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Samuel Archibald on Stealing Stories for Arvida

Once set on the outskirts of history, the town of Arvida is at the geographical and narrative centre of Samuel Archibald’s debut collection of short stories. Arvida is both the central setting and atmospheric force behind Archibald’s eponymous 2015 Giller Prize-nominated book. Founded as a company town in 1927, Arvida was host to a large aluminum smelter. During the Second World War, it became an important manufacturing centre supporting Allied efforts. Arvida is a literary concoction of local legend, folklore and lived experience that maps out the history and identity of an otherwise relatively anonymous town.

Originally published in French in 2011, Arvida was translated into English by Donald Winkler and published by Biblioasis in 2015. In Quebec, Arvida earned the Coup de Coeur Renaud-Bray Prize, and a nomination for the Prix littéraire des collégiens and the Prix des Libraires. Most recently, the collection was shortlisted for the Giller Prize: this year’s winners will be announced on November 10. 

Arvida deals with the concept of stories as modes of social and cultural survival. In the opening story, “My Father and Proust, Arvida I,” thievery is established as an important theme. “It’s true that almost all the family stories relating to my father were tales of larceny,” Archibald writes. Archibald himself commits his own larceny: the thievery of his father’s story. The author navigates this, as well as the gaps and omissions prone to occur in the act of remembering, in his storytelling.

Archibald’s stories explore the small-town tensions of menace and charm, querying the boundaries between knowable and unknowable. In “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness,” the Montreal Canadiens play an imagined game against the local Chicoutimi hockey team and lose. The “Blood Sisters” series of stories takes as its basis dark and chilling stories of violence and incest against two adolescent girls.

More than a monument to sealed narratives of the past, Arvida is a testament to the importance of placing local storytelling at the heart of history.

Katrya Bolger: Arvida is a collection of short stories based on both the collective history and your personal experience and observations of your hometown. How has your hometown informed your writing?

Samuel Archibald: At some point, I trying to figure it out what stories to keep and what stories of mine to throw away, [what] to trash from all my writing since I was twenty-five. I noticed that all the things that I valued were linked to Arvida. In some mysterious way, it always came up to this. 

KB: The book is unique in that it deploys a mix of fact, fiction and folklore. Why did you pursue this mix of styles?

SA: I was always fascinated by the inclusion of real facts, real historical events—even basically just real characters—in fiction. At some point, I remember a professor told me that in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the name of Haines, who was drinking with Mulligan and Steven Dedalus, were in fact James Joyce’s friends from that time. It always fascinated me that in such a modern piece of writing, there was something that literally belonged to legend. That always informed my way of writing Arvida, including writing real anecdotes in the book. Many people tend to get confused about what’s real and what’s generally fictional in the book, so I get some strange questions about if they’re totally fictional stories. People would contact me on Facebook and Twitter to ask is it about my father? Is it about me? Is it about this thing I lived years ago? And I say no, I just made it up. And I had to clear things up continually for years. I decided to never laugh at people because they thought that all my fiction was real. I initiated the game so I had to clear things up.

KB: In the same way you bridge fact and fiction, the collection attempts to bridge the gap between capital “H” history and small town local history by placing Arvidian history into the wider, more well-known narrative of World War II. Why is it important to tell these stories from below history so to speak?

SA: Below history is a good way to put it. At some point, one of the most important ideas while writing Arvida for me was that coming from such a place, there’s not a lot of Canadians, even Quebecois Canadians, that know about this city and these little company towns. In French, we don’t have two words to say history. It’s basically the same word—histoire for history, capital H, and histoire for stories literally. Basically, the blend of the two comes naturally for someone like me who was born in such a place. For Arvidians, in a way, there will never be any other histories than the ones that they told themselves. It’s the single most important idea about the book: that history will cross paths with these people. These people might try to escape history, but basically, these [local] stories are the only history that these people will ever get.

KB: History and memory are really important themes for you. Characters in Arvida grapple with how to best preserve memory, as well as the shortcomings of re-telling stories. What are the shortcomings of re-telling narratives and why is this such a large preoccupation in the book?

SA: I had this quote that I wanted to include at the beginning of the book and I forgot to do it and regret it ever since. It’s from an old blues song by Mississippi John Hurt, a blues band from the beginning of the twentieth century, which goes: I ain’t gonna tell no stories, I ain’t gonna tell no lies. In English, a story is also a name for a lie. And I think that the principal shortcoming of telling stories is a tendency to move towards closure, towards consolidation. You’re gonna tell yourself and people that everything will be alright, the right guys will win, et cetera, et cetera. The way I do things and make these stories is to escape closure and in many of them, they have no clear-cut ending. I’m going to tell stories but I’m not trying to roll everything up. I’m not trying to fix things in fiction that can’t be fixed in real life.

KB: Thievery is another significant theme in the work. There seems to be this anxiety about stealing stories or using stories as a way to “rob” personal memories, as you phrase it. What would you like people to understand about thievery? 

