Samuel Martin: If the Writer Builds a Fire, the Reader Will Come to Watch You Burn

A Blessed Snarl by Samuel Martin (Breakwater Books).

Samuel Thomas Martin is the author of This Ramshackle Tabernacle (Breakwater Books), which was shortlisted for the 2010 BMO Winterset Award and longlisted for the 2011 ReLit Award for Short Fiction, and the novel A Blessed Snarl, also from Breakwater Books, about a man who moves his family back to Newfoundland to start a new Pentecostal church.

Originally from Ontario, Martin now lives in Newfoundland with his wife Samantha and their dog Vader.

Find Martin at his "e-nook out of the pull of the Google slipstream," The Dark Art Cafe.

(Read Sam's post on finding the right book at the right time.)

Julie Wilson: Your collection of short stories, This Ramshackle Tabernacle, is set in and around the fictional villages of St. Lola and St. Olga in northeastern Ontario. Why was it important to locate the stories in a particular kind of place, a recognizable one, while not naming those places as they currently exist?

Sam Martin: In rural communities, people know each other and, at least in my hometown, there is a lot of emphasis on telling stories—true stories—and getting the details right. You can’t have people over for coffee without storytelling and part of that is cutting in and saying, "That’s not how it happened," or "Come on now, get it right." So, to write fiction set in a "real" rural community, you have to take that into account. At least, I feel I have to. So, I make the place recognizable, to a degree, but I change the names. That’s a pretty wispy smoke screen to a keen-eyed reader, though. That’s why I take echoes of true stories and amplify events and blend characters' voices. For me, writing fiction is not about mirroring reality, but about making an artful window through which to see elsewhere, even if that elsewhere is home, only pegged with a different name.

JW: You're currently on Fogo Island (off the north coast of Newfoundland) where you were one of the writers-in-residence at the Bridge Studio in Deep Bay. Can you talk about that experience?

Sam: I am finishing up my last month here in Deep Bay, working on my next novel. I've been here since the beginning of April and I leave the last day of June. Before I leave, though, I'm going to launch A Blessed Snarl in the Foleys’ shed in Tilting. It's going to be wicked. Tilting is an Irish Catholic outport on the eastern lip of Fogo Island, and the Foleys' shed looks just like how I pictured Des Wiseman’s shed in my book: a workspace renovated so it's also a gathering place for folks in the community; a place to sit down, watch some hockey, have a few drinks, sing some songs, and tell stories. Tilting, like the rest of Fogo Island, in my mind, embodies the "blessed snarl" that is life in Newfoundland—the tangle of things Catholic and Protestant, religious and secular, traditional and modern, reserved and anarchist. Nobody tells Fogo Islanders what to do: they go their own way. They persist. I can’t think of a better place to launch the novel.

JW: Patrick Wiseman, the protagonist in A Blessed Snarl, moves his family to Newfoundland. You're originally from Ontario, now living in Newfoundland. How did your sense of place change with your move? How did that experience inform that of the characters?

Sam: In many respects, I think that my experience of moving here has most in common with Anne’s experience, Patrick’s wife in A Blessed Snarl. Anne is from Ontario and she marries Patrick, who is from a small cove north of St. John’s. The novel deals with CFA (Come From Away) experiences, but also with the reality of living in a place that is constantly changing. In writing the book, I tried to work against the strange idea—a central Canadian idea, I think—that there is such a thing as a "typical" Newfoundland identity. That's not to say that people here don't have a strong sense of who they are and where they belong: they do. I am lucky enough to have friends from all over Newfoundland, and each of these friends has a different take on what it means to be a Newfoundlander. Some of them insist that I'm a Newfoundlander-in-training; others insist that I will always be a CFA. I’m okay with being both, or neither. I love this place and my friends here. The best "Newfoundland" experience, if there is such a thing, is sitting around someone's table long enough to get beyond questions of where you're from. That's when things get interesting—when the stories come out. That's when you can start sharing in each others' lives. At its heart, I think, that's what A Blessed Snarl is about—the often wonderful, sometimes fierce tangle of sharing in the lives of others.

