Can you describe the process of writing Safe Haven?
I wrote the equivalent of two or three big books before the project made any sense whatsoever. I wrote several hundred thousand words of gibberish, resulting in a temporary form of psychological impairment. Nothing serious: just your basic occupational hazard. Par for the course. Always a great way to get started! After the first draft, I was able to go back to the beginning again — in the rewriting and reshaping of the book — with the encouragement and support of my editor and publisher, Anne Collins. In doing that, I asked myself: what was I trying to do, really? Because the history of sanctuary is basically the history of all religion and all human knowledge. So I needed to focus, to get real. Then once I started over I began to see that I could tell the big or historical story of sanctuary, I guess, by filtering its many dimensions through some hard experiences I had in my own life and by going into the history of my ancestors, the Acadians of Eastern Canada, a people denied sanctuary for so many generations after they were ethnically cleansed from their land in the 1750s, from Nova Scotia, actually. That sounds kind of bitter and self-centered as motivation. I hope the book reflects different motivations in the actual result we produced. I would like to think there is a quality of moral awareness or engagement in my rendering of the historical and personal story of sanctuary, and a lightness of spirit, of curiosity more than anything else. I guess this book is something of a contemporary Acadian roots tale. A guy finding his way home — which, as the book reveals, has little to do with the romance of living next to a dune beach but the quality of one’s relationships and the ability to find internal sanctuary . . . or sanctuary in the web of connections we call family and friendship . . . which is a lot different than hiding out in a shack by the sea, as we all know. However, it’s always nice to walk a dune beach, in the fog. And the book captures a lot of that spirit of living in that beautiful place.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of Safe Haven?
I don’t know, not really. I don’t know what makes people tick in that respect. When people talk about books they’ve read — anything is possible. It would be kind of interesting, though, if some book readers got beyond the story and motivations of me, as the first-person narrator in the story, to ask themselves what I was trying to accomplish as the author of the book and to reflect on how the technique of the book, which is traditional in some sense, and radically inventive in others, either contributes or detracts from what I was trying to do. The hardest thing for me in any book conversation is to turn the talk to what the writer wants to achieve. Of course I know that the sign of a good book can be that readers forget that a writer is even involved. That the book has written itself, or emerged from the clouds, was engraved on tablets, or set a bush on fire in the foothills. And that the characters are real people, but living on the page, not fictional creations. And sovereign. Be that as it may. The best conversations about books, for me, come from trying to put a bigger picture together where character or plot analysis, in the abstract, isn’t the core of the conversation. It’s exploring how the writer uses all the tools — character development, plot tension, style, etc. — to connect with the reader. Maybe it is too simple. But my advice to book club readers would be to ask and debate this question: what’s this guy trying to do? That conversation could go on for days. Or be over in ten seconds, depending on the book club, of course.
Which authors have been important to you, in general? Did any particular books and/or other media influence you as you wrote this book?
I sort of saw this book being a much more pretentious and literary version of A Year in Provence — but instead of offering the reader the golden Mediterranean sunlight and the seriously romanticized cultural backdrop of the South of France for amusing anecdotes about life in the country . . . I decided to provide a seriously romantic view of the fog . . . the damp, arthritis-inducing, brain-impairing coastal fog of Nova Scotia. In all seriousness, this book is probably inspired more than it should be by that genre I call “sanctuary porn” — a term I’ve been criticized for using, probably justifiably, as an insult to all those writers who have documented spiritual journeys or mind-expanding adventures in getting away from it all by going to the mountain, the sea or anywhere else that one feels in closer contact with nature and the gods in the sky or under the ocean, etc. The authors important to me are great writers — be they novelists or what we call non-fiction writers. I love a lot of stuff.
What has been the most surprising response to this book from your readers?
The happy surprise was learning that so-called non-professional readers — i.e., non-writers, non-critics — caught onto the book by tuning into a family story in a familiar genre in a beautiful setting, the roots tale, the going-home story, the contemporary Acadian going home to some mythological Acadia in the foggy landscape where his ancestors were forcibly evicted a long time ago. It’s pleasantly surprising for me just to connect with readers at that gut or emotional or visceral level of a good yarn, even though the book is also multi-layered and literary, with some interesting techniques in it. I mean: right in the middle of the book, I introduce a fictional character into a novel-length chapter that chronicles a journey that my wife and I took on our honeymoon to Greece a fair while back. The chapter was mainly a chance to delve into the history of religious sanctuary by relaying anecdotes that happened as we explored the landscape of Greek temple architecture. Completely wild and ambitious stuff. Anyway, readers seemed to like the book at that basic ‘story’ level and went along with the other, wacko literary stuff without complaining, which they would have had every right to do. So I guess I am surprised that the book has readers who come from all walks of life and perspectives.
This book puts some very personal experiences and thoughts out there for public consumption, not just yours but those of your family as well. Has there been a cost to this?
No. In part it was a love letter to my wife — although, of course, distributed by a global publishing company. They say that all writers in one way or another are ultimately transfiguring personal experience. I don’t know who ‘they’ are but I tend to agree with ‘them.’
Do you still have a home in the place you call ‘Foggy Cove’?
Yes. The location is secret. It’s that old line: if I told you where it is, then I’d have to kill you. It’s a beautiful village by the sea in Nova Scotia.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing for a living?
I have no idea. I’m childish enough to imagine that some kind of outlaw career would have worked. Without the violence, of course. And reckless disregard for human life and so forth. But with all the profits and notoriety. Maybe. Something other than sitting at a desk or saying yes and no and maybe tomorrow or never to people. It’s amazing to me how conservative and boring we all become in growing up — and for all the right reasons, I suppose. And wrong reasons too. There’s a part of me that still wants to run away with the circus and never come back . . . the only difference is that I would be happy to take my wife and kids and a few email addresses of friends. I’m restless and love adventure and am constantly pretending I don’t. That is what it means to grow up. Or so I am told. Becoming a writer is like joining a circus — without the odor of elephant dung or a life-threatening encounter with a drugged-up lion or drunken clown only a few weeks clear of prison. Although writing feels like that on some days.
What are you working on now?
I am rewriting a novel — my third novel, actually — that I’d drafted a few years back and which was roundly rejected by all the leading publishers for probably very good reasons. And less good reasons too. But endurance and patience and denial of reality are very important creative assets for a serious writer. Revenge is best served — as Tony Soprano said — with cold cuts. Which I take to mean — well, I don’t know what it means. I just like the sound of saying that.