Michael Crummey is about as Canadian as a person can get. He reads Canadian, he writes Canadian, and he's extremely friendly, polite, and soft-spoken. He was born and grew up in Canada's Atlantic province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and has been writing since he was in university. While he is best-known for his first love, poetry, he has written three novels; River Thieves, The Wreckage, and his newest offering, Galore. I caught up with Michael to talk with him about his new book, his obsession with the ocean, and growing up a Newfoundlander.
AbeBooks - The characters in Galore are heavily at the ocean's mercy, for food, safe return of sailors and more. You grew up as far from the ocean as possible in Newfoundland. Do you feel a connection to it anyway?
Michael Crummey - "My Dad grew up on the ocean in Western Bay, and has been fishing since age nine. I think I feel obsessed with the ocean because it's such a dominant, unavoidable part of Newfoundland's culture, but I grew up in a mining town, so I always felt disconnected from it. I do feel a deep connection to the ocean. I now have a place in Western Bay where Dad is from. I really think Newfoundlanders have a love-hate relationship with the ocean. Honestly, it has always terrified me in its unpredictability. It's such a moody, unmanageable force. So I think our relationship with the ocean is a bit old testament - like it's an angry, jealous god, but also a benevolent provider, so a lot of superstitions and rituals that became part of our folklore were adopted to help us feel like we had control over what we in fact had no control over."
Abe - The plot of Galore is incredibly intricate. I referred back to the family tree at the beginning several times. What kind of research went into it?
Michael Crummey - "Well, in the past I've written about specific historical events, and this time I wanted to escape that. I really wanted, in particular, to write about folklore. There's 300 years of a rich, diverse oral culture there. Newfoundland is primarily and importantly made up of stories. I wanted to write all about that, so I decided to look for the most ridiculous, outlandish stories I could dig up, and shove them all into one book. I spent a lot of time in the provincial archive, read a lot of histories, and personal accounts, and found people so willing and eager to share their stories. These days there's a bit of an explosion of people writing about the towns they're from, as well."
Abe –The title is perfect. The book feels abundant, engulfing, and all-encompassing. How did you choose it?
Michael Crummey - "I chose the title for several reasons. First, as I was writing, I found the narrative had a real sense of expansiveness to it, which seemed fitting. And it has the word 'lore' built right in, which as I mentioned, was one of the biggest themes of the book for me - the stories, the myth, the folk. Galore is also one of the few Irish-Gaelic words to make it into regular usage in the English language, which reflects so much of the Newfoundland community. And it means abundance, but that has almost exclusively positive connotations, whereas galore can go either way."
AbeBooks –From Devine's Widow to Mary Tryphena and more, Galore is full of strong female characters. Who are some strong women in your life who may have inspired that?
Michael Crummey – "Definitely my mother, for one. But I also think - and this is, like any blanket statement, a ridiculous general assertion - that Newfoundland women have a particular quality to them, a strength. I didn't realize how unique it was until I left and returned home, but there's a particular kind of strength I have always loved there, and I see that in my wife and her friends - I feel like they're a breed apart. I'd go so far as to say that arguments can be made that Newfoundland outports are a closet matriarchy. While the men are viewed as being in charge, and certainly have to feel that way, when it comes down to it, the women have more say in what gets done."
AbeBooks –Some of the names, like King-me Sellers, are very unusual. Were they based at all on Newfoundland history, or of your own imagination?
Michael Crummey - The nickname "King-me" was my own imagination, but all the names are genuine Newfoundland names. My intention was to have the book's community be strongly of Newfoundland, but not necessarily in it - I didn't want people to think they knew exactly when and where, so I would only use names that had appeared in Newfoundland history but were no longer in use. Interestingly, that proved impossible. I found if it appeared in history ever, it's in the phone book now. The population today is about a half million people, and 90% are direct descendants of the original settler population of about 19,000.
AbeBooks –Do you have a favourite character in the book?
