Finding Your Place

By Janet Somerville

Three smart and articulate writers joined moderator Steven W. Beattie at the Fleck Dance Theatre on the final afternoon of the Festival to talk about the influence of geography on their work.Robinson, Children of the Revolution

While working on a PhD on the sense of place in British poetry, Peter Robinson began writing crime novels at night. He was homesick for Yorkshire and found that he “could spent imaginative time there.” Plus, he loved the tradition of British crime novels. Though Newfoundland born, Wayne Johnston finds that “it’s a lot safer to write about Newfoundland while living in Toronto.” He feels “much less inhibited,” and he’s never found another place that he “could invest in emotionally.” Michael Crummey admitted that even though he lived away for a long time, “Newfoundland is the place that made me who I am. You don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to see that living there has altered my sense of place.”

Both Crummey and Johnston remembered how the people shaped the place. For Crummey, his novel Galore was influenced daily by the people, including a “wart charmer” who managed to cure a friend’s younger sister. She woke up one morning, “all of the warts loose in her bed linens, enough to fill a quart jar.” And Johnston said, “For years my mother decided antibiotics were useless and it was better to get the seventh son of a seventh son to say a prayer.”Johnston, The Son Of A Certain Woman

When asked by Beattie if they thought they mythologize place, Crummey noted that in outport Newfoundland, there are two worlds: a physical one that’s “stark, difficult, capricious, unrelenting” and a netherworld, “populated with folklore and ghost stories that gave an illusion of some control.” Johnston added, “I mythologize overtly in the new book [A Son of a Certain Woman]. I imagine better worlds than the one I lived in when I was growing up.” As for Robinson, “inventing a place is a very useful thing to do because you don’t want to be a slave to geography.” A student of poetry, Robinson quoted lines from Charles Tomlinson’s “A Meditation on the Art of John Constable,” wherein “the artist lies for the improvement of truth.”

Considering ghettoization of writers, Crummey noted, “Antecedents for today’s Newfoundland writers are completely different, yet the common ground is Newfoundland at the centre. Consider the work of Joan Clark, Jessica Grant, Lisa Moore and Michael Winter.” Johnston added, “Every writer wants to be self-creating, sui generis. I’m fiercely individualistic. I’ve objected to being ghettoized as a Newfoundland writer.” And, Robinson said, “usually it’s just the crime writers that are segregated. A lot of the best writing has got story and suspense. Something other than a fine metaphor has you turning the page.”Crummey, Under the Keel

Interestingly, all three writers began as poets, and, Crummey noted that his “is almost exclusively about my life, which is not at all true of my fiction. Writing poetry is meditative and feeds me while writing fiction feels like digging a ditch.” Johnston remembered that, “the first thing I got published was a poem. I needed $250 for rent and I got $300 for the poem. And in grad school I started bringing the novel I was writing to class in poem shape.” Robinson said, “I started out as a poet and noticed the poems were narrative and then I started reading Raymond Chandler.”

On the influence of landscape on character, all agreed that place shapes character completely. Robinson noted, “You can write yourself into some pretty dark places. I’m interested in characters and relationships. The dark places that I go in my novels are places that I have to go to anyway. People of the place and a lot of what they are is determined by how they interact with the place.” Johnston added, “I don’t think of place as just geography. Austere beauty or stark horror. If you can write about a place in a way that is convincing, then you should.” And, for Crummey, “time and time again it looks like it’s over and there is an unlikely resurrection and you carry on.”

They carry on. As Joan Didion noted, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.