A few weeks ago I had the odd experience of hearing someone speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air—a voice I seemed to know but couldn’t quite place. Toward the end of the interview, when Terry asked, “What made you decide to write novels?” The voice replied: “To tell the truth.” After the interview ended, Terry added, “That was an excerpt from my 1988 interview with the Canadian writer Jane Rule, who passed away on November 27th.”
Strange the way news reaches us these days. But the shock is the same as if it had come by registered letter.
I was lucky enough to study fiction writing with Jane Rule at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver back in 1973, and even though my main focus was poetry, Jane inspired some respectable attempts at fiction. But what I remember best is her humane presence: a tall, big-boned American expatriate, a lesbian writer whose first novel, Desert of the Heart, had become a cult classic. (It was later made into a fair but flat-by-comparison indy film called Desert Hearts.) At the time Jane and her companion Helen had not yet taken up residence on her beloved Galiano Island, but I have fond memories of our meetings in her home in the Kitsilano district.
Although the fiction I ended up writing was not in Jane’s realistic mode, I learned a number of important lessons from her. Most important was her view of fiction’s moral dimensions. She told about walking for hours just a couple of chapters into one of her novels (Against the Season, as I recall), wrestling with the issue of whether to strike one of her characters dead of a heart attack. In my callow youth, it had never occurred to me that artistic choices had a moral dimension.
She also offered up two fine examples of cautionary advice. One involved her own experience. As a student writer, her mentor took her aside and told her, “You’ll never be a first rate writer. I think you should find another line of work.” She told him that no matter how good a writer she might be able to become, she would become one. There was healthy ego in her answer, but more than that there was her sense of fidelity to the truth—her truth—which no writer, first rate or not, can afford to give up.
To illustrate that particular point, she told us about a writer named Faith Baldwin. I don’t remember how she knew her, but Jane explained that Baldwin had wanted to be literary writer: her artistic hero was Willa Cather. But when the Great Depression hit, she started writing light romance fiction for women’s magazines in order to support her family, and became so popular that she started writing novels of the same type. By the time Jane knew her, Faith Baldwin had no need to continue writing at all: her 100 plus novels had made her a wealth woman, and yet Jane described her as “wistful” when she spoke of her popularity. “Why didn’t you go back to literary novels?” Jane had asked. “I tried,” Baldwin told her. “But I no longer knew how to do it. I couldn’t quite remember what real literature was.”
I won’t go into the excellence of Jane’s own work, which speaks for itself, but I will say that you won’t find a writer who sees her characters with such an extraordinary mix of clarity and compassion. Here are some resources to find out more about her: