canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Carmelita McGrath

Carmelita McGrath has authored two volumes of poetry: Poems on Land and on Water and To The New World, which won the Atlantic Poetry Prize in 1998. She’s also written two collections of short fiction: Walking to Shenak and Stranger Things Have Happened (1999, Killick Press), which won the Writers’ Alliance/Bennington Gate Newfoundland Book Award (2000), and was shortlisted for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award (2000). Ms. McGrath currently reviews books for "The Book Girls" on CBC Weekend AM, and works as a freelance editor and researcher in St. John’s. 

Harold Hoefle interviewed McGrath by email during the last week of January 2001.


TDR: Have your work habits changed much over the years? What exactly is your routine? Do you have regular daily writing hours? And are you a planner, someone who puts together detailed outlines and then follows them till the work is finished, or is your verse and fiction-writing more spontaneous?

MCGRATH: Basically I try to write when I'm feeling lucky. There are moments of neuron fireworks and synaptic leaps, clear thinking and complex associative patterns. I try to write when my head's working this way. I'll drop whatever else I'm doing if I can (though right instincts prevailed and I never dropped the baby on the floor over an idea). These moments, sometimes hours, are when I get first drafts and make notes on them. Revision happens slowly, over time and with a cooler head. Often before I write anything down, I develop it in my head. I work on the composition of both poems and fiction scenarios this way. I go tramping around St. John's, especially the trails around Signal Hill, and the whole time I'm making stuff up. So my work begins spontaneously, in the moment, and gets revised by my editor alter-ego. I never use outlines or plots. Instead I ask what next? what now?

As for work habits, all of my self-directed work has to fit with raising a child and making money to live on. Hence, educational texts, government propaganda, freelance editing, articles, reviews, scripts etc. Sometimes I teach a writing course or workshop. So I do what I can when I can and hope it all comes together and that I don't go nuts in the meantime. I do work long hours, like most self-employed people.

TDR: To what extent is your work collaborative before you send it to a publisher? Do you belong to a writer's group or collective? In St. John's, is there a group of writers with whom you share early drafts of your work?

Years ago, starting out, I was lucky enough to belong to a group called the Thursday Collective, which had some fine writers like Ann Hart, Paul Bowdring, Roberta Buchanan, Gordon Rodgers and Percy Janes. They are all good critics too. Percy Janes was one of my literary idols because of his courage and willingness to break taboos about what can and cannot be said. It was an honour to be there. They encouraged me to submit my work to literary magazines. I did, and work got published. I was 24 and overjoyed. I owe that group a lot.

The hot group here now is the Burning Rock, but I'm not a member. I did edit their second anthology, Hearts Larry Broke. I belonged for a while to a poetry group with Mary Dalton, Susan Ingersoll and Barbara Nickel. We ate and drank really well.

I don't think I could find the time now to be in a group. I'm working on three manuscripts, plus freelance. I do try new work out on audiences at readings. And I make sure that there's a skilled and hands-on editor involved in each book.

TDR: To what extent do you see your fiction as different from that of the Newfoundland tradition, writers like Percy Jane, Gordon Pinsent, Kevin Major, and Wayne Johnson?

MCGRATH: Percy was one of my heroes. When I read him as a teenager, I thought, what nerve he has to write like that. And he was from here, which made writing from here seem possible. I share certain affinities with all of these writers, perhaps chiefly a strong sense of place and how it shapes us, and also a belief in the power of narrative. But my work is different from theirs. My work is shaped by female consciousness and experience.

TDR: In 1993, American writer E. Annie Proulx won the Pulitzer Prize with The Shipping News, which is set in outport Newfoundland. Do you think she comes close to describing honestly the world of outport life, or do you find her work marred by romanticizing, sentimentalizing, or even patronizing tones? And does she get the accent right?

MCGRATH: Newfoundlanders have a love/hate relationship with this book. Proulx got some things very right, such as the ways in which people here strategize to make a living and to turn bad things into good. But she got syntax and the rhythms of speech wrong.

Anyone doing criticism or comparisons have stellar examples of how to get it right in three books by Newfoundlanders--Patrick Kavanagh's Gaff Topsails and Bernice Morgan's Random Passage and Waiting for Time. In capturing something large and essential about the Newfoundland experience, these are definitive.

TDR: In Walking to Shenak, your heroine Sheila notes in her diary how she is "sick of my separateness, the old thing, the unwanted childhood aptitude." Since your writing, in all of your work, imparts a strong feeling of honesty and lived-experience, I wonder if this "unwanted childhood aptitude" is yours? And if yes, to what extent does it work positively as a muse,inspiring you to write from a point both inside and outside of the lives and situations you have been a part of?

MCGRATH: Yes, Sheila's "unwanted childhood aptitude" is something I know personally. As a child, Sheila could leave her body and watch people, even herself. It's the observer's gift and curse, and people who have it are, I think, likely to become writers or artists of some kind, if they find the thing they are supposed to do. In Sheila's case, she has the observer's sense of separateness, but is not yet mature enough to have found out what she can do with it. Life is still happening to her. I wanted a character here who could explore physical and psychic isolation from a very personal point of view. 

In my case, separateness does act as a kind of muse, allowing me to leave my own skin and imagine other possible lives and states of being. It can inject objectivity into the personal, and subjectivity into what is seemingly objective and other and remote. It allows for self-mockery too. And it can keep one from going mad from the ridiculous limitation of having only one life.

