You're the fourth Canadian thriller writer to hit Britain this year, along with James Nichol (Midnight Cab), Robert McGill (The Mysteries), and Ann-Marie MacDonald (The Way The Crow Flies). Are Canadians writing more thrillers, or have British publishers been slack in discovering them before?
It's a tricky question to answer if for no other reason that the category of "thriller" is tricky to define. I suspect that some of the Canadian authors you mention above wouldn't principally define their book as a thriller, or at least not in the most strictly defined sense of the term. Speaking for myself, I hope that The Wildfire Season is driven by suspense, by its pacing and plot, but that it also defies (or at least resists) the fixed expectations that decided genre fiction demands.
Having said this, I don't see any new boom in Canadians writing stories with more suspense or plot. Those that do remain exceptions to the rule - whatever that rule is.
Have you been influenced by any other modern Canadian authors?
I have always loved the short stories of Alice Munro, and she writes of a place (southwestern Ontario) where I grew up. In a way, I think her stories helped shape my own rather gothic view of the Canadian landscape. I also deeply admire Margaret Atwood's experiments and borrowings and cross-breedings with "genre" models, including the murder mystery (Alias Grace) and sci-fi (The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin).
Do you keep an eye on the work of your contemporaries, who are perhaps also rivals? Are there any more that British publishers should be aware of?
I certainly try to keep up with what's going on in the writing of those of my generation. It's important to know where we're going collectively.
As for British publishers being made aware of other Canadian writers, I think that outward-looking and keen U.K. editors have been watching the scene here for some time, so they likely don't need my help!
When Lost Girls, your first novel, was published reviewers had to refer to mainstream authors from Canada such as Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Carol Shields. Do you consider yourself comparable or would you prefer to be considered in a genre of your own?
I see myself as a Canadian author working in a tradition of Canadian Writing - necessarily so, as I was born here, live here, have a maple leaf on my passport. But my relationship to a "Canadian tradition" is perhaps more complicated than the simple question of citizenship. There's no doubt that I share some of the general preoccupations associated with Canadian literature - the individual's relationship to the environment, search for identity in a "new" country, urban v. rural tensions - but beyond this, I don't really think much about the "Canadianness" of my work. It's there, I know, but it's something I don't ponder, as my primary concern is story. Theme, politics, nationhood, philosophy - all the finer points proceed from story.
Reviewers have mentioned James Dickey's Deliverance, and you've been quoted as saying Dickey's novel is more important to you than the film. There is no point is repeating Dickey, so how have you brought the idea of people alone in the backwoods into the twentieth-first century?
You're right, there's no point in repeating Dickey, just as there's no point in repeating anyone. But any text is unavoidably a response to another text, and in The Trade Mission and (to a much lesser extent) The Wildfire Season, the question of modern man seeking authenticity or identity or "challenge" through rediscovering a real (or imagined) wilderness is one shared with Deliverance. This was a fundamental concern of Conrad's, of course, and Melville, and Cormac McCarthy more recently, among others.
As for updating this question to address a contemporary sensibility, the characters in The Trade Mission viewed the Amazon jungle as a particularly convincing video game, a form of virtualized realty. Not because they didn't take it seriously, but because they belong to the first generation to exclusively experience their "real lives" as a reflection, a pop cultural borrowing. It's why so many people of a certain age, immediately after the horrifying events of 9/11, said things like "Wow, that was so real, it was like a movie."
In The Wildfire Season, this is less of a concern. In this book, I was more interested in the idea of wilderness, of fire, as being a context for revelations of character. The physical context the characters find themselves peels away the defences that most of us take for granted: our chatter, our denials, the little lies we tell ourselves to fake our way through the day to day. In very different ways, each character in The Wildfire Season is exposed through the fire, not through the speaking of words (which always has an element of rhetorical shaping to it) but through action.
You trained as lawyer, but law does not come into The Wildfire Season, and I am not sure it was important in your second novel, THE TRADE MISSION. Why have you not bothered to use such a strong subject?
You use whatever is important to the obsession at hand. For me, I can only choose the elements to a story that drive my current interests, so if law or legal issues aren't on the radar, I can't pull them in by strategy alone.
You researched The Wildfire Season by going to the Yukon and you've included some details of how the fire fighters work and sometimes leave a fire to burn. What else have you included from reality?
How a fire runs faster uphill than downhill. How it can live underground through an entire winter only to rise up again in the spring. How a forest fire is hot enough to melt the gold ring off your finger. How a crown fire travels five times faster than an Olympic sprinter…And a thousand barroom anecdotes from fire fighters that came in handy.
When I saw the photographs of the Yukon on your web site I recognised them straight away from the descriptions in the novel, were you able to recall the views so vividly when you were writing or did you keep the photographs on your desk as you wrote?
I have spent several summers in the Yukon, and it's a place I love. A part of my mind (and my soul, too, if I can speak so romantically) is always there. The landscape, for me, is more intimately recollected than any photograph.
In parallel with the story of Miles McEwan, you follow the near-consciousness of a female grizzly bear in the woods. How close have you come to such a fearsome creature?
Last summer, on my travels in the territory, I encountered over 50 bears. Once or twice, it was closer than I would have wished…
While you follow a grizzly that will turn on its hunters, Robert McGill included a tiger in the wild in The Mysteries. What is the advantage of having an animal adversary in your story?
A forest fire reduces all living things in its path to the same Fundamental interests: survival, the protection of family, the activation of instinct.
I wanted to capture that shared simplicity, the recognition of priorities that "advanced" humans too often forget about, and that animals (like bears) have a closer relation to.
In The Wildfire Season you've written a long novel with a small number of characters - what are the advantages or disadvantages of writing this way? It means that you can't use Raymond Chandler's trick of having a man with a gun come in when you don't know what is to happen next.
I see The Wildfire Season as (hopefully) working on a number of levels: an adventure story, a mystery (of sorts), a thriller, a love story. But none of it works if it's not also a novel of character. By concentrating on my main characters, not only do we learn something particular about them (and, as always with novels concerned with characters, something about ourselves) but the stakes of the story as a whole are raised. I don't think you can achieve that through a broad cast of people jumping in and out of the story in order to perform some mechanical plot function.
Miles McEwan's fellow fire fighters are more worried about being laid off than they are of the nature spirits about them. When I read The Wildfire Season I remembered Algernon Blackwood, especially his story "The Wendigo". What do you think Canada has lost since Blackwood lived there?
The native people of the north are being pulled between cultures, between ages. Traditional beliefs and ways of life have been eroded since first contact with Europeans hundreds of years ago, and continues, with even greater acceleration, today. It would be grossly dishonest to pretend that today's native people believed in their own myths and stories the same way they did before TV, before PlayStation, before government jobs and relocation to "reservations" of one kind or another.
To answer your question, with great sadness, almost everything has changed for Canada's native people.
You research all your novels and visit the places in which they are set. So I have an idea of what your next novel may be about, where have you visited since you finished The Wildfire Season?
I've been staying at home lately, so I suppose we might expect a downtown Toronto novel in the future!
And finally, what have you learned from finishing each book? And how has it affected the way you wrote the next?
It gets at once easier and harder. Easier in the sense that you know there is a path ahead. Harder in the sense that one must stray from that easy path to find something new and worthwhile.
||The Wildfire Season (2005)|
||The Trade Mission (2002)|
||Lost Girls (1998)|
||Kiss Me (1996) - short stories|
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