One of the most remarkable first novels to appear in recent years is Patrick Kavanagh's Gaff Topsails, a poetic Joycean portrait of a day in the life of a small Irish Catholic outport in Newfoundland, as it would have been on June 24th, 1948, just before Newfoundland entered Confederation. Now in its second printing, Gaff Topsails has been both a critical and word-of-mouth success; last spring it won the Ottawa-Carleton Book Award; early in 1998 it will be published by the Penguin Group in the U.S. and Britain, where it will be nominated for the Booker Prize.
Equally remarkable is the story behind the book; it was conceived in Papua New Guinea in 1976, where Kavanagh, then a volunteer with CUSO, was recuperating from a serious motorcycle accident, and completed in Beijing nearly two decades later. Now forty-seven, Kavanagh grew up in Harbour Main on Conception Bay, studied at Memorial University and at Duke University in North Carolina, and currently lives in Ottawa. He has reddish hair and beard and sounds a bit like another Newfoundland expatriate, the CBC's Rex Murphy. We talked in the Victorian house he shares with his partner, Sarah Taylor, a Canadian foreign service officer.
SG: What made you decide to write a novel?
PK: I'd tried several other careers. I tried to be an engineer, I tried to be a sociologist. I knew all along that I could write. I was taught high-school English by a man named John Byrne, who insisted that every week we write an essay, which he would criticize. This regular routine worked. It produces a consciousness of style, grammar, and all the rest of it, that stays with you all your life. So I knew I had the basic tools needed to write, and I'd been encouraged by something Mavis Gallant once said in an interview: that any reasonably well-educated person could write good novels. It doesn't need great skills, just ability to read and write and observe the world around you. But I didn't start reading seriously until I was in my mid-twenties, and the first writers I read were Joyce and Nabokov. For a while I assumed that all novels were like Ulysses, or Lolita.
Then, after the accident, I had a lot of time to read. There were two kinds of writers that spurred me on. On the one hand, there were people like Joyce, Nabokov, Malcolm Lowry. No way I could ever write like that. But on the other hand, there were a lot of writers I figured that I could do just as well as. I also knew that if I were going to write something worthwhile, it had to be based on my youth in Newfoundland. This was the experience in my life that was interesting. And right from the beginning, I was influenced by Ulysses, the idea of writing about a single place on a single day, and also by other one-day stories, like Under the Volcano and the Dylan Thomas play, Under Milk Wood.
SG: Still, twenty years passed before Gaff Topsails appeared. Were you carrying it around in your head the whole time?
PK: I worked sporadically. It went slowly in the early years, for technical reasons. I used a typewriter, which is a very inefficient way to write. Gaff Topsails is crammed with detail, there are many reiterations and recurring motifs, and I happen to have a terrible memory. So it was only in the late 1980s when I got a computer that I was really able to store all the material and get at it quickly. Another breakthrough came in the early 1990s, when Sarah was posted to Beijing. Up to then, I'd been working at a variety of things, compiling indexes and writing abstracts, more recently as a writer-editor for Amnesty International. But my legal status in Beijing made it impossible for me to get working papers, so there was no choice but to get on with it as a full-time job, seven hours a day, five days a week.
SG: Wasn't it during this period that you also assisted in translating Ulysses into Chinese?
PK: I'd brought with me a shelf of reference books on Joyce, in fact I probably had the best collection of Joyce material in China. Through the kindness of a Canadian sinologist, I was introduced to two Chinese scholars who were translating Ulysses and offered to help them. I lent them some books, and we ended up being on the phone almost every day. My Chinese wasn't good enough for me to be involved in the actual translation, it was more a matter of helping explain specific references-what Joyce was actually getting at.
SG: Let's address some of the references in Gaff Topsails itself. I'm struck by the title, which refers to two things, the highest sail on a schooner and a range of hills in central Newfoundland. Is this double meaning a key to the book?
PK: Very much so, and so also is the epigraph, the quote from Sir Humphrey Gilbert, "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land." I wanted to describe a culture-an amphibian culture, really-where people belonged to both land and water, and so did everything else in the pattern of their lives: squid, capelin, fishflakes, icebergs, even the Newfoundland dog with its webbed feet. To me, this is the essence of the old Newfoundland that I grew up in. I remember reading once that a Newfoundland fisherman would spend more time on the water than he did on land. He uses the land for sleeping on, but his real life is on the water. In my own youth, I spent a lot of time on the water, in boats, and in spring, jumping from pan to pan on the sea ice. I was also very conscious of the tide, rising and falling, and also of the landwash, the Newfoundland name for the space between high and low tide. This is the place where children play; it's also the crucible of our civilization. And so I began quite consciously to look for images that would express this amphibian quality: the houses swept away by a tidal wave; the house being towed across the bay to a new location. One aspect of Lowry and Joyce I enjoy particularly is repetition of motif, and for me, amphibianism is one of those motifs.
SG: Amphibianism is also a spin on sense of place, that fierce sense of place that's bred in the bone of every Newfoundlander. When I first read Gaff Topsails, it struck me that the book was really an exploration of the Newfoundland sense of place, that you'd held it up to the light and examined it through every prism.
PK: Yes, that's right. I never thought of myself as someone who would write books for a living. I thought I would write one novel, and I wanted to make it as good as it could possibly be, and therefore it had to have everything I had. And so I tried to get into it everything I knew, every memory I had, every situation, every character, I could remember. I tried to make the place as tangible as possible, and sometimes when describing something-the iceberg, say, that plays a key role in the story-I would run through the five senses and try to address them all. So that I hope someone who has never had the experience of an iceberg will know everything about it, not only what it looks like, but what it sounds like, and what it smells like.
