Newfoundland’s Michael Crummey on history, story, and his latest novel, The Innocents

Author Michael Crummey (photo by Arielle Hogan)

The seed for The Innocents, Michael Crummey’s most recent novel, was a true story. The author came across an archival article about an orphaned brother and sister living alone on Newfoundland’s rugged coast some three hundred years ago. “There was no information about this orphan brother and sister other than that the sister was pregnant,” Crummey said. From that germ, the author developed his novel about Ada and Evered, two siblings left to fend for themselves in a makeshift home after their parents both die. The Innocents, which was the only novel from 2019 to be nominated for each of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award for Fiction, has just been released in paperback.

Written in a white heat over the course of three and a half months (“I think I was past a deadline,” Crummey says), The Innocents is a compact, furiously paced story about loyalty and survival, set once again on the rugged, snow and wind tossed Newfoundland terrain that Crummey has staked an imaginative claim to since his first novel, River Thieves, appeared in 2001. He has since produced a clutch of books – The Wreckage (2005), Galore (2009), Sweetland (2014) – that collectively mythologize his home province, often in a style that is grand and expansive, providing the reader with cracking good stories embedded in history and a deeply felt sense of place.

In some ways, The Innocents marks a stylistic departure for Crummey, whose earlier work in the form has been much more sprawling and painted on a larger canvas. By contrast, the experience of Ada and Evered feels constricted and claustrophobic; the book itself is shorter and faster paced than any of Crummey’s previous novels. In that regard, it follows on a path begun in Sweetland, which jettisoned the earlier works’ vast panoramas and large casts of characters in favour of a strict focus on a single, septuagenarian protagonist.

Crummey says that the impulse in the direction of a narrower focus was not present when writing Sweetland. “The character became representative of something larger but his story was fairly compressed.” By the time he turned his attention to The Innocents, however, the desire to write a novel with a different, more focused scope had become absolutely intentional. “That was partly because it felt like it was right for the book but it was also an attempt to short circuit some of my tics.”

Specifically, Crummey suggests some of the maximalist tendencies that informed early novels like River Thieves and The Wreckage had become habits he had internalized as fallbacks for his fictional approach. “I have a tendency to complicate,” Crummey says about his typical way of building a novel’s architecture: he will circle around themes and subjects and incidents, and will constantly ask himself where else a character or situation might go and what other branches a story might lead off toward. All these are, perhaps, natural for a novelist – or, at least, a particular kind of novelist – though Crummey expresses a desire with The Innocents to create less of a “rabbit warren” where the surface-level story is concerned. “I think those things have served me well and I enjoyed the puzzle of that,” Crummey says. “But I also felt like it was becoming an unthinking reflex.”

In many ways, the more streamlined approach in The Innocents and, to some extent, in Sweetland (the latter half of which features the title character alone for close on two hundred pages) is more of a high-wire act for an author. “Those were things that terrified me,” Crummey says.

One way to circumvent the fear of leaving the reader alone with two uncomprehending young characters coming to a gradual understanding of not simply how to survive in an inimical environment but of themselves and their relationship was to bring in outsiders from the mainland. To aid him in this endeavour, Crummey consulted two historical works – Captain Cartwright and His Labrador Journal and The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner. The two characters in the novel that spring from those books – Captain Solomon Truss and John Warren, respectively – cleave so closely to their historical counterparts that much of their dialogue and experiences are lifted directly from the journals of the real-life men.

“The two men were so fascinating,” Crummey says, arguably giving vent to his typical impulse to deepen his stories with historical details that catch his authorial eye. “I can do one of two things. I can break them up and try to create a kind of composite character. Then I thought, why not just have these 18th century men show up in the cove? I did very little in terms of fictionalization.”

“I knew immediately it would be a fascinating story to tell. But I thought, I don’t want to go there.”

If a more pared down presentation was terrifying for the author, it was nothing compared to the one aspect of The Innocents that is most troublesome from a narrative perspective: the incestuous sexual relationship Ada and Evered eventually embark on. “I didn’t touch [the story] for years because of that,” he says. “I came across it a decade ago and I knew immediately that it would be a fascinating story to tell. But I thought, I don’t want to go there.”

Though he admits he still didn’t feel ready to tell the story when he finally sat down to write it, the narrative would not leave him alone. He did make certain changes to the arc of the material he had discovered in his archival research. In actual fact, Crummey says, the narrative involves a clergyman who stumbled across the siblings, immediately excoriated them for the immorality of their situation, and was driven off at riflepoint. Crummey expresses a retrospective desire to tell a different kind of tale about survival and interdependence. “I wanted to write a book that was a love story. It was about two children who were left alone and survived for and because of each other.”

