The Naturalist, Interview, The Globe and Mail
Friday, Apr. 15, 2016
Alissa York: ‘I fear any affliction that entails losing the ability to read and write’
Alissa York is the author of three previous novels and a collection of short stories, including Effigy, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She is also a past winner of the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her latest novel, The Naturalist, was recently published by Random House Canada.
Why did you write your new book?
The Amazon has lived inside me since I was a kid – picture me reading and rereading the “Anaconda” entry in the family wildlife encyclopedia – but I had to write a few books before I felt capable of setting a novel there. Early on in my research process, I was drawn to accounts of 19th-century naturalists who travelled to the region. The works of Alexander von Humboldt, Henry Walter Bates, Alfred Russel Wallace and others are my kind of adventure stories: The explorer-hero’s focus lies with the flora and fauna he encounters, as well as various geological and cultural phenomena, rather than with any dream of political conquest. The more I learned about the men who identified as naturalists during that era, the more I wanted to create one of my own. To my delight, as I moved deeper into the world of the narrative, a second naturalist emerged – this one a young woman with less interest in bagging and cataloguing specimens, and more of an inclination to observe.
Whose sentences are your favourite?
Alistair MacLeod’s sentences astound me – because they speak aloud in my mind in a voice far older and more knowing than that of any mortal woman or man, and because they contain a multitude of crucial observances. Here’s a boy watching his parents in the story “In The Fall,” from The Lost Salt Gift of Blood: “I have never seen her hair in all its length before and it stretches out now almost parallel to the earth, its shining blackness whipped by the wind and glistening like the snow that settles and melts upon it. It surrounds and engulfs my father’s head and he buries his face within its heavy darkness, and draws my mother closer to him.”
What scares you as a writer?
I fear any affliction that entails losing the ability to read and write – because then what, and how, would anything mean?
What’s a book every 10-year-old should read?
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is the book that meant the most to me at that age, and it’s the book I still give to children as a gift. It may constitute a problematic choice for some by virtue of being a white man’s take on Native American experience, but I’m of the firm belief that fiction writers worth their salt can inhabit lives dissimilar to their own. Based on a true story, the novel centres on Karana, a 19th-century Native American girl who lives alone on an island off the coast of California for 18 years. As a white kid growing up in a small city, I didn’t find the narrative particularly “relatable” – when would I ever build a fence of whale bones to protect myself from wild dogs? – but that was beside the point. The book was – and is – pure magic. What’s more, Karana is courageous, creative, loving and endlessly resourceful – an ideal role model for both girls and boys.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
I go back to these three time and again: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, for its unmatched cast of characters and the sheer exuberance of Winton’s prose; The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, for its dark surprises – the Bible salesman! – and for a reminder of how complicated human beings truly are; The Double Hook by Sheila Watson, for its descriptive flashes akin to cognitive leaps – as when Ara “lifted her chin to unseat the thought,” or Felix “stood with a fish spine in his hand. Flesh mountainous contemplating,” or Angel “walked across the yard like a mink trailing her young behind her.”