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Behind the Page: Dave Williamson on Visiting Fellow

An Exotic Trip Does Not a Novel Make

On the morning of September 26, 1995, I phoned well-known Winnipeg academic and author Dave Arnason to ask him what kind of gig had recently taken him to Australia. Dave told me that, by happy coincidence, the Australian who had made the whole trip possible happened to be in Dave’s office at that moment. Dave asked me if I’d like to meet this gentleman; if so, I should join them for lunch in the University of Manitoba Faculty Club.

At the time, I was Dean of Business and Applied Arts at Red River College. I asked my secretary to rearrange a couple of appointments and I headed for the U of M.

The Australian was yet another David, Dr. Daintree, Principal of Jane Franklin College at the University of Tasmania, located in Hobart in the island state of Tasmania, south of Melbourne.

David explained that he liked to bring in people from various disciplines in other countries to fill the role of a Visiting Fellow. Dave Arnason had been the first from Canada. Daintree liked the fact that I was a writer, and he must’ve liked my manners at lunch, because, when we were finished, he asked me to send him a letter expressing my desire to take part in his Visiting Fellow program. In other words, unbeknownst to me, the lunch was my interview, and the main questions now were when I could go and for how long.

Most writers draw on their experiences for whatever they write. I saw this as an exotic trip that would provide all kinds of incidents and details for me to use in my future writing.

My wife Janice and I left for Sydney via Calgary and San Francisco on February 10, 1997. She would stay in Australia till March 11, while I’d be there until April 2. We did some sight-seeing on the mainland and arrived in Hobart on February 20. We were met by Dr. Daintree and whisked off to Jane Franklin College, where, once we’d settled into our on-campus rooms, we were expected to attend the college’s first “high-table” dinner of the spring semester.

I religiously kept a journal, working at it daily in my study. We travelled around a lot and became fairly involved in the campus life. By letting the Canadian government know I was there, I found out about, and was included in the program for, a writers’ conference in Canberra called the Word Festival, March 21 to 24. Upon completion of my time in Australia, I had 248 pages of journal notes.

Now the question was: what to do with them?

I proceeded to write a novel called Lightening Up, in which a character named Wally Baxter, a divorced professor, goes to Tasmania alone, partly using the time to get over a romance that ended when the woman moved away. My Australia journal, I thought, was a gold mine of stuff I could use to make the setting authentic. Ah, yes, the setting, but what about the plot?

There were lots of incidents to write about, lots of little anecdotes, lots of students and faculty members and writers to describe. What could I use from these experiences? Moreover, what should I use?

I finished the novel but wasn’t happy with it and I eventually abandoned it to work on the one that became Dating. That novel at first was way too long, and I cut it down, tossing out certain characters. But when Dating appeared and I considered what to write next, I wanted to do something with Carolyn, who’d been a casualty of the Dating purge.

Hey, I thought. What if Wally went to Australia with Carolyn?

What followed was the fun part of writing: re-writing, with a definite strategy in mind. Carolyn and Wally would dare to go to Tasmania before they had much rapport with each other. Carolyn, a graphic designer used to being over-worked, might be bored out of her skull. Not only that, her husband Stephen had died far too young and might she not miss him terribly?

The lesson in this, of course, is that a lengthy journal may be a good record and could be transposed into a memoir. But even a memoir needs tension and conflict. The novel, which finally became Visiting Fellow, took shape only when I tossed Carolyn into the mix. The message is clear: An exotic setting is fine, but you need to add disparate characters, who must deal not only with a strange land but with the idiosyncrasies of each other.

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Turnstone Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Government of Canada, and the Province of Manitoba through Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage.

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