Breaking the Waves

After Surfing Ocean Beach

Published on April 1, 2004

After Surfing Ocean Beach
Mary Soderstrom

Dundurn Press

It’s a bright, mild afternoon in early March when I ring Mary Soderstrom’s doorbell, the kind of day that gives hope that winter will soon surrender to softer, sundress weather. The kind of day, too, that makes you wonder how a woman who grew up in sunny California, next to the ocean, could ever adapt to heavy parkas and itchy wool socks.

I ask Soderstrom about this as we settle into the comfort of her living room, a gorgeous old space replete with Plateau charm. (Picture unfinished hardwood floors, huge healthy plants leaning into the sunlight provided by a generous bay window, and a soon-to-be-17-year-old cat named Calie that cozies up next to us on the couch where we sit sipping Earl Grey tea.) After serving me a homemade hot cross bun, she tells me about her initial reason for migrating north: her husband was offered a contract at McGill in 1968. “It seemed like a fine place to come for three years,” she comments with a hint of irony in her voice.

I guess the dreaded wind-chill factor wasn’t as big a deterrent as one might imagine, as Soderstrom is still here, 36 years later, writing stories that often find their setting in her adoptive home. Now fluent in French, and with her two grown children living nearby, she is well rooted in Montreal – and seems very happy about it.

“I think if you look around at the writers active in the community, most of them, many of them, are in some way outsiders looking in,” she says, citing Polish-born Ann Charney and Mark Abley, born in England, as examples.

Asked if her hybridity causes her to feel a sense of otherness, Soderstrom focuses on the positive. “It gives a sort of richness,” she answers, emphasizing how lucky she feels to have lived in a variety of places. “You can have a sort of distance,” she adds, referring to the privileged perspective of the outsider. “In fact, if you look at writers in general, many of them tend to be outsiders for a variety of reasons. Some are from minority groups. Others suffered serious illnesses as children, forcing them to retreat. This is how they learned to observe.”

Perhaps it is precisely this distance factor that allows Soderstrom to look critically at both American and Canadian attitudes. With a strong interest in urban affairs, Soderstrom is political by nature, and as a former NDP organizer, her left-leaning values sometimes surface in her writing. In “Reflections on American Values by a Former American Child,” an article published in Societes in 2002, she recalls the sense of excitement and relief she and her husband felt the year they came to Canada, leaving behind the turmoil caused by the Vietnamese War. “…It seemed that the great American civil rights struggles didn’t have to be fought here because Canada and Quebec were far more colour-blind than the States,”she writes. Later, though, she was to discover that Canada had its own problems. “Racial discrimination existed, only it was more subtle. There was no war, but there were vested interests which demanded careful scrutiny. And, perhaps most importantly, there was the great seismic fault between French and English.”

While Soderstrom’s background provides an interesting platform from which to examine cultural differences and diverging attitudes, she is wise enough to pick up on the similarities too. I am reminded of this when she tells me that she was born in the small town of Walla Walla, Washington – a place which one assumes bears very litte resemblance to Montreal. “But some things are constant,” she comments, alluding to human nature.

Among these constants, I suppose, is the process of grieving upon the loss of a family member, one of several topics explored in Soderstrom’s new novel. While the author’s earlier works were often inspired by her interest in politics and history, After Surfing Ocean Beach tends to explore more universal themes, such as death and male-female relationships.

Set in San Diego, the novel allows Soderstrom to revisit the playground of her youth, a liquid landscape defined by the push and pull of the tide. No doubt due to my own maritime roots in New Brunswick, I’ve always been particularly sensitive to sea-soaked similes, so I was touched to find them in abundance, rolling like waves across the pages of her new book:

…Here at the edge of the ocean…there is a connection with the rhythm begun when water appeared on the world. Stand at the edge of sea or ocean and watch the waves roll in. Then listen to your heart. The beat is the same, you are linked to the planet.

Describing what the ocean represents for her, Soderstrom hints at another passion – science and evolution. “Well, the nearest thing to blood, really, is salt water. Because our ancestors evolved in a salt water environment, and so essentially what we have inside us, in some respect, is the remnant of the sea.”

