Home > Interviews > In a Coal Mine with No Lamp: An Interview with Anakana Schofield


Interview by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard

The last year has been busy for Anakana Schofield, a Vancouver writer whose first novel, Malarky, was published to much critical praise in 2012. The book comes with recommendations from such literary stars as Emma Donoghue and Annabel Lyon, it was named on over a dozen top-ten book lists of the year, nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction prize and, more recently, the Debut-Litzer Award for fiction, and it won the coveted Amazon.ca First Novel Award this Spring. Malarky has also come out in Ireland and the UK in the summer, where it’s been garnering fresh praise.

I meet Anakana Schofield in a local Vancouver coffee shop across the street from a gigantic, recently closed Blockbuster. I find her to be chatty, amenable, and quick-witted. She has a tendency to circle around subjects and state what, at first, appear to be contradictions but are in fact revelations of deeper complexities. When she walks into the coffee shop, she takes a moment to chat with the barista, who recognizes her and shows her pictures of his new grandchild.

Malarky is set in Ireland, where Schofield has lived and where her family still lives. One of the pictures on Schofield’s website shows the author stacking turf in an Irish bog to dry out and eventually burn as fuel. Schofield, however, is loathe to call her book a work of “Irish” fiction. “Would it stand up to an anthropological, forensic test?” she asks. “Would it make it in a social science study? Probably not.” Rather, Schofield advocates a focus on language, and she hypothesizes that where the novel is most Irish is in its language, because the author’s own mother tongue is Hiberno-English. “I’m interested to see how Malarky will be received in Ireland,” she adds, “but it’s a work of form and language, not a work of geography.” As it turns out, Malarky has been much appreciated in Ireland, where it received very positive reviews.

Malarky tells the story of an Irish mother called Philomena, usually referred to in the book as “Our Woman,” who discovers her son having sex with another boy. In parallel, Our Woman learns that her husband may be cheating on her just before he dies. As a result of her anxiety and confusion, Our Woman begins to explore her own sexuality and starts an affair with a younger lover, a Syrian student, just as her son runs away to America and enrolls in the American Army to fight in Afghanistan.

“I like polarities, you know,” Schofield says as she reflects on the sexuality in the book. “I like the idea of taking disparate things and figuring out a way of putting them together.” Schofield cites D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love as an inspiration—how he used homoerotic tension to combine elements as distant as Northern English colliery managers and Japanese wrestling. So Our Woman’s behaviour in Malarky, she explains, is “a departure that begins in the homoerotic. It doesn’t begin in heterosexuality and then go off. It starts with her seeing the son. The mother is initially repulsed. She’s horrified. But then, on another level, she’s eroticized.”

The novel delivers a complex—and often blackly funny—representation of motherhood: Our Woman spends much of her time worrying about her son, just as she tries to replicate his sexual behaviour. Schofield manages to fold the realities of motherhood into the powerful, complicated grief that permeates the novel. “Grief anxiety,” she says, “is the inherent anxiety in motherhood. Like a kind of ticking. Like a second hand on the clock of motherhood, which is anxiety, worry. I’m interested in the darker side of motherhood.” This may be where Malarky is a departure from more traditional Irish literature. “Perhaps it’s a response to this middle-aged woman who hovers in Irish fiction. She rarely has any fun. And she rarely has any sexuality. And she’s not assertive about her sexuality. I find some of those depictions cauterized.” Schofield understands artistic creation as a form of reaction; part of why she needs to create art stems from some of her frustrations as a reader and cultural commentator. She cites the Irish playwright Tom Murphy, who once stated: “What gets me mad gets me going.”

Malarky was ten years in the making, but Schofield says that its form came to her quite suddenly, when she attended a literary event at SFU that revisited the watershed 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference. “Judith Copithorne, the concrete poet, talked about the conference by reading a page of single, associated words. I owe the final form of Malarky to that moment. Something in the way that she did things and spoke about things. I just had this idea, and it became clear to me what form I would employ. But that is a completely random thing. What are the chances, right? Sometimes you just don’t know where you’re going to get what you need for your work.”

