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Interview with Michelle Butler Hallett

Outside of Canada, most people, when asked to name a Canadian writer, might think of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies, and a few others. I thought I’d interview an up-and-coming writer who I’ve known since 1989.

(Photo credit David Hallett)

Michelle Butler Hallett (b. 1971) is a growing presence in Canadian letters through her publications and readings. She studied English at Carleton University in Ottawa, and completed the Humber School for Writers correspondence course in 2002. In 2004 her hard work paid off when she won the David Adams Richards award for book-length fiction. (DAR is another well-known author up here.) While working fulltime in retail, radio, and for various arts organizations, Hallett has managed to keep up her productivity. Four works have come out in the last six years: the collection of stories titled The shadow side of grace (2006); and three novels, Double-blind (2007), Sky Waves (2008) and her newest, deluded your sailors (2011), all with Killick Press. Double-blind was shortlisted for the 2008 Sunburst Award.

Amidst all this activity, Hallett has been married since 1993 (to David Hallett) and had two children (Madeleine and Alexandra), enjoying the benefits of a supportive family and bringing out short fiction, plays, poetry and novels.

This interview was conducted by email in the winter of 2012.

For readers of BIG OTHER, can you describe your new book, deluded your sailors?

Deluded your sailors is a novel where I wrestle with the tragic and comical weight of history, both geo-political histories and personal histories. The novel tells two parallel but intertwined stories. One is set in 2009, in a fictional Republic of Newfoundland and Labrador (Newfoundland and Labrador is in fact a province of Canada) and follows Nichole Wright as she tries to research and draft a playscript for a government-funded tourism project; various obstacles, including her being her own worst enemy, get in her way. The other storyline, which Nichole discovers in her research and tries to write the play about, follows a girl, known mostly as Kit, who disguises herself first as a boy and then as a eunuched man and ends up the master of a Salem trading sloop. She has, however, been employed by a spymaster who wants her, and her “cunning and capacity for disguise,” back in his control. Characters in both storylines struggle with how their past stains their present, with illness, addiction and hope, and with the geo-politics of their time.

The title comes from a folk song, “The Maid on the Shore.” The maid, who’s been abducted and forced on board a passing ship, sings the captain and sailors to sleep and then steals their belongings and rows herself ashore – using a broadsword instead of an oar. The captain discovers this and wails:

My men must be crazy my men must be mad

My men must be deep in despair-o

For to let her away with her beauty so gay

And to paddle her way to the shore, shore, shore

And to paddle her way to the shore.

The maid replies:

Your men was not crazy, your men was not mad

You men was not deep in despair-o

I deluded your sailors as well as yourself

I’m a maiden again on the shore, shore, shore

I’m a maiden again on the shore.

[Here’s a live version of the song, by The Once, recorded at the landmark bar in St. John’s called The Ship. Terrible audio, though: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7GvtIO0kSU; the album version is here: http://saltyink.com/2011/11/30/on-inspiration-a-musical-journey-through-the-seeds-that-sprung-michelle-butler-halletts-fourth-book/]

Where you were born has a complicated history, politically, and as an entity. From the mid-19th century to 1949, Newfoundland (to use the short form) was at various times a colony of Britain and an independent country. For instance, it contributed its own soldiers to the two world wars, and also teetered near bankruptcy in the early 1930s. In 1949 the citizens voted to join into Confederation with Canada, and this caused bitter divisions felt in some quarters even now. In both Sky Waves and your new book, an alternate history is given: Newfoundland stayed on its own and became a republic. What influences, politically, led you to write an alternate reality, or was this solely an aesthetic choice?

Partly it was an impatient response to the quasi-republic rhetoric I hear in St. John’s. (And concerns of this sort on the island of Newfoundland rarely consider Labrador.) First of all, Newfoundland was never a republic. Independent, its own country, however briefly, yes, but never a republic. Newfoundland still answered in some way to England. I agree that voting for Responsible Government (independence) versus Confederation (joining Canada as a province) in 1949 would have led to a very different future, but not necessarily a better one. The collapse of the cod fishery, for example: I don’t see that playing out any differently. Many Newfoundlanders argue that Canada did very little to protect the two-hundred mile limit and discourage other nations from overfishing the Grand Banks, but then we overfished, too. The twentieth-century approach to natural resources worldwide was to take, take, take, and then be all surprised when the resource ran dry.

Mostly, however, it was an aesthetic choice. In Sky Waves, I write about a family that played a significant role in getting radio established in Newfoundland. In reality, my Butler relatives did just that. To get some distance, to get away from the feeling of “You can’t write that; people will think it’s biography instead of fiction,” I decided to swing the vote to Responsible and use that as a backdrop for further exploring issues of identity and self-determination for various characters. I carried that setting over into deluded your sailors because I’m working again with some characters from Sky Waves.

