I have lots of questions for her so let’s dig right in.
KR: Have you always wanted to be a writer? How do you define your works?
MBH: I can remember making up stories like any other child around my toys, and my parents tell me I would happily sit at the kitchen table with paper and crayons and just scribble. I wrote and illustrated a story about a girl and dog on purple construction paper not long after I started school. When I was in the second grade, my teacher set a lot of creative writing work. I was pretty tuned out in school, bored witless and more than likely on my way to a puntload of heartache and trouble if I didn’t find a focus. Not long before Christmas that year, I clued in to what the teacher meant all this time by “creative writing”: all that stuff I was doing at home when I could get a few minutes of peace. So I figured out pretty early I wanted to write. I think that goal kept me from a lot of self-destructive behaviour.
Define my work? You would ask a hard question. I can tell you what my goals are. I want to write something that lasts, that’s relevant to the hard questions of being human; love, power, and identity are my big themes. I want to avoid the trap of believing “literary fiction” is not a genre.
KR: Your 2008 novel Sky Waves has been described as, “a dynamic and shape-shifting work that redefines the project of storytelling.” Are you ever worried your next work will not top your last, or do you trudge forward unencumbered by the weight of past successes?
MBH: I’m not sure how “successful” Sky Waves was. I am pleased with that book, because I set myself a task of unifying form and themes that I’d never tried before, and I got it working. Radio waves and worked nets: irresistible. But as for normal signs of success — well, Sky Waves got very little response. As I recall, it didn’t even make it into any publishing world Christmas marketing material that year. I can say that Sky Waves is the first novel in an accidental trilogy, and deluded your sailors is the second. I had no idea I was writing a trilogy until deluded your sailors was out for a while. I’m working on the third novel.
Each book — novel, or collection of stories (I’ve got one of those on the boil) — feels very different to me. Each book has its own needs and goals. I give a lot of thought to narrative strategy, perhaps too much, because I don’t want to write the same book over and over. I’m worried about repeating myself, because my themes don’t change. After a while, especially once the characters get all mouthy and seem to have busy lives beyond my attention, a book feels very organic to me, warm and fleshy. I try to figure out what the story needs and satisfy those needs.
KR: Have you written your magnum opus yet?
MBH: Oh my God, I hope not. If I ever do, I hope I don’t think I recognize it. That would cripple me. I just want to tell compelling stories, and tell them well. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.
KR: Well, you’ve certainly succeeded there. Tell us about your writing process. Do stories churn inside you awaiting a feverish release, or do you carefully plot?
MBH: Both. Sometimes ideas or characters wake me up. Sometimes I get these little fits where I cannot focus on what’s happening around me and need to listen to a story. It can get embarrassing; how do you explain it without sounding the proper ass? “Sorry, I couldn’t pay attention to our conversation, dah-ling, because I had an idea, and that’s oh so much more important.” Shoot me.
Each project has a fever phase, sometimes many fever phases, when the words storm. Increasingly, though, as I worry about repetition, I outline. I try to find the holes before I’ve got a full manuscript drafted. It doesn’t always work. I outline a lot when revising, too, as I try to understand a story’s needs. File cards. File cards and pens of many colours. It’s a complete dork-fest.
KR: Another office supply junkie!! I love it! 🙂 You’ve written novels and short stories. Which do you prefer and why?
MBH: I find novels much easier to write. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’m lazy. Short stories for me are very difficult. It comes down to that understanding of structure and need that I’m chasing. I want to get better at short stories. It’s probably my favourite form, and it’s one that gets relatively little respect in North America, generally treated as a slightly embarrassing finger-exercise for one’s true and proper work, novels. This is ridiculous. The short story is a completely different form from the novel. Both are narrative fiction, yes, but that’s where the similarities end. A well-written short story has got a punch that never stops hurting — James Joyce’s “The Dead,” or pretty much anything by Flannery O’Connor. I look at O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or her magnificent “The Lame Shall Enter First,” or Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat,” and I think: there’s work that means something, work that will last. Yet O’Connor felt pressured to write novels, and I think she really struggled with them. When MacLeod’s novel came out, the condescending fuss sickened me, all the sighs of relief, the tones of “At last, a novel from MacLeod, now he’s for real.” As if. One of his stories, just one — fuck, pick one — has got more going on than some novelists’ entire body of work. O’Connor, too.
I get asked when I’ll write more short stories. That both pleases and terrifies me.
