Thursday, May 4
Pages Books on Kensington
From his home in Kensington, Chris Ewart has a perfect view of the comings and goings of a community. Walking to the flower shop around the corner, fetching those few groceries needed for dinner, slowly trudging back from work, or taking the dog down to the Bow River all those details have seeped into his first novel, Miss Lamp (Coach House, 184 pp.).
"Knowing a place well allows for an elevation of the everyday and that is where Miss Lamp gets a strong sense of place," says Ewart.
Just as magpies "pick at whatevers not nailed down" around the neighbourhood, Ewarts eye for detail brings out the shine in a community.
"Magpies often come by the house, too. As one began to take shape in the book, I got a real close-up opportunity to watch their behaviour. Again, elevating the mundane. Whether buying a can of soup at Safeway, or watching a magpie find something shiny in the trash, its all linked to the immediacy of my surroundings."
Ewart modelled his novel on magpie behaviour, linking those shiny objects directly to characters. "I often link characters to objects in order to anchor their presence in the story," he says. "I think giving importance to one's attire, or to plastic flowers on a desk, improves the reader experience. It's nice to exploit the senses in that way."
The novel tells the fractured but overlapping tales of Miss Lamp, a dental malpractice investigator; Room Service Boy and his blossoming romance with Banana Tray Hair Girl; evil and abusive dentist Delano; and the ever-suffering Paper Boy. Most of the occupants of Peachland (where Miss Lamp is set) are known not by their names, but by their traits and occupations.
"I thought of the question whats in a name? and realized that, often, characters' names don't mean much," says Ewart. "I wanted to push that a little Miss Lamp is often associated with luminous qualities and many characters are simply named by their occupation. I'm not sure if the latter is social realism seeping to the surface, but I found it quite fun to define characters by and through their work the process allowed me to foreground other qualities of these characters once their occupations were established."
Not only are the characters of Miss Lamp strangely nameless, but its also a novel that occurs outside of time and place. "Geography within the book became seamless, as did the time," says Ewart, adding, "the world of Miss Lamp is kind of its own little episodic universe."
Despite the vague time and place, Ewarts attention to detail influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett brings Miss Lamp into focus.
"I wanted to imbue each page with tactile, concrete perceptions colour, smell, touch, sound. There is so much we see and do each day that is often oblivious to us the many details invite the reader to take notice of the unseen. Beckett, at times, has a remarkable capacity to explore nearly every possibility of an action or an object, without being overbearing. Some of that rubbed off on Miss Lamp, I think."
Just as the focus on traits and occupations was Ewarts nod to social realism, so was his focus on characters who exhibit bodily differences, which builds upon his recently completed masters thesis at the University of Calgary, which focused on representations of disability in literature.
"I have always been interested in how the body figures into texts. Several of my characters exhibit bodily differences, from twitchy fingers to wearing special shoes. I realized that 'normal' is both fictitious and boring and that differences in body and behaviour present normal as myth. These characters show that difference is absolutely wonderful and how bodies can be read and misread."