Quill and Quire

Leo McKay Jr.

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Miners’ memorial

An industrial explosion changes a small community forever in Giller finalist Leo McKay Jr.’s Twenty-Six

It started with being a child and playing on ground cratered with the scars of collapsed coal mines. It started with living in a miner’s house in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, which happens to be chock full of miner’s houses. It started with living in a working class neighbourhood, with having a father who worked for the Labour Federation, and it started with the knowledge that his father’s family and his mother’s family were all miners. But it really started in 1992, with the infamous Westray disaster – the collapse of a coal mine – and the death of 26 miners.

Leo McKay Jr.Leo McKay Jr.’s new book, Twenty-Six (McClelland & Stewart) is one that’s been brewing for a long time, but that’s only just been finished. On Super Bowl Sunday, a day that many men his age won’t stray far from the couch and television, he is giving his first interview, testing out his answers the way you’d test out foreign phrases. Yes, there’s a bit of an agenda to the book, he says, there’s more than a bit – this is really a book about political corruption. But then later, he’ll come back to that and say maybe there isn’t such an agenda, because this is also really a book about memory.

Memory is a tricky thing, of course. The characters in Twenty-Six are all fictional, and the mine is called Eastyard instead of Westray, and it is set in Albion Mines, though the disaster happened in Stellarton (which used to be known a long time ago as Albion Mines.) McKay draws from his own memories, though, of growing up in a county he says is “literally scarred” with its own mining history. “There is the war memorial there,” he says, “and there is the miners’ memorial, and the miners’ memorial has more names on it.”

The book has it’s own history as well. In 1995, McKay published his first book. It was a collection of short stories called Like This (House of Anansi Press) and it surprised a lot of people by getting nominated for the Giller Prize. It didn’t win, but it put McKay on a map of sorts. He was only 30 and his first stories were good enough for the illustrious Giller nod, and maybe a lot of people were keeping an eye on what he would come out with next.

But then seven summers passed, and there was nothing.

Well, the question is obvious, isn’t it?

McKay says the pressure was on when he was writing this book, of course the pressure was on. But this wasn’t a case of sophomore release syndrome (a Wonder Boys-esque fear that they’ll all say the new work didn’t live up to the promise of the first) but the feeling that, for the sake of Westray, and its miners and their memory, this was a book that needed to be gotten right.

Sitting in a busy coffee shop in downtown Halifax, McKay seems far removed from all of it, but he isn’t. He knew the names of several of the men killed in the Westray disaster and his sister’s house shook with the explosion. These memories, and his own childhood memories, are what made his goals for the book so lofty. He says he wanted to impress the gravity of that sort of industrial disaster on the literary memory of the country, or, at least, the province. The political memory, he says, or the economic memory or what have you, is not his concern. He points to several information-filled books about the disaster already available (including the actual Commissioner’s Report, which he says “reads like a Michael Crichton novel.”) “I am literary-minded,” he says. “It’s the literary memory that concerns me. The way it affected lives.”

The book deals with the lives of the family and friends of Arvel Burrows, a 26-year-old miner who is killed in the Eastyard explosion. His brother, though frustrated with a job at Zellers, chooses not to work in the mines. His father used to push backs to the wall as a labour activist but now mostly just drinks. Arvel’s wife is about to leave him for a job in Halifax, because he, like his father, has taken to drinking too much. McKay says that to understand an event, you need to understand its past and its future, and so the narrative zigs and zags, back and forth through time, from 1988 to 1982 to 1987 to 1989. A lot of things change for the characters, and a lot of things don’t. Sort of like how it is in real life.

Of course, over these seven summers McKay’s own life has changed drastically, which has been part of the reason the book has been so long in coming. He got a full time job teaching English and creative writing in Truro, Nova Scotia, and he and his wife, Kathy, bought a home (he says they signed the final papers the same week the shortlist for the 1995 Giller Prize was announced.) They didn’t plan to be in Nova Scotia, he says. It was a fluke. He sent out over a hundred applications to schools across the country, and he got hired at a school just an hour away from where he’d grown up. He and his wife already had a son (Joel had his first birthday the day after the Giller dinner). Since then, they’ve had two daughters as well.

