Prince Edward Island author Nicholas Herring took the Canadian literary world by storm late last fall, winning the prestigious 2022 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his rollicking debut novel Some Hellish.
The jury praised the novel, saying, “What Cormac McCarthy did for cowboys and horses, Nicholas Herring does for fishermen and boats in his novel Some Hellish. With a deep knowledge of the Island and a passion for the language of work, Herring’s voice is droll and philosophical, ribald and poetic. The age-old story of humans versus nature finds a fresh cadence as Herring trawls the seas for body and soul. There is a dark beauty within this story, and it will make the reader’s heart sing.”
Nicholas Herring’s fiction has appeared in The Puritan and The Fiddlehead. He works as a carpenter and lives on PEI. Some Hellish, his first novel, won the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2022.
Some Hellish is a raucous, rowdy, deeply existential story that follows a season in the life of an Island fisherman called Herring. How did the story first come to life for you?
Well, I had the basic idea (really, the barest of bones) come to me when I was about sixteen- or seventeen-years old. Back then, the story was about a coal miner in Glace Bay who is trapped in a mine for a spell and when he is returned to the surface, he’s changed in a number of mysterious ways. So, these ideas were sitting with me for quite some time, just kind of steeping, if you will.
This book really began in the spring a few years ago when I was building wharves. I was working with these two guys and I thought that they were pretty fantastic, that they were deserving of a book. They’d tell you stories about strange and sad and really kind of beautiful things and it didn’t seem to me that they were too worked up about being judged by anybody. Successes and failures were of equal proportions to them.
I think you can notice qualities like this in most fishermen. Not all, but most. They had pluck and their honesty struck me as a force that ought to be commemorated, which may be putting it a little delicately, but you get the point. A few months later, a young fellow I was working with, his cousin went overboard fishing out of Naufrage, and I got to thinking about this, about teleological notions. About the human cost of lobster: the heart and the wallet and the spirit.
The bodies that are bent and worn by the pursuit of this crustacean.
Is it weird at all that you and Herring share the same name?
Ha! A great question. No, it’s not really that strange, and yes, it is pretty weird. I thought it was kind of funny, truthfully, for a bunch of reasons. I suppose it is a little bizarre. (This makes more sense if you spend any time with me.)
In an essay called “Autobiography and the Novel,” Salman Rushdie points out that, “[e]very contemporary novelist will tell you that the question he or she is most frequently asked is the autobiographical question. ‘How autobiographical is it?’” And, as it turns out, there is a right and a wrong way to deal with this inquiry.
I guess I should state that I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. (Oh, in another essay, Rushdie also says, “[a]nimal fables—including talking-dead-fish fables—have been among the most enduring tales in the Eastern canon, and the best of them, unlike, say the fables of Aesop, are amoral.” Maybe there was some of this at play in what I was trying to do. Anyway, long story short: we should all read some more Rushdie, I reckon.)
You’ve spoken elsewhere of some of your literary influences—Alice Munro and Cormac McCarthy were a few I think you mentioned at your launch in Charlottetown. In the acknowledgements, you thank a few more. Can you talk some more about influence? What other writers have had the biggest impact on your craft and your storytelling?
Well, I’m one of those readers who has been influenced by everything I’ve read. (I don’t think this is too hyperbolic a statement.) The list is really too long to mention. When I was starting the novel, I found myself thinking about John Steinbeck and Nelson Algren. I spent a bunch of time thinking about Michael Haneke’s film Amour. I’d seen it years ago and for some reason it had always been right there, in my mind. I was thinking that it was a perfect piece of art, in terms of its ability to appear as something that was formless. I was thinking that this achievement would be something to shoot for down the road.
I was also thinking about Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín and Flannery O’Connor and Clarice Lispector and Roberto Bolaño, and of how lucky I was to be alive, and that they were alive, too, so that I could read them. I was thinking about Thomas Merton and this book by Lawrence Weschler called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. Anyway, I was thinking about all of these things, as I always tend to do. No matter how you slice it, art, whatever its form, is such a force in the world. We talk about it all the time without really thinking or talking about it, you know what I mean?
No matter how you slice it, art, whatever its form, is such a force in the world. We talk about it all the time without really thinking or talking about it, you know what I mean?
