Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
By Ariel Gordon
Michael Crummey's fourth novel, Sweetland, was
just nominated for a Governor General's Award for the Arts.
Buchans, Nfld., a mining town in the province's interior, Crummey
eventually left Newfoundland to pursue his education in Ontario and work
abroad. His first novel, River Thieves (2001), published the year he
moved back to St. John's, was nominated for the Giller Prize, the
Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Books in Canada First Novel Award
while Galore (2009), his third novel, was shortlisted for the 2011 IMPAC
Dublin Literary Award.
Crummey was in Winnipeg last week and managed to
set aside some time for an interview.
Q: What do you want people to know about Sweetland?
A: I'd like people to know the novel is based on an
increasingly common situation facing small fishing communities in
Newfoundland who find themselves in crisis as a result of the cod
moratorium. In the most extreme cases, they are taking a government
package to leave their homes as a group. Which, as you can imagine, is
not a clean or simple process. I'd like people to know the gorgeous
cover art is by a Newfoundland artist named Michael Pittman. Google the
guy. Check out his website. I'd like people to know that the novel is
funny in spots. Honest.
Q: You've spent much of your
career telling the story of Newfoundland and Labrador in the midst of a
resurgence of award-winning writing by Newfoundlanders and Labradorites.
And yet, there are those 'Newfie jokes,' which seek to label residents
as hopelessly and even deliberately backward/rural. And then there's
your statement, midway through the second chapter of Sweetland, that
says "Half the books supposedly set in Newfoundland were nowhere Queenie
recognized and she felt insulted by their claim on her life. They all
sounds like they were written by townies, she liked to say." So, what is it that you're trying to do with your books about aspects of Newfoundland and Labrador culture and history?
A: Jeez b'y. Where to start with that?
There's an awful lot going on in that question. Part of what I've been
trying to do from the time I started writing is to honour the world my
parents were born into, and the world that existed in Newfoundland
before their time. And, consciously or not, I think I have been writing
about that world in order to refute the 'Newfie joke.' My sense of those
people, of what they accomplished by simply surviving in those
circumstances, speaks to a resourcefulness and ingenuity and
stubbornness that is the polar opposite of the stereotypical Newfie (can
I say here how much I despise that word and all it represents?). First
and last, I am trying to write honestly about the place that made me
what I am, to present it in all its glory and wonder and spectacular
awfulness. But I've always struggled with a sense that, at best, my take
on Newfoundland is an approximation of the real world. And I've read
plenty of books about Newfoundland that aren't even that close. There's
always some tension between the world as it is and the world as it's
presented in any kind of art. Through Queenie's dismissal, I was wanting
to give the people I'm supposedly representing in Sweetland a chance to
give me and my book the proverbial finger.
Q: Sweetland is your 10th book in
since Arguments With Gravity was published in 1996. What are your goals
for your writing now, as compared to your first books?
A: To be honest, I can barely remember
what my goals were for my writing when I first started publishing books.
Getting a book published was the goal, I think. There was something so
magical in the notion of having an honest-to-goodness,
buy-it-in-the-store book with my name on it, that I never really thought
much past that point. These days I feel like my goals are more about
the kind of book I'm writing. I want to be constantly pushing myself
beyond my limitations, to be a better writer at the end of a book than I
was when I started it.
Of course, there's also
the whole issue of what happens when the book is out in the world that I
think about now. And my goal (it's more of a hope than a goal, I guess)
is that the book does well enough that I won't have to get a job at a
corner store to make ends meet.
Q: Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
A: I have been to Winnipeg at
least half a dozen times for the writers' festival and other events.
Love it here. In some ways I see a similarity to Newfoundland in the
sense that people who don't know it often have a knee-jerk negative
notion of the place. And underneath that stereotype is an incredibly
rich cultural community. When I think of Winnipeg I think of great
writers and music and movies, of Miriam Toews and David Bergen and John
K. Samson and Guy Maddin and Maurice Mierau. And the cold. I think of
the cold. There's no way around that.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.