Michael Crummey grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the province is the setting for his most recent novel, Sweetland – specifically, a small island just off the coast, home to 70-year-old Moses Sweetland, who decides to evade a government-imposed resettlement and hunkers down in the wilderness there.
Why did you write your new book?
Because I’m a sucker for punishment. And I’m not fit for anything else. And the days are long – there’s only so much laundry a man can fold, only so many times a lawn needs mowing. I don’t bore easily, but there comes a point when I’ve gotta occupy myself with something.
Also, we have three kids, two of whom are in university this fall. It was either write a new book or work the cash at Marie’s Mini-Mart. Although, having written the new book, I see that working the cash at Marie’s may still be necessary.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Like everything else in my life, that seems to depend on which side of the bed I get up on.
The prose in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems barely human sometimes, the architecture of every sentence is so baroque and otherworldly and so perfectly weighted, it’s like watching a screen saver roll through seemingly infinite, eerily organic, variations. Other times those sentences seem so overwrought and unwieldy they collapse halfway through.
Same sentences, different me. Marquez is another favourite who is sometimes too rich for my blood. My appetite has to be right for the meal he’s serving up. (Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that both Marquez and McCarthy have their arses firmly planted on William Faulkner’s shoulders?)
For contemporaries, I’d have to say Lisa Moore. On a sentence by sentence level, she’s an evangelical writer. She believes absolutely in the truth of each image, each phrase, each word in its place among the other words in a sentence. And she is writing to make believers of her readers. Can she get a Hallelujah? Absolutely.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Well, there’s a difference between received and taken. I have been given advice I wish I’d been wise enough to follow in the moment.
“You’ve had enough to drink, go home out of it.”
“Put on some sunscreen.”
“Don’t piss off the Books editor at the Globe!”
“Try the veal.”
The best advice I’ve ever received has been less than helpful, but that’s my own damn fault. Advice is only as good as the person it’s given to.
Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through, and why?
I am not interested in living through any historical period pre-flush toilet. I mean, really. I’ve gone in the woods when necessary. I can slum it in an outhouse if circumstances require. But the thought of watching Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel isn’t enough to make me want to make a lifelong habit of it.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?
This question, in my humble opinion, is a complete no-brainer. Success now might get my kids through university. I’d rather be obscure when it makes no difference to my ego or my bottom line. Legendary or forgotten after death, I’ll be no less dead. Give me something I can work with.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
Despise is a pretty strong word, but I am almost ready to use it in relation to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Got pretension? You bet.
I do remember being a fan of the poem as an undergraduate student. But the more time I spent with it, the less I thought of it. And what a one-trick pony it seems now. I can barely crawl past the tiresome ennui of the first section, knowing how much tiresome ennui lies ahead.
Years ago I read an interview with Irving Layton in which he referred to Eliot as a “sexless” bore. I dismissed it as typical Layton rhetoric at the time, but I can’t argue the charge anymore. Sexless = lifeless in Layton’s view and when I struggle through The Waste Land now, some small-minded part of myself can’t help thinking: Here’s a man who desperately needed to get laid.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d created?
David Bowie. Currently trading on a stock market near you.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Fictional characters are only interesting because their lives or personalities are “complicated.” And complicated is not that appealing to someone who appreciates a simple life. I’m running through a list of the most compelling characters I’ve encountered – Ahab in Moby-Dick? Lunatic. Henry Smart in A Star Called Henry? I could live without the Troubles. Rockwell Kent in The Big Why? Arsehole. Eliza Lynch in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch? That title is definitely ironic.
All I can say is, it would have to be someone recent, given the “flush toilet” clause in my rider.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
Well, there is one question I wish people would stop asking. And that is, “What question do you wish people would ask about your work.” Honestly, I can’t think of a single thing I’d like to be asked that I haven’t been asked already. I guess the work ain’t that deep. Or I’m not. Or something.
This interview has been condensed and edited.