Samuel Martin, author of A Blessed Snarl (Breakwater Books).

JW: You have another move coming up. Later this summer you head to Orange City, Iowa for a teaching gig. From a population of just less than 200,000 in St. John's, to a city with just over 6,000 is a big shift. Can you talk a bit about what you anticipate will be the biggest adjustments between one home and the next?

Sam: I have joked with my wife Samantha that maybe we are moving to Iowa so we learn not to be so prejudiced against Americans. In reality, I know next to nothing about life in the U.S.A., let alone life in Iowa. People laugh when I tell them where I’m moving: "Corn fields, eh? Sounds like fun." But there is more to Iowa than that. Iowa is home to Marilynne Robinson and Slipknot for crying out loud! I think moving there will be an eye-opener. I will have to get used to the sun again, and warm summers. I know I'm sick, but I haven't missed either living in St. John's. I will miss my family and friends here, as well as the rocky landscapes, the sea, and the wind . . . and the fog. God, I will miss the fog.

JW: In the book trailer for A Blessed Snarl you reference the open-air preacher John Wesley who drew thousands of people to a field to hear him. When asked how he could attract so many, he said he set himself on fire and the people came to watch him burn. You conclude that the hope is that readers will be drawn to the mental world of the writer who is able to set his or hers on fire. Do you experience that sensation when you're writing? Does it ignite suddenly, or is it a slow, methodical collecting of kindling and layering and so on?

Sam: I find that in thinking through a story there are those moments when things ignite: bright flashes of inspiration. But that is like thinking, "Hey, a fire would be a good idea right now." In actuality, building the fire does take work: finding dry wood, kindling, and a good spot out of the wind and rain. Writing a story takes work, too: finding fresh ideas and new ways to express those ideas, creating a world apart from this world yet integrally linked to it.

I guess the analogy of Wesley also expresses my fears about focusing too much on self-promotion. As a writer these days, you do need to do some self-promotion, because nobody is going to do it for you. But I think writers can get too caught up in the circus of bookselling and that can harm their art. So, the advice I have received from more established writers—which I think is solid advice—is to focus all your energies on setting your story on fire—making it real enough to burn—and once it's out of your hands, once it's raging, then worry about promoting it for a while. Stoke that fire; haul up some sitting rocks; sing campfire ditties if you think it will draw a crowd. Then, once the fire peters out, change your clothes, have a shower, brew some coffee, and get back to work.

JW: Very solid advice!

If you could list five Canadian-authored books that have a strong sense of place for you, what would they be? (Click on each link to find the book on our Read Local: The 100-Mile Book Diet map.)

  1. David Adams Richards River of the Brokenhearted. This novel is New Brunswick’s Miramichi for me: the river flows right through the heart of it.
  2. Michael Crummey's Galore. When I think of outport Newfoundland I think of this novel. From my CFA perspective, it seems to capture the hardship of outport life but also its humour, drama, vitality, and mystery.
  3. Lisa Moore's February. This novel makes 1980s St. John's, rocked by the tragic sinking of the Ocean Ranger, burn in a reader’s memory like a hot Singapore sun, or the coiled bottom of a stove-top espresso maker. (Read the novel and you'll get it.) (I totally get it.—Julie)
  4. Michael Winter's The Death of Donna Whalen. This book is about a murder committed two streets from where I live in the Rabittown area of St. John's. I’m haunted by it when I walk past the empty lot where the apartment building that Donna Whalen lived in used to stand.
  5. Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, D.R. MacDonald's Cape Breton Road, and Lynden MacIntyre's The Bishop's Man. These three books make up my unofficial Cape Breton trilogy. When I visit Cape Breton, I see it through my memory of these novels.

Listen to Sam read from A Blessed Snarl.

June 13, 2012
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