History in fiction is often a world-shaking event that causes endless complications for the characters. Mao's Cultural Revolution made terrible trouble for Madeleine Thien's Chinese musicians in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, just as Napoleon's army did for Tolstoy's Russian aristocrats in War and Peace.
I wanted to have real happenings in my new novel, In a Wide Country, but not huge events that would force the characters to react. I wanted things from the period – around 1961 – that would interest the 12-year-old narrator and feed his imagination, whether or not anyone else in the story noticed. I went for a curated, character-driven history that would help mould the character's still tentative view of the world.
I had seen a focused example of this kind of bespoke history, in a feature film called Buffalo '66, written and directed by Vincent Gallo. Billy, the main character, is painfully obsessed with a blown field-goal attempt that lost the 1991 Super Bowl for the Buffalo Bills. Billy has lost a big bet on the outcome, and has gone to jail for it before the film begins, but it soon becomes clear that the bungled kick is really a symbol of everything that's gone wrong for him, his family and his town.
My main character, Jasper, lives in Western Canada with a mother whose solution to life problems is often to pack up quickly and flee. There's no father on the scene; Jasper has only a story about a bush plane vanishing up north with his father aboard.
When Jasper hears about a fatal Formula One crash in Italy, then reads about it in the paper and sees footage in a newsreel, he is racked by this better-documented case of another man rushing to his death in a machine. The actual crash happened in Monza; one driver and 15 spectators were killed. A news account of the disaster gave me a haunting line that I included verbatim in the novel: "The race continued with shocked crowds pushed back and cars roaring around the track for two hours, past the bodies of the dead strewn over the grass and covered with newspapers."
Jasper tries to understand the grown-up world within the turmoil of life with his mother, and gleans sometimes misleading clues from movies, stories and things he hears from others. The space age and the arms race were happening in 1961, but they belong in the novel mainly because they mesh with Jasper's search for explanations, and his family experience of mechanized disaster.
One space-age event that reaches Jasper is a discovery of radiation bands around the Earth, which in a movie he sees – an actual feature from '61 – catch fire and threaten to roast the planet. The blaze is extinguished only when atomic bombs are detonated outside the atmosphere. It was Atoms for Peace, the extraterrestrial version.
The astronomer father of a girl that Jasper is crushing on explains that nuclear explosions in space might not save the Earth, but could definitely make a new harbour in Alaska. This was a real proposal by fission pioneer Edward Teller, who boasted that the detonation would be so controlled, you could blast a harbour in the shape of a polar bear, "if required."
Another plan Jasper hears about would have used the Bomb to free oil from the Alberta oil sands. This too was a real prospect, which was favourably considered by Alberta Premier Ernest Manning, till Prime Minister John Diefenbaker put a stop to it.
Jasper is interested in origins, so I allowed him to find out about a compelling origin story current in the early 1960s: a theory of the universe called Steady State. In this scenario, the universe expands not because of a Big Bang, but because new matter is continually arising, condensing into planets and extending the cosmos. The stability of this story resonates with Jasper, but the theory eventually collapsed, after further evidence supported the Big Bang. I like the fact that this historic idea turned out to be fiction – in part because what is science, if not a process that begins as fiction and ideally becomes non-fiction?
The major world event of the summer of '61 was the construction of the Berlin Wall, which went on to make trouble for characters in countless Cold War novels. I couldn't find a use for it in my book. It didn't fit with Jasper's preoccupations, and he was plausibly young enough not to understand its political meaning. It flashes by in another newsreel, but isn't named and has no effect on the narrative.
More than half the book is set in a northern neighbourhood in my hometown of Edmonton, which provided a fertile bit of local history. In 1960, the first Canadian planetarium opened in Edmonton's Coronation Park, touching off a boom in planetarium construction across the country. It fit beautifully into Jasper's mental universe, and became an important pole star and location in the book.
I dimly recalled visiting the place when I was a kid, and paid careful attention to photos, but when I happened to be visiting Edmonton a few years ago, I went to Coronation Park to take another look. The place had been closed since 1983, but I knew it was still on the grounds of the newer, larger Edmonton Space Sciences Centre. The staff there told me to go out a side door and keep walking.
It was a bright winter day, and after a few minutes, through the trees and over the blinding snow drifts, I saw the building's shallow silver dome, which had been designed to resemble a flying saucer. There was no reason to be surprised, but I felt a thrill of discovery, and especially of confirmation – not because I had described the place correctly, but because by then it had become real to me mainly in my book, and now it was in front of me in the tangible world. There it was, just like in my novel.
That part of the history in my fiction is still unfolding. A few months before publication, the city of Edmonton announced that the planetarium would be restored, as an architectural jewel and functioning annex to the Space Sciences Centre. When it's ready to reopen next year, I'll be ready for another visit. It should be a historic occasion.
Robert Everett-Green talks about his novel, In a Wide Country, on CBC Radio One's Quebec arts program Cinq à Six, Saturday at 5 p.m.