TDR: In your 1999 short-fiction collection, Stranger Things Have Happened, there is a powerful story called "A Notice of Passage," about a woman's childhood friend, Darry Doyle, who dies of AIDS in his early adulthood. The story is remarkable, in part, for the "magic realism" involved in child-Darry's fending off of older and much larger boys in a forest fight. This magical element - a young boy suddenly imbued with superhuman strength - seems like a departure from the nuanced realism of the Labrador stories in Walking to Shenak and most of the other stories in Stranger Things, set in outport Newfoundland and St. John's. Is this magical vein one you plan on returning to, or have already returned to in new stories?

MCGRATH: I read that story recently at a reading at Mount Allison University, and people commented on the magic elements--they seemed pleased that magic was thrown into otherwise quotidian events. I think that life is often strange and beautiful and inexplicable, and we are more open to the possibility of everyday magic when we are children. The appearance of superpowers, ghosts and possible angels in that book came because I was finally letting in some influences from my own childhood--tall tales, the supernatural and religion as supernatural territory. 

I read magic realism extensively in my twenties and thirties and found myself looking at its presence in my own experience and asking why not here? why not now? In "A Notice of Passage," I also wanted magic to confront the reality of AIDS, a disease of mythic and tragic proportions, which has been surrounded by superstition and terror. I think I will likely mine the vein of magic more deeply; I'm happy with where it takes me.

TDR: As a Newfoundland woman who grew up "around the bay" and now lives in the heart of St. John's, to what extent do you feel it is your writerly duty to get-it-right, to carefully chronicle the lives of women who also inhabit, and have inhabited, these worlds? You have done this successfully in two works of fiction and two volumes of poetry; does part of you think, okay - why not try another place for a while? Some place like Greece, where you could write about other kinds of people in a different kind of place. Sheila in Walking to Shenak bewails the fact that "no place feels like home"; well, Newfoundland seems very much your home, both artistically and literally. Does a change of scene interest you, perhaps for "the shock of new material"?

"New material" is everywhere. One morning I heard a knock against my front window and looked out to see the face of a man I knew plastered against the glass. Two policemen were restraining and cuffing him. Well, shock. Me drinking tea; him being arrested. As long as something surprises or interests me, I'll write from there. But I never want to do the same thing twice. I did want to work with the lives of girls and women and to use the outport/city split as a jumping-off point to other dualities -- youth/aging, passion/responsibility, love/loss, routine/magic. 

But the new works in progress do go in new directions. I often work over a long period of time with a set of concepts or ideas, and I read about and research them from several angles. Right now, I'm exploring ideas about reinvention, escape and return, the forces of attraction and repulsion that affect people, objects, particles. 

Perhaps in all this I'll find some new space between my own love of travel and the desire to kiss the ground on return to Newfoundland. Artistically, this is an energizing, dynamic place to be, but it is also a fishbowl. And I would dearly love to escape with good company and a laptop to some warm place by a different sea, where English is not the first language, and where the politics are not my own. Right now, however, I would have to bring all my daughter's grade five class, all her friends and possibly her bedroom. And the cat.

TDR: Each of your four volumes have been published by Killick Press, a Creative Publishers imprint, and the books are published in St. John's. Have you considered getting an agent and moving to a bigger Canadian publisher, in order to increase the presence of your books in the shops and subsequently the hands of more readers across the country?

MCGRATH: I'm not the hot/cool property agents are looking for. One of the manuscripts is poetry, another short fiction, which in Canada is as good as saying they are marginalia. I think I will try to find an agent for the novel, though. I do support the local presses and the local work that goes into the production of books. But distribution and marketing of small-press works is depressing; unless the small press is in Toronto, who cares? 

The rest of Canada is "regional." None of my four books has been reviewed in national newspapers, despite the fact the last two won awards. Obviously I need to move to TO, buy cocktail clothes and learn to blow my own horn more loudly.

TDR: You mentioned earlier that you are working on three manuscripts, and also that you are investigating such ideas as reinvention, escape and return, the forces of attraction and repulsion; would you be willing to talk in a bit more detail about your new projects? Or do feel that is a jinx, and the Old Hag you write about will plonk down on the chest of the new gestating work and suffocate it?

MCGRATH: They are a novel, a short story collection, a collection of poetry. I am afraid of being my own jinxer, in a way. And it's always hard to describe collections. The novel explores a durable friendship, disaffection and art in the midst of cod moratorium angst, and the power and fallibility of wishes. It has nice guys in it who don't finish last. All three manuscripts have a lot of sex and death in them, Big Death and Little Death, Eros and Thanatos -- heck, I must really be middle-aged! 

TDR: Finally, you mentioned that the vibrant writing group in Newfoundland today is Burning Rock, represented in the second Burning Rock anthology - edited by you - called Hearts Larry Broke. What are these writers doing that's different and exciting? And who's carrying certain Newfoundland traditions of theme and narrative structure?

Burning Rock members tend to be experimental and willing to take risks, which is always exciting. Also several members work in other art forms (Lisa Moore, for example, is trained in visual art); I think such backgrounds expand and open up forms of expression and lead to works that are texturally rich.

But there are so many writers doing good work here now. I mentioned Bernice Morgan and Patrick Kavanagh. But there's also Libby Creelman, Lillian Bouzane, Michael Crummey, Joan Clark, Paul Bowdring...I could go on and on. 

Tradition has been transformed as writing has exploded. The literature that comes out of here now is aware of tradition, but also sees it from a critical standpoint. I believe that literature that has momentum both honours and subverts the traditions from which it arises. Full speed ahead is what I see going on here.

Harold Hoefle teaches high school English in Montreal. He has published fiction and book reviews.







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