Author Sharon Kirsch writes about her inspiration for literary non-fiction.
I have a long-held interest in animals, both as an advocate for them and an enthusiast for literature about them. In this respect, it came as no surprise that my book of literary non-fiction, What Species of Creatures, was inspired by readings about wildlife. More unexpected was the historical setting for the book. When Early Canadiana Online launched its website in 1999, a body of writing that conveyed the first impressions of Europeans in the New World became readily available, and with it, a whole new acquaintance for me with a language and literature of human-animal encounters.
In the chronicles of the 17th and 18th centuries, skunks were called “stinking beasts” or “polecats,” walruses, “sea cows,” and porcupines, “hedgehogs.” The legs and feet of the ruby-throated hummingbird were “as small as the lines in handwriting.” The more I read, the more I felt compelled to respond to these distant voices that were nevertheless so immediate. I was excited not merely by the writers’ vocabulary, but also by the literary genres they used to classify and otherwise describe “beasts”: the fable, the ABC, merchandise lists and “vocabularies” (translations) for the fur trade; and even fictionalized dialogue from children’s books.
When I entered the Humber correspondence program in creative writing in 2004, I had a first draft of just two of the eventual six chapters—the hummingbird and red fox. My mentor was Howard Norman, the distinguished American writer, who, by astounding good fortune, shared my passion for the wild, animals, history, and, of course, literature. Howard’s generous enthusiasm for my project upped my confidence and helped motivate me to revise and complete the manuscript beyond the program at Humber. I was grateful later to find a home for my manuscript with New Star Books in Vancouver.
My current manuscript in progress, also literary non-fiction, is a response to a succession of losses in recent years and a consequent urge to retrieve stories lost or never known. This may sound melancholy—and maybe it is—but it’s a buoyant melancholy, and as in What Species of Creatures, there’s humour.
The manuscript begins with a search for a treasure allegedly buried by my father and requiring, eventually, the services of a team of archaeologists. The search for “treasure,” and the very notion of it, then extends to objects and stories in my possession that evoke long-lost family members. In particular, I’m concentrating on my paternal grandfather, a childhood immigrant from Russian-occupied Lithuania to Quebec, who, against all probability, distinguished himself as an expert in common bracken and later as a developer of virgin land. He became one of the first Jewish faculty members at McGill University.
Contrasting with my grandfather’s story is that of my great uncle, a celebrated panhandler and singing waiter who was rumoured to sleep nights in the steam room of Montreal’s Russian baths. Although born in Canada, he too had ancestral ties to Russian-occupied Lithuania. In fact, it was in my chatting to Antanas Sileika about Lithuania, the impetus for his recent novel Underground, that the idea for this profile came about.