A Conversation With Tom Crothers

Irish-born author Tom Crothers kindly responded to a series of questions that I posed to him about his recent novel, Sandfires, as well as some broader questions about reading and writing. I trust that you will find his responses as interesting and thoughtful as I have.

JO: Tom, place is key in this novel. Why did you choose a farming community in 1920s P.E.I. as the backdrop for much of your story?

TC: I wrote Sandfires while living in Toronto, but I followed the adage, write from what and where you know.  Canada and Ireland both share my psyche and most of my writings reflect that: my formative years until age twenty one were spent in Northern Ireland. I still have family there.  In Canada I got my formal education and my career as a teacher.  I’ve lived here for fifty plus years.  But why did I choose to set Sandfires mainly on PEI?  Well, Bessie, my wife of fifty-four years, is an Islander, so you might say my association with PEI goes back that far. We were resident there for about eleven or twelve years during which my children grew to university and high school ages. While there, I taught, directed theatre, and wrote my first book, Out of Thin Air: A Story of CFCY and early radio on Prince Edward Island. I co-authored this with the late Betty Large. Betty was a wonderful lady who took a course I offered in creative writing through the University extension. She invited me to collaborate in the research and writing of the CFCY story which would document her father, the late Colonel Keith Rogers, a pioneer in early radio and founder of CFCY. The book was given a Heritage Foundation Award.  I even did a little pig farming on the Island. Therefore, when I wanted to write a Canadian novel I chose to set it mainly on the Island, because I am intimately acquainted with its ferocious winter storms, its idyllic summers and dreamy falls. Many of the Islanders have the same Scots-Irish background as myself, and I am familiar with their history. So, as I said, I wrote out of what I know.  Please keep in mind, Sandfires is a work of fiction, not a history, and it is not primarily a story about PEI; but rather a human story that is set mainly on PEI.

JO: Do you think you could have chosen another locale to craft your story? Was it essential to have it centred on New Skye, P.E.I.?

TC: I think the answer to this is partly inherent in the answer to your previous question. Yes I could have chosen another locale, but to use the late Robertson Davies phrase, it would not have been written out of the writer’s consciousness; and therefore, it would not have had the same ring in the voice.

JO: Many writers never write a second novel. Can you talk about some of the challenges in writing a second novel versus writing the first one?

TC: Actually, I wrote Sandfires first, then another novel called Hanky Ball. The last novel I wrote was Bumps. The publisher had the manuscripts of both Sandfires and Bumps. She liked both of them but decided to publish Bumps first. This isn’t exactly answering your question; but no, I didn’t experience the challenge you allude to.

JO: Tom, some might label you as a ‘late bloomer’ in terms of your writing career. Do you see yourself in this way as well?

TC: Yes, but not only in writing but in education and personal development as well and these are systemic to the art of writing – the exploration continues.

JO: When did you begin working on Sandfires? There is something nearing effortlessness in your writing style. Have you had to work hard at your writing or is it something that has come rather easily?

TC: I starting scribbling ideas down in the late nineties, scribbling might be the clue to the writing style. When I was admitted to the University of New Brunswick to study for a BA, I had great difficulty with grammar. I’d get essays returned with things like “great ideas, but you must learn how to write a proper sentence.”   In those days there were no writing centers where one could go for help. A professor, the late Lauriat Lane Jr., brought me into his office one day and handed me a programmed textbook on the English sentence.  I devoured it, and from then on my troubles with grammar diminished. Also, I became an assiduous journal keeper. I love writing the journals partly because I write them in longhand with my fountain pen, and I like the comforting scratch the nib makes on the paper as I scribble. The writing of journals honed my style. Also, I do a lot of re-writing and restructuring which I enjoy.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Bessie is an excellent line by line editor who is adept at catching an awkward phrase.

JO: What is your inspiration to write Tom? Do you have a specific muse that you can identify for us?

