Ottawa Writers Festival: Rachel Lebowitz blends myth, magic and history in her latest book

The Year of No Summer, the latest book by Halifax-based writer Rachel Lebowitz, examines a moment in time when a volcano exploded in the Pacific and the entire world was changed. It’s a fascinating subject. She talks about the book and her writing in this edited interview with ARTSFILE before she appears at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on the weekend.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself as a writer/poet. 

A. I started off wanting to be a writer when I was in Grade 2 or 3 when I was writing stories and poems (and diary entries). All pretty bad, of course, but the interest was there. I joined the writing group New Shoots which matched Vancouver high school students with UBC creative writing MFA students and my first publications were in New Shoots and high school yearbooks. I started to take more time with my writing in my early 20s (to actually edit, for instance), and then mid-way through that decade, I went to Concordia for the Master’s in English and Creative Writing, where I worked on my thesis, which became my first book, Hannus. I’m a pretty slow writer and so I still get surprised when I actually finish something and it gets published. Maybe that will never stop being a surprise.

Q. Are you principally a poet or do you move back and forth into prose?

A. Form decides me, I guess. I don’t feel very comfortable with calling myself a poet and I tend to read more prose than poetry. All of my books tend to straddle this  in-between-thing I can’t quite define. I don’t set out to write like this. I just do. I have learned to let this happen more and not listen to that inner voice trying to rein me in. I do want to make sure that the leaps I’m making aren’t self-indulgently weird for just weirdness sake, and I am a pretty tough critic of my own work, but I try not to let that voice have me write in a way that’s not me. Honestly, I think this is how I just think and work. I’m accepting that more.

I do tend to write pieces that make up a whole, like a scrapbook. In my first book, Hannus, I used interviews, found poems, translations from the Finnish epic The Kalevala, pieces written in different voices and photographs to tell the story of my great-grandmother. My second book, Cottonopolis, is a series of prose-and-found poems about the Industrial Revolution, and The Year of No Summer is one big essay (or maybe a long poem made up of essays) which looks at history, mythology, fairytale, memoir, etc. 

Q. Please tell me about this latter work. 

A. I first came across a reference to a year of no summer (no summer in much of the northern hemisphere in 1816 because of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before) while I was doing some research for Cottonopolis, but I recently remembered that actually, the first reference to it would have been when I was a teen and read Janet Lunn’s Shadow in Hawthorn Bay — the main character, Mary, has second sight, and she predicts there will be no summer that year (in Ontario). I’ve reread that book many times, so that stayed with me for years. After I finished Cottonopolis, I decided to do more research on the year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find very much information outside of North America and Europe, so that was my main focus, but there were impacts in India and China as well.

Before Tambora, there were other volcanic eruptions, including one that scientists call The Great Unknown, that occurred in 1809. When Tambora erupted, there was such a build-up of ash in the stratosphere that it altered weather patterns. Some of the effects were seen in 1815, with snow falling brown or red in parts of Europe, but most of it took place in 1816 and beyond. There were snowstorms in June in the United States and Canada, and crop failures in Europe. In Switzerland in the summer of 1816, it rained 130 days out of 152. The cold led to glacial advance (in Switzerland) and a typhus epidemic (in Ireland), as well as a surge in church attendance and new cults in North America and Europe.    

Q. What is a lyric essay? Why that form for this book?

A. I didn’t actually know that what I was writing had a name and one day, when I had already written about half of it, I thought, hmm, this stuff is kind of lyrical, and so I did a google search for “lyrical essays” and came across an essay by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata in the Seneca Review, where they state:

“the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically — its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole … Loyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language — a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning.”

That seemed pretty apt, especially as so much of this book is about the value of connection, correspondence, and uncertainty. What I wanted, too, was to put on the page the way I — and I think most people — think, with leaps. I wanted to write this kind of interconnectedness of thought that we do orally/aurally all the time. And I started thinking, too, that a volcano erupting in Indonesia and a religious cult in the States don’t seem connected at all, but of course, they are. So we are all connected.

Q. Research must have been key to this. Tell me about that.

A. I research and I write concurrently. The whole book took five years, from initial writing to physical object, but the writing took about 3.5 years. Some years, I would write about four essays, one year just two. Some took a lot more research than others.

It was the most challenging book I’ve ever written, in part because I used so many sources. Not just history but also literature, mythology and fairytale. The two main books about Tambora — Gillen D’Arcy Woods’ Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World and William K. Klingaman and Nicolas P. Klingaman’s The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History — gave me a lot of base material to work with. The worst research days were when I was slogging through poorly written books to get some information. The best were when I just sat in the backyard and read Grimm’s Fairytales and Norse myths.    

Q. You were playing with history, mythology, fairytale and literature when you were writing. Why? How?

A. One of the first references I came across, with this year, was a story of birds falling dead from the skies because they were so cold. I started thinking of this, and also of the other things that came  that year and I thought that it all seemed like an evil enchantment, like from the Snow Queen, or from the Bible. I felt that needed to be written in. When I started researching more, I discovered that yes, the world did respond to this as a message from God — Indonesians believed that the volcano erupted as a sign from their gods to signal the end of colonial rule, and in June 1816, Connecticut farmer Calvin Mansfield wrote in his journal “Great Frost — we must learn to be humble.” So the idea of God, or an evil spirit, fit so well into mythology and fairytale that I knew I had to use those sources too. …

I think there’s a tendency to think we know better (today), but are we any different? I kept finding the same responses to calamity across the years. 

Q. Is this book allegorical in a way about changing climate and weather patterns.

A. I wrote it about the human response to calamity and to weather over the centuries. That’s not to say that it can’t also be about our now, but just that that wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. That said, weather and climate and climate change is such a part of our lives that this preoccupation probably makes its way into my writing and into others’ reading of it.

In town: Rachel Lebowitz will participate in the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Saturday at the Manx Cafe along with three other writers published by Biblioasis. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.