Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reader's Diary #517- Michael Crummey: Galore + An Interview!!!

Shortly before I went on my summer vacation I was contacted by Random House to see if I'd be interested in interviewing Michael Crummey about his latest novel Galore. I'd been a fan of Crummey's poetry for a while, having read two of his poetry collections, Hard Light and Salvage, a couple years back. However, despite the popularity of his first two novels, River Thieves and The Wreckage, I'd still not read his prose. However, I'd have been a fool to pass up this opportunity.

My book finally arrived in the mail, but I'd only a few days left before hitting the road. Would I be able to cram it in plus get my interview questions off to Crummey in time?

In hindsight I needn't have worried. It turned out to be such an entertaining and well-written book that I'd probably have devoured it in a couple days or so anyway. Of course the fact that I enjoyed it also set my mind at ease about the interview. I wouldn't have to pretend I enjoyed it or else ask questions like, "what the hell was that about?"

Galore is the story of Paradise Deep, a fictional Newfoundland outport. More specifically, it is the story of how two families, the Sellers and the Devines, helped shape the town and were shaped by it in return. It begins with a man coming from the belly of a whale.

There are themes and plots galore, any number of which are worthy of focus. It would be a terrific novel for bookclubs. Discuss the male/female power dynamic. Discuss the inevitability of change. Discuss... but that makes it sound too scholarly, doesn't it? It might be, but it sure ain't as dull as all that. Did I mention that it begins with a man coming from the belly of a whale?

I could go on, but instead I'll leave you with my interview with Michael Crummey so that you might get more of a sense of what the book is all about:

JM: The title Galore is used only twice in the book that I could find, and both times it refers to the abundance of fish. How did you go about choosing that word as your title?

MC: I think it shows up a time or two besides that. Once in reference to “fire galore” awaiting the ghost of Mr. Gallery where he’s going. I liked the notion that galore, unlike “abundance,” isn’t used exclusively with positive connotations. You can have fish galore or trouble galore, and anything in between.
There were a number of other reasons I used GALORE as the title. Galore is one of the few Irish Gaelic words to make its way into the English language, which I thought suggested the kind of cross-cultural pollination that created Newfoundlanders. And there was an expansiveness to the novel I thought was mirrored in the meaning of the word. I also liked the suggestion of both GLORY and GORE in the sound of it. Last but not least, I loved having the word LORE on the cover of the book. The novel is all about the folklore of the place and the role it played in shaping who Newfoundlanders are.

JM: I read in an interview that when you lived away, you only wrote of Newfoundland. You joked that now that you've moved back, you'll probably write about the mainland. Yet, here we are, it's your third novel and all three have been about Newfoundland. Has it been easier to write about the place now that you're back? And have you tossed around any ideas for a mainland-based novel yet? I know you were in Yellowknife a few years back. I'd love to read your take on this place!
MC: It hasn’t been easier or harder as far as I can tell. Being back home has definitely altered my sense of the place, just by the fact that I’m living in the culture as an adult and a writer, and that’s certainly influenced the writing. My antennae are always up and everyday I pick up something else about Newfoundland that may find its way into what I’m working on.

No mainland ideas so far. And I don’t feel any lack for that. There’s enough stories in this place, the place that made me, to keep me going a lifetime. That could change next week, and I’m not against the idea of writing a novel set elsewhere. But at the same time I think, why would I?

Loved Yellowknife. Love the north in general. Lived in Labrador a number of years as well. Northerners remind of Newfoundlanders in many ways. There are people who are born with the place in them (even if they were born elsewhere) and they are the only people who will ever feel at home there.

JM: Speaking of sticking to Newfoundland, you've also stuck to historical novels. What is it about this genre that appeals to you and do you see a modern-day Newfoundland novel in your future?
MC: I’m a little leery of the historical fiction tag. I haven’t really chosen to write books set in the past. Stories pick me and I go with it. There are much more contemporary stories in my story collection, Flesh and Blood. And I’d be happy to write a modern-day Newfoundland novel if I was struck with an idea that I thought could hold my interest for the three or four years it takes to write the damn things.

JM: Galore begins fantastical and has the air of folklore about it, yet as the novel progresses and time and generations pass, the book becomes more historical and plausible. Despite the transition, the folklore was a vital part of the history of Paradise Deep (not to mention very entertaining!) and shaped the lives of the generations that followed. In your opinion, how has folklore changed in Newfoundland and how will this affect future generations?

MC: Well I was deliberately charting the move away from that netherworld of spirits and fairies and folkcharms that was so integral to Newfoundlanders at one time and has become less and less present as the larger modern world moves in. Carmelita McGrath has a great poem about how the ghosts disappeared from the outports about the time the streetlights were put in. But those old stories and beliefs are still around, particularly among the older generation. And they continue to shape us in some way.

One of the central things I was exploring in the novel was the symbiotic relationship we have with our stories of who we are. Newfoundlanders created these stories, and as they get told and passed on, the stories tell us who we are as Newfoundlanders. It becomes difficult to tease out the strands there as the generations pass: did we create the stories or did the stories create us? The novel, as you mention, moves further and further away from that world of folklore as it progresses. But at the end, when Abel has lost everything of himself, it’s those stories that rise up to tell him who he is, to give his life back to him. And in a sense he becomes the beginning of the novel as well as the end of it.

JM: Superstition also played a crucial role in Galore but, again, was way more apparent in the earlier half of the book. Do you think superstition has gone away or has it simply manifested itself differently? Are folklore and superstition co-dependent?

MC: Superstition is all around us. People believe in the stock market or weight loss drugs or those metal energy bracelets that supposedly instill a sense of well-being. I think superstitions play a huge role in folklore, but one doesn’t necessarily rest on the other. Folklore is the collective consciousness of an oral culture, the sum of its beliefs and tales and foolishness and knowledge. And that’s the consciousness I was interested in inhabiting in the novel, superstitions included.