Michael Crummey – "I'd have to say that while I of course find them all compelling, I especially favour the character of Bride. She was just a walk-on, originally. I read about a travelling medical boat from Newfoundland, generations ago, who would travel from port to port helping with medical attention, and they mostly pulled teeth - the state of dental health back then was appalling. I read about this young teenager who insisted that all her teeth be pulled, despite their being overall healthy, because she realized they might cause her problems later and there might be nobody around to take care of it, then. So she was just supposed to have that one part in the book, but she grew on me - which is very much in her character - and I suppose I fell in love with her a little bit."
AbeBooks –The character of Jude/Judah is enigmatic, from his unusual arrival, to his speechlessness to his smell. What was the inspiration for him?
Michael Crummey – "My original intention was to make nothing up, and have everything be something I found in the history/folklore. I heard a song - an old dancehall song called Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor- do you know it? [ed note: I didn't.] and it went:
Jack was every inch a sailor,
Five and twenty years a whaler;
Jack was every inch a sailor,
He was born upon the bright blue sea.
When Jack grew up to be a man he went to Labrador,
He fished in Indian Harbour where his father fished before;
On his returning in the fog he met a heavy gale,
And Jack was swept into the sea and swallowed by a whale.
So he gets washed overboard and is swallowed by a whale. Which seemed a very interesting place to start a character."
AbeBooks –What authors and books have influenced and inspired you?
Michael Crummey – "For this book in particular? Definitely One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Also a great book called The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley which is very similar to Galore in some ways, a multi-generational story about a community. In general? Cormac McCarthy was a big influence for a while, and a bunch of Canadian writers, like Timothy Findley, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies... I should keep a list!"
AbeBooks –You've been recognized for both your poetry and your prose. Which comes more naturally to you, and are there benefits and drawbacks to either genre for you?
Michael Crummey – "Sure. Poetry is what I started out with, and didn't want or intend for a long time to be anything but a poet. I still feel it's the most plaeasurable kind of writing for me. The fiction until now had always felt like work. Enjoyable work sometimes, but really, pretty heavy lifting. For whatever reason, this novel felt different. I felt - I think the other two novels I felt completely exhausted by. I finished and thought thank God that's done. Whereas with Galore I felt it was feeding me as much as vice versa. I spent two and a half years just writing, and one and a half years thinking about it beforehand. I miss it, now that it's finished. But poetry is still my most natural form. The drawback to poetry is that there is zero money in it. Fiction may not have much, but at least there's some."
AbeBooks – Who are some of your favourite Canadian poets?
Michael Crummey – "Al Purdy was a huge - even a bad - influence on me, in that so much of why his poetry works is his personality, and trying to mimic someone's personality doesn't work. But I learned much of my style and what I love from him - conversational diction, writing about the lives of ordinary people, and something of an obsession with the past. Other influential poets whose work I love would include people like Lorna Crozier, Leonard Cohen - God, I wanted to be Leonard Cohen - Bronwen Wallace, Patrick Lane. Nowadays, I'm trying to branch out beyond just Canada, and am reading people like Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott... again, I should keep a list! "
AbeBooks –Do you have a favourite poem?
Michael Crummey – "Definitely something by Al Purdy. The one - whose title eludes me at the moment - the one about his brother who died before being born. It's amazing. [ed note: The poem is called The Dead Poet and can be found in Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy]."
AbeBooks –So. What's next for Michael Crummey?
Michael Crummey – (laughs) "I have no idea. Which is par for the course. Since Galore was such a culmination of something I've been working toward my entire life, it's made the drop on the other side, now that it's finished, feel very long. Who knows? Maybe anything. Maybe a murder mystery. Set in Iceland. Why not?"
* * *
As well as his three novels, Michael Crummey is the author of several collections of poetry including Arguments with Gravity, Hard Light, Emergency Roadside Assistance and Salvage; a collection of short fiction called Flesh and Blood; and a work of nonfiction called Newfoundland: Journey Into a Lost Nation.