A literacy class at Okanagan College got a large dose of culture earlier this month.
A group of Tracy Riley’s adult fundamental English students went to see Shuswap Theatre’s The Odd Couple, most of them attending live theatre for the first time.
Following a lively discussion in which the students shared their enthusiasm for the experience, they were introduced to award-winning author Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
Student Tyler Stefanyk raved about the “awesome” acting in The Odd Couple and Tim Anson noted he would never be able to view bus driver Fred Green the same again after seeing him in the role of fussy Felix Unger.
“The background windows made it look realistic,” said Anson of the stage set. “When they looked out the window, they looked like they were in an upper storey.”
“They made it look very realistic,” agreed Elaine August.
Former Yan’s owner Susan Fong joined the class to improve her English, having sold her restaurant and retired.
“I really enjoyed it, but the tough part was when somebody laughed,” she said, noting that while she understands the written word, she was challenged by some of the dialogue and tried to figure out what others were laughing at. “In Chinese, we laugh much too; every culture has its own humour.”
Students were delighted to switch the focus from live theatre to books, giving Anderson-Dargatz a warm welcome and rave reviews on her Literacy Learner Books they are currently engrossed in.
“Stalker is the first book I enjoyed,” called out one student.
“That makes me feel really good,” replied Anderson-Dargatz, with a wide smile.
“I read all your books, I even write down the sentences I like,” added Fong.
Stefanyk called The Stalker awesome, to which a delighted Anderson-Dargatz drew sustained laughter by saying, “I want to get you to review all my books.”
The author applauded the students’ tutors, several of whom were in the classroom, explaining her own mother’s role as a tutor was the impetus behind her decision to branch out from literary to literacy writing.
“My mom had a grumpy old bastard for a father, who had a dispute with the school board and pulled her from school,” Anderson-Dargatz said, noting she never got beyond Grade 7 math. “But she could write, so she wrote, and wrote and wrote.”
Becoming a tutor gave her mom confidence in herself and her abilities.
“The biggest thing I saw was the ability her students gained to go on and tell their own stories.”
In terms of her own talent, Anderson-Dargatz describes her parents as storytellers.
“Most of Dad’s were First Nations and on my mom’s side, tall tales, ghosts in attic,” she says. “She’d take me out to Turtle Valley and Chase Creek and point and say ‘people died here, they were having an affair, somebody shot him.’”
Her mom also spoke often of her premonitions, introducing Anderson-Dargatz to the notion of magic.
The author began her storied career at the Salmon Arm Observer, and says the most important thing she learned was how to research and conduct interviews.
“A lot of people think fiction comes out of the noggin,” she says. “Writing never comes from nowhere; it comes from a seed of information in your own life, from a newspaper or book story.”
She points out that many readers want to believe what she writes actually happened.
“People come up to me all the time and say ‘I know who you’re talking about,’ but we all take our own stories into the book,” she explains. “You’re basically writing the book along with me. When you read The Stalker, it is probably very different from what was in my head.”
Anderson-Dargatz claims real stories make good inspiration for fiction but not good stories by themselves.
Fiction, she maintains, is all about spinning, inventing, allowing your imagination to run wild.
“Writing is an act of discovery where you get to know the characters,” she says. “You throw down the dialogue and see what they’re doing and saying, all the while feeding your subconscious with research.”
Then comes the long, long process of editing and re-writing, something Anderson-Dargatz says forms the bulk of what a writer does.
“You put your bum on a chair and put the words on paper,” said a laughing Anderson-Dargatz in response to a question about how to become a writer.
“Experience the world; you can’t engage a reader if you don’t have experiences to draw from.”