SA: It’s inevitable to steal [stories]. You have to do it in such a way that the person who’s robbed of their story will in some way accept it. Many aspects of the book are based on facts or real anecdotes. I worked closely with the people who told me the stories first. I’d meet with people and say, “Please tell me your story, please give it to me!” Some of them I wrote—especially the series that is sub-titled “Blood Sisters”—about abuse and incest in the lives of two adolescent sisters. They’re really stories inspired by some great friends of mine. I wrote these stories years ago. For many years, I considered they belonged to them. And when the book was about to go to press, both sisters talked to me and told me I could take these stories and include them in the book. It’s the way I’m dealing with people—not to be a thief, or a bad one. It’s a way of protecting yourself, not the legal aspect, It’s about the morals of storytelling as far as real individuals are concerned. So of course I’ll change names. I’m working on ways of camouflaging the truth or the names or the real names, but quite often, the details are really close to facts, in fact.

KB: A really interesting tension throughout the book is the relationship between food—brought up in the first and last story—as something material that can be swallowed and felt, and the immaterial and abstract nature of memory and storytelling. Why was this distinction made? Was it deliberate?

SA: Yes, it was deliberate in many aspects. The first Arvida story and the last one, where they’re always thinking about the petit madeleines [that Archibald’s father used to eat], it was very deliberate to have the book begin on this idea of my father instead of picking up stories from the food he ate, to let every story literally be reduced to some level of food. It was also my way of dealing with the fact that people in the nineties won’t have madeleines but McNuggets or whatever the hell we were eating—Pop-Tarts! Of course, you can’t make great literature with eating a Pop-Tart. I don’t think I’d eat a Pop-Tart nowadays. I think it’s simply disgusting. The whole idea that you have this souvenir—the punch of the book, the big surprise of the book is that my madeleine is not some food, but a person; you literally exchange one for the other. And I think what storytelling is all about in the book is community—that linking up these stories and recounting them and owning them, you may be able to create or re-create a long lasting unity and the link between people at some point.

KB: Madeleines and McNuggets are rare examples of temporal markers in the book. There’s a quote I really enjoy about the character Menaud, which reads: “Travelling through time and space was just a bit too much for him.” How did you give the book that timeless feel and what purpose did it serve?

SA: I think that came out naturally. If you pick the stories one by one, you realize there’s a back and forth between stories that are quite timely or situated in history. America—two road trips, these guys on the road after the Twin Towers fell. In that story, you are quite situated in history. For me, it was linked to the fact or related to the fact that Arvida no longer existed in ways, but it persisted in stories. The whole idea of the book is to plan a good old-day vintage feel with the fact that growing up, you have to realize that you can go home again. You have an ambivalence between every epoch, every time. These other stories, these other souvenirs that are maybe more related to me or my lifespan, are much more situated and in time than the other stories.

KB: Speaking to the process of the book, the English translation just came out. How did you go about the translation process?

SA: I think that I like Donald [Winkler]’s version better than mine! Because it was so hard to do, there’s all the slang in Arvida, all the reference to original Patois and original slang, because it was so hard to do, we had to work very closely together, Don and me, on the translation. Many meetings were exchanged to address certain points. We had whole days working just on the swearing—it’s so hard to translate from English to French, especially Quebecois French, since we’re dealing with curse words and obscenities. You always have to take the decision to tone up or down with obscenities, we always have a lot of words but it’s very fruitful. It was a great pleasure to have the book in English, and to write it again—it’s like you, written by someone else or by someone else’s tongue. I was a young Canadian influenced by American literature. I always try to read French things and American writers. I was looking forward to seeing how it would sound in English, and was quite pleased with how Don did it.

KB: You’ve conquered the Giller shortlist. What literary projects are you working on now?

SA: Quite a few. I have to put many of them on the backburner because there’s a tour to do right now until the gala on November 10. But in French, I’m working on two novels. The big change will be working closer together from the beginning of the process with the translator and with Biblioasis. It took years before the rights were bought to translate Arvida. Now, we want to focus more closely on the forthcoming English versions [of the next two books]. One novel is a continuation of Arvida but more on the side of a memoir: the year 1997 to the late 1990s, a real memory of my childhood. It’s a cross between my memoir and a true crime novel. In these years, there was a serial killer active in Saguenay and this was the time of Jack the Ripper, and there was a mass hysteria in my region. It’s like a memoir with a true crime drama. I’m also working on a children’s book. The first one will come out just after the Giller in French here in Quebec, and I’m also working on another novel that is kind of a real crime novel, a true detective story that I always wanted to do. But in my own way. Which is my way of treating the whole genre, even in Arvida

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Katrya Bolger is a writer and recent graduate from McGill University. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, Laval Families Magazine, Hysteria Feminist periodical and more. She is a Maisonneuve intern and a Montreal Press Club volunteer.