The Roaring Girl catapults Greg Hollingshead to literary stardom.
"It's a great title."
"Everyone loved the title."
"I had a different title, quite a horrible title ..." Greg Hollingshead's voice trails off. He's talking about his short story collection The Roaring Girl, and he seems as confounded by the book's critical and popular success as he is by the vivacious allure of its name.
If a flurry of attention has deposited him — a little disconcerted, hair a little ruffled — in his campus office one day almost six months after winning Canada's most prestigious literary prize, you can understand why. The 1995 Governor General's Award for fiction; an impossible number of requests for readings, book signings and interviews, even for movie rights have burst into the quietly ordered life of a university professor still dedicated to writing in his home office for a few hours each morning.
In the normal scheme of things, he then cycles from his nearby Windsor Park home to campus, where he teaches 18th-century literature and creative writing in the Department of English. Ironically, the current darling of the Canadian literary scene used to teach CanLit, but stopped about 10 years ago. "I was just so critical," he recalls.
One of his creative writing classes threw a congratulatory party for the award-winning author when he returned to campus after accepting his prize in Toronto last November. "My graduate students were very focused on what the award meant, very pleased," explains Hollingshead. "The undergraduate students ... are not quite so sure what it's about. They're cooler, more diffident."
Readers love it
Maybe they haven't read the book. Readers have enthusiastically embraced The Roaring Girl, which for a literary work of such lofty distinction is absurdly readable. For instance, one story that Hollingshead frequently reads at appearances, called "The Side of the Elements," begins: "My wife and I had to leave the city for a year, were forced to rent our house to strangers. We advertised in the paper, screened people. Hopeless people. If your dog went with them for a walk he would get run over."
The Governor General's Award fiction jury said the stories in The Roaring Girl "illuminate the mixups, dilemmas and joys of contemporary life with lightning bolts of fiercely unexpected epiphanies." The author is pleased that his work is resonant for so many (so far, over 10,000 copies have been sold.) "You try to do literary writing that doesn't necessarily require a trained literary reader," says Hollingshead. "In a sense, everything I do is aiming for this."
He's had no shortage of opportunities to hear from his readers — award-winning authors are a hot commodity at bookstores, book club meetings and in the media. "A lot of authors are just plain nervous at those events, and I'm not," comments Hollingshead on his accessibility. "I'm a teacher, I'm used to speaking in front of people." He reflects a moment, then tosses off, "I'm old enough that I don't really care anymore."
He consistently gets asked the same questions about writing: Does it ever come out just perfectly the first draft? (The answer, of course, is "Never.") Where do you get your ideas? (Everywhere — he even admits to cribbing from friends' anecdotes and newspaper items.) How do you write? (Longhand. "It allows you to get deeper into the writing.")
New novel on the way
He is now deep into another manuscript, a novel this time, which he worked on in Paris during a sabbatical year that ended in mid-1995. His memories of that city are still crisp — the bread, the wine, the flowers — and he discovered why Paris is a haven for writers. "French culture is amazing. Paris is a city that makes you feel you're doing something that makes sense. Everybody is making something ... making food, doing hair, designing building, ... creating something and placing value on it."
Hollingshead says the style of the new novel is quite different from The Roaring Girl's. Now that he's in the company of other Governor General's Award-winning writers such as Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood and Rudy Wiebe — the U of A professor emeritus of English who won the GG last year — the expectations for Hollingshead's next book may be quite different, too. Wryly, the author comments, "I'm aware that there will be no putting anything over on people."
About: Greg Hollingshead
Cannot live without: PILOT Hi-Techpoint V5 pen, extra fine, black ink (not blue — it's thicker)
Last book read: Annie John by Jamaica Kinkaid (a re-reading)
Favourite spot: A remote cottage in rural Ontario
At Tuck Shop would order: Stash licorice tea
Also wrote: White Buick, Famous Players (short stories); Spin Dry (novel)
Published Spring/Summer 1996.