KR: Absolutely, Michelle. A good story should not be defined by its length. What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
MBH: Ai ai ai, just one? That’s not fair, and I won’t play. I’ll give you four, sort of. I went foolish over a novel called We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. I had to read it in translation; Jensen’s Danish. Very little of his work is available in English. Now I want to learn Danish. Flannery O’Connor’s collected short stories plucked out my brain and rearranged it, got me thinking about how to approach writing about the soul. Re-reading Christopher Marlowe’s play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II and his feverish, weird, delicious, and sadly, unfinished, long poem Hero and Leander, was a deep pleasure. I am working up a novel with a protagonist based on John Donne, so I’ve been reading Donne’s sermons, which are not as dry as I’d feared, and, more happily, his poems. So collected John Donne, too, though that doesn’t exist as a book.
KR: I wouldn’t have been able to choose just one either. How do you fill your creative well?
MBH: I read a lot of history, and some science written for the layman. I am working a full-time dayjob right now, so I cannot read nearly as much as I want to. I’ve made a point of reading more fiction and poetry over the last year. Conversations, many of them online, stoke me, too. I’m studying painting and sculpture more — as audience, I mean, not as practitioner. I’m listening more intently to music, too. Music is an art that’s far, far out of my reach, and probably the art that makes me happiest. And finally, my husband reads me to sleep most nights. We just finished a re-read of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is magnificent, and now we’re working on Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Rankin’s done some stellar work with his Rebus and Fox novels, great long character arcs and long, hard stares into evil. So I fall asleep to stories, and that, I think, sets me up for storytelling.
KR: “Lost-wax casting” explores a dark time in Newfoundland’s history. What inspired you to write this story?
MBH: The plot of the story is part of a narrative thread from the not-done trilogy I mention above. The characters in that story all appear in Sky Waves and deluded your sailors. I expect I’ll expand on it throughout the third novel. What’s behind all those novels, and this story, is a fight, and a conversation, and more fights, with ideas of Newfoundland as a post-colonial outpost, and with questions of history as tyrant, or as healer. The protagonist for “Lost-wax casting,” Gabriel Furey, is a character who grew up in an orphanage called St Raphael’s and who suffered sexual abuse. This abuse had a predictable effect on him. What really intrigues me about Gabriel is how he finally stops running and instead tries to fix the mess he’s made as he lashed out. It’s not easy for him. Acknowledging and recognizing history, and responsibility, hurts. Gabriel’s beauty is in the good he tries to do, the love he shows.
What I want to do with recurring characters is show them growing, even changing. I really admire a series of novels collectively called A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell: delicious character studies, and character-driven stories set against broader canvases of war and social change. Ian Rankin’s a Powell fan, too. I’d argue he’s achieving something similar with his Rebus and Fox novels.
For “Lost-wax casting,” and Sky Waves and deluded your sailors, what sparked me was sorrow and anger: deep, galling, gutting outrage, at complicity. How long were those boys at Mount Cashel being abused? Who knew, and did nothing? How many kids were — are — molested and battered in “nice” families, and no one speaks up? How do the power dynamics work to ensure easy silence? And how is all of this mess a part of the larger historical force of colonialism, of seizing some new (to you) land and imposing your exploitative desires on it?
KR: And I commend you for asking these questions in such a compelling way. You’ve done an incredible job of illustrating the degree of suffering Gabriel endured. His need to do the right thing, to show the love as you say, is both heartbreaking and inspirational. What’s next for you?
MBH: I need to finish that trilogy. And I am working on another trilogy about faith and politics, asking questions of what will one live for, die for, kill for, and why. Those three novels will be set mostly in England in the late 1590s and early 1600s, framed by the rise and fall of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. I’m not as interested in Essex as I am in the individuals he affected. My characters will be based on real people: Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe; John Donne; John Dowland, and Robert Cecil. And I’ve got a puntload of short stories demanding attention.
KR: Well my dear, you jump in that punt and row to your heart’s content. We’ll be waiting on the shore. Thank you for sharing your writing process with us, Michelle. You’re an incredible inspiration to all of us who wish to write good fiction.
“Lost-wax casting” is a fictionalized account of a man who has suffered at the hands of those he should have been able to trust the most. Most of us from Newfoundland and Labrador know the horrific accounts of the abuse of the Mount Cashel Orphanage. Butler Hallett asks us to remember it. Acknowledge it.
One of the provinces brightest literary stars, Michelle Butler Hallett writes novels and short stories and can be found regularly musing at aether punch.
Michelle Butler HallettAuthor of the story collection The shadow side of grace (Killick Press 2006, and the novels Double-blind (Killick Press 2007, shortlisted for the 2008 Sunburst Award), Sky Waves (Killick Press 2008) and deluded your sailors (Killick Press 2011). Her short stories have appeared in the anthologies The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction (Vagrant Press 2007) and Hard Ol’ Spot (Killick Press 2009). Butler Hallett is working on several new projects, including a third novel to finish the trilogy begun by Sky Waves and deluded your sailors, and a new historical novel trilogy about faith, treachery, art, and politics. Butler Hallett lives in St John’s.