Winnipeg author Erna Buffie sheds light on her debut novel
The back cover of Erna Buffie’s Let Us Be True, published this year by Coteau Books, describes a setting that ranges “from the killing fields of Europe’s wars to the merciless beauty of the Canadian prairies.” Those two locales seem to feature often in Canadian literature, and yet the Manitoban documentary filmmaker and author’s debut novel subverts the tropes of both prairie ode and wartime epic.
Instead, Let Us Be True is epic in its own way, and with it Buffie has crafted a stunning addition to the Canadian literary canon.
Spanning three generations and over six decades, Let Us Be True chronicles the life of a family torn apart by secrets. Pearl Calder is the core of the story, which switches back and forth between World War II and the year 2000, and in perspective between various members of Pearl’s family.
We see Pearl in several life stages, from a young girl to a pregnant wife to a long-suffering mother raising two teenaged girls in the ‘70s. But it is as an elderly woman that she becomes the emotional heart of the story. Pearl’s secrets have haunted her throughout her life, and the decades of simmering resentment and bitterness have marred her relationships with her daughters, her husband and her sister.
Let Us Be True’s greatest strength is its richly imagined relationships, and the pillars of those relationships are the characters themselves: gruff, reserved Pearl, loving her daughters to the best of her ability; daughters Darlene and Carol, who turn to different but equally inappropriate places to heal the wounds gouged in them by their mother’s secrets; Pearl’s sister Winnie, who feels trapped by both her life and her own body.
The prose is deceptively simple. While Buffie’s writing is concise, the images it conjurs are deliciously vivid, and her well chosen verbs lend a filmic quality to the text that is to be expected given her background in documentary writing. Buffie spoke to the Calgary Journal about her book from her home city of Winnipeg.
Q: What inspired you to write Let Us Be True?
EB: I wanted to write a book about my mother’s generation of women. I think a lot of them experienced great loss and great hardship during the period in which they lived, whether it was the result of the Depression or the Second World War, and a lot of them kept it a secret from their kids. Just as men at the front kept their experiences there to themselves, a lot of these women didn’t share what happened to them.
Q: Secrets are a big focus of the book. What do you hope your readers will take away in terms of that theme?
EB: Curiosity, mainly. I think we are all shaped by secrets we know nothing about, that have been kept by our parents or our grandparents. Those secrets shape who they become come, and they indirectly shape who we become as well. Part of the problem is that parents become these mythic creatures in our minds, and we forget to give them the same generosity and understanding, but also the same probing, that we would give a friend.
“I think we are all shaped by secrets we know nothing about, that have been kept by our parents or our grandparents. Those secrets shape who they become come, and they indirectly shape who we become as well.” - Erna Buffie
Q: Were any parts of the book particularly easy or difficult to write?
EB: The last chapter, which is about Pearl’s mother, was a real puzzle to me. I wrote the first two pages of that chapter really fast, and then it sat there. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it. It was only after writing the rest of the book and coming back to it that I realized that, while Pearl’s father had been pivotal to her sister and brother, the pivotal person and pivotal loss in Pearl’s life was the loss of her mother. Once I figured that out, the chapter wrote itself.
Q: Pearl is the novel’s central character. How did you manage its changing times and points of view with that in mind?
EB: For me, every single chapter in the book is about Pearl. It could be Pearl from somebody else’s perspective, but each chapter is a part of Pearl’s story. So whether I was writing about her daughters, her sister, her brother, her mother or her husband, I was always writing about Pearl.
Q: You have experience as a documentary film writer and director. Did any of your film writing skills transfer to the writing of a novel?
EB: Working in a cutting room teaches you a lot about storytelling. It teaches you what you absolutely need to say, what you can leave out, and how fast you can make cuts. I think readers are incredibly sophisticated precisely because they watch films. Allowing them the space to imagine what might happen can be very satisfying. Filmmaking also taught me the value of precision and economy in language. When you’re writing narration in documentary films, the less of it you write, the better. That is what I strive for—clean and clear but vivid writing.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
- By Madison Farkas