Andrew Pyper brings the spell of the Yukon to York

On Jan. 11, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Andrew Pyper. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

For a painless moment they will allow themselves to remember. Runaways. Fire. They will draw their circle of chairs tighter around the barbecue’s warm ashes, quiet now, their faces flushed by the unspoken truth that they are among the lucky ones, people who know where they are and that they belong.

from The Wildfire Season
by Andrew Pyper

Imagine waking up in a small town to the aroma of fresh spruce. Mingled with the scent is the smell of wood smoke from a distant forest fire which has drifted down the Yukon River from Alaska. It could lead one to wonder, "What if I was alone and surrounded by fire in this town, the loneliest of lonely places?"

Right: Andrew Pyper

This was the first kernel in the process of writing Andrew Pyper’s most recent novel, The Wildfire Season (2005). It began with a summer residency in Dawson City, Yukon, where the writer lived in Pierre Berton’s childhood home, now a writer’s retreat. Having no previous interest in the north, Pyper fell in love with the land and its people, returning in subsequent summers to explore even remoter areas like Ross River. Despite his previous imaginings of the Yukon as an "abstract nowhere", he discovered through the particular people and geography that "everywhere is somewhere".

One of the first moments in Pyper’s novel was inspired by an actual bar fight at the Welcome Inn in Ross River. The altercation followed a heated discussion Pyper had with a local resident about hockey. This kind of "life research" led the author to the point that writing is often done away from the comfort of the desk and pen.

Listening to the stories of other local characters also provided inspiration. The character of Margot was an amalgam of several "fantastic, strong, sexy, adventure-seeking super-women" he met during his time there. His encounter with a bear not only reminded him of the dangerous reality of the northern wilderness, but partly inspired the dignity of the she-grizzly in his book. Pyper feels that the bear and her cubs, misunderstood by some reviewers, are an example not of anthropomorphism but a reflection of genuine thoughts and feelings shared between living creatures.

Although the book has the flavour of a good adventure novel, following the story of a physically and emotionally scarred forest-fighter, the author stressed that it’s really about finding a way back in to family and belonging. Wondering what would make a man walk alone through a circle of fire and back out again, his only answer was "love". Pyper himself found love in the Yukon, proposing to his wife at the base of Eagle’s Nest Bluff, a place of resonance both for the author and his book.

Pyper’s acid test for his writing is the question, "Why should we care?" To help answer this question for the would-be writers in the audience, he offered a number of "cheap and cheerful tips" about writing, with an aim to demystify the process. He feels that the standard advice of "write what you know" is potentially limiting as an internalized form of self-therapy. What drives Pyper’s imagination is to explore what it would be like to be someone else and to share that with his "Dear Reader". He also stressed the importance of building moments and that books are simply an accumulation of these; everything else is secondary. Trying to "pre-intellectualize" a work around themes, symbols and politics is like trying to "parallel park a limo in an alleyway…. A story well told will give rise to its own themes."

The writer offered a glimpse into his development from a "nerdy pre-teen in Stratford with an obsession for Graham Greene and a subscription to the New Yorker" to the accomplished writer he is today. As a child, he recalled being entranced by the physical act of writing, often tracing words in the air for his mother. Following his BA and MA in literature at McGill, Pyper took a law degree in Toronto where he found his notes on taxation law evolving into stories. After a miserable experience articling on Bay Street, Pyper turned to writing full-time. He was fuelled by a "controlled obsession" for his stories; a state of mind falling just short of madness, one that the author feels is a requirement for writing. Perhaps Pyper, dressed in a dark suit and glasses, looking every inch the brooding and witty writer, is as Hamlet told his mother, "mad in craft".

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Don’t miss distinguished writer Wayson Choy when he reads from his novel, All That Matters on Jan. 25.