You're a vegetarian?" asks Gail Anderson-Dargatz, as she leads PW into her cottage, buried deep in the arcadian heart of Vancouver Island. "Well, in my family, we think it's most respectful to eat animals whose first names you know."
Anderson-Dargatz is joking, sort of, but the surreal rural humor of her bestselling novels -- The Cure for Death by Lightning (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) and the latest, A Recipe for Bees (Crown) -- seems suddenly very immediate. Full of wonderfully cockeyed characters issuing agrarian asides, the writer's fiction is set in a rich natural world. In Anderson-Dargatz's own backyard, her beekeeping husband, Floyd, tends his hives like the heroine of A Recipe for Bees, and a temperate rain forest of hemlock trees, Douglas firs and red huckleberry surrounds the couple's comfortable new house.
Indoors, however, the guiding spirit is more Liberace than Linnaeus. In the living room, Floyd tends an alder wood fire in the fireplace, and the house's splashy gold walls and thrift store candelabras glitter. Anderson-Dargatz, a tall, robust woman with straw-colored hair, dressed all in black but with a bubbling laugh, giggles that it's all "very Elvis in Graceland" as she offers tea and cheese buns. Sitting down on a beige velvet sofa that takes up half the room, she says, "We're going for a decor of excess, to the point of being laughable, covering the walls with mirrors."
The house, where hipster rococo meets rustic contentment, resembles Anderson-Dargatz's novels in all their quirky naturalism, but it is also testament to the writer's financial success. Her homespun first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, sold 100,000 copies in Canada alone and was a bestseller in the U.K. (In the U.S., it was billed as a YA novel, and it sold a mere 2,000 copies.) A Recipe for Bees was published to critical acclaim in 1997 and has since sold 75,000 copies in Canada. It was also a bestseller in Britain.
Few writers are as successful as Anderson-Dargatz, but even fewer see their books miraculously change the lives of those around them. When the author's divorced parents read A Recipe for Bees in manuscript form, the familiar story -- of an unhappy farm marriage in the '60s -- caused them to reconsider their 16-year separation. In the novel, Augusta, an older farm wife, lives with her stolid, timorous husband, Karl, in a remote Canadian farming community. Haunted by his brutal Swedish father, Karl is too inhibited to be an adequate partner for the lively Augusta. Ironically, it is Augusta's sexual dalliance with a spontaneous, virile man named J -- and the daughter Augusta conceives -- that brings Augusta and Karl to a certain peace with each other. In a final real-life twist, Anderson-Dargatz's parents were remarried on Christmas Day 1998.
The book does more than allude to the Anderson clan; chapters are headed with actual photos of Anderson-Dargatz's mother and father when young, sheepherding and working in the fields. It also revisits one of the darker moments in Anderson family history. "I was a product of an affair my mother had," Anderson-Dargatz explains with tart matter-of-factness. Like Augusta, her mother conceived her child with another man, though Anderson-Dargatz's father raised her as if she were his own. Like Karl, Anderson-Dargatz's father was a sheepherder; in his free time, he would play the fiddle and banjo with other farmers. After sheep ranching became unprofitable in the '60s, he worked in a mill for years.
Writing about her mother's life and the lives of lonesome '60s Canadian farm wives in general was a delicate task. Anderson-Dargatz involved her mother and father in the process. "My mother interviewed other older women as well for the book," Anderson-Dargatz tells PW. Since their remarriage, her parents have a new lease on life. "After all these years, the romantic feelings have come back to them," she says. "I phone mum nowadays and she's having a giggle fit: she and dad were in the bath together and she sounds like a lovestruck teenager. She is turning 73 soon, and he is turning 85."
Anderson-Dargatz believes her mother schooled her in marital patience. "I learned from her that when we get older, love doesn't end," she says. "The kind of love you work at and commit and honor is a forgotten gift in the modern world."
A Recipe for Bees testifies to the writer's own difficult loves: one of the book's characters, Gabe, has a brain tumor the size of a goose egg, as did Anderson-Dargatz's husband. Floyd suffered from angioma. Manifesting symptoms ranging from transcendent visions to seizures, he had trouble concentrating: his eyes would glaze over and he would behave strangely. Worldly sensations, such as the ordinary sounds of a restaurant, became too much for him. Since Floyd's tumor was removed in 1994, the couple has labored both to help Floyd recover full brain function and to stay together. Anderson-Dargatz compares her own isolation in the years before and after her husband's operation to Augusta's loneliness as a farm wife.
"After the operation, I had to use reward and punishment tactics with Floyd, like a toddler," says Anderson-Dargatz with a hint of tears in her soft, lilting voice. "He liked collecting coins, so if Floyd behaved well, I'd give him coins, and if he didn't I took them away. It was miserable. I gained close to a hundred pounds through all of this. I went through some times when I wasn't sure I wanted to stay married. People who live with a person with a brain injury are a silent, lonely group. Who can you talk about your experiences with?" Floyd's recovery continues to this day. "We've been through extraordinary things together. We've decided to love each other," Anderson-Dargatz says, glancing over at her ponytailed husband puttering about in the adjacent kitchen.
