Where I Write: Michael Crummey

He is a nimbly versatile novelist (the magnificent Sweetland, Galore, and River Thieves) and poet (I am a huge fan of Hard Light.) Michael Crummey also happens to have a beautiful speaking voice; if you have listened to him read from his work then you may have the experience, while reading his new poetry collection, Little Dogs, of "hearing" it too.

Michael lives in St. John's, where he explores themes that are both particular to Newfoundlanders and common to all. He was recently awarded the inaugural Writers' Trust Fellowship.

Here is where he works: 

This little room used to be a youngster's bedroom, before she decided she wanted to get as far from her parents as the house allowed. She nagged me into swapping my basement office for these digs six years ago. It's a small space, and I decided one wall would be required for books. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were measured and cut by my friend Stan Dragland. I managed to hammer and glue them together myself and so far they have held up (although the brackets I initially used to secure them to the wall were insufficient to the weight of those books and the whole thing almost came down on me).

crummey-desk

My writing desk is made from leftover bookshelf material and the base of an old metal desk that had been gathering dust in a back porch for years. I am not handy but years of home ownership have forced me to learn a thing or two. I am still inordinately proud of putting together anything that doesn't immediately come apart at the seams.

When my office was located in the basement, I rarely made the trek downstairs. It just didn't seem worth the effort. Most of my writing happened at the dining room table in those days. Except for the dogs, I was alone in the house during school hours so there was plenty of quiet time. But even in the evenings, I would set up there while the youngsters did homework or watched television or picked at one another. I loved how the kids would interrupt to ask what I was working on and glaze over ten seconds into my explanation. They were just trying to be polite, I guess, to include me in their world. But my life made no sense to them. 

            “So,” the youngest said one evening, “you just sit home all day and, like, write stuff?” He was about ten years old at the time.

            “Yeah,” I said. “More or less.”

            “Huh,” he said. “And that's how you make money?”

            “More or less, yeah.”

            “Huh,” he said. And a minute later he said, “That seems like a pretty sweet set up.”

            Yes, as a matter of fact. Yes, it is.

Now that I have an office on the main floor, within a few feet of the kettle, I spend most of my work time at the desk. Although privacy is still not something I can count on or expect. The door is always open and everyone sticks their head in on their way along the hall, the same way the dogs or the cat will wander in to stare at me a while. (My life makes no sense to them, either.) Before she moved into her own place, our oldest liked to sit on the floor with the animals from time to time, telling me about her work or some weekend party. She's been out of the house a week and I already miss those visits.

            As I write this, the daughter who abandoned my office for the basement wandered in to stand by the desk. “What's 54 Hours?” she asked. (The NFB poster is a brand new addition to the decor.)

            “An animated film about the Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914,” I said.

            “You wrote it?”

            “Yeah, I did.”

            She nodded. “You get paid?”

            “Yeah,” I said. “I got paid.”

            She nodded again, as if it was her job to ensure the financial well-being of the household is a consideration in whatever the hell I'm up to in here. Then she left to carry on with her own more sensible business, without asking what the hell I'm up to in here.

But since you asked: I've just finished a New and Selected poems called Little Dogs, out with Anansi this spring. And I'm working on a couple of documentary film projects, one about the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War and another about (Hey! Hey! Your eyes are glazing over!) the lives of migrant Filipino workers who've found themselves in Goose Bay, Labrador. And any day now, I swear, sooner rather later, eventually, I'm gonna start working on another novel.

Dedication

I never miss a chance to read the dedication when I start a book and the acknowledgements when I finish it. There is always a glimpse, no matter how brief, of how the book became itself, of its complicated midwifery.

And so I read about supportive spouses, inspirational parents, patient and perceptive editors and agents, the children and colleagues and employers who deserve apologetic thanks, grants and residencies that helped, cottages and office space lent, gratitude and credit given where they have long been due.

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I imagine those very personal declarations being tapped into a laptop's grey pool of light late one night in a small second-storey room, under a tidy bulletin board or a haphazard bookshelf. I think a lot about where writers and artists work, and often ask them about that for this blog.

As of finishing a terrific new novel yesterday I have a new favourite acknowledgement. At the close of his very vivid and involving book Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave writes charmingly:

"A very heartfelt thank you to every reader who sent me kind words, or who wrote generously about my novels, while I was working. I was running on fumes for awhile, so if you are someone who gave me a top-up then a line of the novel is yours. Please choose your favourite."

I would not be able to stop at one line.

The saddest I have read? There are two, very different, that spring to mind. The great Calvin Trillin, reporter, memoirist and humourist, dedicated the first book he published following the death of his wife and muse with, "I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice."

