The England-based Canadian author’s second novel Our Homesick Songs (Fig Tree, £12.99) is centred on real life events in 1992, when the Canadian government enacted a moratorium on cod fishing that left 35,000 Newfoundlanders out of work. It follows 10-year-old Finn Connor, whose family is forced to separate. When his sister disappears as well, Finn must find a way of calling home the family.
Growing up in Alberta, how much did the stories of the crisis affect you? And when did you decide to write about it?
I remember lots of people, workers, coming over to Alberta pretty much all at once, over the course of just a few years, back when I was a kid. At the time it was framed for me as a story of exciting Albertan growth; it wasn’t until later that I learned the other side of the story – that all these workers coming to support our boom in industry were doing so due to the bust of their own. I decided to write about it after visiting a small island off the bigger island of Newfoundland itself, just like the setting of the book. And, like in the book, it was a former fishing outport that had been devastated by the collapse of the cod fisheries. A year later I still couldn’t get the unique, beautiful, lonely, breathtaking place out of my head; it was clear to me that my next book project would be inspired by the distinct, windy, foggy, sad and fascinating story of these islands.
To what extent are the events of 1992 relevant to Newfoundlanders today?
I think they’re still incredibly relevant. Whole communities were emptied out, ways of life challenged, abandoned or changed. Little by little sustainable fishing is being re-introduced in the region. However, many people, families and individuals have already moved on, moved out west or elsewhere, to start new lives.
The protagonists of your first novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James were elderly while those in Our Homesick Songs are children. What do they have in common?
There’s a sense of powerlessness in both these demographics, at least as societally perceived. It’s therefore that much more of a challenge for the protagonists, Etta, Finn, and the others, to do what they choose to do – and feel they have to do. I think it makes for a more interesting story.
The Newfoundland landscape provides a backdrop for the magical realism in this book just as Saskatchewan did in your last. Can your adopted home of the UK ever have the same magical pull of your homeland?
There’s a part in Hemingway’s Moveable Feast where he talks about how he had to leave Paris in order to write about it. That’s very much how I feel about writing and place. In order to have the perspective, distance, and nostalgia to write about my Canada I had to leave, be living and writing somewhere else. So it’s very possible that I’ll write about the UK sometime – probably soon, but probably not until I leave for a while.
The book explores the lengths parents go to to give their children a better life when the area they live in can no longer provide for them. Did you intend for the characters’ struggle to remind readers of the current migration crisis?
The larger picture of the struggles and dreams of migration populations was definitely something I wanted the book to touch on, even if not overtly, yes. It’s important for us all to remember that this isn’t a new thing, that people have always had reason and need to move from one place to another for the entirety of human history.
The Celtic music of Newfoundland is woven throughout the book. Tell us about your research into this area.
Originally, I wanted the book to feature authentic Newfoundland folk music. But then, while researching, I found that there really didn’t seem to be such thing as a pure Canadian folk song, as pretty much every tune I studied took me back, eventually, to somewhere else – Ireland, Scotland, Germany, etc. Unfortunately, and not without controversy, little to nothing remains in our national canon of any aboriginal music. Music, I realised, and musical identity, isn’t a static thing, isn’t solid, but is, like us, a hodge-podge of what and where came before.
There’s a point in my book where one character tells another “All songs are homesick songs”, spelling out, in essence, this lesson I came to learn about sound, music, history and heritage. Canada may only be 150 years old, but our heritage is much, much older than that. It has been sung and shared across oceans and generations over and over and over again. I am Canadian but really that means I am Irish. I am Scottish. I am German and Aboriginal and Romanian. My self, my music, pulls out and back forever, to other, older times and paces. All my songs are homesick songs. All everyone’s songs are.