A refreshing read
The end of 2010 held a nice surprise for Saskatchewan; late in what was already a pretty great year for literature in the province, Dianne Warren’s Cool Water, a novel set in the fictional hamlet of Juliet, Saskatchewan, won the prestigious Governor General’s award for fiction.
Cool Water is an ambitious book, covering a single day in the life of most of Juliet’s citizens while trying to keep the town’s residents deeply humanized. And it largely works; when it’s not breathtaking in scope, it’s often beautifully particular in how it treats individual lives.
The Globe and Mail called the novel “unforgettable,” and even Quill and Quire’s less-kind review praised Warren’s deftness at creating vivid characters.
Warren, a Regina-based author, received the award at a ceremony in Ottawa last month. She spoke with the Carillon via email about both the experience of winning the award and the novel itself.
The Carillon: You were in Ottawa last month to receive the Governor General’s award for your book. What was that like?
Dianne Warren: It was pretty surreal … not the kind of experience I’m used to having in my life! The ceremony at Rideau Hall was very formal, but the party afterwards was fun and the food was unbelievable. And it was great to be a guest at Rideau Hall, which is an amazing historic place. I really enjoyed meeting the other writers, but the East is so much more bilingual than we are in the West and I was certainly aware of my inadequate French when it came to speaking to the francophone writers. I felt as though I was missing something by not being able to properly converse with them about why we were there: the writing.
TC: What were the reasons that they chose Cool Water to receive the award?
DW: I think the only objective for a jury such as the GG fiction jury is to choose what they believe is the best book of the year. That means that I was very fortunate to have that particular jury. A different jury would no doubt have selected a different book. That’s just the way it is.
TC: Have people started talking to you about the novel in different terms now that you’ve won a number of fairly prestigious CanLit awards?
DW: Not necessarily in different terms, but I think more people know about the book because of the GG. Certainly more people (including media) are talking to me about the book.
TC: Kind of related – what’s it like winning awards like that?
DW: I had no idea how important these major literary awards were until I won one. The book was immediately reprinted in anticipation of sales. The win attracts the attention of other publishers, festival organizers, book clubs … all of a sudden the book is a hot topic. My publisher placed a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail last weekend, which it would not have done without the momentum created by the award. So the awards are huge and greatly affect the longevity of the books.
TC: What do you think made a story about the lives of people in modern rural Saskatchewan resonate with people across Canada?
DW: I think the reason has to be that Cool Water is a book about characters, and readers like to connect with people when they read. Readers have told me that they got hooked on the characters and then cared what happened to them. I think a book can be set anywhere if you can get readers interested in the book’s characters.
TC: I’m trying to make what is an observation into a question here, but there’s a really remarkable, sort of sweeping scope in a lot of Cool Water, where it covers a lot of history and geographical area, often in really brief stretches (I’m thinking of the absolutely wonderful early-book sequence where we get Lee riding horseback and covering not only the distance from his farm to the drive-in but also from the present into the youth he laments losing, and then the reader is elegantly situated in the home and interior life of someone else entirely). As a result, you get a very strong sense of the Juliet community in a very broad way. Was there a kind of conscious decision to try and make the book cover that much ground?
DW: Yes, absolutely. A community such a Juliet was created from a past (the end of the fur trade, the building of the railroad, settlement), yet lives in a present that is a different time. The dreams of young people are not the same as the dreams of their ancestors, but the tug of the past hundred years is still there. I was trying to capture all that time in a contemporary landscape where the boundaries around Juliet are evident, but not solid. I wanted a sense of constant movement and the sand hills where the town is located provided a perfect metaphorical setting.
TC: What made you decide to write about people who live in towns like Juliet?
DW: I find people interesting, and what can be more interesting than a group of people living in this kind of close proximity? It’s as though they’re all on a life raft together, only that life raft is their community. It sustains them, but it could all come apart.