It’s rare to read writing from PEI that so closely captures the lives, speech, and rhythms of Islanders. The closest comparison I can think of is Milton Acorn. Do you feel at all part of an Island or Maritime literary tradition?
Not really, but I only say this because I’m so new to everything. To become a part of something, of any community, requires time and some measure of staying power. My book hasn’t experienced any of these things. However, from the outside, yes, there are elements of my novel that place me firmly within the tradition of Maritime literature, and, yes, they’re rather obvious: the sea, lobster, drink, idiosyncrasies, etc., etc.
Herring (your protagonist) gradually undergoes a period of growth and change. Reading literature (like Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter) is one way that opens him up to a wider world, one where he feels a little less alone with his thoughts and emotions. We only begin to get a sense of the person he becomes just as the novel concludes. Why did you chose to end the story where you did?
Well, I wanted to illustrate a movement towards something, rather than the attainment of some permanent state. Lobsters are continuously molting and growing, and as they age, they acquire more and more strength. And when they’re molting they’re totally vulnerable to predation, so they have to find caves and dark places where their skin can harden and calcify.
It’s an incredible process and one that has some overlap with some aspects of human experience, as far as I can tell. So, in my own way, I was trying to show this, to reveal the motions of human potentiality rather than, let’s say, some form of termination.
The novel won one the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Canada. How has that award changed you or your writing career? And what are you working on now?
Another great question. At this moment in time, I’m not really sure. I live in perpetual fear of turning into a righteous blowhard. But I will say it’s totally crazy and overwhelming, and that I’m very grateful that it happened. My wife and I are expecting a child in the spring, so, to be truthful, that’s kind of where most of my psychic energy is going. That and working, just trying to show up to work every day and be the best version of myself.
I should say, too, that I was anticipating that the book would come out and that nothing would happen. So, to have David and Norma and Andrew (the jurors for the Prize) recognize my work has been intensely validating. I mean, what an honour. And, I got to work with Bethany Gibson and everybody at Goose Lane, and that was pretty terrific, as well. But to answer your question: I’m just waiting to return to that place where I was when I began the last project. I was there once before and it bore some fruit, you know? So, I’m just waiting for some good weather and a new set of tires, if you catch my drift. The next book is mostly written. It’s all there, swirling in the vortex.
Excerpt from Some Hellish
As they passed the breakwater, the full force of the winds struck the M&M. The waves were cascading from east to west like mad razors. Herring said, “Goddamn bare-arsed nor’easters.”
Gerry said, “What about Stretch?” Herring didn’t respond. Gerry wanted to remind him that today was a double haul, which meant that if it was only him picking and baiting and measuring and banding, well, he was going to be right slammed. He thought better of speaking his mind.
They’d left just as the other fishermen began to arrive at the wharf. Herring looked infirm and sickly behind the wheel, kept asking, “Where’s the red buoy? Where’s the red buoy?” and Gerry, crumpled by the washboard, glugging soda and shivering, could barely think straight.
They were doing twelve knots, just hammering through the waves. Everything in the cabin was upon the floor. Screwdrivers and gauges and bottles. This way and that way. Explosions and debris. Water cascading over the boat. They may as well have been sailing through the atmosphere. You didn’t want to stand, and Gerry didn’t know how he was going to get the bait thawed out, let alone do anything else. There was a handful of cigarettes floating on the water that had collected in the back of the boat. Years back, they’d had a good piss-up at the wharf and this deckhand, young and green as all get out, well, they found him in the morning, splayed out on the deck, covered in blood and beer and vomit. Herring had looked him over and said to Gerry, “That there’s the working definition of scudgie.” Gerry thought that Herring looked worse now than that boy had. He looked scudgie all right. As if he were a cow about to be exploded by some hurtling train. Gerry said, “It’s some feathery out there.” Herring motioned for Gerry to come and take the wheel for him, and he did. “Member, if anything happens, just head west. You’ll bump into somebody eventually.” Herring grabbed his stomach, said that he was going to be sick. “I’ve a bit of the springtime splash,” he said, and told him where to point the bow, the windshield splattered by the sea. The boat heaved upon the waves, as small and imposing as a disregarded cork. He could feel the propeller yielding, the quiver of the skeg, and Gerry clutched the wheel with everything he had.
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