JM: Born and raised in Twillingate, Newfoundland, I was quick to notice the similarities between the character or Dr. Newman and the real-life Dr. John M. Old's (whom my high school was named after). I was not surprised to see Gary Saunders' biography Dr. Olds of Twillingate listed among your resources. Later I noted similarities between Esther's character and Georgina Sterling, the world renown opera singer, also of Twillingate. I remember, too, reading your collection of poetry Hard Light a while back, and noting how heavily Twillingate was featured. What is your fascination with the place?

MC: Mom was born and raised in Twillingate (she was terrified of Dr. Olds) and I spent a part of every summer in Crow Head when I was a youngster. My grandparents, Doyle Sharpe and Sarah Reid, had a place out there where they spent their holidays till sometime in the late 70s.

But those two figures (Olds and Sterling) would have grabbed me regardless of my personal connection to Twillingate. Dr. Newman is an amalgam of a bunch of early medical practitioners in Newfoundland, but Olds is pretty central to him.

JM: I was surprised to see another familiar character featured, William Coaker (leader of Newfoundland's first fisheries union), especially as this time you used his real name. How did you come to this decision and what impact do you think this will have on Newfoundland readers, who are probably familiar with the historical figure, versus non-Newfoundland readers who may believe he is entirely fictional?
MC: Originally I planned to have someone from Paradise Deep be a Coaker-like character, but changed my mind the closer I came to that part of the novel. Coaker and the Union were so singular and particular in how they developed that I wanted them to appear to a certain extent as they were. As far as those who know of Coaker as opposed to those who don’t, I don’t expect there will be a huge difference to the experience of the novel. The arrival of Coaker is one more step in the encroachment of the “real” world of institutional religion and medicine and science and politics on the self-enclosed world of Paradise Deep as it was at the outset. Up to the building of the Catholic cathedral in the late 1890s there is no mention of particular dates and times in the novel, only hints of where in the chronology of the larger world the story is happening (the Napoleonic wars are mentioned at one point for example). By WWI though, the novel is firmly placed in a particular historical time. For those who know something about the historical Coaker, I hope that knowledge will just add one more layer to the encroachment of the “real” world on that of Paradise Deep.
JM: Galore is as much about the birth and growth of a Newfoundland outport as it is the people who inhabit it. When I finished the book, I found myself wondering what happened to Paradise Deep. Did it suffer under Joey Smallwood's resettlement plan? By the cod moratorium? I don't really expect answers for these questions, but could the ending have happened in the present day instead? I hope you don't think I'm unhappy with the ending. It's really just a testament to your setting that I miss it so.

MC: My thought at the outset was to have a modern day component to the novel with a descendant of the Devines or Sellers learning the story from a relative, which would include bridging material up to the present day. But it was pretty clear early on that, unless I was interested in writing a 600 page novel (and I was not), I’d have to find an earlier place to end it. From the outset I was writing towards Abel’s service overseas and it seemed like the natural endpoint for the story, being a kind of return to the opening scene. So a person could argue that the book escapes the larger world and the tyranny of chronology and time that has been slowly taking over the story, turning back on itself to become a self-encapsulated world all its own. But I have to admit, spelling it out like that makes it sounds like so much BS.

Thanks to Random House for this opportunity and especially to Michael Crummey for taking the time to answer my questions.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Great interview! On both sides. You ask some really probing questions and he obviously gives considerable thought to his responses.

It was a pleasure to read.

gypsysmom said...

Great article and good questions (and responses). How is it that Newfoundland produces so many great writers? Is it the isolation? Is it the tradition of folklore? Is it the Irish heritage because Ireland has certainly produced lots of great writers as well?

I'd be interested in your thoughts and meanwhile I'll be adding this book to my "Look for it" list.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Thanks!

Gypsysmom: I'm sure it's different for each writer. The Irish heritage, while no doubt true for some, can't be said for all. There's quite a large population of Newfoundlanders (self included) with all English heritage, not Irish. I'd also say folklore plays a large part. When the communities were more isolated, storytelling was a way of entertaining, of passing on old beliefs, etc and no doubt survived that way. Then, the cynical part of me also thinks publishers latched on to a "scene." Not to say the quality of writing isn't there to back it up, but I'm sure if they wanted to, New Brunswick, just as an example, could suddenly burst at the seams with great writers. I think Manitoba is the latest "it" place.

Wanda said...

As if I didn't already want this book from the moment you mentioned it earlier this month ... I loved The Wreckage and River Thieves can't wait to read this one!

Excellent interview, a real treat to read.

Teddy Rose said...

I am so jealous that you got an advance copy and an interview to boot. I LOVE Michael Crummy!

Every year at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, my friend have been putting his name down on a questionarie that asks what author we would most like to see. He is finally coming this year and I can't wait!!

Awesome interview! I had no idea that Galore was a Gaelic word.

John Mutford said...

Teddy: When he came to Yellowknife a little more than a year ago, I moved here a few short weeks later just missing him. Drat!

John Mutford said...

Wanda: I'll definitely be going back to read those now as well.

John Mutford said...

Also reviewed by Luanne here.

Luanne said...

What a fantastic interview John! On both sides. I was fascinated to hear the reasoning behind the title and well, pretty much everything. It's so interesting to hear an author explain his work. Galore is one of my favourites this year as well.

Lisa said...

Our shore book club just finished this book and were disappointed there were no discussion questions available. Your interview was very interesting and helpful. So much to discuss now!

John Mutford said...

Luanne: Thanks!

Lisa: I hope it helps. Feel free to touch base again and let me know how it goes!