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.

Five Questions with… Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston, author of The Son of a Certain Woman and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Wayne at either of his two events on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: Some of what’s explored in The Son of a Certain Woman is quite risqué—especially Percy’s attraction to his mother. What prompted you to write about this?Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston: As with all my books, I started this one with the question: what if…? In this case, what if a sex- and love-craving adolescent finds himself in circumstances that leave him with no one to “turn to” but his mother? This gradually grew into a larger question: what if all the characters in the book have no one to “turn to” but Percy Joyce’s mother? The circumstances of their lives are largely dictated by the intolerant, dogmatic, totalitarian Church, so it seemed to me that I’d have an explosive combination if all the main characters wanted things considered taboo or anathema by the Church. Also, The Son of A Certain Woman uses Joyce’s Ulysses much as Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey—as a kind of structural template, a mythical framework. So, in the same way that Stephen searches throughout Ulysses for his spiritual father, Leopold Bloom, Percy Joyce, in a reversal of genders, “searches for” his mother, Penelope, whose name happens to be the same as that of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey.

IFOA: What do you love most about Canada’s East Coast, the setting for much of your fiction?

Johnston: It never leaves me no matter how long I leave it for. I don’t mind the hold it has on me. I use it. For me, “Newfoundland” is a fictional place, wholly my own, distinct from the real Newfoundland. I live far enough away from it that it excites my imagination without overwhelming it. Islands serve as ideal microcosms of the planet, which is, after all, just a speck of an island in a vast universe of stars and other planets.

IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?

Johnston: That’s a tough one, as I’m so close to each of my books it’s hard to think of them collectively. I think the scope of my fiction has grown with each book, regardless of the setting of the book. I’m better now at finding the balance between comedy and pathos than I was starting out. I make greater, and better, use of history, and the history of ideas, than I used to.

IFOA: Your novel The Divine Ryans was adapted for film in 1999, and you wrote the screenplay. What was that process like?

Johnston: I wrote the screenplay for The Divine Ryans because I thought I knew the book better than anyone else. It was difficult at first—I had to cut and reshape an enormous amount of “stuff” that I had come to think of as being set in stone. I had to be a ruthless editor of my own book, a lot of which was left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, writing the screenplay and being on the set when the movie was filmed gave me a rare chance to create collaboratively and burst the bubble of “novelist” in which I spend so much of my time. I just finished writing the screenplay for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a massive task that will soon pay off. Shooting of the film begins not long from now.

IFOA: If you could swap lives with any author, past or present, whose life would you choose?

Johnston: I’ve never been much of  life swapper. Authors’ lives are dwarfed by those of their characters. I wouldn’t mind being a character in a novel. It might be fun to be Huck Finn or Jane Austen’s Emma for a while. But I’d reserve the right to come back to “life.”

Wayne Johnston is the author of five Canadian bestsellers, including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. He will be reading from his most recent work on November 3 alongside authors Lauren B. Davis, Anthony De Sa and Don Gillmor, and participating in a round table later that day with writers Michael Crummey and Peter Robinson.