“Things are so different when you have kids,” he says. “Not just in time, but in responsibility. Everything has to be planned out.” Even his trip into Halifax on this day had to be planned. His wife and the children, Joel, Mairi, and Laura, are across town at the public swimming pool.

And this is why it’s been seven summers, because it’s also been a full-time job, a new home, and three kids. In fact, he says he can only write in the summers because there just isn’t time during the rest of the year. On the last day of classes, he moves everything out to the barn, and the next morning he gets up at 5:30, and by 6 he’s writing. It’s peaceful out in the old barn, he says, although it’s beginning to rot and you literally have to watch where you step.

“It was so different with Like This,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “I didn’t know how good I had it.” He wrote most of the stories in the book while he was living in Japan with his wife. He was teaching English during the day, and Kathy worked nights, so he’d come home to their small apartment and write, or go across the street to the coffee shop and write. Now, he says, in his home, there is always the noise of the TV. He doesn’t seem particularly distressed by this, but you get the feeling that if publication dates can serve as markers, he is reflecting on how much his own life has changed between the two. He shakes his head often, as if he still can’t quite believe it himself.

McKay was still living in Japan when the Westray mine disaster happened. He was lying in bed and his alarm went off, and he heard, on the radio, the word Stellarton. News about Canada in Japan was rare. Other than Westray, the only Canadian news he remembers hearing was about the Montreal Massacre, cod fishing, and Kim Campbell. Stellarton was a town of 6,000 and at first he thought he had to be dreaming.

This exact scene plays out in the novel (with the character of a girl called Meta) and you can see what he means by “the literary memory.” There are not facts and figures, but, instead, only feelings – particularly, the feeling that history was happening, right in a small Nova Scotia mining town. This, he says, is what’s been so hard – “showing the degree to which the human spirit has been affected.”

But even though the writing has been difficult, it’s the last year that’s been the hardest. The first draft was done years ago, and then there was his own constant, obsessive editing. “It was like carving out my own liver,” he says. “That’s kind of gross, but that’s what it felt like.” But the result was that, by the time he was finished, he felt he was finished. “Of course, when I sent it out, people were like, ‘Oh, this is a very nice liver, but, actually, we wanted a kidney.’”

He laughs about this, even though the last chapter was still being edited just days before we met. But this is his first novel, and he freely admits to his own naiveté. He says part of it is his own isolation from most of the country’s writing community. He lives out in Maitland, and says he doesn’t get into Halifax as much as he used to. “My friends,” he says, “are teachers. Working class. Not writers. I don’t go to the parties. The soirées.” He says parties and soirées like they’re not very nice words, but he fondly recalls the Giller dinner: “We were sitting at this table, and we kept whispering, ‘Oh my God, that’s Ellen [Seligman] at the next table.’ And it was this big deal.” Of course, now she’s his editor, and he’s trying to get used to the idea that maybe he’s a big deal.

He says if he knew then what he knows now, he would have taken time off to do the editing. He remembers having chapter edits due the day after report card marks were due for his classes. He would stay up to finish marking, and then stay up later to edit, and then, at two in the morning, have to go out to the barn to split wood for the next day. (His house, he says, “is insulated, but let’s just say it’s got some holes.”) He tried editing out in the barn one day in November, where he’d done all his writing, but by then it was too cold, and his printer froze. It still doesn’t work right, he says.

Still, he’s gotten through the year, and, though he says it’s likely one of the hardest things he’s ever done, the book somehow got finished. He’s already got another idea for a novel that he wants to start, although he isn’t sure when, and he says this with something between a sigh and a laugh, because Twenty-Six has been so long in the making. He says he’s still coming to terms with the idea that, after seven summers, other people will be reading Twenty-Six. It’s been only his eyes for so long. It’s been seven summers coming, but really it’s been longer – because it began with growing up in a county that was literally scarred with its own mining history. It began with an explosion that shook his sister’s house. It began with the collapse of a coal mine, and the death of 26 miners, and it ended with a book that’s dedicated to memory, and a man who’s still sorting out his own.