Guest post: Diane Warren, author of Cool Water

About a month ago I was fortunate enough to receive an email asking if I was interested in participating in an author tour for the new (and, I might add, terrific) book Cool Water by Diane Warren. I quickly read the synopsis of the book and eagerly replied yes. Not only was I excited about reading the book as it sounded quite interesting, but this was the first time I had been approached by a publisher to participate in an author blog tour.

Cool Water is the story of Juliet, Saskatchewan – a small rural town of approximately 1,000 people. In the space of a single day it tells the overlapping and intertwined stories of several people who live in or near the town, giving the reader an intimate portrait of a farming town and is people stumbling towards change and the future.

In preparing for this guest post, I had noticed that Diane lives in Saskatchewan, and I had found her description of modern farming and the decline and difficulties of modern rural life to be compassionate and realistic (so much that is written either looks down on the people who live their lives from crop to crop, or is filled with clichés or incorrect information). I suggested that perhaps Diane could discuss how farming has changed from when she was young, and what she saw for the future of rural life in Saskatchewan

And here is Diane’s fantastic response. First, I want to thank HarperCollinsCanada and Diane Warren for providing a review copy of the book and for having me participate in this book tour. It’s been a wonderful experience. Tomorrow I’ll be posting my review of Cool Water.

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Change in Rural Saskatchewan

I’ve been asked about farming in Saskatchewan, how it has a changed, and what I see as the future of rural life here. Since I am not an expert on agriculture, and the whole business seems to be so complicated these days no one knows what the future holds, I will talk about the metaphor for change in Cool Water.

I did not grow up on the farm but I am of the first generation in my family not to do so.  My maternal grandparents were homesteaders and their farm is still in the family, 100 years later.  As a child, I spent a lot of time there, in fact, every chance I could get.   I was crazy about my grandparents.  They were heroes to me for their sense of adventure in coming west, and for what they had done to turn a small, piece of prairie into a family farm.

A few years ago, one of my uncles sold a half section that had belonged to my grandfather.  My uncle and his wife were ready to downsize and none of their children wanted to farm this piece of land, so selling it was the best thing to do, the only thing to do.  Still, I felt sadness that the “King Place”, as it was known, was leaving the family. The sale was symbolic of impending bigger changes in our family and in the farming landscape.

When I was working on Cool Water, I was very aware of the deep attachments people have to family land here, and that became a part of the story.  I did a lot of thinking about how an ancestor’s dream affects the descendent who inherits it. The last decades have not been kind to the family farm and many young people have grown up knowing that the work and responsibilities of farming do not pay financial rewards to match.  When young people don’t want to take over the farm, there’s a crisis related to a family’s attachment to a piece of land, and the recognition that a way of life in the family is coming to an end.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias kept coming back to me, partly because my story is set in an area of Saskatchewan that is extremely arid and does, in fact, host sand dunes and flats, but also because the poem is about the mistaken belief that an empire will last forever.  Not that family farms are empires, but the message holds true, as does the image of a monument – or a dream – covered by sand.  If you visit the Great Sand Hills in Saskatchewan, you can see how the sand is held in place tenuously by the roots of plants, and how the landscape constantly shifts and changes shape.

It’s interesting that Canada is now talking about Saskatchewan as a “have” province.  Although people of my generation grew up believing that our province was the “world’s breadbasket”, the prosperity being talked about has nothing to do with farming or ranching.  It’s about natural resources such as minerals, gas and oil, some of the same resources that made our neighbour, Alberta, a have province long before us.  The changes we might see in the near future, and the effects they might have on what we’ve come to know as a traditional way of life in rural Saskatchewan, are hard to imagine.

What I wanted to do in Cool Water was write about a contemporary farming community in a time of transition: a story in which the ancestors’ ghostly dreams hover, both a comfort and a burden.  And although Juliet is a farming community in a particular prairie landscape, I hope the story is about the inevitability of change and the resilience of people in its face.

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About Diane Warren

Dianne Warren is the author of three books of short fiction and three plays. Her play Serpent in the Night Sky was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1992. Her most recent collection, A Reckless Moon, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2002, and in 2004 she won the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career.