Also, I just like it. Crossroads entice me. Stories can spark from asking “What if?”

The vote for Confederation versus Responsible in 1949 was very close, with accusations of cheating and fraud on both sides. Newfoundland joined Canada by a vote of 51% in favour, 49% against.

Historical fiction has been quite an active field for a while, and there are other writers from Newfoundland, such as Michael Crummey, a friend of yours, and Wayne Johnston who have written books that fit into that genre. What do you contribute that’s new, in deluded your sailors specifically?

I don’t know that I do contribute anything new. I don’t think I’m writing historical fiction the way Crummey and Johnston are. I dislike the label, for a start, but yes, as nothing in deluded your sailors is set in the slippery (concept of) the present day, but instead in 2009 and from 1718-34, the novel can be called historical fiction.

I have not set out to tell a supposedly lost story (though I love the found manuscript trope) or even a familiar story from a different angle. I want to tell stories, period. Each story has its own needs, setting and timeframe among them. Deluded your sailors thematically needs the two timelines, as one of things I’m trying to do here is explore how we perceive and then try to record histories. The eighteenth-century timeline, “Acts of Fever,” presented as one chunk in the middle of the novel, between the 2009 sections, “Acts of Folly” and “Acts of Faith,” is Nichole’s storytelling, her take on what she found and what she’s going through in 2009. Various parallels exist between the arcs of characters in the eighteenth-century “Fever,” and the 2009 “Folly” and “Faith.” But there are no direct allegories, no moment where you can say “Oh, this character in 1733 is actually that character from 2009.”  That’s too easy.

I’m going to step back from the new novel for a moment. If you bear with me in thinking of your books as scenes from some idiosyncratic version of hell, as I do sometimes, then I look to see if there’s a sign of escape for anyone.

I’ve wondered the same thing – the hell questions – about the work of Flannery O’Connor, an American writer I greatly admire. O’Connor’s work might be closer to Roman Catholic ideas of purgatory. Hell is permanent exile, self-created. Purgatory is further purification through temporary suffering — temporary being the key, though hardly in human control. These are metaphors which can quickly fly out of our reach, and I don’t think I can apply to them to what I do. No, I don’t think my stories, hellish as they get, are some form of hell.

Also, I’m not bitter, though I am sometimes sad. I’ve got a loving family and some good friends, and my faith, which does not come easily, is a source of beauty and solace. I’ve got a sense of humour that’s pretty dark and sometimes quite offensive. But then the human condition can be quite offensive. Maybe I’m just whistling in the dark. I do have to work not to become bitter. It would be so much easier to give in to cynicism, to stop hoping for understanding, clarity of purpose and healing. It would also harm me. I’d pick up the bottle again, I expect, and drown anything good left in me.

A lot of the characters in your books have problems—mental, physical, spiritual—that they can’t seem to get over, allow to heal , or rebound from. You rebound, better. What makes it harder for your characters

I don’t know. Sometimes things just end badly. Maybe it’s my immaturity as an artist. Maybe I’m short-changing my characters. But again I think many of my characters do rebound – not without effects, not without marks left on them. Harry Singer and Keefer Breen from stories in The shadow side of grace come to mind again, as does Dick Harnum. Gabriel Furey and Nichole Wright in Sky Waves are damaged but not hopeless. Nichole and Gabriel appear in deluded your sailors and may again in a future work. In their case, I don’t think their arcs ended on a down note; they just aren’t necessarily finished yet. Gabriel’s suddenly found shelter when he really needs it; Nichole’s finally finding the courage to ask hard and necessary questions. That’s hardly defeat

Are you a realist? And if you are a realist, even at times, why doesn’t happiness enter the picture more often? Or is happiness not part of the realist tradition, as you see it?

What do I write? Fucked if I know. I’d like it to be labelled literary fiction. Am I writing magic realism? I don’t know; I don’t really understand that term. Am I writing realism? I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the term. I don’t write monochrome tragedy studded with recognizable details of the present day. I use highly specific details in places, when I need to show the warp and woof of this material world, and I do that with various time settings. Is that what you mean by realism?

What kind of book is deluded your sailors? Did its form change over time?

First I had deluded your sailors structured like Sky Waves, in short sections connected thematically but jumping timelines, but that was not my best option, and also repetitive, so I tore it down and rebuilt it. I listened again to my characters, and this time in the eighteenth-century storyline I finally let the protagonist speak and even narrate some of it. I’d been afraid to do that for many years, would only go third-person limited with her, and even that scarcely, preferring to have her on the edges of third-person omniscient, forcing almost everyone else to tell their version of her story for her. A long mistake, that. Then the novel overall fell into three parts – a thematic beginning, middle and end, imagine that. Much of the final version of deluded your sailors got banged out on a typewriter earlier this spring and on my overheating laptop at the house of friends in Adam’s Cove. My arthritis was bad; there was a lot of pain. It all got a bit feverish towards the end. And I discovered the hard way that I had no idea how to get a woodstove going.

