Volume 94, Issue 82

Tuesday, February 27, 2001


Dorothy Speak branches out with The Wife Tree

Elvis has left the building

Dorothy Speak branches out with The Wife Tree

Photo by Paul LaBarge

By Matt Pearson
Gazette Staff

Dorothy Speak grew up in Woodstock, Ontario, a small city East of London, that to most people, remains not a destination but rather a point of departure. She grew up on a quiet, sloping street, and in her latest book, The Wife Tree, certain aspects of Woodstock are subtly recreated again and again.

Yet for Speak, who has not spent a considerable amount of time in Woodstock since 1996, her relationship with her hometown is as complex as the characters within her remarkable debut novel.

"I'm always amazed that things are still functioning there, but it's a good starting point. My one piece of advice is to get as far away from Woodstock as possible," she laughs warmly, noting that she spent her early years there before heading off to university at age 19.

Whether she likes it or not, Speak will inevitably pass through Woodstock en route to a reading tonight at the London Public Library, where she will join fellow authors Joan Barfoot and Bonnie Burnard. For her, public appearances are excellent opportunities to meet the people who read her work, and receive some well-deserved positive feedback. "It's great to reach an audience through that medium and it relieves a bit of the isolation of writing," Speak says.

The Wife Tree was released only 10 days ago in Canada, but the critical response to it since its release has been mostly positive. It took her two years to write and the publishing process tied up a third year, but the final product is certainly something for her to be proud of, especially considering it's her first novel.

Although she has been writing for 20 years, and in that time has published two critically acclaimed short story collections, Speak was fully aware from the outset that a novel would present a number of new challenges. "I was learning to write all over again and I had to see the world in a different way, I had to look at life as a continuum," she explains. "It was almost like putting on a new pair of eyeglasses or learning to speak in a new way."

Like other predominant figures in Canadian literature, the natural environment looms large within the tapestry of Speak's text and according to her, this was a deliberate move. "I was really interested in the ways in which landscapes shaped the person because we are all products of our physical environments," Speak offers, noting the novel's two main characters, Morgan and William Hazzard, were products of Huron County in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

These two specific regions, one defined by small town life and the other by an alarming vastness, reflect the experiences of Speak's own parents, on whose lives the novel is loosely based. "It goes back to my father's attachment to the West, but at the time, it was a dust bowl and there were hardships and poverty and motherlessness. My father was an angry, burdened man and I understood and accepted that. He, like William, was a man whose origins frustrated his ambitions," she says earnestly.

However, Speak remains adamant that the novel is only personal to a point, insisting that while the beginning and the end are inspired by real events, the middle is complete fiction. Events within the book were inspired by her own father's stroke, but unlike the character Morgan, her mother was not sexually abused and did not have a child out of wedlock.

As is generally the case with most writers, Speak has received a number of comparisons to other notable Canadian authors, including Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields and Alice Munro. But for her, the mere suggestion that a likeness exists between her work and Munro's work, makes her almost seem starstruck.

"To be mentioned in the same breath as Alice Munro, is to die for because she is absolutely fabulous," she enthuses. "But, I am coming into my own with my material and I move into emotional and aesthetic territory that Munro does not."

Like a number of other writers, Dorothy Speak seems to have come into her own at the mid-way point in her life. In The Wife Tree, her characters are engrossing, her descriptions are vivid and her writing style is clean, crisp and overly compelling.

But Speak mentions no magic formula besides the age-old potion – experience. "The more life experiences you have, the more deeply you write. I couldn't have written this book 10 years ago. You understand life so much better and there are insights you didn't see when you were 20," she admits.

As her protagonist, Morgan Hazzard, learns to see the world in a new way and uncover insights earned with age, so too does her creator, Dorothy Speak.

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