Nature, Magic Realism & Monty Python: An Interview with Barry Webster

Barry Webster’s short story collection, The Sound of All Flesh, (Porcupine’s Quill) won the ReLit Award for 2005, and this past fall, his novel, The Lava in My Bones (Arsenal Pulp Press) was released. It’s exciting, poetic, funny, sexy and full of surprises. All the elements of a stellar book. What’s not to love?

The narrative follows multiple characters as they contend with life’s many changes and challenges. Although in the world of The Lava in My Bones those changes and challenges involve a coming of age tale about a young girl sweating honey, a man who transforms into a hairy beast and a vial of pee from the bladder of the Madonna.

Wild, magic realist components and entirely realistic human and environmental problems combine in The Lava in My Bones. Webster’s skillful fusion of concrete elements, and the rich inner lives of his characters with fantastical elements illuminate an honest human experience.

What was the original inspiration for The Lava in My Bones?

I wanted to write a larger-than-life fairy tale about global warming, which I see as the key issue of our time. I was becoming tired of a type of grey, realistic fiction favoured in some quarters and wished to do a fun magic realist romp that dealt with human passion in an unashamedly direct fashion. I wanted to try something written at a fever-high emotional pitch and see if I could sustain that for an entire book.

There were some sources of inspirations that I don’t think I was consciously aware of during the writing of the book. When I was younger, I criss-crossed Canada several times by train (my father was a freight train driver so I could ride the rails free) and it left a lasting impression. I lived in the Rockies for a while, and I think the seeming endlessness of the Canadian landscape and forests entered me and came back to influence this novel. There’s a sense of expansiveness (of Canada, nature, even the universe!) against which the characters live their lives, and I think that comes from my earlier experiences travelling.

9781551524788 - Lava In My BonesThe Lava in My Bones is an interesting and bold take on the traditional domestic drama as well as the traditional love story. There’s a very realistic world playing against a much more fantastical one, which makes the story feel more emotionally accessible. Can you talk about marrying those two ideas to create this novel?

Yes, the book functions on two levels. There’s the fairy tale narrative running alongside the realistic story about a family living on the edge of the ocean in Labrador. All the characters function as archetypes (the mother is the wicked stepmother, Franz, a sexualized alpha male), and at the same time they’re meant to be complex people with all the layers and subtle nuances of psychological realism. I guess the book is more conservative than other magic realist novels since it always has one foot in psychological realism. I could have written the whole book as a realistic story without the magic realist overlay, but ironically it would’ve been less realistic since there are psychological states (particularly extreme states linked with obsession) that are better conveyed through non-realism.

I’m glad you felt the realistic base of the story allows the reader to connect emotionally to the characters. For me, emotion and sensuality are an essential part of fiction and reading. I don’t use magic realism to alienate readers but, on the contrary, to bring them closer to experiences that would be kept at arm’s length in straight realistic narrative. The realistic and fantastic narratives are like two railway tracks that run alongside each other throughout the novel, and this was incredibly difficult to manage. When I focused too much on the characters’ archetypal qualities, they became stiff and static, and when I focused only on their realistic complexities, the characters seemed to shrink and lose the larger-than-life quality that should give the book its energy. It was very difficult to keep all these balls in the air and balance things.

Nature features heavily in the book, the chapters are titled after the elements, one of the main characters, Sam, is a geologist, there is much discussion of landscape and some sex scenes can create weather, to name a few instances.  Again, nature here doesn’t function the way it does in most Canadian novels. How did you decide to approach nature in your novel?

Very often in Canlit, nature is presented as a menacing void or a passive emptiness. I accepted this view but tried to take it one step further. Out of emptiness comes lack of fulfillment and out of this comes unsatisfied desire. So in the book, nature, especially Canadian nature, becomes associated with unrequited longing and lust. In Part One, every time Sam gets horny, it starts snowing.

I wanted to present nature as having a dynamic and active potency, rather than simply as a passive, nurturing “Mother.” This connects to the theme of environmental degradation. In Western culture, nature has traditionally been viewed as a force that we master. It’s our servant; we call the shots and aren’t dependent on it in any way. It’s because of this view that we’re in this current environmental crisis. Sam is a scientist studying global warming, and the dysfunction in the natural environment parallels the dysfunction in his own family and in him. I didn’t want to reproduce this passive stance of nature but present it as more active. Nature rebels, fights back, is potent, exuberant, sexualized. When the characters finally see nature as part of themselves rather than as an external force to conquer, they grow as people. Sue meets the bees in an open field outside town. When Sam abandons himself to the forests of northern Ontario, he transforms into a fearless Sasquatch.

Fairy tale and magic realism are about smashing boundaries and allow for the perception of nature as an expansive force; you could argue that realistic fiction is more suited to confined spaces. I think in some sense the expansiveness of the country we live in is at odds with the tight realism that has become dominant in our fiction.

Sam and Franz are lovers from Canada and Switzerland respectively, and according to the book, “the two most unromantic countries in the world.” I love this concept of unromantic countries. Can you please elaborate on our unromantic Canadian nature?

