Island Eden

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I’m cataloguing sounds:

Whoop of a buoy somewhere out in the channel. Twittering of finches. Distant crunch of surf. Chug of the ferry, and its horn announcing arrival and departure. Keening of gulls. Buzz of a fly and drone of a bee. Hoarse honking barks of Canada geese passing between marsh and sea.

We’re sitting at the rear of a cottage on White Head Island, separated from the sea only by a bank of wild flowers (they seem to grow all at once out here; wild rhododendron flowering at the same time as fireweed, for example) and a scattering of the white rocks that give the island its name.

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It takes a ninety minute ferry from Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, to Grand Manan Island, passing the other principal Fundy Isles of Campobello Island and Deer Island, as well as the three islands that make up The Wolves (so called not because they’re inhabited by wolves, but after a Glooscap legend), and then another ferry ride, this one a half hour, to get to White Head.

It’s an Eden, this little island, with a year round population of less than 200 that swells increasingly and ominously in the summer, ominously because of the fear that it heralds a changing character from working community – a ‘real’ community – to summer retreat, out of economic inevitability and necessity, maybe, but sad, nevertheless.

I tried to tackle the subject in Defiant Island, borrowing from White Head’s geography, and some of its work and social characteristics, although the novel is definitely not ‘about’ White Head Island.

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Here’s my favourite Defiant Island blurb:

A gentle, moving portrayal of the deliberate, perhaps necessary, political destruction of a community . . . A story about independence, and preserving independence against various forces – the vicissitudes of love, and of economics, and of old age . . . A story about love . . .

That’d be not just romantic love, and love between old friends, but also love of an island.

The Hazards of Playing Music on a Summer Night

As soon as the flashing lights started in the corner of my eye, I knew what was going on. I put down my ancient 100W Traynor amp that weighs about the same as an elephant (okay – I’ve never tried to lift an elephant, but you know what I mean) and sat on the tailgate of the car until the lights disappeared. We were due to play in about a half hour in the summer music series in St. George, the little New Brunswick town where I live, ‘we’ being Stepping Out, our five piece band of Tony on drums, John on guitar, Julie and Dave on vocals, and me on keyboard. I knew the others would arrive at any moment, and when they did, someone picked up the amp on the way past and I, rather gingerly, took in the lighter stuff.

But no more flashing lights, and we played a good concert, and you really can’t beat music on a summer night, preferably outdoors in a band stand, although the unpredictable weather made that impossible.

Next day the eye doc confirmed what I’d guessed: Just a torn retina, the only lasting effect being a bunch of floaters that annoy the heck out of me in certain lights.

The other day it was the same gig, a year later, and I suddenly remembered the incident as I hauled the amp from the back of the car. I’d done it dozens of times since then, of course, but lifted a little more cautiously than usual, all the same.

We played to an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd, several of whom were kind enough to express their enjoyment after the concert and in the days following (it’s a bit like teaching: If someone pays you a compliment on your work, you’re thrilled out of all proportion), and we thank everyone for coming out and hope to see them all again when we play on the waterfront in the Summer Sounds series in the nearby border town of St. Stephen.

On the video: A smoothie! Unforgettable.

St. Martins Idyll

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Writing doesn’t bring many perks, but one it did provide this week was an overnight stay with supper at the elegant Tidal Watch Inn in the little seaside town of St. Martins, New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy, after presenting an evening reading to visitors from all over the US who were taking part in the Road Scholar programme of educational travel (formerly Elderhostel).

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When you step into the Tidal Watch Inn you literally step back in time. It was built over a century ago when St. Martins was a major shipbuilding centre – in fact the third largest producer of wooden sailing vessels on the eastern seaboard of North America, launching over 500 ships that sailed the world – and was one of the wealthiest communities in the British Empire.

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I couldn’t decide what to read to this varied and erudite group. I feared being too heavy; didn’t want to be too flippant, either. Would my listeners be insulted if I asked them to roll back a few years while I read an episode from one of the YA books? In the end I settled on a moody and provocative episode from The Ragged Believers, which visitors to New Brunswick always find interesting, I think because it’s so steeped in local atmosphere, then a wrenching episode from Second Wind, followed by a lighter episode from Defiant Island. I finished – riskily! – with a couple of favourite YA extracts which always go over well with YA audiences, the car wash scene from Just for Kicks, and Toby and Conrad making cookies in Total Offence.

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So how did it go? As I always say – you’re asking the wrong person.

But the answer to one question from the audience – How do you want your stories to be received? – sets up a rough and ready judgement for both stories and readings:

I want them to entertain. (Check.)

I want them to move. (Check.)

I want them to resonate. (You never know.)

Thanks to Kathy at the Tidal Watch Inn for this St. Martins idyll.

Unlikeable Hero

The accident had just happened when I came upon it. I could tell it was bad, the way the truck was skewed across the road, the car half under it. Police and ambulance were arriving and traffic was held up. As I watched, the truck driver came from behind the remains of the car carrying the lifeless form of the small child he’d lifted from it.

I always carry a camera – it’s one of my things – and the thought occurred to me as I watched: That scene would make an award winning, front page filling news photograph, if someone had the – the what? – the journalistic objectiveness, the ability to distance oneself, the nerve, the heartlessness, the presence of mind, to take it.

As a former journalist whose work included covering accidents – could I have taken it? (I didn’t.)

Could you?

The incident formed the genesis, many years later, of my YA novel, Scab (J. Lorimer & Co. 2010), although I changed the picture taking dilemma facing the young apprentice photojournalist of the title.

What prompted these reflections on Scab was a friend sending me a MacLean’s article that asked, with reference to Herman Koch’s dark and macabre novel, The Dinner, ‘Who needs a likeable character, anyway?’

The success of The Dinner answers the question: No, you don’t need a likeable character.

Still, I think you need a central character who may not be likeable, but whom the reader at least cares about.

Scab is not likeable. He’s prickly and rude and ruthless in the pursuit of his ambition to make memorable news photographs. He’s also vulnerable and deeply emotionally wounded. I keep a kind of informal poll on how readers feel about him and they’re split 50/50 between those who think him a despicable cad and those who, while not condoning his actions, sympathise with him and care about him.

How about you? Do you think characters need to be likeable? How do you feel about Scab?

Is he a cad – or sad?