When Lisa Moore’s February won the CBC’s Canada Reads competition earlier this year, I was painting crown mouldings in the sunroom of a gargantuan Victorian-era house in St. John’s. This is not an important fact except insofar as it illustrates my sense of bearing witness to a momentous occasion, and therefore being finely attuned to my surroundings at the time.
Moore’s novel takes place in the aftermath of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil platform, a tragedy that profoundly affects the book’s protagonist. This year marks the 31st anniversary of the disaster, which is indelibly etched in the minds of Newfoundlanders. As the broadcast came down to the final vote, I felt that something big was at stake. This wasn’t just about a book; for the families and loved ones of the 84 men who died, it was public acknowledgment of a lasting grief.
Upon the launch of her third novel, Caught (published this month by House of Anansi Press), Moore accepts the Canada Reads victory with gratitude and equanimity. “I was aware throughout the entire process – hyperaware – that there were many other books that could have been on any one of those lists, and even as the list got winnowed I really saw it as a lottery,” she says, sitting in the fog-enshrouded light shining through a bank of windows in the kitchen of her downtown St. John’s row house. The tempo of her speech slows as she continues: “Outside of the quality of writing or the book or anything to do with me, I felt glad that the subject of the Ocean Ranger was spoken about, particularly on the anniversary. And that was intensely emotional.”
Moore is no stranger to the grief born of a loved one’s premature death. When she was 16, her father died of a brain aneurysm. He was 49 (Moore’s current age). She wrote about this loss in a 2010 article for The Guardian, linking her personal tragedy with the collective grief felt at the deaths of the Ocean Ranger’s crewmembers. It’s a powerful and moving essay, in part because of its tender portrayal of her parents’ relationship. “It was not the kind of love that children could impinge upon,” Moore writes. “It was the kind of love that spilled over on to the children because there was so much of it.”
“That really changed me,” Moore says of her father’s death. “It made me see the world as finite. It really was like when a curtain drops on a play. I realized I had better do what I want in this life because there’s only one chance.”
There’s a passage early in Caught in which protagonist David Slaney ponders the impact of such formative events: “Maybe there is a moment in everyone’s life when something altering occurs,” he thinks, “and maybe you don’t get any older after that.”
As we soon find out, one of Slaney’s pivotal moments occurs previous to the action of the novel, when he effectively abandoned the woman he loved by undertaking a bungled drug deal that landed him in prison. Now, the 25-year-old Slaney, having escaped from Springhill Penitentiary where he had been incarcerated on charges of marijuana trafficking, intends to rendezvous with his old partner on the West Coast in order to travel to Colombia to pull off one last big score that will set them up for life.
It’s a very different novel from February, in that it derives much of its narrative tension from its plot, but Moore insists that, at its root, Caught is driven by characters and their notions of trust. “Is it inherently good to be trustworthy?” she asks. “Is it inherently good or right to trust?”
Caught also shares with February an historical setting in the recent past. “There was a kind of drug culture in the ’70s in Newfoundland that fascinated me,” Moore says. While listening to questions, her face sometimes takes on a sudden intensity, a look of fierce engagement that can be unsettling. One gets the sense of a mind not passively receiving information but actively weighing each utterance for its truth value, parsing. “I’m not that interested in drugs myself, but it was the freedom that seemed to be embodied both in the ’70s in Newfoundland and in that culture, a kind of wildness that I was interested in.”
She speaks, too, about the false sense of immortality that allows the young to undertake brash behaviour thoughtlessly. “It was that bravado that interested me as well,” she says. “It’s about youth and how everything seems possible. That willingness to face death or jail or whatever the consequence – that’s something that is hard to maintain the more you know about life, the older you get. And so I really wanted to capture that thing because, whatever that courage is, it’s required to change the world when things get awful.”
Things don’t appear to be all that awful for Moore at the moment, at least career-wise. Thanks in part to the Canada Reads win, February has sold 60,000 copies since its publication in 2009. Her second story collection, Open (2002), and her debut novel, Alligator (2005), were both shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the latter won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean region. Having traditionally spent a great deal of time teaching to generate income, Moore now finds herself in the enviable position of being able to focus almost exclusively on writing. And reading. “I’ve been reading like a fiend,” she says with a smile.
As for the reception of her latest novel, Moore seems to have attained a state of stoicism. “I feel confident about this book, and I’ve never felt confident before,” she says. “I don’t know what it is. I feel happy with it. I’m not scared for it. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t think some outrageously negative review that tears me into pieces …” she trails off. “That will probably happen. But I also don’t care. The criticism that I don’t agree with now seems foolish to me, and the criticism that I do agree with is incredibly inspiring. I have had negative criticism that has opened my eyes.”
When I ask her later, via email, if she thinks this newfound confidence has something to do with being the same age as her father when he died, I’m momentarily worried about having pried too much into the personal. I needn’t have been. “I certainly have a sense that having made it this far,” she writes back a few minutes later, “everything else is gravy.”