Published August 2005
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Two faces of the Rock
Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey showcase different visions of their shared corner of the world
We’re sitting in Lisa’s yellow and pink kitchen at the back of her old St. John’s townhouse, which shoulders up to its neighbours on a steep hill. She shakes blond curls from her face and with a wide, open smile offers me a tea. Michael is already sitting at the table, back propped against the wall. Sloping eyebrows and soft eyes like he’s absorbed some tenderness, some ache of the landscape.
Michael Crummey and Lisa Moore are undoubtedly two of the hottest writers on the Rock, and both have much-anticipated new novels coming out this fall: Moore’s first, Alligator (House of Anansi Press), in September, and Crummey’s second, The Wreckage (Doubleday Canada), in August. The two have been close friends since Crummey’s return to Newfoundland four years ago, but Moore says, “it seems like we’ve known each other much longer.” They’re comfortable interrupting or finishing each other’s thoughts, and each is quick to champion the other’s writing.
In fact, they’ve spent the past winter reading and commenting on each other’s new work. “We’d meet at Coffee & Company, hardly ever plan it,” says Crummey as Moore nods. “We were having a miserable time getting started, and Lisa said, ‘All we have to do over the next year is work on our books and hang out with people we love.’ That completely changed my perspective.”
With the new books now ready to go, Moore and Crummey are part of an ocean swell in the Newfoundland literary scene. The riptide of writers making waves beyond provincial or national borders is growing: Ed Riche, Michael Winter, Joel Hynes, Janet McNaughton, Ramona Dearing, Susan Rendell, Wayne Johnston, Bernice Morgan, Kenneth Harvey, Kevin Major, and more. The province has always had a strong oral culture – it’s a place where some posit storytelling to be a competitive sport – so it is perhaps not surprising that this generation of Newfoundlanders (Crummey is 39, Moore 41), is producing so many writers.
Yet as Crummey and Moore talk in Moore’s kitchen, it becomes clear that the paths of their writing careers, their styles and approaches to the process, and their subjects and settings are as different as saltwater and fresh.
Lisa Moore grew up near a lake on the outskirts of St. John’s, but spent most of her time in the city. She speaks with the confidence of someone who had encouraging and supportive parents, and admits that as a child she was allowed to enroll in, and subsequently quit, any class she desired – guitar, watercolour, pottery. In an almost Fanny and Alexander-like series of indulgences, Moore’s father whipped up stucco for her to sculpt, invited a Portuguese sailor-artist home to dine, and opened her eyes to the world of hippies.
Moore knew with certainty from a young age that she would be a writer. Her influences came from several sources, from children’s literature like Harriet the Spy to art schooling at both Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and 77 Bond Street (a former community art school). The latter especially opened up possibilities: “Seeing people make art about Newfoundland gave me permission to think you could write from this place,” says Moore. At Memorial University, Moore’s confidence grew as she joined the now-legendary writing group Burning Rock which has also included Michael Winter and Ramona Dearing, among many other fiction authors. “We were writing to publish,” says Moore.
Crummey, who wrote in secret for several years, visibly shudders as Moore recalls her Burning Rock experiences. Of his own early writing, he says, “It felt like there was something presumptuous, you know – a kid from Buchans, who the hell was I to think I could be a writer? The thought of sitting in a room with people I knew well and giving them my stuff, hearing what they had to say about it, I’d rather have forks stuck in my eyes.” Then Crummey laughs at himself, and admits that getting critiques from trusted friends has now become one of his favourite parts of the writing process.
The second of four boys, Crummey grew up in the mining town of Buchans, in the interior of Newfoundland, and says he always felt estranged from the fishing culture of his parents’ generation. He studied English at university, in an effort “to feel connected to the whole idea of writing without admitting to anybody what I wanted to do was write.” At 21 he left the island to pursue a graduate degree in English at Queen’s University in Kingston; he eventually dropped out of a PhD program.
