Toronto is sometimes criticized as an unfriendly city, but it had a very different atmosphere back in 1967 — during the so-called "Summer of Love". Yorkville was full of hippies, draft dodgers flooded into the city, congregating in Baldwin Village, and Toronto began its headlong tumble into a world of free love, freedom fighters, and more. This is the backdrop for Bianca Lakoseljac's new novel, Stone Woman (Guernica Editions).
Stone Woman follows Blossom and her unconventional friends and family during the summer of '67 as their lives are changed by the arrival of American draft dodger David. As the story approaches the present day, family secrets are slowly — and explosively &dmash; exposed.
We're pleased to welcome Bianca to Open Book today to talk about Stone Woman as part of our Lucky Seven series. She tells us about the allure of 1960s Toronto as a setting, how the novel engages with the relationship between art and life, and the importance of a good walk as part of the writing process.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Stone Woman is a novel that relives Toronto’s 1967 “summer of love.” The story explores the ways the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s hippie subculture in Toronto shaped our collective consciousness and led us to redefine who we are — our place in society, our concept of family, our work place relations — and also marked a turning point in art and architecture.
I’ve always been fascinated with the 60s — such a rich and yet tumultuous period in Canadian history. The search for freedom from a tradition-bound Canada — freedom to love, to create, and to express oneself, be it through art, or clothing, or sexual liberation, topped with an uprising against the Vietnam War and the plea for peace — shaped Toronto and turned Yorkville into a mecca of the hippie subculture.
The novel was also inspired by two Toronto artistic achievements. One is Frances Gage’s Woman, a white Carrara marble sculpture commissioned by Women’s College Hospital and completed in 1971. The second is the sculptures created during the 1967 Art Symposium in High Park as part of Canada’s Centennial, which became the first outdoor sculpture exhibit in Toronto, seen as a type of outdoor gallery.
I first saw Gage’s Woman back in the early 70s when I went to visit a friend at Women’s College Hospital. The beauty and grace and the scale of the piece, combined with the mysteriousness of her veiled face — from the fist moment I thought of the sculpture as a “she” — became etched in my subconscious. I caught myself envisioning her — I began to dream of her. I thought of revisiting her, but then she faded away while I raised my children and earned a living, and took care of my home and family. When I began writing Stone Woman, I had an urgent need to see her again. However, the old hospital had been torn down and the new building had not been completed. I was advised to make an appointment if I wanted to view the sculpture, as she was stored away. But then I decided not to see her until my novel was completed.
The High Park sculptures have a story of their own. I’ve lived in the High Park area on-and-off over the years, and Sculpture Hill became my place of contemplation. I used to stroll my children through the park and think of symbolism the sculptures embody: Flower Power; the Hippie; Midsummer Night’s Dream. Among the sculptures, I could daydream; see life’s obstacles from a broader perspective; come up with solutions, alternatives, compromises; accept losses and heartbreaks.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
The central question is how art and life are reflected in one another — although, setting the plot in the 60s caused the novel to grow in complexity. It encompasses many questions: the horrors of war and the perpetual search for peace; the stigma same-sex couples as well as unwed mothers faced in child-rearing and how the concept of family has evolved; the never-ending search for love and self-actualization.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
The novel began as a short story. But it did not feel ready, and I did not include it in my collection of stories, Bridge in the Rain — and the plot grew. At first, I struggled with it and put it aside a few times. Once I realized that using the real names of events and sculptures and the artists was the only way to bring such a vibrant and pivotal moment in Toronto history to life so that it exists in the reader’s mind in a believable way — the novel evolved smoothly.
This book took 10 years to complete. It owes its existence to my love of Toronto — for being not only one of the most multicultural cities in the world, but also the place of enchantment and adventure and art in its many forms — from sculptures and innovative architecture to paintings, music, theatre… and love, seen in this story as an art form in itself. If I were to identify a single force that drives this novel and binds the fate of all the characters, it would have to be, at the risk of sounding cliché, the power of love.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
To quote Virginia Wolf’s famous phrase — a room of my own. A quiet place and time to myself. And a computer.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I take long, fast walks, alone — the rain and the wind do not deter me, and I love the sound of the waves. I envision the scenes, transcend into the characters. At times I picture those extra brain cells we all have that remain unused, and I imagine putting them to work and finding answers. I call it hard thinking. Funny — it often works. When nothing works, I put the project aside and move on to another one, then go back to it when it comes back to me.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Gustave Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary. Rudy Wiebe’s, The Temptations of Big Bear. Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. I love novels that transport me into a real place and time; novels that challenge, inform, entertain, and excite. I grew up on fairy tales and Greek myth stories. As a teenager, it was Mark Twain — I fell in love with Tom Sawyer. Can Lit offers some of the best reads in the world: Alice Monroe, Margaret Atwood, Jack Hodgins… I read everything Miriam Toews writes. I read everything my writer-friends publish. The list goes on.
What are you working on now?
Another novel set in Toronto.
Bianca Lakoseljac second novel, Stone Woman, which relives Toronto’s 1967 “summer of love”, has just been released by Guernica Editions. Bianca is the author of a novel, Summer of the Dancing Bear; a collection of stories, Bridge in the Rain (Guernica, 2012, 2010); and a book of poetry, Memoirs of a Praying Mantis (Turtle Moons Press, 2009). She is TWUC liaison for the National Reading Campaign, past president of the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto, has judged various national literary competitions, and has served on a number of literary contest panels. Bianca taught at Ryerson University and Humber College.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.