Anne Metikosh was born in Montreal and raised in Toronto. After living in Halifax and Yellowknife, she made her home in Calgary, Alberta, where she still lives with her family.
The author of numerous articles and short stories, Metikosh has published a young adult fiction title, Terra Incognita, and a mystery novel, Undercurrent. Her part-time job as a Sales Tax Administrator gives her time to do what she really loves: ride horses, read mystery novels, and write.
Her latest book, Chance, was released in March 2008.
Anne Metikosh on writing Chance
The three questions I’m most often asked as a writer are: Where do you get your ideas? Are your characters based on real people? and How did you come up with the title?
It’s tempting sometimes to be a little bit flippant and say “They’re two-for-one at Wal-Mart” or “I always shop at the Bay”. Sometimes that garners a laugh and it successfully deflects the person who only asked because he felt he had to, but it disappoints the reader who has a genuine interest in the answers. So here, in reverse order, are my not-so-flip replies to those questions as they relate to Chance.
The title of this book was the subject of lengthy discussion. Many suggestions were made on all sides during various stages of development, but there was no consensus on what worked. No one is entirely happy with Chance, but no one came up with anything they liked better, either. The story is largely set in the war years, so some critics thought the title should be more dramatic, to reflect the hostility of those years. Others leaned towards something a little more romantic because the novel begins and ends with a wedding. But I think Chance fits. It means ‘luck’ or ‘fate’ or ‘accident’, and that’s what this novel is about.
It is also about survival. One of the things that fascinates me most about Dragan and Galina is the way their lives embody so much of the 20th century history I reeled off by rote on high school exams. Communism, gulag, Balkanization, slave labour, refugees – these words suddenly came to life for me. Between them, my in-laws survived siege and starvation, bombs and bullets, exile and displacement. They got by, from one day to the next, the same way a tired runner finishes a marathon: by continuing to put one foot in front of the other until he finally crosses the tape. Fifty million people died during the Second World War. It was only by chance that Dragan and Galina weren’t among them.
The price they paid for their survival is difficult to calculate. What does it cost to be exiled forever from your homeland? How much is lost when family disappears and youth is cut short? What is it worth if awful experience is your only experience? Still, as Dragan said to me one day, there isn’t a lot of point in dreaming about what might have been. Things were what they were. They could have ended much sooner and much worse. ‘Happily ever after’ is what he hoped for in marriage and emigration to Canada. He took a chance on that, too.
Dragan and Galina aren’t made up characters, are they? They’re real people.
Indeed they are. And in some ways, that made them easier to write about. I didn’t have to imagine what they looked like in their youth; I have pictures of them. I could see how they dressed, how they wore their hair, how they smiled. I could hear their voices. On the other hand, they are my in-laws, and I was afraid of hurting or misrepresenting them in my writing. English is not their mother tongue and I speak neither Russian nor Serbo-Croat. Some words and concepts don’t translate well from one language into another. And, given that their life experience was so totally different from mine, it was sometimes difficult for me to understand what they were telling me.
The other problem, of course, was that the Dragan and Galina I know are not the Dragan and Galina in the book. To me, they are an elderly couple; my husband’s parents; my daughter’s grandparents. They aren’t the idealistic young man or the romantic young woman of Chance. Though the storyline is drawn from their memories, those memories were sometimes incomplete. Sometimes sketchy. Sometimes different from one day to the next. And all of them have been coloured by time and circumstance. My in-laws’ view of what happened to them sixty years ago has been influenced by all the things that have happened to them since. Often they didn’t know, as events were unfolding, what the bigger picture was. Knowledge, understanding, perspective – those came later. My challenge as a writer was to try to peel away the layers of worldliness they have acquired since to describe the people they were then.
What prompted you to write about them?
Quite simply, they presented me with a view of the war and the world I had never experienced before.
The World War II I learned about at school was the Western Allied version: Dieppe and Pearl Harbour, D-Day and Hiroshima, Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler. We didn’t spend much time on the Soviet Union. Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky apart, the Cold War and the arms race tended to put all things Russian beyond the pale in those days. It wasn’t until I married into a Slavic family that I saw the Balkans as anything more than a fuzzy trouble zone somewhere in the middle on the world map; or the Yalta agreement as a monumental betrayal; or the twenty-five million people Russia lost – fully half the total war dead – as a tragedy, not a statistic. The stories that fascinate me most in history have always been personal ones. Chance is very personal. I wanted to novelize my in-laws’ story before the memories were lost forever, along with the opportunity for others to learn something from them.
About the Second World War itself – and how it relates to Chance
In North America, my parents’ generation has been called the ‘greatest generation’ because of its involvement in the war. But, like many of their peers, my folks didn’t talk much about it. My Dad always called it ‘WWTwo – the Big One’, and he made jokes about his ‘war wounds’ until the day he died. The stories I heard while I was growing up were homey ones: my mother putting makeup on her legs and painting on a seam because there were no stockings in the stores; my father laughing about his neighbour, who was vacuuming her house when he said goodbye before heading overseas, and who was still vacuuming when he came back five years later. It was only as an adult that I heard Mum confess how hard it had been for her, an army nurse, to look after men whose wounds were self-inflicted, when all her sympathies lay with those who had been wounded in battle. Or Dad, a gunner in the RCAF, describe his horror as he watched enemy sailors flounder and burn in the Barents Sea so that Allied convoys could deliver supplies to Russia. As it happened, my future mother-in-law was one of the people whose lives depended on those deliveries.
My in-laws didn’t talk much about the past while my husband was growing up, either. They were focused on the future and on raising their son as a Canadian. No hyphen. Flag-waving multiculturalism is something that worries them; they have witnessed first-hand the horrors that result from nationalism defined by ethnicity. So I found it ironic that some of what I originally wrote was deleted before publication of the novel, for fear its subjective tone might stir ethnic hostility. I didn’t know quite how to react to that. On the one hand, it was flattering to think my words could provoke such impassioned response. On the other, it was disheartening to realize that my in-laws’ story would not appear in its entirety. Chance is a personal account of history; it cannot escape being subjective.
War is a broad canvas to write on. But individuals fill that canvas and each has a different story to tell. Reading each others’ stories may give us a better perspective of the whole picture. At the very least, it will preserve the experience of some of the individuals involved in that particular war. As Dragan once said, from a distance it looked like a board game. But in real life, the playing pieces were human beings. At the roll of the dice, real people fought and real people died. Who survived was a matter of chance.