“The Past is Never Dead”: an interview with Michael Crummey


By Julienne IsaacsMichaelCrummeypic

Michael Crummey is a Newfoundland poet and writer. He has published five collections of poetry and four novels, along with Flesh and Blood, a collection of short stories. His first novel, 2001’s River Thieves, was shortlisted for the Giller prize and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. His third novel, Galore, was shortlisted for the IMPAC Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction (2010). His latest novel, Sweetland, a tale of resettlement and isolation infused with the magic-realism of Newfoundland’s folk traditions, was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award.

Crummey is prolific but self-effacing, with a wise-cracking public persona that matches the dry humour of his literary efforts. I interviewed him via email this December while he drove to and from speaking engagements around the Maritimes.

Will you ever tire of writing about Newfoundland and Labrador?

I sincerely hope not. And I don’t see it happening to be honest. This is the place that made me, so it’s the place that interests me most. I may, at some point, tire of Newfoundland as the explicit subject of my writing. It may recede a little and act as background to a story. But I doubt that. The place is so intimately tied up with the lives of people here that I can’t imagine separating them.

In your novels your characters don’t so much love Newfoundland as inhabit it, body and soul. If they leave, bad things often happen to them. If they stay, bad things often happen to them. But both the harms and the joys seem ordered by the place, as if Newfoundland has a supernatural power to affect their lives. If you’d been born in, say, Milwaukee, do you think you’d write about Milwaukee this way? Or does this kind of power belong only to Newfoundland?

Well, as I said, people’s lives here are intimately tied up with the place itself. It’s difficult to separate those strands. And because of that, there is something in Newfoundlanders’ connection to this place that seems otherworldly. I doubt Milwaukee has the same hold on its citizens, although I could be wrong about that. I think it has something to do with the intertwined nature of the culture and the landscape. It’s always been a difficult place to make a go of it economically, and the fishery is an incredibly dangerous occupation. It feels as if people’s relationship to the world they live in here is heightened by the extremes of the place.

Galore’s ghosts have an active role in the novel: Mr. Gallery is a highly visible figure in the community even after death. In Sweetland, your ghosts seem a little more passive, rising up around Moses Sweetland to offer reminders of his dying community’s history, his own story. Why do you make ghosts important to your stories? Have you ever seen a ghost?

I have never seen a ghost. I did have a bed that used to shake me awake in the middle of the night, but that’s another story.

Ghosts have been a central part of the folklore of Newfoundland for centuries, and that’s part of the reason they keep appearing in my fiction. But for me they’re also a metaphor for the ways in which the past plays an active role in our lives. The past is never dead, Faulkner said, it isn’t even past. And that is as true in Newfoundland as anywhere I’ve ever been.

Okay, but your ghosts are more than just metaphors in your novels—they bring metaphysics and “meaty” physical presence. If you just needed metaphors for emotional inheritance you could find plenty that were less creepy than your ghosts.

I suppose that’s true. Not sure what more to say about it though. I guess it’s a case of wanting to make the phenomenon convincing to a reader, or at least make the character’s experience of the phenomenon convincing to a reader. If you’re going to put them in, they better pull a little more weight than simply acting as a metaphor. 

Sweetland’s Moses Sweetland was described in The Walrus as “CanLit’s next great curmudgeon.” Do you see Sweetland this way?

I haven’t really seen a description of Moses that fits him. Some people refer to him as a curmudgeon, or a coot, or the like. But I like to think there’s more to him than a grumpy old man who wears his pants up around his nipples. I don’t even think of him as that old, really. Just turning seventy and still a physical force.  The thing about Moses that draws the curmudgeon label is his unwillingness to play nice, his gruff manner, his inability or unwillingness to explain himself. But that’s just surface. Underneath the crust there’s a world at work, and I hope that gives the book a little more depth than a novel about a curmudgeon might have.   

Moses Sweetland spends the second half of Sweetland totally alone—save for ghosts and a dog—on the island. Did you always intend to divide the novel into two distinct sections, with Sweetland completely isolated for the whole of the second? Were the lonely passages challenging to write?

I knew before I started on this that the second half of the book would be Moses alone on the island. And that kind of terrified me. I didn’t know if I had it in me to make that work, to hold a reader’s attention, to maintain some level of tension with just Moses to work with. And in some ways, the fear is what convinced me to give it a shot. I think if a book doesn’t scare me in some way, if there isn’t something about it that feels beyond my abilities, I shouldn’t write it. I want the book to push me out of my comfort zone. Otherwise I’m just going to be repeating myself.

When it actually came to the writing of the second half, though, it was kind of a magical experience. Moses is surrounded by so much of the island’s past, that landscape was so haunted by characters and stories, that it kind of fell out without much conscious effort on my part.

The fear fell out?

Well, I meant the second half of the book fell out. But, yes, the fear kind of disappeared as well. 

Religion is always present in your work, regardless of how your characters feel about God (In Galore he’s called a “miserable bastard” and “a miserable so-and-so” by both Catholics and Protestants). In your poetry collection Under the Keel’s series “Watermark,” candidates for Pentecostal baptism find the act of submersion to be spiritually refreshing rather than salvific. (“I been sove three times now/Please God this one will take”). Do you see God as a “miserable bastard”? What keeps you coming back to questions of faith in your work?

Partly it has to do with the fact that religion was such a central component of these communities. Trying to write these stories without addressing religion is, by definition, a distortion of the outports and the people who live there.

It’s also, of course, something I’ve spent a lot of my own life thinking about on some level. This novel is really a book about mortality and it’s hard to address that question without at least a sidelong glance at religion. As to the question of whether God is a miserable bastard, I refer you to the Book of Job.

Job’s friends are no picnic either.

We are made in His image. Or vice versa.

You’re a poet, a novelist, a short-story writer, an essayist. You’ve worked on a documentary. What’s your preferred medium? And what’s next for you?

I don’t know anymore what my preferred medium is. When they’re going well, I love them all. Poetry is the most meditative and in some ways the most personally rewarding. But the novels are a challenge on so many levels, trying to keep so many balls in the air at once. And I have learned to love that challenge.

As for what’s next, I’m about to start working on another short doc for the NFB which I’m really looking forward to. And toying with the notion of writing a memoir about my father’s early life. Basically I’m open to whatever comes my way.

What are you reading?

I just picked up Don McKay’s collected poems, Angular Unconformity. I’ve read much of the book through the individual collections, but I’m enjoying dipping into his career at different points just by flipping the book open. A major writer.

Know any good jokes?

None. The only joke I can ever remember is a Mad Cow joke. Two cows are standing in a field, one cow turns to the other and says, “Are you worried about Mad Cow Disease?” And the second cow replies, “I don’t have to worry, I’m a duck.” Ha!

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Isaacs Julienne

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and an associate editor at the Winnipeg Review.