Getting the World Just Right: Q&A with Heather Jessup

Heather Jessup’s first novel, The Lightning Field, was published this fall by Gaspereau Press. Described in The Telegraph-Journal as a “supersonic debut,” the book follows the life of Peter Jacobs, who engineered wings of the Avro Arrow jet plane, his wife Lucy, whose poignant struggles with motherhood and suburban life are interrupted and permananently altered when she is struck by lightning on the way to see the plane unveiled, and their three children, growing up in the aftermath of their parents’ disappointed ambitions. It is a beautifully realized fiction that shows how much the world can change in a single afternoon; a bolt of lightning shifts Lucy’s interior landscape just as it lights up the whole sky and a flightless plane changes Peter’s view of the horizon.

Heather, whose eloquent round-table conversation, powerful reading, infectious giggle, and sparkly shoes made her a favourite at this year’s IFOA at Harbourfront, answered some questions for Chirograph about poetry, novels, typography, and what it means to be truthful.

TRB: Before your novel, you wrote quite a lot of poetry. It seems to me that The Lightning Field is written with a poet’s eye for images, and I wonder if you could talk a little about the relationship between poetry and fiction, and how the transition was for you between the forms.

HJ: I’ve learned a lot from poetry. Primarily concision: making each word and image count. But also in honing my attention to the details of the world. Writers are, first of all, observers. I think the best approach to observing is to have a poet’s eye. I aspire to be so taken by the details of an object, animal, or person, for instance, that the smallest white bells of a Lily of The Valley become a cathedral, or so that a character has auburn whiskers in just the right way, or – as it does for my character Lucy – for an orange to become as planetary as Saturn, as full as a sun. I think coming to fiction through poetry has been a tremendous blessing for me. I still read and re-read books of poetry most often. When I read Jan Zwicky’s small songs, for instance, or Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes, or Sue Sinclair’s poems about lilacs and bathtubs and the refrigerator humming late at night, it makes me want to get the world just right.

TRB: What are some of the novels you’ve read that have been most important for you as a writer?

HJ: In terms of novels specifically, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves just astounds me with her ability to get into all of her characters’ minds and hearts so fully, from childhood to adulthood. I love reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections just for that dinner scene alone where the dreaded pineapple is served for dessert. I love Anne Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees for her ghostly, nearly-hagiographic language, and the scope of the sisters’ lives. I love Michael Ondaatje. Pretty much anything he writes. I love Lisa Moore’s Alligator and February. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. Franny and Zooey by Salinger. Oh, I could go on and on….

TRB: You’re writing a PhD dissertation right now on literary hoaxes and the epistemologies of truth and fiction. Did you find that the complicated relations between reality and imagination have been at stake in your own writing of The Lightning Field, particularly in relation to the genre of historical fiction?

HJ: I love how fiction and truth seep into each other. I love that acknowledging the messy relationship between verity and imagination is a prevalent activity for Canadian fiction writers. There’s a caveat in Michael Winter’s novel This All Happened that playfully states, “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people living or dead is intentional and encouraged.” Sarah Selecky, in an interview for the Giller awards about This Cake is for the Party, said of her collection, “All of it is true, and none of it happened.” Michael Ondaatje writes in Coming Through Slaughter, “some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.” So, yes, certainly I have come across this dilemma in writing historical fiction with The Lightning Field, but this messiness has been a pleasure for me. I’ve enjoyed incorporating pieces of my lived life – of notebook-jottings and overheard conversations – and then mixing these with the research from the National Archives and from aerospace development manuals from the 1950s and such. I care most that the story feels true, not that the facts are all true (although I’ve tried my best). It matters to me that the historical world expands for the reader, so that they are there, drinking an after-dinner cocktail in suburban Toronto with the characters themselves.

TRB: Your book was printed at Gaspereau Press, and you’ve worked yourself in the wonderful world of letterpress both at Massey College and at the Dawson Print Shop. Were you able to see your book being produced and/or to have input into the design?

HJ: Gaspereau does make such beautiful, thoughtful books, and I’m so pleased that the object of the book matters so dearly to them.  I’ve had the chance to go to Gaspereau’s printshop for their Wayzegoose open-house weekend and print on their Heidelbergs and Albions and Vandercooks, although not during the production of my specific book (at that time I was planning a course and writing a chapter of my dissertation so couldn’t go up). I’ve had the pleasure of having some of Canada’s best typographers and printers—Robert Bringhurst, Stan Bevington, Glenn Goluska, Rod MacDonald, as well as Gary Dunfield and Andrew Steeves themselves— show me around the shop. The first time I went up I had the realization that Gaspereau Press is Narnia for type nerds. Andrew designed the cover of The Lightning Field from images in a rare manual and press-release produced by A.V. Roe only months before the Avro Arrow was cancelled.  Andrew limited himself to using only images from this historical document, and I think the result is amazing. I love the orange ink!

TRB: What is your all-time favourite typeface?

HJ: I have a new favourite typeface: Goluska, which is the type in which my book was set. The typeface is designed by Rod MacDonald, a typographer out of Nova Scotia, and is in honour of the Montreal typographer and linotype-artist Glenn Goluska who died earlier this summer after a battle with cancer. My book is the first book to ever be set in the Goluska typeface, and it is such an incredible honour for me that Andrew chose this type. Sorry Garamond, you’ve officially been replaced.

 

If you would like to learn more about The Lightning Field, or to become better acquainted with Heather, you can visit her at http://www.heatherjessup.ca for a virtual cup of tea.


 

About the author

Claire Battershill

Claire Battershill is a Doctoral Candidate in English, Book History, and Print Culture at the University of Toronto. Her writing has been published in The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, PRISM: International, and the Times Literary Supplement, and in 2008 she won the CBC literary award for her short story, "Circus."

By Claire Battershill