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Registered: ‎09-11-2007
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How Because a Fire Was in My Head Came to Be

I meant to write the novel, Because a Fire Was in My Head, twenty years ago, before my other three books. But because of certain personal and narrative challenges the story presented, I realized that I was simply not ready to write it then. When at last the time came it was still difficult but not impossible. Among the many issues were multiple major settings, a long time span-the better part of the twentieth century-and a heroine who is in effect an anti-heroine, a character for whom compassion may be possible but hardly sympathy, for at virtually every turn she acts narcissistically.

One of the many things that inspired this novel was the land itself, or rather, place and movement, two features that seem to me to define literature of the West. Kate Riley, the main character, is the daughter of immigrants from Ireland, and so to a certain extent she is the inheritor of both the Old World values and of the exigencies of a New World. While the land, the Saskatchewan prairie, in part shapes and defines who she is-her independence, her arrogance, her self-sufficiency and resourcefulness-movement or the over-arching course of migration from east to west and thence down the coast, is also a clearly revealed tenet of her personality. When things fall apart in one city, she moves on, and on again. At the same time, the Old World ideal of having a husband and home, and the respect of one's social circle is something she can't quite relinquish, even while she abandons one by one the standard embodiments of those ideals-her own children.

I was inspired too, or rather fascinated by, the strange, unappeasable sadness at the center of the labyrinth of all narcissism. There is some kind of loss, some fatal lack, that seems to me to fuel relentless self-absorption and to account for the consistently poor judgment and miscalculations of the world that inevitably generate a broad wake of destruction. I wanted to understand why Kate Riley behaves as she does, not to provide excuses but at the very least to illuminate. As Jean Renoir says, "You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." I wanted to know, to feel, Kate's reasons, though I could not ever support their enacted consequences.

Lastly, I was interested in the historical import of the fifty years or so that formed the heart of the 20th century, from the deprivations of the Depression through the boom years of the Second World War and (the pendulum hovering at center point now), the strangely orphaned decade of the fifties, followed by the advent of consumerism, feminism, the culture of narcissism, swinging up through the corporate sovereignties and technocracies we find today. How might a woman of the times make her way across such a landscape, a woman like Kate Riley, hungry for success and desperate to fill in deep, unacknowledged cracks in her character?

Learn more about Because a Fire Was in My Head.