By Janet Somerville
Lawrence Hill, the most gracious man in Canadian letters, sat down with Jane Urquhart to talk about her latest novel, The Night Stages. Among her inspiration for the narrative: the Air Transport Auxiliary in WWII of many women who flew wounded planes to be repaired in Britain, and Kenneth Lochhead’s mural at Gander airport, “Flight and Its Allegories.”
After Urquhart read a short excerpt that ended with the line, “there are thousands and thousands of miles inside him,” Hill opened their conversation by thanking her “for writing such a gorgeous novel. I ate up every page of it.” She began by talking about her relative Violet Milstead Warren, who was Canada’s first female bush pilot and by 25 had flown 45 different planes. On one mission during WWII, she was instructed to “hide a dozen Spitfires in an orchard.” She was of the air. Her story becomes part of Tam’s narrative “after Tam had given up flying and is earth-bound in Co. Kerry, Ireland, where Irish is spoken even now.” Hill noted, that, “As the story begins, Tam’s life is descending. The novel is partially about how love can be ravaging.” Urquhart added, “Tam’s lover, Niall, is a climatologist who brings her down to earth. I’m interested in the argument between earth and air.”
About a supporting character, Hill wondered, “How did Kieran grow in you?” Urquhart responded, “Into every book I’ve written, there’s been a young man who has walked into the novel and taken over. Kieran came sailing into this novel and he’s the character we most want to empathize with. He’s a bright absentee, as Emily Dickinson may have said. By bright, I mean shining.” Hill added, “A lot of characters carry real loss. Tell us about Kieran’s coping strategy. He has rages that take over his body like a seizure.” Urquhart said, “He finds domestic chores calming. He becomes enamoured by a bicycle by a wall. It’s called the purple hornet. He transcends his pain by becoming a cyclist.” She added, “Growing up, my cousins called me athletically disinclined, so it was fantastic to inhabit the mind of a character who was achieving what he was achieving. I put off writing the race until the end, but it was thrilling to write. I loved every second of it.”
Of Kieran’s training, Hill remarked, that, “he met Irish poet Michael Kirby, who becomes his coach.” Urquhart admitted that she’d “met Michael Kirby in the ‘90s. He had been a fisherman, but was working on a book of poems about the life of the sea. As an artist he never lost his hold on the earth. As he was dying he wrote poems of farewell to his boat, to his kitchen chair. By including him and Kenneth Lochhead, I was trying to celebrate them and to try to understand how creativity moved through them. When I sent a copy to Kirby’s daughter, featuring him as a cycling coach, her father dead a decade, she said, ‘My dad has been 10 years on his holidays and he’s surprising us yet.’” Both Lawrence Hill and Jane Urquhart are doing just that. May they long continue to enrich readers’ lives with the craft and compassion of their stories.
Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.