The other thing I realized is that the book was a complex project and if it was going to have any coherence, I had to decide what its main goal was. I wanted readers to feel that they had been there on that day, that they had lived in that village, and in a way had become characters in the story. One of the techniques I used-one that I borrowed from the film director Robert Altman-is not to explain things, to leave things ambiguous, which is what real life is like. You don't have a narrator wandering through, explaining what's going on, you've got to listen to what people say and work out what is happening.
SG: Do I take it from this that plot doesn't interest you greatly?
PK: I don't trust plot. We don't live our lives in plots. We live our lives in sequences of images and emotions upon which we impose a plot. Still, there has to be a reason for the reader to turn the page. Often, in Gaff Topsails, you have to go looking for the plot; there are a lot of lists and descriptions and often these descriptions and lists will contain some fact that moves the plot forward. There's a chapter in the middle called "Cartwheel", and it's a description of what happens in a Newfoundland outport at noon when the Angelus is ringing, the parish stops, everyone stands to pray. It's a moment of stasis, still, in three or four pages of description, very important things happen. One of the characters sees something that will affect her whole life.
SG: How did you find your characters? Did they come to you as individuals or archetypes?
PK: They are composites, most of them, a little of myself in all of them. The priest, for example, is a composite of two priests I knew. He's an outsider, from Ireland. He is a stranger, which is a type. Traditionally, the person who came from away played a role; people in the community had learned ways of dealing with them. I wanted there to be a character to set off the locals. I wanted there to be a foreign eye within the place. There were certain things I wanted to say and because I didn't want a narrator, there had to be a certain consciousness that looked at things differently.
SG: Another central character, the teenager Michael Barron, who climbs to the top of the iceberg, also serves as a kind of observer. He also strikes me as the character who most resembles you. But why did you make him a mute?
PK: Good question. There were certain technical reasons. With three people present, it made the conversations easier. I don't like "he said"; "she said"; "he muttered"; and so on. I'd rather the dialogue stood on its own. But the main reason was to achieve distance. I didn't want him to be doing bad things, tormenting seals like his thuggish friends. I wanted him to be on a higher plane, to climb to the top of the iceberg. Initially, that scene was structured visually as a kind of heaven-and-hell sequence. For me, writing a novel is primarily a visual experience; I imagine I'm looking at it on a 70-millimetre screen. Occasionally, as in the chapter called "Three O'Clock", which is based on a work by Christopher Pratt, it's a painting.
SG: But you must also hear it, because the prose is extraordinarily musical, full of the lilt of Newfoundland voices. I'm thinking particularly of the long interior monologues involving Hestia, the woman who refuses to believe that her husband has drowned at sea.
PK: That's a straight rendering of things that I've heard people say, and I do hear the specific voices of my mother and other female relatives. Some people think that it's overdone, piled on a little too heavily. But she's trying to evade the fact that her husband has drowned and her way of coping is to talk so much that no-one can get a word in edgewise. At the end there's a very faint suggestion that she will recover soon, and accept her husband's death.
SG: Two of the most powerful chapters, "The Kingdom of God" and "The Landlocked Archipelago", stand apart from the rest of the book, and re-invent Newfoundland's history and geography in a sweeping, imaginative, and rather subversive way. How did they come about?
PK: It was really in answer to a problem. I wanted to present the history and geography of Newfoundland. But I had to set them apart, because I wanted the novel to maintain the story of a single day. So I had to take the historical material and give it a quite different character. I also wanted to have some fun with Newfoundland history, because in my time at school, people read the history very solemnly, especially Irish Newfoundlanders, all about how terrible people came out from England, and then the Church came along and saved everybody.
SG: In fact, the story takes place at a very significant historical moment: just seventeen days before Newfoundlanders voted to join Confederation. Did you ever consider making this event part of the novel?
PK: Yes, originally I planned to address it, since Confederation was an event that, even though it happened before I was born, affected my whole life. But in the course of writing, I discovered a marvellous book called The Problem of Style, by a critic long dead named John Middleton Murry. One of the rules he laid down is that fiction should always address the whole of life, should try to address everything about being a human being, and then I realized that to try to address in a serious novel such a very local and topical issue as Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada wouldn't be enough to sustain what I was trying to do.
On the other hand, without it being spelled out, I think it's clear that all the characters in this book are living on the edge of a massive change. And each individual character is going through a transition, they are all finding out something important about themselves. They are all having what Joyce would call an epiphany. Someone comes close to suicide; someone else does commit a kind of suicide. Two people have a first meeting that will probably lead to a wedding. So it is very much about change, along with the fact that it is set in 1948. I did want people who knew the history of Newfoundland to be conscious of the significance of that date.
SG: When you left Newfoundland in the mid-1970s, the cultural renaissance there was just beginning, and there were only a handful of writers. Now there is a real literary ferment. Do you feel yourself to be part of it?
PK: I didn't until I went down last summer, but now I do. The book has been very well received there, and I hope now each time I go there to keep up the connection. As a writer, though, it was probably beneficial to me to be far away. When you are writing out of memory, it belongs to you and you can control it, whereas if you are living in the place you write about, you can go out and in the course of a day see something that will force you to change your text. But if you're a long way away you can ignore all of that.
SG: Have you finished with writing about Newfoundland?
PK: I don't think I have anything left to say. I'm now working on a large, complex story about China. The commonality is that once again, it's about a society undergoing, or about to undergo, a massive change. The China novel is more conventional; it has a lot of politics in it, and it's about one person, a kind of road movie. If I'm lucky, this one isn't going to take me twenty years.
Sandra Gwyn is the author of The Private Capital.