“His castle (Castle Tom) was set conveniently on a hill; and daily, when it wasn’t wet, he paced the battlements until some smaller Knight who couldn’t swim should reach the moat and challenge him.”
-A.A. Milne, The Knight Whose Armour Didn’t Squeak
Winlaw author Tom Wayman lives on a secluded acreage just over the bridge from Highway 6, not far from the quiet susurus of the Slocan River, in an eccentric farmhouse surrounded on all sides by lush forest. When visitors turn up his driveway the first thing they see, poking out of the foliage, is a sign paying homage to A.A. Milne.
“Welcome to Appledore” it proclaims, with a small addendum: “Poetry feeds my family”.
And though Winnie isn’t named outright, there’s a line of fencing on the left labeled “Bear gate”, a path through the woods called “The Bearway” and when the Star spent a morning with the gumboot-wearing poet recently, there was even fresh scat to maneuver around.
It’s from this quaint refuge Wayman has been writing steadily for the past 26 years, most recently releasing his Slocan Valley collection The Shadows We Mistake For Love.
RIP Literary Ambition 1966-1989
Wayman arrived in the Kootenays during a time of personal upheaval, feeling disillusioned by city life and in need of some reflective down-time.
“When I moved up here in 1989 I was coming out of a relationship in Vancouver and taking the geographic cure,” Wayman said. It was his Milne-loving ex that gave his property the name.
He’d published a number of books by that point, and had spent years teaching creative writing at the University of Calgary and hobnobbing with the literary elite in Toronto, but felt like he needed a change of both pace and scenery.
“Ambition is a good thing and a bad thing simultaneously. It can spur people or to work hard at whatever they’re ambitious about, or it can lead them to have a grievance about not attaining some aspect of that ambition. As you go on in life you realize how random everything is, and how big a part fashion plays in who’s considered to have achieved something of artistic merit.”
Upon realizing this, Wayman decided that rather than writing for external validation he would divorce himself from that aspect of the process as thoroughly as possible and focus instead on his creative output.
Shortly later he planted a small garden in Appledore with a plaque that reads “R.I.P. Literary Ambition 1966 -1989” on his lawn.
Life in the Slocan Valley
Wayman hasn’t been loafing hermit-like in the years since moving to Appledore, though—on top of his prolific, award-winning literary output, he somehow managed to start three arts-based programs: the Vancouver centre of the Kootenay School of Writing, the Kootenay School of the Arts, and the Nelson Fine Arts Centre—now Oxygen Arts Centre.
More recently, he was instrumental in bringing the UBC creative writing course Writing from the Ground Up to Nelson.
And he still finds plenty of time to gossip about gardening with his neighbours, build memorials to family members and erect electric fences to protect his apple trees from the roaming deer who use his lawn as a thoroughfare.
The way he figures, that’s not the life he would’ve been living in the city.
“In a place like Toronto, it’s full of people who have come from the rural and made a decision to go the city because they felt nothing cultural was happening out here. The same is true in the States, where people flock to New York and have contempt for where they came from.”
He prefers life in the Slocan, and keeps a Walt Whitman quote affixed to his fridge: “Now I see the making of the best persons; It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
“The real news around here isn’t ‘who got short-listed for the Giller?’” said Wayman, “but what the weather’s like? What’s happening with what you’ve planted? Socially you’d be an outcast in Winlaw if you didn’t have a garden.”
‘We’re all damaged goods’
At some point, though, no matter how much he was in love with the valley, Wayman felt he had to write about and address the harder social realities of those in his proximity.
“One of the notions this book plays with is how much the Slocan Valley looks like paradise, but there’s a dark side too—which you would expect from human beings. People can be mean to each other here, there can be a lot of tension. We’re all damaged goods.”
But he finds making moral judgements difficult.
“This is not an area that’s very regularly policed, but there is a functional law. People come out here because they say ‘I want to do whatever I want to’ but they do still have to drive on the right side of the road, and everyone is interconnected and accountable.”
He’s discovered the cultural makeup of the area is complex. In Shadows he writes about the anti-government Doukhobor settlers and other characters with complicated relationships to authority, including the Japanese survivors of internment camps, Vietnam draft dodgers and marijuana smugglers.
With grow-op owners and political activists intermixed with homesteaders, farmers, loggers and environmentalists, Wayman felt there was no shortage of potent source material.
“This is why the rural is such a wonderful place for fiction writers to work,” he said, naming Alice Munro as the best example of this. “The tensions that go on in the city, you can see them in the country much more clearly because there’s not so much haze and anonymity. You know a lot more life arcs, you get to know different generations and people from a whole variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.”
And though some in the literary world may often be uninterested in rural lives, he is. For years he drove by a shed, half torn down, that stood ominously in the middle of a nearby field.
“I thought to myself ‘there’s a story there.’”
Grow ops and single mothers
Wayman feels an affinity for neglected and disenfranchised people. Just as poet Robert Service once posited that vice is a more interesting subject than virtue—writing in the Yukon about gamblers, drunks and whores—Wayman is attracted to the those characters who have been maligned, forgotten or abused.
One denigrated group in particular, single mothers, inspired a novella-length story in the collection.
“I interviewed a number of women I knew about this issue. I wanted to know ‘what’s wrong with these guys?’ but there was also a personal element too, because I’ve had a number of failed relationships, including one where she wanted a baby and I didn’t.”
He was surprised and shocked by some of the things he learned.
“Over and over I heard about how guys could not stand to have their partner’s attention given way more to the new life that had been created.”
Another topic he explores is the marijuana industry, which operates behind the scenes but has a major impact on the local economy and culture.
“The Slocan marijuana industry isn’t especially visible or violent, and in a lot of ways it’s very benign. But there are all kinds of implications and strong negative effects that come with people being involved in these illegal activities. Even on a personal level, just being required to lie to make a living, that has a profound effect on you.”
So when a landlord character discovers a grow-op in his comedic story “Clouds”, it’s him that get reprimanded by the local RCMP officer for violating his tenant’s privacy.
The monster of enthusiasm
Another statue in Wayman’s yard, this one of a blind bullfrog, is accompanied by a sign that reads “The Monster of Enthusiasm”, and reminds him to keep going despite criticism or hopelessness. And though he’s eager to share his stories with the world, he’s not waiting around for literary fame to find him.
Instead he’s staying put in Appledore for the long-term, where he types away in his basement office (surrounded by framed hate mail) while looking out at his wind-rustling garden and the swaying trees far overhead.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Really, all an artist does is upset people. What society should do is put artists in a sack and throw them in a harbour. Anything that happens which isn’t that is a good thing.”
Wayman will launch his book at the Nelson Public Library on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Otter Books will be there to sell copies of The Shadows We Mistake for Love.