TC: Yes. I love being involved in the creative process. God made the world out of a void; I enjoy creating my worlds and watch them come to life on the blank page.  I love the spoken word and I regard all creative writing as essentially a part of the oral tradition. I think a combination of theatre and poetry, do it for me: writing is like a piece of theatre going on in my head. It seems to fit well with the Greek idea of Drama – breathing with, or living with the characters as they travel their fated journey. I enjoy writing dialogue. So in a sense I act like a Director or a character-actor in the creation of my writing. Poetry deepens and polishes language and it can bring a sense of immediacy to language. I have a personal belief that all humanity on our planet is traumatized and is continually adjusting to circumstances that envelop and thrust it forward  or hold it back. For example, the people in Sandfires circa 1924 come on the heels of World War One, in which hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, and then on the heels of the pandemic Spanish Influenza of 1918, in which millions perished. Not only did the fictional people of New Skye suffer from these cataclysmic events but so did the rest of humanity. New Skye is akin to a microcosm in this regard, and many of its characters configurations of an ongoing suffering humanity. Human suffering and joy and its subsequent attempt to adjust and aright itself, I suppose, is my muse. I agree with Toynbee who said that to be moved by suffering and pity, is to move closer to God.

JO: Tom, when you are not writing, which authors do you enjoy reading the most and why?

TC: The classical dramatists Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes etc; Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne (secular poetry) Milton, Victor Hugo, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and the Hebrew scriptures – these I dip into.  Robertson Davies influenced me from the Jungian perspective, and especially his The Fifth Business and The World of Wonders as well as his collection of essays, One Half of Robertson Davies.

JO: Have you always been a writer? When you were engaged in other jobs or careers, did you always maintain a time to write?

TC: Not a creative writer; but in the sense that Davies believed that a writer is always writing in his head, I guess I’ve always done that, as well as being a keeper of a journal for about 40 plus years.

JO: Can you tell us about some of your writing projects in the immediate future?

TC: My novel Hanky Ball is finished and in manuscripts form. It has been languishing for several years, so I’m doing a final read through and rewrite before attempting publication. Hanky Ball is set both in Ireland and in Canada (Southern Ontario) during the 1990’s.  It covers the troubles in Northern Ireland and traces the life of David Ball (Hanky) from his birth there to his death in Canada. I have enough short stories for a book, as well as poetry and play-scripts. A professional theatre company, Mackenzie Ro: The Irish Repertory Theatre Company in Canada, is sponsoring my short play, What If, Mr. Robinson? to be performed by them at the Toronto Summer Festival of New Plays. As Theatre is my first love, I am looking forward to my association with this group. In addition to this, I’m working on a couple of plays.  Also, I’m teaching myself to write a screenplay adaptation of Sandfires.

JO: Finally, Tom could you give us a shortlist, say, a handful, of your favourite novels?

TC: Jude the Obscure, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Misérables, Moby Dick, Catch-22, The Fifth Business, and most recently, The White Tiger. Since I’ve started writing seriously, I find myself watching movies more and reading less, and indulging in my favourite hobby, art.

Trent Reads Winner

I’m so excited to announce that Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach is the winner of Trent Reads 2011. If you have not read Eden’s book yet, it is an absolute must read. We are very hopeful that we will be able to secure a visit from Eden to both our Peterborough and Oshawa campuses this fall. The five finalists and their books were all wonderful and I will not be surprised to see several of these books nominated again in the coming years. Thanks to everyone for voting and the incoming class of 2011, along with the entire Trent University community, has a great book to read over the summer.

Sandfires Sure to Ignite Readers

Sandfires

By: Tom Crothers

DreamCatcher Publishing, November 2010, 354 pp, Paperback $19.95 CDN/US

Reviewed by: James Onusko

Toronto’s Tom Crothers has written a superb second novel and its recent successes in being nominated for several prestigious awards are unsurprising. Crothers’s narrative is spellbinding, and his characters are both captivating and believable. His writing style is fresh and clear; not unlike the P.E.I. air that provides life for the book. Ferns are key as symbols in the novel and are a great illustration of Crothers’s abilities to work on multiple levels as a novelist. Crothers may be a Toronto resident, but his obvious admiration for the P.E.I. landscape and its people are palpable from the book’s beginning to end. Irish-born, Tom holds a Master’s degree in Creative writing from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Divinity from the University of Toronto. He has had a diverse working life: actor, labourer, teacher, minister, and author. This background is reflected in the richness and nuance that Crothers brings to both his characters and the novel more generally.

