Drake Devonshire Writers' Retreat: Camilla Gibb

Posted by Jen McNeely, June 13, 2016

Camilla Gibb is the author of four internationally acclaimed novels: Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement, and most recently a memoir, This Is Happy. She has been the recipient of the Trillium Book Award (for best book in Ontario), the City of Toronto Book Award and the CBC Canadian Literary Award and has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2016 RBC Taylor Prize.

Two weeks ago, she joined us for a night at Drake Devonshire. Prince Edward County is where Camilla penned her first novel Mouthing the Words; it's where she became a great writer. Her time with us awoke some old memories. In between drunken ping pong and quietly gazing at the lake, Camilla reflects on the challenges she has faced as a writer. We're honoured to share her introspective thoughts below...

Camilla Gibb at Drake Devonshire writer's retreat

I thought I was novelist. Writing fiction was the only thing I’d ever wanted to do, and so I did it for many years to the exclusion of most other things. But then about six years ago my life fell to shit and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I tried to remind myself I was a writer. But I had completely lost my appetite for fiction. I did come to write a book during this dark time, but it was the blood and guts of memoir. To leave my tattered life in order to invent and inhabit a fictional universe felt at best irresponsible. I wondered whether I would ever return to it, this language and companion that had been so faithful throughout my life. I wasn’t always sure that I cared.

Camilla Gibb at Drake Devonshire writer's retreat

Nineteen years ago I wrote my first novel in a trailer park in Prince Edward County. My brother had a tiny mint-green tin box of a trailer there and in the summer of 1997 he agreed to let me use it. The site had a beautiful view of the dunes of Sandbanks across the water and the neighbours were kind to me. But I wasn’t there to swim or socialize. I was there to write and, having no money at all, to find the cheapest way to live while writing. I budgeted $25 a week for food.

I plugged a borrowed laptop into the stovetop inside the trailer and sat in a lawn chair outside. I wrote because I had to write and there was nothing left to lose. I was afraid, in fact, to stop. So I didn’t stop. I wrote until the short story I was writing came to look suspiciously like a novel. And then I wrote an ending.

At the end of each week I treated myself to one beer at the nearby Isaiah Tubbs Resort. The Isaiah Tubbs seemed to be the only thing going on in those days, a generation before Prince Edward County became known as PEC, or simply, “The County.” There were chips trucks then, rather than artisanal cheeses and local wine.

Camilla Gibb at Drake Devonshire writer's retreat

It’s been eight years since I last wrote a word of fiction. I’m feeling both the external and internal pressure to write a novel. Like most writers of my generation, I have taken on more and more teaching in order to sustain the idea, or possibly illusion of a writing life. But as the university term drew to a close in April, I decided this year would be the year for a novel. So I took a leave of absence. And then, as if it were a sign, I was invited to return to Prince Edward County to spend a night at Drake Devonshire.

If there were anything hip about me twenty years ago, there’s certainly nothing of that in evidence now. I’m a separated middle-aged mother. I fall asleep before 10. I worried that Prince Edward County was now hipper than I had ever been. That as much as I was an anomaly writing a novel in a trailer park, I would feel like even more of an anomaly now.

I tried not to mask my insecurity with cynicism with claims of “I knew Prince Edward County when…” or notions of “authenticity.” After all, there was never anything romantic about living on $25 a week. Or about being forced to sleep in the car I’d borrowed from my mother when my brother and his girlfriend suddenly turned up to reclaim the trailer. But there is something very romantic about the Drake on the lake. It’s in the breeze and the water and padding around in a heavy sweat-shirted robe in your bare feet. Playing Ping Pong when you’re slightly drunk, the smell of wood smoke from a fire pit on the beach, breakfast in the open air. The place is both discrete and whimsical; grown-up while paying thoughtful attention to the fact that we are all just kids inside.

Trailer Park Camilla Gibb

My companion and I spent the next day driving around the County. Our first goal was to locate the trailer park of my memory. All I could remember of its location was that it was not too far a walk from Isaiah Tubbs, and that there was a phone booth from where I called my mother and took certain liberties with the truth.

A trailer park does not advertise itself as a trailer park but as a family camping resort. The first of these we pulled into struck me as much fancier than I remembered. The trailers looked rooted, with adjoining decks and gardens. I stopped in at the office to see if anyone remembered my brother and whether I might have a look around. The man wouldn’t have known my brother, who was there before his time, but “Sure, sure,” he said. “You go look around and enjoy your childhood memories.” Childhood. Bless that sweet man’s heart.

The park was still a long distance on foot to Isaiah Tubbs; while I was younger then, I can’t imagine I was ever quite that fit. So we drove on to the next park. The sign looked familiar, the bend in the road. Edgewater. I stopped in at the office here; the family who ran the place had been here for years but they didn’t remember the name Gibb. I described my brother then and the youngest one’s eyes lit up. “He the guy who had the tattoo of Jesus reading a porno on his leg?”

“Yup, that’s him!” I said proudly.

The lot was now vacant and they didn’t know what had happened to the trailer. I went and stared at the ground where it had stood, the blank page of it somehow appropriate.

There is no one way to write a novel. If there were, we’d all be churning them out in a factory somewhere. There is no one way to write and there is no one place in which to write. As much as you take from your surroundings you ignore them, inhabiting some imaginary space between. And that is what I was reminded of having breakfasted sumptuously at Drake Devonshire and now standing on an empty lot in a trailer park. Of all that space in between and what the imagination can do there.

Camilla Gibb at Drake Devonshire writer's retreat

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