The Chat with Michael Crummey

6123_Crummey_Michael_Photo Credit Arielle Hogan 2019

Michael Crummey was recently longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel The Innocents, a haunting story of two siblings orphaned in a remote cove in Newfoundland.

Kirkus Reviews calls The Innocents “An unusual, gripping period novel from a much-honored Canadian writer.” The Toronto Star says, “its beauty is restrained, weighted and often heartbreaking.”

Michael Crummey is the author of a memoir, Newfoundland: Journey into a Lost Nation; three books of poetry including Arguments with Gravity, winner of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry; and a book of short stories, Flesh & Blood. His first novel, River Thieves was a finalist for the 2001 Scotiabank Giller Prize; and his second novel, The Wreckage, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. His third novel, Galore, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Canada and the Caribbean) and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. His most recent novel, Sweetland, was also a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. He lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.

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THE CHAT WITH MICHAEL CRUMMEY

Trevor Corkum: The Innocents is a dark and richly imagined story of a brother and sister living alone in a secluded cove in historical Newfoundland. Tell us more about why this pair captured your imagination.

Michael Crummey: The seed for this story is an anecdote I stumbled on in the Provincial Archives years ago, a single paragraph about a clergyman travelling the coast who came upon an orphaned brother and sister in an isolated cove. The sister was pregnant and the clergyman assumed, rightly I imagine, that the brother was the father. I purposely steered clear of this story for years, not wanting to touch a subject so complicated and fraught. But those children never quite left me. I was struck by the loneliness of their circumstances and by how little they would have known of the world, left with only each other to muddle through the confusion and mystery of who they were and who they were becoming.

There's a quote about childhood in Carol Shields' Unless I came across recently: “A child is suspended in a locked closet of unknowing, within the body's borders, that dark place.” And that really resonated both with my own experience of growing up, and with my sense of what was at the heart of my reaction to those orphan children.  

TC: I understand the novel took five years to complete. What challenges or struggles did you face as you worked through completing the book?

MC: To be honest, although it has been five years since my last novel, I spent most of that time avoiding writing. Or doing writing of other kinds—a New and Selected poems, some film and television work. But mostly walking the dogs and baking bread and napping.

It wasn't until I got a gentle nudge from my editor at Doubleday last year that I finally got down to working on The Innocents. And when I started putting words down at the beginning of March, the story felt full and complete in my head and I just wanted it out of me. So I wrote every day for three and a half months straight, and the book was more or less there at the end of that stretch.

So I wrote every day for three and a half months straight, and the book was more or less there at the end of that stretch.

TC: One of my favourite details in the novel is the rich vein of old-time curse words, particularly among the sailing crew who make visits to the cove. How much research was involved in creating this dialogue? Any gems you discovered that didn’t make it into the book?

MC: Almost all of that fantastic language came from Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue compiled in 1785 by a man named Francis Grose. In this case, “vulgar” means “common,” but there was plenty of vulgar language in there. I made a long list of my favourite curses and put-downs and tried to find places in the novel where they would work. And there were lots of those opportunities as it turned out, particularly when the sailors arrive in the cove.

There are dozens more I would have loved to use. “Dicked in the nob,” referring to someone who has lost their mind. “Bracket-faced,” for an ugly mug. “Buss blind cheeks,” for Kiss my arse. Maybe next time.

TC: You’re a well-known writer of historical fiction. I heard you recently on CBC Ideas speaking about the tension a historical writer faces to be truthful to place and circumstance, yet be able to take liberties where appropriate. What for you are the key elements involved in crafting believable historical fiction?    

MC: Well there is a difference between “believable” and truthful. A fiction can be completely convincing and completely false, especially when the audience is naive or ill-informed. I'm aiming to come down somewhere between those two. I want to create a fictional world that doesn't lose readers because of a) glaring inaccuracies or b) an adherence to historical accuracy so slavish it makes a book unreadable. I want to approach character and story, the way people speak and interact, in a way that is accessible to readers and draws them into the novel.

A general rule might be: When it comes to social and historical details, don't make shit up. When it comes to character and story, feel free to make shit up. But there are no general rules.  

TC: Finally, you are a central part of such a rich tradition of writing and storytelling in Newfoundland and Labrador. What excites you most about the next generation of up-and-coming writers in your home province?  

MC: Mostly (and this may seem odd coming from me) that they don't seem at all interested in writing about the past. I think Newfoundland has gone through an accelerated version of what other cultures and countries experience as they become literate and establish a literary tradition. When I started writing, there was very little Newfoundland literature and there was a generations-old cultural tradition based on outport life and the fishery that was quickly disappearing. And I felt some urgency to get it on paper before it was gone for good. Which was fair enough I think.

But it does seem that writers like Joel Thomas Hynes and Megan Gail Coles are all about the now (and about using all three given names). They are interested in what Newfoundland is at the moment and what it might be going forward. And I think that's a healthy development.  

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Excerpt from The Innocents

The Driven Snow.

They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cove and she sang the lullaby she’d sung all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood into her hands.

The ground was frozen solid when she died and even if their father had been well enough to shovel there was no digging a grave for her. He and Evered shifted the covering of reeds and alders away from the overturned boat and hauled it down to the landwash before they carried the corpse from the house. They set it in the boat along with half a dozen stones scavenged along the shore. Their father slumped against the gunwale to catch his breath.