The novel’s central place is the fictional New Skye, P.E.I. and a farming community that is splintered by the murder of a rum-running farmer by a ‘simple’ neighbour, Charlie Ewart. Crothers, like many contemporary writers, has chosen to tell the story from multiple viewpoints and at varying points in time. The town’s minister, Mark Kerr, is central to many of the stories that are woven into the novel, and ultimately he serves as a focal point for the emotions of several of the characters in the book while dealing with personal anguish. The multiple storylines lead us back to secrets about Mark’s father and his indiscretions during the First World War, through to the love triangles that emerge in New Skye in the 1920s. Crothers has broached many of the major themes of exemplary literature: love, family, greed, betrayal, scorn and redemption. When not focusing on Mark, much of the novel revolves around Charlie and the efforts by those that love him to see him acquitted of his murder charge. The book traces several strands of the lives of the characters that hold both a vested and passing interest in Charlie’s trial.

In the following excerpt, Myra Swanson’s store and her skills in spreading community gossip are explored:

Her store smelled of paraffin, malt and bran and was stocked with every conceivable item: needles, buttons, fishhooks, nails, iron files and larger tools such as hammers and saws. Cans of paint and boxes of food lined the walls. Clusters of pots and plans were tied to hooks in the ceiling; and shirts, dungarees and suits swung from the ceiling like hanged men. Every bit of space was used. She moved around with surprising grace and agility, and never knocked anything over with either her ample bosom or backside. A small room upstairs where she measured and fitted women for foundation garments and wedding dresses had a handwritten sign saying, LADIES ONLY.

She bantered shamelessly with the farmers who liked to “cabbage” a bit of extra time chatting in the intimacy of the small store. If a woman was “upstairs,” they passed sly glances to each other and mumbled innuendoes. Each time Myra followed a woman for a “fittin” she threw the men a knowing glance as if in some sexual conspiracy with them.

She knew everything about everybody: personal habits, favourite dishes, scandals, or potential scandals; and if there was something she did not know about a person, she could make it up with surprising accuracy.

Myra had a talent for saying something about someone without ever mentioning names or facts. No one was safe from her, yet everyone wanted to be allied to her. She was fun at parties and when they had “times” at the community hall, she could send them into “fits” with her fund of monologues such as “Bessie’s Boil.”

Crothers has the very real talent of being able to breathe life into a character that could easily become a mere stock character. This is one of the strengths of his writing – that while many of his characters may seem familiar to the reader in some way – there is a richness to them by the end of the novel because of the skills that he applies in crafting them. Most of us know someone very similar to Myra Swanson, but no one exactly like her. She is but one example of this as Crothers has created a slate of characters that are highly convincing. The author’s abilities to capture the relationships and what for many can be a stifling and debilitating atmosphere in rural, farming communities are brilliant. Nothing seems to remain unfound by at least one small-town inhabitant in any time or place is what Crothers seems to be arguing for in the novel.

While it is obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed Sandfires, there are some flaws. There seems to be a move to increasingly shorter chapters by many contemporary authors; Crothers has succumbed to this push by having one chapter comprised of one paragraph. I understand that he was using this as a literary device in that particular instance, but writing of this quality seems somehow diminished by the incessant need to fracture the narrative into such short pieces. Some readers may feel they have accomplished a lot by reading three chapters in less than fifteen minutes, but do not count me as one of those claimants. While not enough to do more than stretch credulity, certain circumstances did seem overly convenient in the lives of characters that the author has created. Some readers may find certain twists to be too contrived, almost to the point of being contrived. I do qualify it with almost as I do not believe it ruins the novel, simply weakens it.

In the final analysis though, none of this should dissuade readers from reading Sandfires. Crothers is an excellent storyteller and the pace of the novel fits well with both the landscape and the time to which the reader is transported. It would have been very easy for Crothers to sentimentalize in a number of places in the novel, but he resists this at all turns. In terms of readership, there is absolutely no reason why readers in their mid-teens who enjoy a challenging read cannot engage with this book and I believe it offers broad appeal to most adult readers. I highly recommend Sandfires and trust that you will enjoy it as much as I have.

*Sandfires was sent to me to read and review by DreamCatcher Publishing. It was not purchased.

Robert Charles Wilson Interview in the Spring

In anticipation of Vortex being published this summer, author Robert Charles Wilson has agreed to do an interview with me in the coming months. The Hugo-award winning author has published a number of excellent science fiction novels. Vortex is the final book in a trilogy that includes both Spin and Axis. If you have not read these yet, I encourage you to do so. You can find my reviews of both books from the Trent Arthur here.