Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Michael Crummey

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.

Born in 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.

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