Livestock to Literature
The faith in working hard to honor one's commitments may be something that Anderson-Dargatz learned from her mother, but the author also inherited her mother's writerly ambitions. A longtime aspiring writer herself, Mrs. Anderson now gets to "brag without having to do the work."She also instilled literary confidence in her daughter. At 18, Anderson-Dargatz could read the Canadian author Margaret Laurence and say to herself, "I want to be the next Margaret Laurence." She continues, "The lives I knew weren't discussed in literature. The people weren't American men, they were Canadian women, farm women. Laurence's interest in them made me feel that their and my experience was important."
Anderson-Dargatz went on to write in a Laurentian vein -- and to win regional writing prizes. In her early 20s, she got a job at a newspaper but continued to send her manuscripts to competitions, soon accruing provincial prizes. One competition was judged by the writer Jack Hodgins, and with his encouragement, Anderson-Dargatz wound up at the University of Victoria where Hodgins taught. There she met Floyd and eventually proposed to the farmer's son wearing a cow suit. He was studying anthropology, but Anderson-Dargatz wryly notes he may have come to college "to find a wife." After their marriage, Floyd supported her financially, working as a herdsman at a dairy while she wrote.
The tide really turned for her when the Toronto-based literary agent Denise Bukowski picked her up after she won first prize in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Literary Competition for a story that because part of her first novel. "Denise has been my agent right from the start," says Anderson-Dargatz. "I had known I was going to Toronto to receive the award, so I researched agents and called her up to arrange an appointment. I expect to be with her for a long time." When she came to Bukowski, Anderson-Dargatz already had a short story collection ready to go; The Miss Hereford Stories was published in 1994 by Douglas & McIntyre and sold 6,500 copies in Canada. It never made it to the U.S. Anderson-Dargatz has been with the same publisher, Vintage Canada, since the publication of The Cure for Death by Lightning in 1996, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize -- Canada's Booker -- and she has nothing but praise for both the house and her agent.
Now Anderson-Dargatz makes enough from international sales to work full-time on her writing and also to employ Floyd, who researches and does publicity for her books. She bought this house for both of them, and she is able to purchase elaborate gifts, including the harpsichord that stands in the hall, for Floyd.
Anderson-Dargatz's literary success, however, often makes the couple uncomfortable. The author is frequently recognized in her quiet hamlet due to TV appearances, and the couple has had an unlisted phone number ever since one too many fans came to their door uninvited. "I wanted the limelight. I sought it, then I got it, then I didn't want it so much," she says. "I really like interviews and traveling, but mostly I want to come home and write."
There's a distinctly Canadian West feel to Anderson-Dargatz's existence. Her community of friends is far more diverse than it would be "back East" in Ontario, as she says. The couple hangs out with backh drivers and loggers and nurses. "Having friends from a range of professions is the nature of this island," she explains. "I don't spend a lot of time with writers. I don't think it's healthy. What sort of stories are you going to get from other writers?"
Anderson-Dargatz's national identity is also manifested in her generosity toward the Canadian authors with whom she's not spending her time. "Any writer who does well in Canada you have to cheer on. You're excited because their success means it's possible for others," she tells PW. "It's much harder for Canadian writers to work as writers, given there are only 30 million potential readers in the country." She notes scathingly that the magazines and books on Vancouver Island are mostly American, due to an American distribution monopoly.
Anderson-Dargatz credits fellow countrywomen Laurence, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields -- all part of the Canadian '60s renaissance -- with paving the way for younger Canadian writers such as herself, though she sees herself as quite different in style from many of them.
"I write about magic, which is very rare for a Canadian writer," she says. "This is a white Protestant country full of very practical people, a young country where it's hard work just to deal with the weather. There's not much magic realism over here." Her work, especially The Cure for Death by Lightning and her novel-in-progress, which she describes as "a comic novel about loss of faith set in Alberta, Nairobi and Texas," is driven by the ludic reveries typical of warmer climes such as South America or the American South. But Anderson-Dargatz stands firm on her native ground, meticulously depicting the natural world of her homeland.
Leaning into her "Elvis" couch, Anderson-Dargatz describes the landscape of her birthplace, British Columbia's Shuswap region, as lovingly as she does in her novels. She has a similar gift for describing freezing Alberta, where her husband grew up and where the couple lived with her farmer parents-in-law after Floyd's operation. "In Alberta, you can expect snow every month in the year, falling on the wheat," she explains. "Last May in Alberta, I watched the snow split a flowering tree in half."
Toward the end of the visit, Anderson-Dargatz takes PW on a tour of nearby Cathedral Grove, where hemlocks and red cedars in their first growth hover at 60-80 meters, their branches covered in lacelike lichen. The leaves of the bigleaf maples are humongous, the size of dinner plates, and the ferns are knee high. "You can just imagine dinosaurs trampling through these," says Anderson-Dargatz. On the drive down rain-slick roads to the town's tiny airport, the writer nods sagely when PW voices appreciation of the Canadian sublime. But then she notes that the best haunt on Vancouver Island is actually neither a glorious vista nor a waterfall.
"It's this abandoned house where goats roam on the roof," Anderson-Dargatz cackles, tapping her husband's knee. "When you come back here, Floyd and I will show it to you."
Quart writes for the Independent (London) and Lingua Franca, among other publications.