Award-winning writer Gary Collins gets candid on everything from his often gut-wrenching writing process to why his latest novel, The Crackie, just might be his best yet
Gary Collins is used to hearing from readers, though he shares – almost hesitantly – sometimes he’s overwhelmed by the sentiments. “This man, a distinguished-looking gentleman, he told me he had every one of my books,” he begins. While that was praise enough for the award-winning writer who spent 40 years in the logging industry before putting pen to paper, there was more.
“I couldn’t put it down, he said of The Crackie, which was positive,” Collins shares, but that wasn’t all. The man continued that he actually “hated” the book, Collins’ latest creation. Why?
“He said, because I knew it was going to end and I didn’t want it to end so I would read five pages and I’d wait, then pick it up, read a few more. It was like dessert; I wanted it to linger. I wanted to savour it. You have a gift, he told me. I told him I wasn’t sure about that.”
Others are more than sure. If you’ve ever read anything by the Hare Bay native you’d understand totally. This writer felt the power of that gift while reading the touching, powerful Left to Die, the story of the SS Newfoundland sealing disaster of March 1914.
‘Damn Near Froze’
Collins provides some chilling insight. “I’ve been asked; how come (Left to Die) was so vivid? So realistic? The most brutal scene in that book was when Reuben Crewe put his son in his arms to die on the ice,” he begins. While writing, Collins was sitting in the office of his warm, cosy home.
“It was 12 o’clock at night and I took off my clothes to my shorts and walked out on that patio and I damn near froze. The wind was out the bay and it was really cold and I was out there about 15 minutes. I came in and closed the door and within three feet of the door I collapsed in the chair and I died on the ice with Reuben Crewe.”
Shivering, with hands bent from the raw cold, Collins typed. “It took a lot out of me, but how could you write about a man dying and his son dying in his arms while in a nice, soft, warm house?”
Collins is the first to admit he’d lived a hard life in the logging camps, and he’d been wet and cold, but he knew this was totally different. “I wrote, and I just died there with Reuben Crewe. That’s what I had to do to get the level of detail the story deserved,” he shared. Powerful stuff.
Where did this gift come from? Not from his father, he jokes. “When I was very young I was an avid listener – I still am and it’s my opinion if you are a writer and you do the kind of work I do you have to listen to people and listen well or you can’t write.”
So, who did he listen to? His elders, like his father and his uncle. His father wasn’t a good storyteller, though he was incredibly accurate.
“He would tell it just as it was. If I said; dad, you must have been a good turr hunter when you was a young man, dad would say; yeah, we were out one time and killed 50 turrs. End of story.”
A Special Place
If he asked his Uncle Louis the same question, well, that was a different yarn altogether. “Well my son, I remembers Friday night, yer Uncle Gerry come in and said, b’ys git yer shells ready for da mar marnin’ cause we’re goin’ out in punt. And on he’d go, telling you about the wind and the punt and who was where doing whatever, and he’d be an hour in and you hadn’t even gone turr hunting yet. I was spellbound. There’s never a story that I write that I don’t think about him and put details in there.”
As for The Crackie, it holds a special place in his heart.
“Crackie for me, when I was a boy or for anyone around the bay, a crackie was a nondescript dog that was no good. In Hare Bay where I live, people had dogs for hauling wood, and a crackie was no good for that; just a damn crackie. The other definition that I recall my dad would say; there’s uncle Bob coming up the road and young Jack is chasing him – that’s his son. He’s a real crackie – he’s always chasing his father. Somebody faithful.”
In this book, it’s something else; a crack shot. The novel; about a boy who must overcome hardships as he lives through some of Newfoundland’s greatest historic adventures and tragedies, is one Collins says he’s the most proud of.
“I wanted an underdog who overcame great adversities in a big way. There’s no Walt Disney ending. Readers say; you had me hanging on, I thought everything would turn up roses. But life isn’t always like that.”
So why is The Crackie his favourite? Because it’s different, he says. For one thing, it’s the first novel he’s written where only one character has a name; besides The Crackie, there’s the maid, the old man, the gunner, the Catholic, the mother, the father.
“I knew this was different. Half way through I felt this complete freedom. I knew where I was headed and I throughly enjoyed it and when I sent it to my publisher I said; this is my best work.”
Hungry for More
The only downside? Readers are hungry for more. “They want to know what happens with the other characters, like the maid. It’s flattering. I like that.”
Something else he likes? Getting ready for his next book. “I think I’ll always have a story to tell. That, maybe, is my gift.”
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