On days when doubt inevitably struck, when writing felt like pulling teeth, acclaimed Newfoundland novelist and poet Michael Crummey would yell out to his wife, “487!”
Then, “493!” A few more words on the page, another molar extracted.
“And as soon as I hit 500 words, I was done!”
Meaning, he’d hit his daily word count on his latest novel The Innocents. Sometimes, he says, he’d even close the laptop mid-sentence. Of course, “I might delete 450 of them the next day, but then I would have 50 words I didn’t have,” he says with a grin. “If you do that for enough weeks, then it starts to feel like you have something of substance there – if you’re lucky.”
The Innocents, a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, tells the story of two pioneer children struggling to survive alone on a desolate cove facing the icy North Atlantic. For Crummey, “every book has felt completely different in terms of how it arrives, how it feels while I’m writing it and how I feel after I’m done.”
The Innocents was no exception. The novel was for him, as usual, an atypical experience.
Some days the words flowed – 2,500 or more – such as when a vainglorious schooner captain arrives at the cove, and later when a crew of sailors camp on the beach, with their bawdy, late 18th-century banter. “When I got to a point where the sailors show up in the cove, it was like an extravaganza. There was so much available to me as a writer.”
He also kept a notepad by the laptop screen, with two or three guide posts for that day, to get his characters from point A to point B. Along with the daily word count, it helped him through bouts of uncertainty. “My wife likes to remind me that when I say to her, ‘I don’t think this is a novel,’ she says, ‘You say that every time.’ ”
Yet, with The Innocents, Crummey was also on a mission to finish the book quickly – almost impossibly so. Part of it was out of contractual necessity (he has a book deal with Doubleday). Part of it was the feeling that he had the basic story so fully formed in his head that he just needed to get it down. And part of it was the gumption to deal with the novel’s difficult subject matter, the near hopelessness of the children’s survival gradually delving, as they age, into Greek tragedy depths.
“I generally had a sense of what the ending was going to be, or at least what the ending would feel like, how I wanted it to feel. That is sort of my guide for making decisions,” he says.
He started writing the novel last spring (or what passes for springtime in St. John’s, he says), beginning on Page 1 and writing straight through to the end with minimal revisions, and sent the completed draft to his editor in just 3½ months. He didn’t take a single day off until he finished the book.
Prior to that, he had been taking some downtime, recovering from writing his previous novel, 2014′s Sweetland. “I’ve been at it long enough to realize that actually that’s an integral part of how I work. My way of describing it now is that if I don’t waste time, nothing gets done,” he says. “I don’t really understand it, but I have stopped beating myself over it.”
Yet, in that time, he had missed a deadline with Doubleday. He was also turning down invitations for public appearances. “I think I had gone through a period of burnout or something. … I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be doing this any more.”
Then came the inevitable call from Martha Kanya-Forstner, his long-time editor at Doubleday, checking in on him, prodding a little. He didn’t have anything on the go, but he did have a clipping he found at the Rooms, the provincial archives in St. John’s, seven or eight years prior. It was a report of a clergyman who had once come across a brother and sister living on a remote cove. The sister was pregnant. The brother chased the clergyman away at gunpoint. Draw whatever conclusion you will. It was an idea that would fill most writers with trepidation.
“I knew I was under contract and I had blown through a deadline by quite a bit. And this story was the only thing I had in front of me. So, I talked to Martha about it, and then I thought, ‘Okay, I have to do it, and this is the story I have.’ ” (In the end, he dedicated The Innocents to his editor.)
Also different is the way he feels this time around with the novel completed so quickly and receiving such wide praise as one of the year’s best. “I don’t feel depleted in the way that I have at the end of other books. I don’t know, maybe I’ll jump into something else more quickly this time around,” he says. “Or maybe I’ll never write again."
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