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Guest Authors, Sofa Spotlight, Writers on Location

Writers on Location – Elizabeth Hay on the Lake of Many Bays, Ontario

After a burst of activity I have finalized the guest line-up for June and July and next week it’s the Summer 2017 Sofa Spotlight – a full dozen titles as in previous years (so much for my intention to scale back by doing it quarterly).  I am honoured that so many incredible writers contribute to the blog, and to introduce acclaimed Canadian author Elizabeth Hay as today’s guest. Elizabeth has published a memoir, three collections and five novels including Late Nights on Air which was awarded Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize in 2007.  Her most recent release, His Whole Life, one of my Spring Sofa Spotlight titles, is a ‘quiet novel’ of the kind which doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, but many of you share my love for these books and it’s always a delight to feature them.  Foremost amongst its qualities (of which you can discover more in my review below) is an extraordinary sense of place – and that’s where we’re headed right now:

When I start a novel I lie on my bed and think about what really matters to me. Nagging wounds tend to surface. Unresolved tensions. Old regrets. With His Whole Life certain regrets were foremost, three in particular: that I gave my dog away when my first marriage ended; that I never got my son a dog when he wanted one so much; and that I never managed to convince my children that Canada was an interesting place to live your life. I let those regrets come to the front of my mind and crowd it, and the strands of a story began to emerge in settings full of personal history: New York City, where my son was born, and eastern Ontario, where in 1969 my parents built a cabin on a semi-wilderness lake.

In my novels I find it best to have two contrasting settings that play off each other the way characters do. Sometimes I deploy a triangle of places, just as I invent a triangle of characters, but His Whole Life has two: the lake of bays in Canada and New York City. Having two allows for the car journey that sets my cross-border novel in motion.

My small fictional family, with its Canadian mother and American father, is on their annual summer pilgrimage from New York City to visit the Canadian side of the family. They arrive at the lake of many bays in eastern Ontario and their reactions tell us who they are. Nan, the homesick mother, embraces the Canadian space and light. George, the father, a New Yorker through and through, wants no part of the place. Jim, their ten-year-old son, views the lake through New York eyes that are eager to love it for his mother’s sake.

And so Jim finds himself taking sides. Turning to his mother’s brother, Jim asks him why he likes it here so much and his uncle gives him a satisfying reply. “The quiet, first of all. The quiet, the size of the trees, the animals, the canoes.”

The beauty of being a writer, I find, is the room it gives me to see characters and places and dramas from many different angles. It’s wonderful to press close and then pull back for a larger perspective. It helps me feel sane. In His Whole Life the lake-city divide is mirrored in the marital tension between Nan and George, amplified in turn by the political tension within Canada as the country nearly pulls itself apart during Quebec’s second referendum on independence in 1995.

The lake that gave me the ingredients for my fictional lake of many bays is about two hours by car from my home in Ottawa. The musty, smoky, refrigerated reality consists of a primitive one-room cabin with a screened-in porch, no electricity, no plumbing, a woodstove, a privy out back, a long steep slope down to the water where we have a home-made dock that resembles a weathered log. When my formidable parents built the cabin, the whole place was oppressive to me: dank, dark, claustrophobic. Only when I brought my American husband along one August, and saw him fall in love at first sight, did the scales fall from my eyes. And what did Mark like? “The quiet, first of all. The quiet, the size of the trees, the animals, the canoes.” We too are a cross-border family, my Massachusetts-born second husband and I.

