April 1, 2016
We sent some interview questions to Barbara Williams, whose new memoir of life in the logging communities of Western Canada, The Hope in Leaving, we recently published to early acclaim. Besides an author, Williams is a successful actress and accomplished musician. Spend a minute here — this is a terrific read.
Why did you decide to write The Hope in Leaving now, so many years after the events it describes took place?
It took many years and much distance to achieve a perspective on those events, to be able to distill them into art. I’ve always been journaling but acting was my primary creative focus. After my son was born I wanted to be present for his childhood. Other actresses can manage raising kids and working on location but I opted to stay close to home and write. My book was released on the eve of my son’s 16th birthday. Both events are blended into one major milestone in my life.
Much of the book was written while I was taking a writing class. Writing about deep and painful things is nothing new to me, but when it was time to share them I would be seized with dread and self-doubt. My hands would shake and I’d be choked with emotion. As an actress, I’m skilled at channeling my feelings into other people’s stories, but when I read my own stories I had no control. It was like an exorcism. Afterwards I was elated by the sense of being received, and that propelled me forward — but it never got easier.
There are moments in The Hope in Leaving where you describe things you didn’t actually see firsthand — for example, your own birth and your brother’s death. How did you create those scenes?
Of course I imagined those moments, but they are based on what I know to be true. Most of the details came from my mother’s memories, some from my dad, and some from his friend Red. I was once doing a film in Victoria and for my birthday I chartered a plane up to Esperanza, my official birthplace. It’s a tiny little landing with a stream running through that cuts it in half. On one side was the Baptist missionary camp where the hospital once stood, and on the other side is where the hotel once stood, the gathering place for “heathen” loggers like my dad. I had all the characters in my head and the visual of the location was all I needed to re-create the story. I visited locations from my parents’ stories as much as I could, so that my re-creations would be anchored in a visual landscape.
As for my brother, several days after he died I stood in his room and observed every detail, imagining what he did before he took his life.
You describe scenes of sexual violation in the book, including one involving your own rape. At first it seems like something else, but by the end you come to the realization that rape is what it is. Can you talk about that?
I was molested when I was five. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the understanding that what that man did was wrong, so I just put a black frame around it and forgot. Then, when I was fifteen, I was raped and the memory of being molested flooded my consciousness. It was a double whammy. I felt it happened to me because I was ignorant and weak. I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I started to indulge in self-destructive behavior that culminated in a suicide attempt. Whenever I hear the words “she was asking for it,” my blood boils.
I once told a boyfriend and his response was, “Well why did you go into a hotel room with him?” That shut me up for many more years. These days there is much more support – sister and brotherhood – around sexual assault, but there is still shame and the stigma of being damaged goods. Victims need to share and be comforted. When sexual abuse is kept silent – in families, in communities – it’s likely to happen more often. And living in silence with that kind of wound is just too much. Something will break. That certainly was the case in my family.
What writers inspire you?
There are writers that illuminated my path at certain times in my life. John Fowles, Vladimer Nabokov, Willa Cather. Even though I was acutely aware of the class differences between us, I was inspired by Virginia Woolf because she wrote about the possibility of transformation through art. I have a debt of gratitude to Tennessee Williams. Jack Kerouac was a revelation and I’m very fond of Raymond Carver. I have a great appreciation for Mary Karr. Her memoirs reassured me that writing so personally had its place in literature. Shakespeare of course.
Every time I try to give greater meaning to my writing, I feel phony. Same with acting: if I comment on what I’m doing I go sideways. I’m best at just telling the story. I hope that my story resonates and that people somehow feel enriched by it. This line from a review I received in the Globe and Mail made me feel I was on the right track: “Williams has proven the most powerful storytelling is that which trusts readers to feel its impact without instruction, and find meaning without guidance.”
Mental illness versus mental wellbeing is a theme in The Hope in Leaving. Were you consciously raising these issues? And is there something about mental illness and mental wellbeing that you would like the reader to learn, or at least think about?
It’s hellish to live with someone who’s mentally ill, especially if you’re very close to them. Every day you wake up hoping for calmness and light. At first I thought my brother’s illness would pass, like the childhood diseases we shared. If one of us got the measles we both came down with them. I had a spell of mental sickness but I pulled through, why didn’t he? There are other factors in my brother’s illness but I think that, if he could have talked about his trauma and received the right treatment at the right time, he might have had a chance for a full life.
Was there catharsis for you personally in finally sitting down and telling this story? Did doing so change you in any way?
In my very first writing class, the teacher, Jack Grapes, quoted Saint Thomas: “If you bring out what’s inside, what you bring out will make you well. If you keep it inside, it will destroy you.” I let that be my credo. Now I realize I needed to get this story out of me. Let’s hope I live longer because of it.
Somehow, although The Hope in Leaving isn’t a long book, we come away feeling like we know your mom and dad and siblings quite well, and come to love them. How are they doing now? What happened to them after the events detailed here?
My next book is a follow up to The Hope in Leaving and is mostly focused on my dad. He died in 1998. My mom lives a very austere and graceful life. She gave me her blessing on my book but she doesn’t want to ever read it. She doesn’t want to revisit the past. My siblings are not public people in any way, and they wince a bit to think people are reading about their lives today, so I’ll respect their privacy. Thank you for appreciating them.