One also senses a preoccupation – although perhaps an unconscious one – with something very primal, and, at times, distinctly feminine. “I am fascinated by the circularity of the waves,” she comments as I continue to quote passages from her book. This reminds me of how one of her two main characters, Annie, describes her period – another kind of cycle – in terms that evoke the motion of the sea: “…Something was being expelled from deep inside. Blood, waves and waves of blood, pushing before them everything that had gathered inside.”

While After Surfing explores the feminine condition, it is not limited to that sphere. Written from two alternating points of view, one male (Rick), and the other female (Annie), it draws attention to the preoccupations of men as well. Asked about the challenge of writing from the male persective, the author seems undaunted. “You put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” she explains, having done it in several of her stories. The only time this seems to pose a problem, she says with a chuckle, is when it comes to sex.

Indeed, most of the more erotic passages are told from Annie’s viewpoint. Again frequent parallels are drawn with the ocean – la mer in French, closely linked to la mere, a very feminine symbol.

…But once or twice we followed the top of the cliffs and looked down at the waves crashing on to the rocks at their base. Our bodies forced us together with the same strength, despite our good intentions to stop and go no further. Try turning back the tide, try stopping the waves: I cannot, I thought, and smiled at the beauty of it.

Like the sea, sex is a beautiful but sometimes cruel force, menacing to those caught in its undertow. Whether it inspires life or inflicts injury, a crisis is often involved. An unplanned pregnancy, for instance, can have a harsh impact on a young woman raised with Christian values – one of the themes explored here.

As for what set her on the path of writing this novel, Soderstrom talks about a secondary character based on a past acquaintance. The fictional version is a young man who suffers a tragic surfing accident. “But along the way I got caught up in the other people and their ‘what ifs?'” she says. “And one of the fundamental ‘what ifs?’ of life is the question of paternity. Another is that of the responsiblity of one generation to another. These underlie both Rick and Annie’s stories.”

The main plot of this novel, however, is the mystery surrounding the identity of a murder victim. Early in the book, a man is stabbed to death in the parking lot of a retirement home, and bit by bit, his connection to the two main characters is revealed – perhaps a bit too soon, in this reader’s opinion, as at times the last few chapters lack the narrative drive of the first part of the book. I am intrigued when Soderstrom mentions that she had originally intended to call the novel “Surfing Ocean Beach.” “And then I realized that the more interesting things happened after,” she adds, explaining the change in title. Indeed, a good portion of the book is devoted to exploring how people react in the aftermath of tragedy. The plot switches from asking who did what to whom to asking how they will cope with the consequences.

Asked why people write, Soderstrom comments, “Stories, I think, have their origins in people wanting and needing to make sense of things. There is survival value in asking onself ‘what if?’ and in telling tales which amuse but which also instruct.”

As for what personally drew her into the craft, she answers simply: “I have always written. I have written since I was a little kid. My father used to write and my grandmother wrote too. It’s a family in which lots of people wrote but without much success.”

This long-time Montrealer is clearly setting new family precedents, however, as a list of credentials shows. After Surfing Ocean Beach is her third novel, and eighth book. And having volunteered her time to several writers’ groups, such as the Quebec Writers Federation and The Writers’ Union of Canada, she has made an important contribution to the community.

She remains modest, however, and laughs when I mention her cv is rapidly expanding. “Well, no, not rapidly. Everything takes about seven years,” she says, referring to the approximate time it took to write After Surfing Ocean Beach.

Later, after our conversation, the number seven keeps trotting around in the back of my brain, occasionally stepping forward to demand attention. Bit by bit, I’m reminded that there are seven days in a week, seven recurring tones within a musical scale, and, according to the Bible’s Creation story, it was on the seventh day that God rested. I soon realize that, symbolically, the number seven evokes something cyclical – kind of like the waves in the sea.

Kimberly Bourgeois  is a Montreal-based writer/singer-songwriter. Visit her at for news about her music and writing projects.



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