I first knew Patrick Lane in the latter 1960s, when every one of the handful of poets in Canada knew about all the others. Pat dropped in on me when I was living in Edmonton, Alberta; I drew up his horoscope, which was my way then of avoiding intimacy while encouraging conversation. A few years later, I was running the poetry list of the House of Anansi Press, and, since I felt Pat's was such a strong and distinctive poetic voice, I asked him to do a book with us (Beware the Months of Fire, 1974). I was his editor, and he was always professional. I saw him many times over the years, but he was on his best behavior with me. People often are: I think it's my Queen Elizabeth nose. I'd heard rumors about his drinking, but I didn't know how dangerous it had become until I received a letter asking me to forgive him for the bad things he'd done to me. When I couldn't think of any, I realized Pat must have been so far down that he couldn't remember what he'd done to whom.
I was more than delighted to read What the Stones Remember when it came out, although I was also astonished by it. I had no idea that Pat's early life had been so vicious and abusive; nor did I know about his multiple addictions and the periods of total blackout he'd gone through. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me though was his love of nature, and especially of gardens and their healing pleasures, that the book revealed. It was almost as if a world previously viewed as dead or hostile had come benevolently to life. What the Stones Remember is a tough, lovely book, and it shows the person that was in there through all the desperate times -- a person who had now, finally, grown into his real skin.
Margaret Atwood: What the Stones Remember is a prose memoir. As someone who's made his mark as a poet, why did it occur to you to write it?
Patrick Lane: The memoir is a book of recovery from 45 years of addiction and a book about the recovery from a difficult life. I've been a poet for almost half a century; I've published 20 or more collections of poems, a collection of short stories and a number of anthologies. I went into a treatment center in the fall of 2000 and was released just before Christmas that year. I went in a sick man and came out very shaky, very fragile. Remember, it was the first time I'd been sober since I was a very young man. The year 2001 stretched ahead of me, a long track of time, and I knew I'd just begun the process of healing my body and my spirit. I wanted to write, but I was afraid to start writing poetry or fiction. Does that make sense? What if I failed? What if this new sobriety meant I'd never write again?
Atwood: I can understand how frightening that would be. But why choose a memoir?
Lane: Nonfiction seemed a safe place to go. Actually, what I started to do was write about a year in the life of my garden. I'd always wanted to write a garden book, but very quickly it turned toward memoir. The fabric of the garden, its smells and textures, its plants, insects, birds and stones began to bring back memories of my childhood, the many years I'd lived in the high mountain valleys and wilderness of southern British Columbia. The years when my father was away during the Second [World] War, my mother, my brothers -- all of them returned with startling clarity; and as the memories came, I incorporated them into the book. It seemed such a natural thing to do. I didn't realize I was writing a memoir until more than half the year was over.
Atwood: There are a number of haunting memories that surface throughout the book, many of which you say had lain dormant for decades. Which ones particularly startled you, or shook you? Were you afraid of anything you knew you'd have to face by the time you wrote the last page?
Lane: I've led a life filled with abandonment, neglect, abuse, sudden death, murder, divorce, alcoholism and the immeasurable losses of my brothers, children, wives and my mother and father. Looking back, I knew that those losses had been a dark subtext in all my writing, but by placing them into the book, I felt released from those burdens. As I wrote during those first months of 2001, small things began to happen to me. A tree frog singing in the bamboo, a desiccated hosta leaf splayed upon a raw piece of jade, a fir cone lying beside the flung hair of iris leaves; each of these brought back memories of earlier gardens and of the people who'd inhabited them -- friends, wives, children, lovers and especially my mother and my father, both of whom were dead: my father murdered back in 1968 and my mother a victim of cancer in 2003. I find it hard now to describe the feelings such memories raised in me. The memories didn't shock me. If anything, they were a kind of terrible blessing. Remember, I was fragile. It was a gentle, tentative time for me. My body's health was coming back, and I was slowly healing. I wasn't afraid. If I knew anything, it was that I'd been a writer all my life, and that if I was to survive at all, if I was to overcome my addiction, then writing would be a huge part of that healing.
Atwood: As you were recovering, did you discover hurtful things you'd done that you'd forgotten about and people you'd harmed who couldn't accept your apologies? If so, did these become roadblocks to you?
Lane: At the end of that year, I listed all those I thought I had harmed in the past through my words and actions. The list was a long one -- friends, family, lovers and peers -- but everyone I went to accepted my apologies with kindness. The hardest to apologize to were the dead, but even there, at the graves of my mother, father and brother, I found both redemption and peace. Healing is found through honesty and humility. I have tried to learn both.
Atwood: If you could describe your book, what would you say?
Lane: The book is the story of a year in a garden where a recovering alcoholic goes through the struggle of reclaiming his past. I started by trying to describe the year and during it, to name everything in the garden, the plants, animals, insects and birds. Recently, a man I respect called it "a book of wisdom," and I guess I could go along with that. My surrender, my giving up alcohol, has been a gift to myself. At the end of the year and the end of the book I came away blessed by having found a new life. Raymond Carver was an alcoholic who said at the end of his life that he wanted "to call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth." Like Ray, I too wish the same. *