Writing World: Michael Crummey

Writing World: Michael Crummey

Award-winning author Michael Crummey tackles isolation and the ruggedness of our island in his Giller Prize short-listed new work, ‘The Innocents’

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Hot on the heels of a Giller Prize short-listing for his gripping and emotional new novel The Innocents, acclaimed local author Michael Crummey dives into Newfoundland’s beauty and isolation in our latest Q&A.

Congratulations on another Giller Prize short-list, and with such amazing company. At this stage, what do accolades mean to you? Humbling, or just another thing?

Well it’s certainly not just another thing. Partly because it’s a new book right? I always wonder what the next project is going be like and how it’s going be received. So it’s a really nice nod to say with this book you’ve done a decent job and that the book might do okay out in the world. It always feels like it’s about the books as opposed to about me. And the books are always new so it feels new every-time something like this happens.

It’s not uncommon for you to go years in between book releases. Has that been pre-designed to build anticipation or just your method?

I can’t say anything I’ve ever done in my life has been by design. It’s all just sort of just the way I am or the way things are. It seems like I need that amount of time between books as a rule and I think it says something about me being a lazy bastard. But also I’ve just made peace with the fact that I need to waste time to get anything done. And I do think that there is the fact that I’m not putting a book out every two years that does change how books are received when they come out.

Looking back through your career and particularly now with The Innocents, and Newfoundland and Labrador is almost a living breathing character in your work.

I mean that’s something that I think everything I’ve written has touched on to a certain extent. I have always been fascinated by how it has always been a very difficult even dangerous place to try to make a go of it. And oddly Newfoundlanders are famous for how much they love the place and it’s always seemed to me that the place doesn’t necessarily return the affection in the same way. So I think I’m always writing around that relationship to try to figure out or to express or explore what it is about this place that makes it so compelling for the people who live here and that includes me. I feel like this place and the people here have made me who I am. So that’s why this place interests me as a writer.

And I’ve always said that Newfoundland is the greatest gift I could have gotten as a writer because it’s the most interesting place I’ve ever been really in terms of the extremes here. The beauty and the awesomeness of the place and I mean awesome in terms of terrifying as well sometimes, you know? So it’s very easy for me to just keep writing about this place because there’s an endless well it seems like of interesting stories and the place itself is so magnificent and awful that it, for me anyway, lends itself to the fiction that I’m writing.

Many of your works have dealt with weighty themes and The Innocents is no different. You tackle the isolation and loneliness of these two orphans in this desolate place. Not exactly happy happy joy joy.

Nothing I’ve ever written has been happy joy joy (laughs). I think part of what amazed me about this place and the people here is how much people are faced with and have been faced with and how they deal with that. This story of these two orphans who are left alone in the world with a little bit of knowledge but really no sense of what’s ahead of them and no resources to turn to when things start coming their way, it just felt to me like almost an Adam and Eve story.

It’s sort of one of the foundational stories of Western society. I wanted to try to tell the story with that sense of them as individuals of course but also as people who are experiencing things that I suppose all of us deal with in one way or another. For me it’s a book about childhood and about the move out of childhood into adolescence and how astonishingly confusing and strange that trip is. For these two children because they are alone with that, completely alone, those kinds of issues are even starker. 

How difficult was it for you to develop and put yourself in the head-space of the two children?

I was completely intimidated by the thought. I had a book of poetry come out a number of years ago that had a section about my early years growing up in Buchans. When I started writing those I realized that even though I had very vivid memories of my childhood and growing up and Buchans, I realized I had completely forgotten how that youngster felt. All of my feelings about those memories were adult feelings that I had sort of pasted on top of. I had forgotten that child in some ways, who he was and how he saw the world, what he was afraid of and what he wanted. Writing those poems was really an attempt to get back inside that space. It turned out to be a pretty good trial run for trying to get into the heads of these two youngsters and trying to see the world as they might have seen it.

Do you already have the germ of a new book in you, or do you wait and let things happen organically?

At this point I try to let whatever is going to happen happen and try not to worry about it too much. It’s easy to tie yourself up in knots and  worry about whether or not you have an idea for another book or whether or not anything is coming. I find that for a long time nothing is coming and I just have to be OK with that and eventually something more will show up. So I’m kind of in that space right now. I’m actually quite OK with that. I don’t mind having a lot of time on my hands and feeling like I’m not doing much of anything other than mowing the lawn and baking bread and walking the dogs.

Michael Crummey’s The Innocents is available now wherever local books are sold.

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