Giller Prize 2020 Special: The Chat with Gil Adamson

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Next on our special Giller Prize coverage of The Chat, we speak with Gil Adamson. She’s a finalist for her second novel, Ridgerunner.

Jury citation:

“The long-awaited sequel to Gil Adamson’s hit The Outlander moves the action forward a decade, returning the 13-year-old son of the original protagonists to a forested land into which prisoners of the first world war are now hewing roads. The proximity of this new type of outlaw presents an existential threat to young Jack, who takes refuge in his parents’ abandoned shack with a price on his head after escaping the toxic hypocrisies of ‘civilization.’ Drawing richly on both the Western and on gothic fiction, Adamson evokes a mythic landscape to frame the question: how is it possible to live a good life, when obedience to man-made laws is so at odds with love, loyalty and respect for the natural world?”

Gil Adamson is the critically acclaimed author of The Outlander, which won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the ReLit Award, and the Drummer General’s Award. It was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, CBC Canada Reads, and the Prix Femina in France; longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and chosen as a Globe and Mail and Washington Post Top 100 Book. She is also the author of a collection of linked stories, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, and two poetry collections, Primitive and Ashland. She lives in Toronto.

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What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

My phone would not stop hopping around on the table. So, in a huff, I went over to see what the heck was going on. And then I put my face in my hands. To be on the longlist is the most extraordinary good luck, for me and my publisher and the other authors, especially this year. But being on the shortlist comes with some money and a lot of approbation, so it helps me imagine a near future where I can start writing another book.

Ridgerunner is part literary Western and part historical mystery, telling the story of 12-year-old Jack Boulton and notorious thief William Moreland. What draws you to historical fiction, and what particular challenges does writing historical fiction entail?

To write about the past is implicitly to talk about the present, and the future. The reader becomes aware, while reading, that they ARE the future for these characters. We know how WWI ended and what happened years and decades later, but people living back then didn’t, and the characters in my book don’t. So we have a kinship with them, because, like Jack or his father or the nun, we are affected by but not defined by what we are living through right now.

The challenge for me was to make the characters feel as much like real people as is possible in fiction. And then there is the issue of how to fold research into a story so that, with any luck, it doesn’t show.

Gil Adamson

The book is a follow up to your critically acclaimed novel The Outlander and takes place against the backdrop of World War One. In what ways does this time period in particular lend itself to the human drama you’ve created?  

I am fascinated by the question of what daily life was like at the turn of the last century, especially for women. By the time the war started everyone really felt they had entered a frightening modern age. However, Ridgerunner (and The Outlander as well) is set mostly in the wilderness, which is timeless. If I’m honest, setting my story in 1917 had more to do with what age I wanted Jack Boulton to be than with the specific war events in that year. This is, at one level, a child’s adventure story, so I had a difficult task because I wanted him to be on the cusp of being grown up. He’s in that strange state when they are a chimera: half-adult, half-child. So, he has skills and a bit of common sense, but he lacks that hard-won knowledge his mother and father had. And all of them, all my characters, are outside of the very civilization that is falling apart.

In this difficult year, in Canada and worldwide, what does literature offer us?
 
I truly don’t know, but I hope it offers something good. The most obvious answer is that fiction offers a respite from the real. An escape. And that is true, too. But, far from being afraid of reality, most readers want to know, understand, and work things out for themselves. Jack Boulton is forbidden from entering the library in the nun’s house, but he does it anyway at night and reads whatever he likes, and in this way he learns something about the world. And young as he is, he makes up his own mind about things.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

There are so many, but Jack Wang’s We Two Alone (House of Anansi), for which I was the copyeditor, snuck up on me. Going through it line by line gave me a bug’s-eye view of the choices this writer makes. I think his attitude toward his characters, the clear sense of respect for even tertiary characters, is one of the markers of good fiction. It confirmed for me that for realistic fiction to work you must try to have sympathy for your characters, even the awful ones. (Ed: Read The Chat with Jack Wang for more insights into We Too Alone as well as an excerpt).

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Excerpt from Ridgerunner

The safe in the mine bosses’ office was new. The matte black box stood as high as Moreland’s chest, and it had a thick brass handle and painted filigree around the combination dial. He approached it and saw a blur of scratches and dings around the entire circumference of the door where drunken miners had tried in vain to use their tools to pry it open.

In the end, he knew it wouldn’t work, but tried anyway. Because Mary Boulton would want him to. When the last night shift was still hours from coming topside and the day shift slumbered in their little houses, he took four half-charge sticks of Aetna extra-dynamite, with a combined weight strength of eighty percent, and tucked them under the brass handle of the safe, like cigars in a man’s breast pocket. Then he lit the fuses, ran halfway down the external wooden staircase, and curled up in a foetal ball.

No novice at destruction, Moreland had used blasting sticks while on logging crews, on road work, and in mines, including this one at St. Croy, Montana. He’d been so prudent with the stuff, so nimble and clever, that eventually blasting became his only job. He was sure-footed and he was shrewd, and most of all William Moreland was fast. So it was also his task to dispose of old, unstable explosives, walking into the mouth of this very entrance as men bellowed, “Here he comes!” Entering the evacuated mine alone, lantern tied to his hip and swinging, holding those bombs in his gloved hands, a hoarfrost of crystalized explosive that had leaked through the paper sheaths and now clung there like flakes of salt. He’d make his careful way to the edge of an exhausted and abandoned shaft, open his gloved hands like a devil in an opera, and release those sticks into the dark, where they fell for two breaths and landed unseen atop all the other garbage down there, the broken carts, winches and wheels and pick handles, the rotted rope and clothing, tin cans, the skeletons of expired pit ponies. Sometimes he heard a distant whump and felt a body blow in the constricted air of the shaft. Sometimes he didn’t. He always slid the gloves off, too, and let them flutter into the hole. William Moreland, young and cocky back then, striding back up the lonely stope with his lantern held high and a grin on his bloodless face, following a pinhole of daylight.

So the particularities of wood and stone and pebbled earth, of explosion and implosion, impact and scatter, were as familiar to him as his own hands. But this safe was solid steel. He knew what would happen, and it did. The blast knocked the safe onto its back, reduced every window in the place to flying daggers, and removed half the office floor. The roar was horrific. In the silence afterward, everything in the room began a leisurely slide into the jagged hole and, piece by piece, everything in that room fell out into the world.

Excerpted from Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson ©2020 Gil Adamson. Published by House of Anansi Press

October 21, 2020
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