood, Shaena Lambert, Elise Levine, and Kathy Page. And though they may not all be household names, each is a prolific writer, having produced both novels and short-story collections.

In his brief introduction, editor John Metcalf, a CanLit icon himself, says he wanted to see “what had lured them into this writing life.” To this end, he sent each a series of questions to answer. For the final version, to improve readability and continuity, he removed the actual questions and edited the answers slightly. A short story by each writer follows her narrative.

There is, of course, no universal formula for what makes a writer write. It is an individual compulsion, something that festers within until it finally finds its outlet in the creation of words and stories. And the experiences of these women bear this out.

In the narratives, each woman reflects on the events of her childhood and how they helped form the person she is today. Their backgrounds vary. A couple had very difficult childhoods. They come from different parts of Canada, and one, Kathy Page, grew up in England. But all, though not at the same point in their lives, became writers.

But a common theme is that they all read books as children. Books were both a refuge and a window into the world and themselves. What is interesting, though, is that, aside from the requisite Anne of Green Gables, almost all of what these women read as a child and young adult were works by American and British authors. They weren’t exposed to many Canadian writers and thus didn’t really have a sense of what Canadian literature was. So, as each succumbed to the need to write, each also found herself having to read Canadian authors in order to learn what it meant to be not just a writer, but a Canadian writer. And they made the effort to go beyond the now-iconic Mavis Gallant and Margaret Atwood (Robertson Davies doesn’t seem to get above the horizon here) to find other lesser-known authors who have plumbed the Canadian experience in their works.

This is not to say, however, that there exists a set of firm criteria for calling oneself a Canadian writer. Anything but, as these narratives make clear. Instead, it is each of these individuals’ unique Canadian experience that makes their writing Canadian. Reflecting this diversity are the stories from these women. They are all quite different in style and theme, and while they don’t wave the Canadian flag in the reader’s face, they all are rooted in the soil of Canada.

This, of course, is exactly what Metcalf is trying to get across. One’s life experience is, of course, a product of one’s environment, and Canada, in typical fashion, has generally underappreciated what is special about itself. Metcalf’s mission as a writer and editor has long been to bring out the special qualities of Canada’s writers and to get Canadians to appreciate the cultural value of CanLit. Off the Record does exactly that. A revealing and engaging book.

Off the Record is published by Biblioasis.


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