In the case of The Innocents, Crummey had no trouble revising the historical record to suit his purposes. In other books, he has used historical events – the forced extinction of the Beothuk people (River Thieves) and the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War (The Wreckage) – as background for his novels in a more straightforward manner. Regarding a strict fidelity to the history of events or situations incorporated into his fiction, Crummey says his attitude and approach change with each particular book. ”I think every writer has to find the line they’re comfortable with,” Crummey says. “I don’t think there’s a rule.”

That said, Crummey is adamant about the fact that authors who choose a specific setting or scenario for their story have an obligation to understand the milieu in which they are working.

To illustrate the importance of being sensitive to the background and history of a place or a people in fiction, Crummey refers to a 2018 lecture he gave in Edmonton as part of the Henry Kreisel series. The lecture, titled Most of What Follows Is True, takes to task the writer Howard Norman, who set his 1995 novel The Bird Artist in Newfoundland. Crummey writes, “The Bird Artist bears absolutely no resemblance – I am not overstating this – literally zero resemblance to the Newfoundland of the early 20th century.”

When the subject of The Bird Artist comes up in conversation, it is clear Crummey has lost none of his antipathy toward the novel’s presentation of his homeland. “There was no attempt to find out anything about the place,” he says. “It seemed to me like a book that was written by someone who had a map of Newfoundland and thought, ‘These are cool names.’ Outside of that, he knew nothing.”

Crummey contrasts this with Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, a book he felt at least attempted to replicate a kind of recognizable place and time. “Lots of Newfoundlanders hated that book,” he says. “To me, there were things that she got wrong or that didn’t quite work. But a lot of how she presented Newfoundland in that book felt like lived experience.”

The experience of Newfoundland – its history, people, and landscape – is absolutely intrinsic to Crummey’s sensibility. He resists being pigeonholed as an historical writer, even though the description is accurate in at least four out of five cases thus far, but also admits that history in Newfoundland is a living, breathing entity that remains strong among the residents there. ”I do think that we are our past, whatever our sense of it is,” Crummey says. “I feel that in Newfoundland more intensely than I’ve felt it anywhere else just because the past feels so close still. The world that my father grew up in was pretty close to how people were living in Newfoundland two hundred years before.”

Much of that has to do with the land and the ocean, which are harsh and austere to an extent that many of the environmental perils Ada and Evered face in The Innocents persist for Newfoundlanders to this day. “It’s not very hospitable most of the time,” Crummey says. The Innocents, in particular, is not an hospitable book in many ways: it is a dreadfully cold novel that features an abundance of winter scenes that chill the reader to the bone. The harshness of the land, Crummey says, is so prevalent and so determinant that it is something a writer has no choice but to deal with. “I had lived in Labrador for a while and I had the very real sense that this place could kill you. If you’re not careful, you will die out here.”

In such a treacherous landscape, it is perhaps unsurprising that Newfoundlanders have long relied on story to contextualize experience and provide a sense of continuity between and among generations. Which is not to say that Crummey’s relationship with story is in any way settled or uncomplicated. “In some ways I feel like Ada and Evered are two sides of my own nature,” Crummey says. “Ada is someone with a very artistic temperament. It‘s an appetite that there’s a kind of greed to for her. Evered is someone who can appreciate the artistic things Ada is doing in the house: he sees that they’re beautiful and he’s happy they are there. But he’s somebody who develops a real skepticism about stories and about a story’s ability to tell the truth. And more particularly, a story’s ability to distort the truth.”

This distorting ability is something Crummey is especially aware of as he watches in horror at what he calls the “farce” that has been unfolding in the U.S. for the past five or six years. “I had been thinking a lot about how stories work, what they can be used to do,” he says. “I just looked at how Trump and the Trump administration have been using propaganda – story – to try to create a completely false picture of the world. And how many people are buying it.” As an author of imaginative fiction, Crummey knows how stories work and how they can be manipulated to both positive and negative effect. With The Innocents, he was working in part to counter what he calls “the hegemony of story,” with a specific recognition of the way it is possible for a false story to be taken as fact or truth. “That’s a kind of violence,” he says. ”I think that Evered feels that.”

Newfoundland’s Michael Crummey on history, story, and his latest novel, The Innocents
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