Caroline Adderson's new novel finds strength and humour in the aftermath of a seemingly tragic accident

Rebecca Wigod
Vancouver Sun


Saturday, September 20, 2003

CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Caroline Adderson: 'I didn't want it to be a sad, depressing book.'


Caroline Adderson has had two radically different experiences as an author. Her 1993 story collection, Bad Imaginings, was rapturously received, and a finalist for the Governor-General's Award, allowing her to dine out on her great reviews for years. Then came her 1999 novel, A History of Forgetting. It didn't quite sink like a stone -- it garnered great reviews in the U.K. -- but the lack of buzz in central Canada was palpable.

"I said to myself, 'This is terrible. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to quit or keep going?' I just kept going," said Adderson, when I sat down to interview her just before the release of her new novel, Sitting Practice.

With the perspective that experience brings, the Vancouver author and writing teacher said that the tepid response to Forgetting was better for her than the flattering success of Imaginings.

The universal approval the first novel brought "really threw me off balance," she said. "It took me a long time to start writing again."

With all that in her past, how does Adderson think Sitting Practice will do?

She's hopeful, and with good reason. My bet is that readers will find the book richly imagined, heartwarming and wise.

It's the story of a happy, extroverted Vancouver guy named Ross who works as a caterer in the movie business. He meets and falls in love with Iliana, a briskly competent Vancouver Hospital nurse who's impressive on the tennis court and, well, delightfully eager in bed.

No sooner do they get hitched -- their wedding, with the exuberant Ross in charge of the food, is a glorious affair -- than something terrible happens. A moment's inattention on the road gets them into a stupid, stupid car accident, and Iliana emerges from her own hospital a paraplegic.

The title Sitting Practice refers to Iliana's irreversible new state -- she must adjust to life in a wheelchair -- and also to Ross' response to the unexpected change in his bride. Suddenly drawn to a more contemplative life, he becomes a Buddhist.

Adderson dislikes this kind of a synopsis, thinking it makes Sitting Practice sound more depressing than it is. While she was writing the book, she didn't discuss it with her friends -- or even, for that matter, with her husband, the film-maker Bruce Sweeney (Last Wedding).

"When people would ask what I was working on and what it was about, as soon as I said, 'Spinal cord injury,' there was just this great shudder and then all these thoughts about 'Oh, this must be a terribly sad book.' Which I don't think it is, at all. [Iliana's paralysis is] a sad part in it, of course, but life goes on."

The accident causes such a shift in the couple's life together that Ross closes his catering business (Reel Food), leaves Kerrisdale and moves with Iliana to the Vancouver Island town of Duncan, where they open a cafe called Real Food.

Wheeling around in the cafe's kitchen, which has been fitted with low counters, Iliana bakes all the bread they serve. Her arms are powerful from tennis, but though her legs have lost muscle tone, she's not exactly dead to erotic suggestion.

The trouble is, Ross blames himself for the accident and, spooked by the damage his wife has sustained, is afraid to touch her. So she looks elsewhere.

Adderson learned about life after spinal cord injury from five wheelchair-bound women -- "really, really incredible women" -- who responded to a query she posted on the Internet. "Just talking to them, over the six months that I did this research, certainly changed my attitude," she said.

She came to realize that paralysis isn't the worst thing that can happen to a person. "Anything happening to the brain, that's far worse. You may be up, walking around, but your personality is not intact any more."

Still, she checks herself when making such comparisons. "As soon as you start saying, 'I'm lucky that I'm not in a wheelchair,' that's immediately pitying the person who is."

The women who gave Adderson background information answered nearly 100 questions from her, discussing everything from the way they were injured -- a couple were hit by cars with drunk drivers at the helm -- to the intimate details of their sex lives.

Some of her informants talked about how their partners were afraid to touch them afterwards. Two of them broke up with their partners because they couldn't handle their squeamishness and hesitancy.

A startling thing she learned came from a book of interviews with women who had suffered spinal cord injury. Eventually most of them found their way to better sex than they had known before their accidents. "It was partly," said a smiling Adderson, "because they got better partners."

Quickly, let's change the subject before anyone gets the impression that Sitting Practice is only about a woman, paralysed in a car accident, and her sex life. It's got much more going for it than that.

It's full of quirky humor. For example, Ross drives a Volvo which he calls "Miss Stockholm." He thinks it's a pretty car, and that "the diagonal bar across the grille resembled a beauty pageant contestant's sash."

When the couple move to Duncan, one of the characters visits the mall and notices how the tacky-looking stores all "had 'shack' or 'hut' or 'barn' in their name, as if to rusticate the only remotely urban experience the town had to offer."

There is also a funny scene in which two men have a conversation about one desired woman while, outdoors, "the sky blushed a labial pink."

All of these things make readers smile. We find ourselves warming to Adderson's picture of a damaged marriage recovering by fitful lurches.

Another charming aspect of the book is the relationship Ross has with his nephew Bryce, who grows from a baby to a toddler before our eyes. Ross is extravagantly tender and affectionate toward the little boy, addressing him, for reasons of his own, in French: "Bonjour, bonjour!"

Adderson said Bryce is not modelled on Patrick, her four-year-old son, but Patrick unwittingly helped her out. Thanks to him, "I didn't have to do any research, and all the developmental stages -- the number of the teeth, and everything like that -- are perfectly accurate."

She went on to say that becoming a mother really taught her to focus on her writing, to grab and squeeze every moment she could possibly devote to it.

"When I put [Patrick] down for the night, I would run upstairs and write for two or three hours .... I just remember that [Alesksandr] Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch in the gulag, in his head. I can write and teach and have a baby -- that's easy, compared to that."

The novel contains one other parallel with Adderson's life -- something you wouldn't know unless the author told you. It's that Ross' and Iliana's wonderful wedding, scenes from which are sprinkled throughout the book, takes place on the same day, five years ago, when Caroline Adderson and Bruce Sweeney got married. The author and the director didn't serve their guests the six whole salt-crusted lambs which Ross serves up, but the joyous feeling was the same.

Adderson said that the fictional wedding originally came at the end of the book, but then she "went through quite a radical reworking of it structurally" because "it didn't have any tension."

Adderson teaches creative writing in the Simon Fraser University mentoring program called The Writer's Studio and also in the University of B.C.'s summer Booming Ground program. Even so, she said she often needs outside help to get the structure of a novel right.

"I can get a story pretty much right on my own, but I do tend to need feedback to pull a novel off."

Eventually she realized that the car accident needed to come at the beginning of the book. But once she'd done that, she didn't know where to put the wedding.

Eventually she chopped it up into scenes, italicizing those passages and dropping them into the narrative at intervals.

She wanted the feeling of a "happy big party" to suffuse the book and leaven its central tragedy.

"I didn't want it be a sad, depressing book," she said. "My last book was a sad, depressing book, and hard to write. I just was determined that, even though the subject matter sounds really depressing, it be a funny book."

Interview with Caroline Adderson.

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