Quill and Quire

Gil Adamson

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Going public

Gil Adamson is Anansi’s latest fiction find – but is she ready for her closeup?

When Gil Adamson typed the last words of the last line of The Outlander, 10 years after she began it, the first thing she did with the completed manuscript was nothing.

That was two years ago. And after six months had passed, Adamson finally sent her pages off to an agent, at the prodding of friends and of her partner, poet Kevin Connolly. But when her manuscript got lost in a staffing shuffle, she followed up by once again doing, well, nothing. “I’m sort of demonically passive about these things, and insufficiently ambitious,” Adamson tells me over lunch in Toronto, where she was raised and still lives. “Kevin kept saying, ‘C’mon, get your ass moving.’ And then, eventually” – she pauses for mock drama – “he took it [the manuscript] away from me.”

Connolly handed a copy to Ken Babstock, his poetry editor at House of Anansi Press. Babstock passed it to Anansi publisher Lynn Henry, and shortly after that, Henry made an offer to publish the book. A year later, The Outlander – which for a time hadn’t been seen by anyone outside of Adamson’s own home – is Anansi’s lead fiction title for the spring, publishing this month.

Which means that Adamson’s initial inactivity actually resulted in some very lucky timing. Anansi, after all, has just had a remarkable streak of award nominations and wins, most of them for two first-time novelists. Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game – a slush pile find – was shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction last fall, and Peter Behrens’ The Law of Dreams also scored several nominations, ultimately bringing the GG home to Anansi. Awards, of course, are a crapshoot, but the recent run does mean that more than ever, industry eyes are on Anansi’s fiction program these days. Which in turn means that Adamson could find herself getting a lot more attention than she’s used to.

Or comfortable with. This is exactly the type of outside pressure that brings out Adamson’s shy side. “Writing is a solitary pursuit usually done by the misanthrope,” she says. “The work is very lonely, and that’s the way I like it.”

Adamson, whose first name is short for Gillian and who turned 46 on New Year’s Day, has been working away in her quiet style for a long time. In 1995, she released a collection of short fiction, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, with The Porcupine’s Quill, and before that, in 1991, she published her first book of poetry, Primitive, with Coach House Press, where she had worked for a brief time six years earlier. It was during that stint that she met Connolly, who at the time was running a literary magazine called What!; he introduced Adamson to a group of writers that included Stuart Ross and Lynn Crosbie. At the time, some of them were practising methods inspired by the Surrealists, which Adamson says were intended to “access the subconscious and the unconscious through automatic writing.” One such technique had them sending little slips of paper through the mail to each other. “You’d open it and there’d be this bollocks of a title and you’d have to write a poem from that,” Adamson says. “It forces you to produce something unfettered, rather than sitting down and saying ‘I would like to write a poem about my fear of death.’”

The Outlander certainly benefited from the practice. Before the novel was even a glint in Adamson’s eye, an unsolicited message arrived in the mailbox of her brain – the image of, as she puts it, “a young woman, dressed in black, running like hell.” She started writing poems about the woman, deciding that she was in flight after blowing away her cheating husband with a hunting rifle. But the poems felt to her like “point form biography,” she says; when she decided to write a novel, she picked up again on this woman on the run. (Some of the poems did later surface in her 2003 collection Ashland, published by ECW Press.)

That seed image is the first scene of The Outlander, which is set at the beginning of the 20th century. The book follows Mary Boulton – most often referred to simply as “the widow” – as she’s chased into the wilds of Alberta by two vengeful brothers and plagued by crazed hallucinations. Mary eventually finds herself in a mining town called Frank, which is filled with a host of eccentric characters, just in time for the Turtle Mountain landslide, a real historical event known as the Frank Slide.

The Old West setting reflects a longstanding preoccupation of Adamson’s. She’s a seventh-generation Canadian, and her family history includes homesteaders on Manitoba’s Red River, a rural circuit court judge named Angus Lorne Bonnycastle (whose name Adamson pinches for her novel), and a grandfather who was a telegraph operator and ran a coal mine in Edmonton. At least once a year, she and Connolly set out to explore landscapes that haven’t changed in the last hundred years, hiking around Colorado, Big Bend National Park in Texas, and the red deserts of Utah. On one of these trips, she randomly discovered some of the source material for The Outlander. “You come across weird little local books on stuff that nobody would give a crap about,” Adamson says, pulling out of her backpack a slim paperback bearing the title Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails. Reading such books, she says, got her head deep into the pioneer life.

But there was another major influence on the novel, too: a fascination with the supernatural, exemplified in Adamson’s love of the hit 1990s TV show The X Files. Ten years ago, Adamson actually co-authored – with her sister-in-law, Dawn Connolly – Mulder, It’s Me, a fan book on
X Files star Gillian Anderson, for ECW Press. Adamson insists that the project was not the cash grab it may appear to be. “I was a huge X Files fan,” she says. “And [the book] was so fun – it was exactly what people do on their blogs now, but we got paid.”

Adamson’s love of the series might help explain the presence of the supernatural in The Outlander – the visions and voices that visit Mary as she flees through the woods, as well as the ghost stories that the men of Frank tell each other around a bonfire. “All the creepiest stuff in The X Files was shot in the woods with pine trees everywhere and it was raining all the time,” Adamson says. “And there were things in the woods. It was just this great sense of a person out of place, a person who has no skills in the wild stuck in the wild.” The description fits The Outlander’s Mary as much as it does agents Mulder and Scully.

Pop culture The Outlander is not, but the book does have some qualities that could appeal to a CanLit readership: a historical Canadian setting; a strong main character struggling for survival in a new world; and a murder driving the plot forward. Lynn Henry admits that Anansi’s recent spate of award success puts some added expectation on The Outlander, and did help make for solid early orders. “[The awards] help establish trust with reps, booksellers, and readers, which does translate into a confidence in our list,” Henry wrote in an e-mail from the London Book Fair. Says bookseller Dave Hill of Munro’s Books in Victoria: “All those nominations give a huge aura of credibility to Anansi, which means they’ll be more likely to get review coverage of the next crop.”

Still, no one at Anansi is counting on continued awards success. “There’s just so much luck involved in these things!” Henry says, while marketing and publicity manager Laura Repas is too “superstitious” to even discuss the subject. For her part, Adamson admits that the thought of an award nomination makes her anxious. “I just worry it would be a jangling thing,” she said. “I find it very hard to read in public. One-on-one I’m very comfortable with, but publicity is hard on me.”

The next day, though, she sends me an e-mail to clarify. “I would of course adore to get an award, of any kind at all, and would share the glow with my publisher, who would be in no small part responsible for it, and I would not remotely be under the couch hiding.”

If Adamson does end up needing an acceptance speech, she’s got the beginnings of one right there.