In the novel the cabin becomes a summerhouse substantial enough that Nan can live there year round. It offers her an escape and a final destination. In fact, it’s the sort of comfortable lake house I wish I had. Apart from taking notes, at the cabin I do not write. I require my desk here in Ottawa to do any sustained work. But here’s an example of the note taking, some details of which worked their way into the novel:

September 11, 2008. Rising in the dark and taking the canoe out under starlight, the more than half moon of last night having set. Down the slope by flashlight to the water and first dawn. Mark still abed. And by canoe out into another world – the shore dark, the islands jet-black, the water still. Some mist rising. I paddle around the corner and almost immediately the slap of a beaver – more than one. I stop paddling and linger here to watch the advancing light, hear owls in the distance, loons in the distance, beaver-gnawing behind me. The lower sky begins to ripen into a subtle peach. The peach gathers strength. I look at my watch. 6:10. Then the raven speaks. And speaks again from the treetop on the island to the right. Then takes off through the trees, croaking and talking.

To be at the lake is to be reminded of so much – the living past, the changing seasons, my ever-changing feelings about my mother and father, my grief that they are gone and soon enough I’ll be gone too. As the Swedish poet Tömas Transtromer wrote, “The greenery is dense / with memories, they follow me with their gaze.”

Thank you to Elizabeth, for a beautiful post which conveys the power of a deep personal connection to place, and what this can bring to a work of fiction.

I’d love to hear about some of your favourite ‘quiet novels’ and stories in which the natural world plays a big part.

IN BRIEF: My View of His Whole Life

(See the Sofa Spotlight for a description of the book)

At the start of this story of fractured love and divided loyalties, ten-year-old Jim asks his parents a question which will reverberate throughout: ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ This is the catalyst for a moving and often painful exploration of guilt, regret, memory, but above all, the nature and complexity of human bonds, of many kinds.  The mother-son relationship between Jim and Nan is drawn with a tenderness and poignancy which I found intensely recognisable; an adolescent boy is not an easy being to capture but I believed Jim, although his unusual maturity does become more convincing as the years go by.  The question of whether life’s adversities ultimately define, shape or destroy us is a fascinating one. Conversely, the second Quebec Independence referendum over 20 years ago might seem an obscure subject to non-Canadians but for me the intended parallels (with family conflict) were upstaged by the uncanny and unforeseeable relevance this book has acquired for Britons and other EU Citizens in the Brexit era, as we prepare for a separation many do not want.  For a story so concerned with ‘interior life’, it has the most powerful, transporting sense of the wild, big skies and wide open spaces and the two elements are indivisible: the scene which had me in tears could not have taken place anywhere else.  The lake’s meaning for the characters rubs off on the reader – everything feels different there, showing what a ‘change of scenery’ can do.  The cover of the UK paperback (which I only saw after reading) captures the essence of this emotionally intelligent and exquisitely written novel to perfection – I can’t wait to read more of Elizabeth Hay’s work.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


4 thoughts on “Writers on Location – Elizabeth Hay on the Lake of Many Bays, Ontario

  1. Thanks both for this. I really enjoyed His Whole Life and it’s certainly one of those novels where the setting is so well realised, you could be there.

    Posted by Annecdotist | May 12, 2017, 17:22
  2. I reckon “His Whole Life” is a wonderful novel in many, many respects, and like all of Elizabeth Hay’s latter works, place is crucial to the story and is brilliantly embodied in it. I found the way Hay ties the Quebec referendum and the associated tensions to the remainder of the story to be incredibly powerful. She is clearly not only a marvellously intelligent and perceptive person, but she is able to share these perceptions with readers with a style and creativity that delivers a huge impact. The writing won’t appeal to everyone, of course, but I found every sentence and every subtle nuance to be worth considering carefully. I couldn’t read more than a couple of pages at a time because of the need I felt to ponder over their meaning and significance. I have loved all of Elizabeth Hay’s work since her first major fiction (Small Change, 1997) but this novel really does reach new heights.
    Thank you Isabel for this very special post.

    Posted by oldblack | May 17, 2017, 02:54
  3. As a big fan of ‘quiet’ novels with a strong sense of place I love the sound of this one and am putting it straight on my to-read list – thanks as always for expanding my reading horizons, Isabel!

    Posted by Cathy De'Freitas | May 21, 2017, 16:12

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