AK_8 assemblage 300dpi

Photo: Jeremy Isao Speier

Form is perhaps the most distinctive and surprising feature of Schofield’s novel. Malarky is written in 20 episodes that jump around chronologically. The voice changes from paragraph to paragraph, alternating between the first and third person, past and present tense. “To some extent what I was interested in was the discombobulation that is grief. The idea that if you’re going to write a work that’s going to at its heart be a portrait of grief, by its very nature it must be discombobulating—that’s what grief is. Form is content.” While it can be difficult for the reader to enter the novel at first because of its scattered textures, the overall effect is of much greater depth and richness.

Schofield agrees that her book is challenging, but she adds that it is so only in relation to the more conservative works found in today’s mainstream publishing. “One of my favourite pieces of criticism about Malarky pointed out that there’s actually nothing particularly experimental about it. The critic took the opposite view and critiqued the fact that people were calling it experimental, because in the broad sphere of what constitutes experimental, it’s not! It’s very tame. Writers have been doing this stuff for a long long time.” As always, these critical interpretations have their limits. “That’s why I sort of feel like I’m in a coal mine, mining in the dark with no lamp. I wrote a book and it became the form it became and there was a lot of failure to get there.”

For Schofield, the tepidness in terms of exploration in contemporary publishing is mirrored by a change of direction in the public discourse about authors and their work. As she has recently written in an article published in The Guardian, she is alarmed by what she calls a shift from a reading culture towards a writing culture. “There were readers, and now there are a lot of readers who want to be writers,” she says. “And that’s fine. Readers who want to be writers can also make committed, thoughtful readers. But sometimes at literary events, all the questions will be about getting published. Nobody may reference the book you’ve just spent 25 minutes reading from. My question to these people is: if you’re not interested in reading, who do you imagine will be interested in reading your work?”

Schofield’s reflex has been to look deeply at literature, but also expand into a number of other artistic disciplines. She has recently participated in a number of interdisciplinary projects, such as a work commissioned by the Banff Centre’s Boulderpavement magazine, consisting of a piece of flash fiction she wrote which was accompanied by photography from Jeremy Isao Speier. She also curated an interdisciplinary project through a UNIT/PITT residency called Rereading the Riot Act, which has been made into a book.

Schofield’s own career in the arts began in theatre. “I went to theatre school and I was trying to work as an actor but I found it too limiting,” she explains. “I found that the texts that we were using were too limiting for women. And also we didn’t have any agency over the final product. There was no collaborative input. It just wasn’t right for me creatively. So it all began to slowly erode.” Schofield continued to explore other art forms, but her interest in writing crystallized when she was working on a one-woman show about Katherine Mansfield. “At a certain point I just realized: if I’m writing a play about a writer, is it possible I might just want to be a writer? Cue: perpetual struggle until this moment.” Part of the struggle came from an idea of what a novel should be, which Schofield had internalized but was unable to achieve. “I tried desperately to do it but my prose just wouldn’t contain itself.”

Schofield persisted, and received help along the way from writing mentors such as Helen Potrebenko, author of the “buried treasure” Taxi! (Schofield also runs a blog devoted to bringing more readers to this work: haveyoureadtaxi.blogspot.ca), as well as Lynn Coady and Caroline Adderson. In the wake of Malarky’s success, Schofield is working on a companion piece entitled “Martin John.” She calls it a footnote novel because it picks up on and expands the story of a character, nicknamed Beirut, whom Our Woman meets in the hospital. As Schofield progresses on this new book, she admits that she is as lost as ever. The writing process continues to perplex her, and she says she often loses entire scenes as she edits, but later has no recollection of taking them out. “Yeah,” she says, deadpan, “how not to write a book.” She must produce pages and pages, digging ever deeper to achieve the dense, epigrammatic style that is so unique to her. But, after all, that is the work of the writer: digging deeper and deeper to remove all the extraneous material and find the core of meaning, and the right words to express it. Schofield is a writer who hasn’t taken her eyes off the most important prize of all: language.

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