We asked Dora Dueck, author of All That Belongs, to name three books she considers essential titles, the books that come to mind first when she’s asked to recommend an excellent read.
Three essential titles? Three is boiling it way way down. But will give it a go.
Margaret Laurence’s work paralleled my coming-of-age and affected me deeply—on account of its power and passion, of course, but also because much of it happened where I lived—in Manitoba, in Canada—and because of her raw honesty about women’s lives, which seemed daring at the time. I’ve been re-reading Laurence this year and I find her accomplishment hasn’t dimmed for me. If anything, I’m more amazed than ever. The Diviners is her crowning achievement.
Tyler’s pallet is generally small, circling around family life, and her writing is never showy, but she tells stories so effectively and with such insight, many become must-reads. I remember well the immersive experience of reading Dinner…, so much so that when a character in one of my linked stories reads through the night, this is the book she reads.
With its themes of memory and loss and quest for the meaning of the past, this book seemed to parallel what I was working at in All That Belongs. Claudia plots “a history of the world…and in the process, my own.” She’s not always likeable but she’s certainly compelling. Besides great writing (it won the Booker in its year) and compelling characters, it’s a novel of ideas. A perfect combination!
Catherine, an archivist, has spent decades committed to conserving the pasts of others, only to find her own resurfacing on the eve of her retirement. Carefully, she mines the failing memories of her aging mother to revive a mysterious Uncle and relive the tragic downfall of her brother. Catherine remembers, and in the process, discovers darker family secrets, long silenced, and their devastating aftermath.
Spanning decades between rural Alberta and Winnipeg, All That Belongs is an elegant examination of our own ephemeral histories, the consequences of religious fanaticism, and the startling familial ties–and shame—that bind us.
All That Belongs is Dora Dueck’s fourth book and third novel, following 2012’s What You Get at Home, which won the High Plains Book Award for Short Stories and was shortlisted for the the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the Carol Shields Winnipeg Award at the 2013 Manitoba Book Awards. K.D. Miller calls All That Belongs “a gentle but compelling meditation on love, aging, the nature of memory, and the need to acknowledge and forgive the pain of the past.”
Briny Books: What’s the part of your book that you’re most proud of—the scene you can’t believe you pulled off, the part you most want to highlight, the passage you’d like to enclose in brackets with a note underlined: I WROTE THIS?
Dora Dueck: The interesting thing is that when a book project finally lands in real text in a real book, it all feels like it was written by someone else. Even the simplest sentences take on the aura of disbelief, like, really, when and how ever did I write this and how did all this come together—from me!
But, to answer your question more specifically, the first character that arrived in my head was Uncle Must, in the almost-vision-like scene of him inhabiting the figure of Saint Martinian in the middle of an ocean storm. Which made me ask, who in the world is this man? What’s he about and why does he matter? Which is what Catherine wonders too. I’m proud of the scene because, though it now appears well into the book, it was part of the first writing I did on the novel and I used it as a sample in an application to the Canada Council for a grant, which I needed at the time. It must have been convincing enough, because they gave me a grant.
Briny Books: Was there a part of your narrative that surprised you as your book came together, suggesting that the author isn’t always completely in charge of her work and something deeper and weirder is going on?
Dora Dueck: There are linkages and layering that happened in the writing process—about fire, or music, for example—that I didn’t set out to make happen, but noticed as the book came together. And, themes—of shame and time, for example—that the story circled around, which I was aware of from the beginning but grew for me as characters emerged and did things. Almost as if I was being instructed or enlarged about them. How shame may be imposed from without or be taken on—almost nourished—within, so often unreasonably. How memory is a constant, awful reckoning with time. Recently I became aware of what can seem a deep undercurrent of sadness but which is —by being articulated, by being felt— actually an antidote to shame. Authentic emotion undoes shame in a way. This surprised and pleased me; I had not set out knowing that this is what can happen in remembrance.
Briny Books: Public readings (and learning to do them) are a big part of an author’s experience. But is there a part of your book that you know you’ll never have the nerve to read out loud?
Dora Dueck: There are always parts I avoid simply because, while I wish to entice, I’m really really reluctant to give too much away. But in addition, I don’t think I would try to read any of Catherine’s most intimate reflections on the loss of her brother Darrell, because as relatively steady-sounding or contained as her voice may be, I know her well enough by now that I would feel it trembling underneath and my voice might break and chances are I wouldn’t get through the passage.
Briny Books: What has been your favourite reader response to your book so far?
Dora Dueck: At the time of answering this Briny Books Q & A, the book is just fresh off the press, so I don’t have reader responses yet. Well, except for the three blurbs! And Kerry Clare who had requested an advance copy! All four are writers and readers I admire and whose opinion I value. It was wonderful to hear “I loved it” from several, in addition to the formal blurb statements. But then one of them who sent me an email in addition with very specific things she liked, like the first sentence, small details like how someone whistles, the realistic marriage, the mother-daughter relationship. Even a particular word!
It’s always gratifying to hear readers say they read and enjoyed one’s book. But when they add particulars, even just a couple of things, it’s amazing how much encouragement-mileage the compliment gets!
Briny Books: What book(s) is/are you reading at the moment?
Dora Dueck: Currently, I’m just wrapping up Michael Crummey’s Sweetland and getting into The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari and, for a “book club for two” with a friend, My Antonia by Willa Cather.