Howard Norman Talks About Literary Imagination
May include plot spoilers
You were born in Michigan, you live in Vermont, yet most of your books are set in Nova Scotia. Why does it resonate with you?
I think that's something that I've started to ask myself. I'm 61--it seems you would come to such knowledge earlier. Let me try to basically address this, though. Nova Scotia, for all the frequent extended periods I've lived there, is obviously central to my literary imagination. Yet writing about it requires a displacement of imagination, because I generally write my novels in Vermont. And that geographical distance affords me the opportunity to calibrate the right narrative distance for my novels. Or at least I try for that. Once the basic research ends, I go to Vermont and begin to channel Nova Scotia. It's like a geographical séance, I suppose, to put it simply.
To me the Canadian Maritimes is a very compelling region; it's tragic, it's melancholy; it has a long history with the sea; it's elegiac. In the cemeteries, there are so many graves that are empty because the people were lost at sea. I'm comfortable with the disturbing paradoxes and haunting qualities of the area. I'd say I try to maintain a deep level of engagement with that region--always.
At my most hopeful, I'd say the answer to "Why Nova Scotia?" lies in the qualities of the novels themselves. That is, if you write well, the book is the answer to why you chose a certain setting. You develop a place the way you develop a character. I mean, I'm limited. I do understand that, so my hope is to do as much as I can with the two or three places I know about. My next novel is about a Jewish hotel bellman who has, to some extent, an obsession with the Hungarian character actor Peter Lorre (Graham Greene said Peter Lorre's accent was "without portfolio"--I love that) and also the bellman's own rather secret, complicated past, both erotic and criminal--and, no surprise I suppose, it's set in Halifax.
Were the U-boats more frightening to Nova Scotians because of their relationship with the sea?
Like the old dirge says, "The sea giveth, the sea taketh away." The incidents of U-boats sinking passenger and military ferries, such as I write about in this novel, were each more harrowing than the last. U-boats actually came into Halifax Harbor. I wanted the U-boats to be very menacing and very close. And, yes, they now are part of Nova Scotia's history with the sea.
The incident that is featured in the novel is the sinking of the ferry Caribou by the German U-boat Laughing Cow. The ferry had civilians and both Canadian and American military on board. The sinking was brought with terrible vivid immediacy to Canadians through radio broadcasts and, of course, newspapers and first-hand accounts of survivors. The crew of the Laughing Cow just watched as people drowned--no sense of humanity at all. The survivors held that to be unconscionable, and accounts of the sinking were delivered in heartbreaking and graphic terms.
I write about a German student being murdered in a fishing outport along the Bay of Fundy. I was influenced by the fact that "race" crimes--attacks on Germans living in Nova Scotia--on occasion resulted as a consequence of those sinkings. I don't want to force the issue, but when Somali men were stopped and beaten in Portland, Ore., after 9/11--under the sponsorship of some sort of pernicious general Muslim alert--well, you can see the corollary: people don't know what to do with their emotions. Things can turn violent with astonishing suddenness.
We have such little memory of World War II being so close to our shores. You have captured that time so clearly, with such perfect detail--radios, gramophones, living in hotels.
I know the area along the Bay of Fundy very well, so the book inherits 40 years of visits, travels, extended stays. I researched radio broadcasts, church bulletins, attitudes about the war. You research, then pick and choose what fits your story. I tried to pack as much as I could--about what was happening to the Jews, immigration, how people in small towns would discuss world events. On and on. Yes, it exists, and that plays into the ongoing conversation about fiction and nonfiction.
In your research, did you actually find a photograph of some German crew members in a Halifax pub?
Yes, it existed, such a photograph--there are in fact a number of rather uncanny photographs like this. Before the greatest escalation of the war, U-boats would anchor along the jigsaw coastline of Nova Scotia, and young sailors would on occasion make their way to Halifax, often saying they were Swedish or Norwegians or whatnot. There are many such accounts. There were even marriages! They were often just very young men. Finally, of course, that kind of activity stopped as a more effective vigilance entered daily life in Halifax. After some major sinkings, vigilance and paranoia took hold.
Radios play an important role in the book, starting with Katherine and her 58 radios and, of course, Donald's obsessive listening to his broadcasts.
Well, Donald works hard to tune in the radio, to locate a human voice in the sea of static, and he got the worse news he possibly could, that his beloved wife has been killed on the ferry. The power of radio information, bulletins. I believe it could cause a person's mind to go to places they couldn't imagine.
I like the tableau of people huddling around a radio, around a voice--it seems particularly nocturnal, it's a shared experience, almost primal. What did we do before cell phones, people ask. We didn't need to report with such frequency and monotony our every move. But it would be hard to say what we did before the radio, because it was such a formative part of my own life. I remember asking my mother what it was like to first see television. She said, "Jack Benny was more handsome on the radio."
The women in your novel are strong and loving and wise, especially Cornelia and Constance.
I don't think authors are allowed favorites, are they? But Cornelia is my favorite. She reinstated herself from a previous book, Devotion. I couldn't get enough of that character, a bakery owner. Being a denizen of bakeries and cafes, I couldn't return often enough.
I think one thing--I'm not sure if it worked--was to make people like Constance and Cornelia be the sort of incarnations of The Highland Book of Platitudes that one of my characters relies on, the way others might the Bible. But Constance and Cornelia come to their wisdom experientially--just from living life.
For instance, when in one scene Constance packs her wardrobe trunk, I wanted the packing to show that everything in her world was organized, so when the suitcase comes floating back days after the sinking, her life would have still seemed organized. Suitcases and trunks are important to this novel. Gaffing hooks people used to haul in the detritus of human tragedy, such as the sinking of a ferry. When Wyatt much later becomes a detritus gaffer in Halifax Harbor, he doesn't right away consciously make the connection. Rilke said, "The irony was so severe it was elusive.'
Your editor describes you as a storyteller. Is there a difference between a novelist and a storyteller?
One thing I wanted the book to do was give Wyatt an epistolary life. That was the narrative strategy, if you will--he is writing one long letter days and nights on end to his distant daughter, Marlais. I wanted him to tell his story. That is what the title refers to: "What Is Left the Daughter"--not things, not objects, not money, but details and truth of a life. That is what Wyatt wants to give Marlais.
To my mind, a good novelist is by definition a good storyteller. The two things are plaited together--hopefully in a seamless way. It's up to a reader to judge.
This interview was first published at shelf-awareness.com, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.