Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I don’t know if it’s appropriate to phrase that question in the past tense. It implies I’ve arrived somewhere, when my sense of it is that I’m still working away in the dark. Hoping to be a writer every time I sit down to write.
I started seriously writing poems in my first year of university, which was a surprise to me at the time. Don’t remember having any desire to be a writer in high school. For some inscrutable reason, studying poetry in English 1000 triggered a compulsion to write poems myself. I wanted to write something that would make a reader respond in the way I was responding to writers like Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Ted Hughes, ee cummings, Al Purdy. Everything I wrote in those first few years was monumentally bad. Sometimes I think all that’s different now is that the law of averages is working in my favour. Write enough poetry and eventually some of it won’t suck.
After I dropped out of university, I worked at a number of part-time jobs and wrote in my free time. Began publishing in little magazines and journals across the country. I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-twenties, years after I took up poetry. I wrote short stories for eight or nine years before I finally decided to make an attempt at a novel. Thought I was ready for it, after a long apprenticeship — something close to a real writer finally. That turned out to be a complete misunderstanding of where things stood. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as over-matched as I did when I was working on River Thieves. It seems a bit of a fluke to have finished it. From talking to other writers, I don’t expect to feel differently the next time out either.
What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
I grew up in Buchans, a small mining town near Red Indian Lake in central Newfoundland. Many of the pivotal events that shaped relations between the Beothuk Indians and European settlers (including the kidnapping of Mary March and the murder of her husband in 1819) took place on that lake. Some sense of those stories has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, and I expect that the same is true to a greater or lesser degree for most Newfoundlanders.
Originally I was interested in writing about Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, who died in St. John’s in 1829. But as I began doing research, I was drawn more and more to the story of the Peytons, who played a central role in most of the interactions with the Beothuk in the decades leading up to their extinction. I was surprised by the starkly different attitudes father and son displayed towards the Beothuk. And I began writing a story that might account for some of those differences.
What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
Well, a number of things I guess. First of all, I’m dealing with the historical reality of the extinction of an entire race of people, the Beothuk, who were the indigenous inhabitants of Newfoundland. I was hoping the novel would give some sense of the enormity of that loss, and of the surprising (and somehow appalling) intimacy of the interactions between the Beothuk and the Europeans in those last decades. But I felt it would be wrong to write a novel about the Beothuk — to write as if we know more about them than we do, or to try to give them a voice that is absent from the historical record. Their absence, to my mind, is the point. The Beothuk are a shadowy presence in River Thieves, just as they are in what we know of the past.
The real challenge of the book for me was to explore the “emotional geography” of those
historical events side-on. Slantways. The European characters in the novel, the settlers, are completely unable to communicate with one another, even when they have the best of intentions. Their interactions are based on false assumptions and bias and half-truths and misunderstandings. And the consequences of this — sometimes unforeseen, sometimes not — are usually heart-breaking. I wanted the part of the novel that is basically a little “soap opera” between the European characters to throw some light on the historical drama that is the spine of the book. I tried to avoid any kind of simplistic one-to-one correlation, but I hope the different narrative strands mirror one another back and forth.
In the end, River Thieves is a book about regret. For the individual characters, it’s usually regret of a personal nature. For me, and hopefully for a reader, it goes somewhere beyond that, encompasses something larger.
Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
I’ve heard writers talk about loving their characters as if they were real people. Before I started working on the novel I thought of that as being a bit precious, if not downright loony. Now, I’m afraid it would be unfair to pick a favourite. That I might hurt someone’s feelings. Jesus.
If I had to pick one character though, it would be Cassie. For the first time in my life, I had the sense I was writing a character who was obviously and unquestionably smarter than me. Not just smarter though. Someone with a wit and an incandescent intelligence, with personal resources and strengths I don’t have at my disposal. I was happy to find her in there (wherever “there” might be), and I hope I did right by her.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Would it be too glib to suggest having a few drinks first?
Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
Haven’t actually been interviewed about River Thieves yet.
What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Mmmmm, how about: “Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?”
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
No, not really. But I have been surprised by the range of response to my writing. And it seems more and more true to me that what we see in a book has as much to say about us as it does about what we’re reading. One reviewer of my book of stories, Flesh & Blood, called it the most genuinely erotic book he’d read in a long time, which I found puzzling. A friend of mine concluded this particular reviewer obviously didn’t read much erotica. But since then other people have commented on the sex as one of the things that “stands out” in the stories. Obviously it’s there. But to a large extent it’s where the reader is coming from that determines how big a part it plays in their sense of the book. So I think I feel less ownership of the writing once it’s “out there” than I used to.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
I’m not sure how to answer this without it being misleading. I haven’t been as conscious of being “influenced” by fiction writers as I have been by poets, partly because I came to fiction so much later and had gone a ways toward establishing a voice of some kind by then. So I’ll just list some writers whose books I’ve loved and leave it at that.
Timothy Findley (Famous Last Words, Not Wanted on the Voyage), Alice Munro (just about anything), Michael Ondaatje (Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter), Jeanette Winterson (The Passion), Norman Levine (I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well), Raymond Carver (Cathedral), Mary Gaitskill (Because They Wanted To), Cormac McCarthy (now a major motion picture), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities), David Adams Richards (Nights Below Station Street), Alistair MacLeod (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood), Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, Between the Acts), Joyce (Dubliners), David Malouf (An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon), Don DeLillo (Libra), Kenzaburo Oe (An Echo of Heaven). A trio of non-fiction books about Newfoundland: Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice, David MacFarlane’s The Danger Tree, Wayne Johnston’s Baltimore’s Mansion.
Of course this list is ridiculous. It could (and should) be 30 or 40 times longer. 50 times longer. I have a mind like a sieve.
If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Here’s the sad truth, which causes my mother no end of worry. I am completely unsuited for anything other than what I’m doing. If this writing thing doesn’t work out I’m in big trouble.
If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
This sounds like one of those “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” questions, which I’ve always been lousy at. Just not very imaginative I guess (how’s that for an admission?). Let’s say I would want to have written one of The Song of Songs or The Book of Job. Depending on the kind of day I’m having.