In 2013, after the publication of her third book, Road Ends, Mary Lawson retired.
“I thought, that’s it – three’s a nice number,” she says over video call in the present day, recalling her decision to lay down her pen. “I tried it for about a year, but I found it incredibly stressful. I’m an anxious wreck at the best of times, but with nothing to focus on, I really go to pieces.”
Her salvation came, however, in an image that popped into her mind one day around six years ago: a little girl, standing at a window, watching a stranger carry four boxes into the house next door.
“I asked myself: Why is she standing at the window? It was then I realized that she was watching for her sister who had gone missing. The other characters came into being, but it was Clara who started it.” And just like that, Lawson was back at her desk writing her fourth novel.
Six years later, that seed of an idea – what Lawson calls “a blind alley” that she followed, without knowing where it led – is replicated in the opening sentences of her new novel, A Town Called Solace, which came out last month.
As Lawson suspected when she started writing – sitting down each day around 9 a.m. after her cup of tea, finishing by 3 p.m. when she was “completely run out of brain” – the story follows Clara, a little girl whose older sister Rose has vanished. The man next door, moving into the house once occupied by Clara’s beloved elderly neighbour Elizabeth, is Liam, a thirtysomething from the city who has inherited the property under slightly mysterious circumstances.
“Liam was the most interesting character to write,” says Lawson, alluding to a vague spoiler – he and Elizabeth knew each other from when she was a kindly presence in an otherwise dysfunctional early life. “He has a pretty disastrous childhood, and I wondered, what had that done to him? What sort of person is he? What is his nature as opposed to his nurture?”
Conveniently for Lawson, her sister is a clinical psychologist, and the two discussed Liam’s psyche at length. “I would write something, and she would say, ‘He’s just not capable of that.’ Once, we had a row when I said, ‘I just don’t believe that it’s inevitable – there’s got to be a little room for hope. It’s just too terrible otherwise.’”
That clear-eyed humanism – the sort that is rooted firmly in the reality of life, but holds out a glimmer of potential for a measured, minor-key redemption – is classic Mary Lawson, although she confesses that A Town Called Solace’s ending, gentler than in her other books, might be evidence that she’s “getting old and sentimental.”
It could also be, however, a symptom of an inclination that Lawson has been following ever since she wrote her first novel, the prize-winning Crow Lake, published in 2002.
“Writing is an indulgence for me,” says Lawson, who’s quick to laugh, radiating a warmth that’s palpable even through the cold mechanics of a virtual chat. “I do it for pleasure, because when I’m writing, I’m there.”
“There” is Northern Ontario, the setting for all of her novels – and a place that Lawson returns to over and over in her imagination, despite having lived in England since 1968.
“I went over there on holiday, ran out of money, and needed to find a job,” explains Lawson, who grew up in a small farming community in Southern Ontario. “I met a guy at work – and he’s now in the next room, forbidden to leave in case I encounter any tech-y problems.”
Together, she and her husband Richard built a life in Britain, but as often as she could, Lawson returned to her family’s summer cottage in “the north,” bought by her grandparents in 1917. The cottage has no water or electricity, and is only accessible by boat, perched “quite high on a mound of 3-billion-year-old rock.” It’s a place with deep meaning for Lawson: Her parents met up there, she wed under a tree on the property, her own children and grandchildren adore it, and it’s obvious that it moves her just to talk about it – especially after a long pandemic-enforced absence.
“I go there to be,” she says of her visits back “home,” as she calls it. “I’ve written out of 50 years of homesickness. It’s my solace, if you like.”
It was not, however, her own consolation that Lawson was thinking of when she dreamt up the titular town in A Place Called Solace. “I don’t know why I called it that when I started, because I didn’t have a story at the time, and I didn’t know that it would provide solace for Liam,” she says of the fictional community – an amalgam of Gravenhurst, in Ontario’s Muskoka region, and “Little Current on Manitoulin Island, where my brother lives – a single street along the lake.”
Lawson’s family comes up frequently in conversation – as we speak, her backdrop is a wall filled with family pictures, some sepia-tinted and others of a more recent vintage. Her brothers frequently fact-check details for her (for Road Ends, for example, there was an involved conversation about whether poplars grew that far north), and her husband and sister are Lawson’s first readers. Eleanor’s real-life cat inspired Moses, the scene-stealing feline in A Town Called Solace, with Lawson (allergic, alas) borrowing his practice of pressing his nose against Eleanor’s face “when he thinks she’s watched television too long” for one of the novel’s sweeter moments. Eleanor, by the way, gets 10 per cent of the proceeds from Lawson’s novels in exchange for her input in the early stages. “She tried for 20,” Lawson says with a laugh, “but I said, ‘Tough!’”
That arrangement may have its roots in Lawson’s first novel, Crow Lake, which features a baby modelled on Eleanor when she was young. “I needed a nightmare child, and she sprang to mind,” says Lawson, grinning. “I rang her up and asked if I could use her, and she said, ‘Have at it,’ because she knew it would never be published, as did I.”
In light of the success Crow Lake went on to have – New York Times bestseller, winner of the McKitterick Prize, translated into 28 languages, studied in schools as far afield as Germany – that seems like an extraordinary statement now. But at the time, Lawson recalls, it just felt like reality.
“I had 55 years of failure before Crow Lake was finally accepted,” she explains. “To this day, if something heavy drops through the letterbox, I get this shudder because I assume it’s a rejected manuscript.”
For years, Lawson had been writing what she thought people wanted to hear – like the stories she sold to women’s magazines to supplement the family’s income when she was raising her children. “They had to be contemporary, and they had to be set in the U.K., so that’s what I was doing,” she says. And then one day, she decided to write about a little girl called Kate, growing up in a small Northern Ontario town after the Second World War.
“I wrote exactly what I wanted to write, and it was set in my childhood,” she says, recounting the almost transcendent experience of penning the short story that would evolve into Crow Lake. “It was just such a relief, and so much fun – and such a comfort to go back in my mind.”
She sent it off to her editor at one of the women’s magazines, knowing full well that it wasn’t the usual fare. The editor phoned her back, saying they would publish it anyway – and that Lawson should write a novel based on the story.
“You write best when you write about your home,” Lawson says, noting that she’d spent so much of her writing life feeling like she didn’t have much to say. “What she was saying is that I had finally found my voice – and its accent is Canadian.”
Twenty years later, with Lawson now in her mid-70s, that voice may yet have more stories to tell – though she’s not making any promises.
“I have a terrible time with ideas,” she says. “But I am fairly confident now that if something came to me, like a child seeing a man carrying four cardboard boxes, I wouldn’t be able to resist following the story – if only to keep myself from going nuts.”
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