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A Writer Profile: David Bergen

David Bergen is the author of numerous acclaimed novels and short-story collections, including The Time In Between, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Out of Mind, winner of the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. He is also the author of The Matter with Morris, which received the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, the Carol Shields Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, as was his story collection, Here the Dark. His most recent book, Away from the Dead, is his thirteenth book of fiction, and was recently longlisted for the Giller Prize. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

“David Bergen is one of this country’s finest storytellers."

— Noah Richler, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About War

We warmly welcome David Bergen to this space.

Where writers write.

Do you have a dedicated writing space?

I had a studio in downtown Winnipeg (photo above) where I had written my last five books. And then, after Covid hit, I moved out and have been writing from my house, only to find that I am easily distracted by the domestic—the fridge, laundry, painting walls, cooking. This was a bit of a reality check, in that I did not realize, until I abandoned my ‘room’, that it is very important to have a space specifically set aside for writing.

When I was younger, and we had kids at home, I would go out in my car and write. Sometimes in a different neighbourhood, sometimes in the Safeway parking lot. Ultimately, though, if I am driven by the story I am working on, I find that I can write anywhere.

What does your writing process look like?

When I am in the midst of a story, I start writing at 8 in the morning and write till 2 in the afternoon. I like to stop the writing day mid-sentence, so that I can pick up the story easily and with little rumination the following morning. I used to write longhand and transcribe to a computer. These days I type onto the computer, which is dangerous, because it is so clean and nice and gives the impression of perfection, and of course it isn’t perfect.

What has influenced you the most as a writer?

Other writers. Especially novelists. We do not write in a vacuum, we depend on what has come before us—our teachers—so reading, reading, and more reading has been my influence.

Can you offer any advice to aspiring writers?

I teach writing and have come to realize that there is nothing prescriptive about the process. So, if you get advice about writing, other than ‘drop the adverbs’, I’d say be wary. And now, to break my own rule about accepting advice, I would say the most important thing to experience when writing is to have fun.

"If the writing doesn’t give you joy, then run in the other direction."

What can books teach us? How do they change us?

The best books allow us to see the world in a new way. They twist the gaze slightly and surprise us. I’m not sure they change us. Novels shouldn’t have an agenda, other than to entertain, or to gut us in some way. That’s the best—to be gutted emotionally.

What were your favorite childhood books?

Zane Grey. Enid Blyton. Nevil Shute. The Greek Myths. Somerset Maugham. I discovered Margaret Laurence’s The Fire-Dwellers in the school library when I was thirteen, and I was smitten. Had never read anything like it. I had no idea who this Laurence was.

Who are your favourite writers?

This changes over time. I cut my writing teeth on John Updike, and I still go back to him for the ease with which he uses the free indirect voice, particularly in his Rabbit tetralogy. I came to Penelope Fitzgerald later in life, and think The Blue Flower is a brilliant historical novel, simply because it doesn’t feel historical. It seems timeless and almost weightless. Of course, Chekhov and Tolstoy, and anything Russian. Cormac McCarthy. Alice Munro. Emily Dickinson. Alvaro Mutis. Marquez. I just finished The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen. Loved it.

This Q&A was edited for length, and was conducted in 2021. David Bergen appears courtesy of Goose Lane Editions.

in Away from the Dead, Bergen takes us to a place where chaos reigns, where answers come from everywhere and nowhere, and where both the beauty and horror of humanity are on full display. Set in early 20th-century Ukraine during the tumult of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks, and the White Army all come and go, each claiming freedom and justice, David Bergen embeds his readers into the lives of characters connected through love, family, and loyalty. Lehn, a bookseller south of Kiev, deserts the army and writes poetry to his love back home; Sablin, an adopted Mennonite-Ukrainian stableboy, runs with the anarchists only to discover that love and the planting of crops is preferable to killing; Inna, a beautiful young peasant, tries to stop a Mennonite landowner from stealing her child. In a world of violence, Sablin, Lehn, and Inna learn to love and hate and love again, hoping, against all odds, that one can turn away from the dead.

Away from the Dead is a masterpiece, the work of a true artist operating at the highest level of his craft.” — Alexander MacLeod, author of Animal Person

"Away from the Dead is a deceptively stunning novel, a testament to the resurrective power of love against what history might otherwise obliterate, written by one of Canada’s best.” — Omar El Akkad, author of What Strange Paradise

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