Henry Watson Fowler began his classic reference work, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, with this elegant tribute to his longtime writing partner, his brother Francis, dead of tuberculosis after serving in the Great War:

"I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied."

The book "... is the last fruit" of their work together, he wrote; I hear in those words an echo of other potential lost.

I have a couple of bright favourites and they are personal. The first is not from a book, but from the liner notes of a CD made by Gros Morne Summer Music, whose guests and versatile classical players we have put up from time to time in our little guest house at Bonne Bay. We were catching up over breakfast with the director, a brilliant pianist, when our usually genial schnauzer, Hank, bit his shin unexpectedly. And hard.

"Thank you to Stephen and Jeanie and Holly," the acknowledgement reads (the boys were mostly at home that summer.)

"And not Hank."

My other favourite (above) looks splendidly robust in its Italian translation. My father, a writer himself, was very ill when he read most of Facing Ali in a late draft my husband emailed to him, its joined perforated pages spooling from the old-fashioned printer in Dad's pretty, garden-level home office, crunching out line by line, tiny dots grouping themselves into prose, he on the settee one long evening, I in an armchair, reading away some of his last hours.

We passed the chapters between us, saying, "ready," and "done" and, "oh, very good."

He was delighted to know that it would be dedicated to him, as he would have been to know that there were Italian and Japanese editions.

Dad would have loved, also, the anti-dedication to Hank. He would have creased his brow and asked, old reporter that he was, had the dog bitten anyone else recently? Any other concert pianists? (No.)

He had a stiff upper lip and radar for silver linings. "Well," he would have noted, "missed his fingers, thank God!"

Amber (again)

I held up the photograph, all crisp greys and soft lines, and asked: Who is the beautiful bride? She had fierce eyes, no smile and pale hair covered in what I now know, so much later, was orange blossom and very fine lace.

I was asking this of one of my grandmothers, the one who was my mother's mother, who would speak through almost-clenched teeth and seemed, in addition to irritation, to feel a persisting disappointment. She looked at me from above the deep half-moons of lined skin that puddled below -- it came to me just then -- those eyes.

"Me," she said. 

Now, emptying a closet shelf, I am thinking of the difference between the classicism of that photo and the handful of Instamatic snaps spilling onto the floor in front of me. (I still feel almost faint at the thought of my unintended cruelty, my failure to see her in that bride.)

My snapshots, with their slipshod focus, the way they yellowed sunlight and thickened indoor light, are bad records and yet perfect in one way: they look to me the way memory looks in my own mind, as though it has been trapped in amber.

When we were in high school we took a lot of photos with cartridges and flash cubes as we piled into pleasant dens and rec rooms in north London, around and near the university gates, with playing cards, squat brown bottles of beer, red packets of du Mauriers, and Night Moves and Rumours and Hotel California.

We took photos when we skied through our pretty, yellow-brick neighbourhoods in the great Southwestern Ontario snows of the late 1970s, free of school for days at a time. With a parent's station wagon, a phlegmy transistor radio and thoroughly inadequate sunscreen we passed torpid afternoons on the sands at Grand Bend -- more photos.

We had different geometry then, in our cruddy Instamatic photos. Our cheeks were fuller and higher and our jaws and hips neat and narrow. We were reedy and sensitive and alive to the moment. We thrummed like elastic to wit and hilarity, to longings, to shame. We were bound by conventions we broke only by risking trouble in a surprising range of shades.

We forget some of it and then marvel at the caprice of what we do remember -- and wince at the long-delayed understanding that comes, sometimes, out of nowhere. Alchemy. Fingers on my forehead, eyes pressed shut.

(Martin Amis recalled in his memoir, Experience, the "armpit scorching" that memories of adolescence visit upon us. And oh, those tidal blushes!)

The late Eric Wright described the stunning fact of meeting again the only people who share those tecollections. At the close of his very affecting memoir of growing up in a large, poor English family between world wars, Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, he joins a reunion with his schoolmates. There they are, all wearing masks, he is suddenly convinced, masks of the faces of old men.

At a reunion recently I thought about all of this again and began to tinker with this story, which I began a few months ago. I didn't see masks of old men or women among the people I knew from that time, which proved to be both crucible and fleeting breeze. But I wish for us all to get there, to be old and blurry-edged, soft-voiced with age, and still enjoying, every once in a long while, the novel familiarity of being together once again.

Somewhere between her striking wedding photo and the time that I asked her about it, many years on, a very handsome grandmother. 

Somewhere between her striking wedding photo and the time that I asked her about it, many years on, a very handsome grandmother.