“Will I come out with you?” Evered asked.

He shook his head. “You stay with your sister,” he said.

The two youngsters watched him row away from shore and out beyond the shoal water with his dead wife. They saw him leaning below the gunwales for what seemed a long time, his head and shoulders bobbing up now and then. He was working at something awkward and unpleasant it seemed though neither could guess what it was. They watched him wrestling the weight of the corpse with his back to the shore. He was far enough off they couldn’t see that their mother was naked when she was tipped into the black of the winter ocean.

Their father tried to hand the clothes to his daughter when he rowed in but Ada held her hands behind her back and shook her head fiercely.

“You’ll have need of these,” their father said. “Now the once.” Evered took them, folding the limp fabric against his stomach. The sour smell of a long illness and of his mother which he couldn’t separate in his head. “I’ll set them by for her,” he said. Their father nodded. He was too exhausted to climb from the boat and he sat there a long while. A dwy of snow had blown in across the bay and it turned the hair of his bowed head white as they waited.

Their father died in his bed before the new year.

Without speaking of it they acted as if he was only asleep and they left him lying there for the better part of a week. Hoping he might wake up coughing in the middle of the night, complaining about the cold or asking after a drink of water. During the day they dawdled about in the store and spent as much time outside as they could stand, cleaving and stacking wood or hauling buckets of water from the brook, picking along the landwash for gull feathers and mussel shells and wish rocks to add to Ada’s collection. Inside they tended the fireplace and drank their bare-legged tea and spoke in whispers so as not to disturb the man.

On the fifth night of the vigil Ada woke from a dream of her parents. They were standing back on, holding hands and looking at her over their shoulders. Her mother was naked and soaking wet, her hair streaming water.

“What is it you’re bawling over, Sister?” Evered asked. “He can’t stay,” she whispered.

“Don’t be talking foolishness.”

“He can’t stay there like that, Brother.”

And he set to bawling with her then, the two helpless youngsters holding on to one another in the pitch.

Before it was properly light he pulled back the one ragged blanket and hauled his father’s body to the floor. The heels smacking like mallets against the frozen ground. His sister moved to pick up her father’s legs but Evered wouldn’t allow it. The man of the house suddenly. “You sit there,” he said. “Until I gets back.”

He gripped the shoulders of his father’s shirt. He expected it to feel like hauling a seine of fish but there was a rigidness to the corpse that made it surprisingly easy to drag through the doorway. Only once on the way down to the water was he forced to stop to catch his breath and shake the numbness from his hands.

He rowed out to the deeps beyond the shoal grounds, as close to the same spot as he could guess judging by his distance from the shore. Their parents might be together down there was his thought or within sight of one another at least, though he knew nothing below the ocean surface sat still for long. He tried to strip off the man’s clothes for practical reasons but his father’s eyes were half-open and he lost his nerve for meddling.

Before pushing off the beach he’d gathered a length of old netting and enough stones to keep the body under and he tied that improvised anchor around his father’s waist. The day was still and cold, the ocean flat calm. He did not want to watch once the body slapped into the water and the rocks were hefted over the gunwale to take it down. But he couldn’t make himself look away from that descent until long after his father had passed out of sight and into the black.

He stared out at the spot where the man sank from view as he rowed in through the skerries. His teeth chattering helplessly, his mind swimming. Even after the keel brought up in the shallows he kept rowing at the water like a headless chicken strutting around the chopping block. He didn’t stop until Ada called his name behind him.

“I told you to wait where you was till I come back,” he said, trying to set the oars and find his feet.

“I was watching for you heading in,” she said.

He stumbled as he climbed over the gunwale, his face like chalk. “I needs to lie down for a bit,” he said.

Ada did her best to haul the boat out of reach of the tide, calling after her brother as he staggered up the path to the tilt. By the time she came into the room he was already asleep in their bed. He slept so long and in such a stillness that Ada considered he might have died on her as well. She sat across the room until dark and then climbed into her parents’ bed where she lay whispering to her dead sister to keep herself company.

Evered didn’t wake until late the following morning. He sat bolt upright in the bed and seemed not to know where he was before he caught sight of her. She stared at him a long time without speaking.

“What is it, Sister?” he said.

She pointed then and he reached up to touch his crown. “Your hair,” she said.

She thought of their father’s bowed head in the boat after he had committed their mother to the ocean’s deep, the drift that had settled on it like a veil.

“What about me hair?”

“It’s gone all white,” she said.

As the driven snow, their mother would have said of it.

They were left together in the cove then with its dirt-floored stud tilt, with its garden of root vegetables and its scatter of outbuildings, with its looming circle of hills and rattling brook and its view of the ocean’s grey expanse beyond the harbour skerries. The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.

—The ocean and the firmament and the sum of
God’s stars were created in seven days.
—Sun hounds prophesy coarse weather.
—The death of a horse is the life of a crow.
—You were never to sleep before the fire was
douted.
—The winter’s flour and salt pork had to last till the
first seals came in on the ice in March month.
—The dead reside in heaven and heaven sits among
the stars.
—Nothing below the ocean’s surface lies still.
—Idleness is the root of all troubles.
—Their baby sister died an innocent and sits at God’s
right hand and hears their prayers.
—Any creature on the earth or in the sea could be
killed and eaten.
—A body must bear what can’t be helped.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
 

September 11, 2019
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