Did you see the original conception as flawed when writing it, and think: I’ll rescue this in the second draft?

I knew I couldn’t do what I wanted to, but I hoped I might eventually learn how.

Would it be wrong to conclude that this material has obsessed you for many years? Now, it might be that you don’t want to admit defeat. Or, you could think this material is too rich and worthwhile to be let sink into the ocean of oblivion and discarded manuscripts. What are your thoughts on that?

Obsessed, possessed… I don’t know if it’s rich. Strange, perhaps. Writing this novel – wrestling it, wrighting it – became some sort of battle and promise.

You’re energetic, yet some of your characters are listless and, at times, also pushed around by anyone and anything. Is it simply a matter of passivity being easier to capture in print than action, or is it something else?

Are my characters listless, or do they believe themselves imprisoned by circumstance? “Listless, and, at times, also pushed around by anyone and anything” implies moral failure. Some of them do fail morally. Some are genuinely trapped, however obnoxious they may be themselves. I am wary of this line of thought, because I do not wish to blame or judge my characters, just as I do not wish to blame or judge people. What is their reality? How do they view their circumstances, and why? To my mind, that is often where the tragedy and sadness lies.

I have been listless, almost paralyzed. It’s a symptom of depression, often a debilitating one. That probably spills into my characters, and some of them would meet diagnostic criteria for depression.

Since some people have objections to working through oddly-written books, and there are such rewards for writing in a straightforward way, do you foresee the possibility that you might be forced to change how you write—which is also to say, how you think, and how you think about writing—by the need for sales, or by an awareness that there are people you’re not reaching? I know your publisher, Killick Press, has stood by you. But nevertheless, are there dark moments when you consider upending your writing and choosing a more standard approach? For instance,  Steven Henighan, a Canadian critic, said in Literary Review of Canada last October of Canadian literature: where “the rest of us floated off into ersatz internationalism, Atlantic-Canadian writers, the country fiddlers of our literary scene, satisfied our nostalgic longing for authenticity and tradition.” Do you think you already write such books, based on tradition, that satisfies a market, or that you might have to? That’s a terribly long set of questions. Choose what you’d like to answer.

“The country fiddlers of our literary scene”? Maybe because I’m getting that sentence out of context, but I find Mr. Henighan’s comment there quite patronizing. Like I’ve been shoved into a corner and told how to behave: “Stand there and give me some authenticity and tradition, because that’s what I think all you people from Atlantic Canada do.” Fuck that. And I hardly think I satisfy anyone’s longing for tradition; nor do I intend to start. If I even begin to consider how my work falls shorts of current expectations of what fiction from Atlantic Canada, particularly fiction written by (horrors) a woman, is supposed to be, I will cripple myself with tail-chasing anger and anxiety.

I don’t have sales figures in mind when I work. Sure, I’d like better sales in the end, but that’s no definition of success.

I’m open to suggestions and criticism, and I’m not afraid to tear work down and build it again. I’ve done it many times. I’m sure I’ll do it again. I certainly don’t revise and re-write solely on what other people say, but when I get good criticism, I listen.

Something I hear a lot from people who read my work is that the work shocked or even baffled them at first, but it eventually opened up in their heads.

I’m now going to enter a tricky area. You don’t mention your religious beliefs very often,  partly because few people ask and, as I recall, your religion prohibits proselytization. Let’s talk about them. You’re a Bahá’í. Does this inform the writing? If so, how? And do you feel comfortable talking about your beliefs?

I’m quite comfortable talking about being a Bahá’í, and about questions of religion and spirituality in general, so long as the listener is interested. Religion is hardly fashionable with the crowd I supposedly run with, all them there intellectuals and worldly-wise writers. I like having my ideas and beliefs challenged, but I don’t play up well under the scorn and condescension of something like ‘How can you possibly, you with that mind of yours, believe in something as stupid as some dude in a beard and a nightdress up in the sky?’ I’ve gotten that question, in that manner, a fair bit. Faith is not as simple as a dude in a nightdress. And why should intellect automatically cancel out faith? For millennia, art has been intimately tied to the artist’s faith, her or his sense of devotion to something greater than one little self. (This is an aspect of humanity that fascism exploited and perverted.) What, we in the twenty-first century west can just instantly dismiss that, call it a waste? Chuck out JS Bach and Flannery O’Connor and hundreds in between with one flick?