Crummey began writing seriously with poetry, influenced both by his storytelling father and by narrative poets such as Al Purdy, Al Pittman, Alden Nowlan, and Bronwyn Wallace. His first collection, Arguments with Gravity, was published in 1996 and was quickly followed by two others, Emergency Roadside Assistance and Hard Light. (His most recent poetry title, Salvage, appeared in 2002.) In 1998, he turned to fiction with the short-story collection Flesh and Blood (Beach Holme Publishing), which showed the work of a gifted storyteller with a poet’s ear for language. He broke through to a new level commercially in 2001 with his first novel, River Thieves (Doubleday Canada), which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and picked up by publishers in the U.S., U.K., France, and Holland. A national bestseller, the epic tale about Newfoundland settlers and native Beothuks established Crummey as a passionate and consummate novelist.
Moore’s career trajectory has been similarly dramatic. Her first collection of short stories, Degrees of Nakedness (The Mercury Press, 1995), exposed a brave new writer whose non-linear narratives and hyper-sensory details magnified everyday life. And Open (Anansi, 2002), her second collection, established Moore’s national reputation as a sophisticated and sensual writer. Like River Thieves the year before, Open was shortlisted for the Giller; it was also sold to a publisher in France. It’s now been sold to Virago in Britain, in a two-book deal with Alligator, and currently Anansi is selling Open directly in the U.S. through distributor PGW. When we meet in Moore’s kitchen, she’s just returned from a six-city American book tour, where she was promoting Open. “Quite a demanding little trip – a different city every two days,” she says.
Moore’s writing epitomizes contemporary urban Newfoundland, and Crummey’s stories, while not easily labelled, often sweep through the decades in rural Newfoundland. But neither author is keen to be seen as speaking for their province’s place in history. Moore is dismissive of the “kind of writing that is self-consciously about nation building … writing that’s about saying, ‘This is who we are and this is where we come from.’
“Michael’s writing doesn’t fall into that category,” she adds. “It’s all about characters, landscape, language, imagery – the same things my books are about.”
“I’ve always been struck with Lisa’s and Michael Winter’s books,” says Crummey, jumping in – you get the feeling the two have had this conversation before. “They’re not saying, ‘How can I write Newfoundland into a book,’ they’re writing their lives and the lives of their friends. What you get is a more honest and penetrating view of the world than that deliberate attempt to set a place down.”
I ask them about the benefits and challenges of living in Newfoundland, and the pause is audible as the kitchen chairs creak. Moore is popping pieces of fruit into her mouth and smiling. “I’m a mother and have a husband who teaches at the university. My life is not that portable.” She’s chewing to a point. “But my fiction is really about sensory details – and luckily, we have them here,” comes the punchline, in riotous laughter.
Adds Crummey: “If she was living away, then that’s the place she’d be writing about, and what that sensory world is like for her characters. So it’s lucky for us she didn’t leave.”
Crummey did live away himself, for 14 years, but still wrote about his home province. “The joke was, when I returned,” he says, “I was going to write a book set on the mainland, because while I was away all I wrote about was Newfoundland.” For example, River Thieves was mostly written when he was living in Kingston, Ontario. Since his return, his notion of the province has changed. “I had a sense of the real Newfoundland as being something in the past, that contemporary Newfoundland was a shadow of its former self.” Now, he’s glad to see how false that assumption was. “Whatever washes up on the beach gets cobbled in together with everything else. Newfoundland is changing at a much faster rate, but changing in the same way it always has. Not less itself, but richer and deeper. It’s exciting.”
If River Thieves could be unimaginatively classified as a historical novel (a term Crummey is uncomfortable with), The Wreckage is not so easily categorized. “I did my first media interview for River Thieves on the morning of September 11, and didn’t know until I’d finished it what was going on,” says Crummey, talking about his motivation for the book. “Like everybody else, I was affected by that event and the aftermath.”
When those events started to intermingle with the family story of a man who went to war and never returned, Crummey knew he had found a way to set down his thoughts. On one level, The Wreckage is a tale of love and loss, fear and prejudice and hate. On another level, Crummey has delved into the complexity of the 20th century, revealing some of the most destructive events, both in Newfoundland and in the world. And readers will instantly recognize Crummey’s style: characters that will thoroughly
possess them, textured descriptions of place, his sense of the perfect simile, the faultless push and pull of the drama unfolding.
