Local books, universal journeys: The 2018 Newfoundland & Labrador Book Awards

There is a strength to local writing grounded in, but not limited to, connections to Newfoundland and Labrador. You can see this in the six books nominated for the 2018 Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards, in the categories of Fiction and Children’s/Young Adult this year.

There’s something about recognizing place. Now that I have come to know the streets of St. John’s, I can walk in Wanda Jaynes’ footsteps through Georgestown to Sobeys, thanks to Bridget Canning. I know someone who lives near the street Maureen grew up on and I recognize the significance of her desire to get away, as Mary Walsh did when she came up with Maureen’s story. And like Johnny, I am familiar with the bizarre connections that can be formed with strangers on the road here, as Joel Thomas Hynes writes.  

Reading the three children’s books, I saw what Lar’s Fruit Stand looked like through Lori Doody’s eyes and what might happen if puffins took over St. John’s. Thanks to Rebecca North, I took a boat journey with her protagonist Elliot and learned how different types of animals catch fish. And along with Errol the mouse and Sheilah Lukins, I traveled to the mines of Bell Island and back, all in the span of one afternoon.

Journeys make good stories and all the nominated books are about journeys. 

Even though the character of Wanda in The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes doesn’t leave St. John’s, she goes on an emotional journey as a result of her viral fame following an attempted shooting. 

“St. John’s is kind of a microcosm in itself. You go to Sobeys and you see somebody you know. The idea that she [Wanda] would have viral fame in a place where it’s very easy to be known for something anyway really appealed to me.”

Maureen in Mary Walsh’s novel Crying for the Moon is familiar with being known in a small town. She knew the novel had to have St. John’s roots.

“I can’t imagine setting it anywhere else. The story seemed to have to be told here. If I had set it in Mumbai, I imagine I would still be writing. St. John’s is a character that I know very well.”

Sheilah Lukins, nominated in the Children’s/Young Adult category for Full Speed Ahead: Errol’s Bell Island Adventure, also set her book in this place.

“I like the thought of setting stories in local places where kids can feel proud that it’s a story from where they live. I know one little boy whose grandmother was reading it to him and he didn’t seem interested at first and then he realized it was Bell Island and he got really excited realizing it was so close to where he was living. It means something to kids to see their own environment reflected in what they’re reading.”

The local can be universal. Rebecca North said that her experiences reading her book Elliot and the Impossible Fish to kids showed her how far local writing can reach.

“I’ve taken this book to different places in Ontario and lots of kids get excited about the book and learning about these different animals. They can picture themselves in the book too. So while it doesn’t specifically say the story takes place in Newfoundland, I think it’s pretty clear that’s where it is. But all different kids across the country can enjoy it.”

Bridget Canning said that grounding a story in a particular place and time can make it more universal.

“If you can describe something, give the flavour and character, you also make it universal. It makes people think about where they’re from and what’s the same and what’s different. I think it creates a kind of empathy that way. Everything is about putting the reader in the shoes of the characters and trying to make them feel something.”

One of the most important aspects of getting the story right is establishing the voice of the character. All of the nominated works feature realistic characters who call Newfoundland home. It is possible to imagine running into any of them at the local grocery store.

Mary Walsh has had plenty of experience throughout her career creating characters like this, although she had to modify her writing practice slightly when it came to writing the novel.

“I always write out loud. Because it was my first novel, I used the strengths that I had, and one of those strengths is writing dialogue. One of the things I do to write dialogue is I say everything aloud to hear how it sounds. And if it sounds right, if I can find the character that says that, then I’m fine.”

Bridget Canning also has an ear for dialogue and her talent is on full display in The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes.

“Dialogue is something that you really have to work on. I really try to listen and think about the way people talk and the sayings they have. One of the things I wanted to do was have certain characters who have very specific ways of talking. I wanted it to be coloquial, but there’s a line there. Sometimes you can really nail it and sometimes you can go overboard. It’s very tricky to do with Newfoundland dialects. I wanted the dialogue to be real and how those characters would speak.”

The inspiration for these characters and stories often comes from unlikely places. Although all of the nominated books feature strong Newfoundland connections, the inspiration behind them could not be more different. For Rebecca North, that inspiration came from a song.

“I was in Newfoundland training for the Tely Ten and I only had one playlist on my phone that I played over and over again. There was a song on it called “Ship to Wreck” by Florence + the Machine. It’s an upbeat sounding song, it’s good to run to, but the lyrics are not upbeat. She uses a lot of water imagery and talks about a whale in her bed. I kept getting pictures in my head of somebody in a boat in the ocean surrounded by sharks and whales and that’s where Elliot came from. It’s a much friendlier story than hers [Florence’s] but it was the water imagery in that song that inspired the book.”

Bridget Canning also finds inspiration in unlikely places. In her case, the world of internet memes provided the genesis for Wanda’s story.

“I was interested in how these days, with social media and the information age where everything is immediate, instead of being a person we are more ideas. You see that a lot with memes. I used memes because of the symbolism and how they can become an idea or a response to something.”

Even the name of Canning’s main character was carefully chosen so it would work perfectly with the themes of the novel.

“I also liked the things you can do with the name Wanda, like WandaWoman. She comes from a family where her parents are quite stable, hardworking people in a small town, so she would have a very practical name. I keep going back to this idea of people becoming symbols and their names can play so much with that. Your name is a symbol for who you are, a meme in itself.”

Perhaps the most unlikely inspiration story came from Lori Doody, who told me about the inspiration behind her book The Puffin Problem.

“I kept going back to the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds and I thought, how about I basically do that but with puffins in St. John’s. And obviously not as scary! But what happens if you have too much cute, and how do you deal with that?”

By going on journeys through the streets of St. John’s with Wanda, Maureen, Johnny, and the puffins, to exploring the mines of Bell Island with Errol and the seas with Elliot it is possible to see the St. John’s that you knew, but also to catch glimpses of a St. John’s you only ever saw out of the corner of your eye. 

As Mary Walsh said, “connection is really important. Even though Joyce lived most of his life in Paris, he never really got away from Dublin. It seems that writers have that strong sense of place. The more you have a strong sense of place, the better off you are.”

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