Religion has for so long, for so many people, been used as an excuse for tyranny and abuse of all sorts, and this is repellent. A violation of the deepest kind. Given lurid abuse of the sacred, I understand and empathize with hesitance, agnosticism, atheism, and a deep and lasting anger. It can be very difficult to separate the ideals and very names of religion from squalid human failures and acts of evil. I was atheist for many years, believing that this world, and what I could perceive of it, was all that existed, and that goodness and decency, while possible, were, at best, unlikely. I had ideals but relatively little hope. What got me one day was the thought: if I can accept DNA and e=mc2, then what’s my problem with G-O-D? So much human endeavour – art and science especially – is done in a spirit of devotion to, or more recently, a rejection of, an idea of God. Clearly it matters to us, matters greatly. So what, I had to ask myself, was I fighting, precisely?

Bahá’ís believe that God has sent several Manifestations – Abraham, Zoroaster, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad – with different social laws for their time and increasingly more of God’s purpose for humanity. For Bahá’ís, the most recent Manifestations appeared in Persia in the 1800s: the Báb (a title which means ‘gate’), and Bahá’u’lláh (a title which means ‘glory of God’). Each Manifestation adds to the message brought by the last and challenges humanity to grow, humanity right now being seen as in a stormy adolescence. Interestingly, while Bahá’ís strive for high standards of behaviour and education, we must also obey the laws of whatever country we live in. Violence is forbidden. This, of course, adds new light to the horrible and false accusations made against various Bahá’ís by the government of Iran as it works to oppress, suppress and silence the Bahá’ís – and many other Iranians – through the tired methods of tyranny.

Do you think being religious has made you an outcast among your peers in St. John’s or Newfoundland? Have you always been an outcast, and having a belief system simply solidifies that position, for others? Do you like being on the outside?

An outcast? No. Considered a bit odd? Quite likely. And that’s fine. I enjoy the affection and respect of friends who accept me as I am and do not try to change me, just as I do not try to change them. I’ve received reactions that range from puzzled looks to outright scorn on the subject of a religious faith from acquaintances, but I cannot control what they think of me. I’ve often felt like an outsider, a permanent observer; I still do. But not an outcast, not someone hurled away and actively or passively shunned for some offense, real or fabricated.

What do Bahá’ís think when they read your books? Do they see elements of the Faith in them? Do your works have to pass through some sort of religious filter that wouldn’t be   resent in the lives of other writers?

I have no idea what other Bahá’ís think of my work, or if they see elements of the Faith in it. The only reaction I’ve been able to ascertain has been one of unease from a few Bahá’ís here in St John’s. Not disapproval – just discomfort. I think it’s the darkness.

A religious filter? What, some sort of approval committee, internal or external? Lord, no.

My faith is shot through me; it’s not something I put on or take off. While I often act as I draft a scene from a character’s perspective, pretend I am that character, I cannot and do not say ‘For the next few hours, as I work on this chapter, I am not a Bahá’í.’ I might as well try to haul out one of my green eyes and say ‘For the next few hours, as I work on this chapter, I do not have a pair of beady green eyes.’  Various acquaintances think this is not cool, not intellectually or artistically valid. They think I’ve deluded myself.

I do not intend or want to write Bahá’í fiction. There’s no such thing. Nor do I want or intend to write Newfoundland fiction. These are silly labels that distract, obscure, and limit thought. I live in this world with everyone else; I must write about this world.

So you’re a Canadian writer, or an international writer, who happens to come from Newfoundland. That’s understandable. But not a very common line of thinking for writers who get pigeonholed as Atlantic Canadian writers, or some part thereof.  Do you have anything you want to say about that?

Could you repeat the question? I couldn’t hear you over my country fiddle.

I want to be a citizen of the world. I come from a place, yes, as does everyone.

What I really want to do with my storytelling is hit the sweet spot where universal human concerns play out and resonate in a specific setting, because it all works together.

The photograph shows some tattoos. Care to talk about their significance?

You can see part of the work I have on my upper chest: a crow and a raven, each perched on a bare branch. I also have a crude silhouette of a swallow on my left forearm and a winged ourobouros on my right forearm.  I really like tattoos, always have, and I give myself new work to mark a book publication. So the swallow marks The shadow side of grace, the ouroborous Double-blind, and the crow and raven Sky Waves. I’m waiting to get another tattoo right now to mark deluded your sailors.

(Photo credit David Hallett)

Last questions. Do you think deluded your sailors does what you wanted? And, what’s next?

Yes. Eventually, it did, though I needed a long time to figure out just what I wanted here.

Next: I’m working on a collection of novellas and stories, and sketching out some more novels.

(Cover courtesy Killick Press)

Jeff Bursey is the author of Verbatim: A Novel

  • Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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