The Wreckage begins at the onset of the Second World War, as a young Catholic man, Wish Furey, travels the outports of Newfoundland as an itinerant film projectionist. In one remote Protestant community he meets Mercedes Parsons, and a love affair blossoms. But Mercedes’ mother drives him away and Wish returns to the capital, enlisting with the British army. Posted to southeast Asia, Wish suffers at the hands of a particularly brutal Japanese guard in a POW camp. Stealing away from her family, Mercedes settles in wartime St. John’s to wait for Wish, but events compel her to travel outside her country. Fifty years later, she returns to St. John’s and confronts her past in an extraordinary way.
“In some ways the whole book is about blind faith,” says Crummey, unfolding from the end of the table. “The danger in the world is believing in your own virtue without question…. Everybody in the book is on that continuum, from fundamentalist through to nihilist gambler.” Later, he sums up: “This book is my trying to figure out how I’ve incorporated all that stuff into my sense of self and my place in the world.”
The impetus for Moore’s new novel came out of a conversation about her last book. “One of the things that interested me in writing this novel was a comment a friend of mine had made about Open,” she says. “She said none of the characters feel regret. It dazzled me.” Moore’s eyes stare at me across the table like cut glass. “So I wanted a character, maybe more than one, to feel regret.” Moore also wanted to explicitly put her characters in a moment of danger. And she had a few strong images she wanted to explore.
The characters in Alligator orbit each other in contemporary St. John’s (with a few side trips, including one to a Louisiana alligator farm). There is 17-year-old Colleen, finding her way through solo acts of protest, toe-dipping into worlds she clearly does not belong in. Colleen’s mother, Beverly, is trying to deal with the grief that’s been blanketing her since the death of her husband. Madeleine, Colleen’s filmmaker aunt, fiercely misses her ex-husband and talks to him nightly about the definitive film she hopes to complete.
And then there is the contemptible Russian sailor Valentin – readers get a glimpse of his past, but will still likely not feel any empathy toward him. “It’s interesting that we both have characters that embody evil,” says Moore. “I think we both tried to make those evil characters knowable [but] not understandable, and that might be a result of 9/11.”
We talk about the other themes that arise, and Crummey argues that the book is also about money. “Money is the alligator in the book,” he says, “this incredibly ancient reptile that flows in and out of everybody’s life.... It seems benign but it’s incredibly dangerous.” Moore nods in agreement: “Alligator is about greed and survival and the line between those things.”
Moore has perfected, or very nearly, the art of turning an entire story on small moments. “The way light lay on something is how I remember the moment I fell in love, or was disappointed,” says Moore. “Virginia Woolf talks about those non-moments as being the moments where life really exists,” she says. And this in part is Moore’s talent in storytelling: presenting the details of everyday life, building layer upon layer, adding ideas and images like adding texture and colour with a paintbrush.
Reading Moore, time skids back and forth as though she is trying to erase the boundaries of past, present, and future. Crummey gives the passage of time its due. And though both Crummey’s and Moore’s characters live in a particular place, their stories are essentially timeless and placeless investigations into human nature.
Both publishers are planning a splash with the launch of these novels. Scott Sellers, Random House of Canada’s director of marketing strategy, has lined up a 15-city author tour for Crummey, including appearances in every major literary festival. Moore will also be touring major Canadian cities (paired with another Anansi author, Jaclyn Moriarty) after a September launch in her hometown. And if there’s pressure for a repeat Giller performance, no one is admitting it. “I bet Lisa feels some pressure. We’re just excited because it’s her first novel,” says Anansi publicist Laura Repas.
For now, though, everyday errands take precedence. After more than two hours sitting at Lisa’s table, Michael springs up, apologizes, says something about his daily run. Lisa is hosting a party that night for Michael’s girlfriend, Holly. And she’s probably also thinking about her children – Theo has to be picked up from daycare soon, and Eva will be strolling in any moment from a day at high school. The ordinary lives of two extraordinary writers.