That line is meant as a bit of a joke in the novel. Still “romantic love” is an abstraction, and I don’t think Canadians are good with abstracts. We’re too pragmatic for that. We’ve never been good at the religion-like, hysteria-tinged nationalism that some other countries do so well partly because Canada is so fragmented that it’s harder to find a common abstraction to hold us together. (I think this is a good thing, in fact, a great thing.) Switzerland has a similar problem (which again is really an advantage) with its four official languages and Protestant/Catholic mix. Complexity in a country makes a romantic view of self harder to achieve because there are too many competing visions. I think what ends up defining Canada again is nature, place, expanse. I think it’s significant that other countries only feature heroes and monuments on their money, whereas we put nature scenes and birds on ours.

Another reason I paired Canada with Switzerland is that I was tired of the stereotypical A Room With a View-type romance, with a cold-blooded person from the north meeting a passionate Italian or Latino from the south, which is not only politically problematic but as clichéd as hell. Pairing Canada and Switzerland sidesteps any post-colonial quagmires and hopefully gives the book the kind of off-kilter, Monty Pythonesque absurdity I enjoy.

OK. Let’s talk about human bodies. They are beautiful, but also strange and funny and sometimes kind of gross. Here, bodies consume rocks and excrete honey, sex organs become huge and sometimes cumbersome and bodies transform themselves into other creatures and genders. Even the Virgin Mary’s urine features prominently. What about the human body and its myriad functions, fluids and facets made you highlight it?

Photo credit: Maxine Tremblay

Photo credit: Maxine Tremblay

I think the human body connects to the dominance of nature in the book. The body is an extension of nature. In Western culture the mind is clearly privileged over the body. The mind is viewed as the seat of reason. It is the master of the body, which is always suspect because it’s linked to sin, etc. Our distrust of the body parallels our distrust of nature. The Lava in My Bones overturns this binary in that the body becomes the source of wisdom. Emotions and psychological states are stored there. In the early part of the book, Sam is over-cerebral but later “he takes possession of his body as never before.”

All the characters in the novel find salvation by accepting, embracing, and identifying with their bodies rather than distancing themselves from them. The traditional mind/body split does damage. At one point Sam praises all bodily fluids (including Mother Mary’s urine) saying they “are the most wonderful thing in the world; they are the oil that lubricates the Earth’s engine.” There’s a mystery, something uncontrollable about the body, and I wanted to celebrate the things we can’t control because they are larger than our small selves.

From nature, to love of family, to masculinity, gender roles, sexuality and again, the human body, everything is treated as something both serious and important, but also with great humour.  How does humour factor into your exploration of these bigger ideas?

A number of times characters say things such as “The truest things in life are the most hilarious.” What is comic doesn’t fit neatly into a pattern, and the characters in the book learn to rejoice in disorder.

I used humour also for technical reasons. I attempted to write at a high emotional pitch–the characters move from crisis to crisis—and use humour to make the content accessible. In my first draft there was very little humour and I felt the book was in danger of dissolving into romantic goo. In works with an obsessive tone (believe it or not, Wuthering Heights was an influence on this novel), the extreme emotionalism is held in check by distancing elements. Wuthering Heights has a series of rigid, interlocking narratives. The Lava in My Bones has these interlocking narratives and I included humour to counterbalance and frame the emotional extremity. You can get away with anything if it’s funny. I mock a lot of things (evangelical Christianity, urban gay culture, psychiatry) and the humour isn’t meant to distance the reader from the characters’ compulsions but rather, to make these experiences more palatable and hopefully bring the reader closer to the characters’ inner worlds. I think John Waters once said that the most meaningful scenes in his films were the funniest ones. Sometimes humour says more than earnestness.

The characters struggle with societal issues, masculinity, heteronormative ideals, adolescent female oppression, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and as a result of these, sometimes strange hardships experience or induce transformations. Can you describe what you wanted to explore about identity?

In The Lava in My Bones, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, all these markers of identity are presented as artificial forms we use to define and control the constant flow and flux of something underneath—nature maybe? Beneath everything there’s a kind of surging energy and our identities as we know them are fragile constructions that are laid over top. Identities are unstable and always in danger of collapsing and being obliterated. But this instability in our selves is something positive. The characters who resist and try to define themselves too tightly end up having the most difficulties. When Sue finally accepts that she will spend of the rest of her life having sex with hordes of buzzing bees, she begins to grow as a person. When Franz breaks out of his obsessions with the insipid accouterments of masculinity, he is able to love another person. Any identity defined too tightly, with no sense of flux, strangles itself in the end.

And of course, after this, what’s next for you? What project will occupy your time?

I’m working on two projects at the same time. I find doing multiple projects, especially contrasting ones, stimulates creativity. Both books are totally different from The Lava in My Bones. One is a realistic novel about a Canadian man living in Berlin during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I lived in Berlin in 1989, and the book isn’t creative non-fiction but of course I make use of some of my experiences there. The other book is a novel about a concert pianist, music and artistic loss. My first book, The Sound of All Flesh, a collection of short stories published in 2005, was largely about music, so with this other novel, I’m returning to that subject.


The Lava in My Bones is available now from Arsenal Pulp Press.  Find out more about Barry and his upcoming readings and events here.