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1. The setting of Crow Lake is very isolated.
a. Did you feel the need for this isolation whilst writing the novel?
b. Did you grow up in a similar habitat to that depicted in the novel?
I did grow up in a little farming community, though it wasn’t as small or as isolated as Crow Lake, and I gave the novel a similar setting partly out of nostalgia and partly because it is much easier to write authentically about something you know well.
But as it happened, the story did require a degree of isolation. If the Morrisons had lived in a town or city, for instance, the social services would have stepped in to help when the parents died, and Luke’s sacrifice would probably not have been necessary. His sacrifice is pivotal to the plot – it greatly increases the tension between the brothers, and it’s tension that keeps a reader interested. Also, it made Matt’s eventual ‘failure’ harder for Kate to forgive.
2. The principal characters’ youth is marred by tragedy. Did any experience in your own childhood influence your writing?
No – my own youth was very conventional and unexciting. Nothing that takes place in Crow Lake happened to me. However, both of my parents died shortly before I began writing the book, and although they were in their eighties I’m sure that experience fed into the story.
3. Do you have any brothers and sisters and if so what is your relationship like with them?
I have two elder brothers and a younger sister, which of course leads people to conclude that I am writing about my own family. In fact Matt and Luke are not based on my brothers, and I am not Kate, but Bo is based on my sister as a baby. Normally I invent all my characters, (you know them much better that way) but I wanted a really horrendous baby and my sister at that age filled the bill so perfectly that I asked if she would mind if I used her.
As children we all fought like cats and dogs, but we are close now.
4. I was fascinated by your description of the wildlife and the children’s interest and attraction to it, is this a hobby you share with your novel’s character?
The ponds in Crow Lake are real (see Q 7), and I was fascinated by them as a child. Also we have a pond in our garden, here in England, which I waste an enormous amount of time peering into. Apart from that, though, I know nothing whatsoever about biology, which posed quite a problem for me while I was writing the book. I consulted books on the subject and had a lot of help from two zoologists at Toronto University, but even so I keep waiting for someone to tell me I’ve got it all wrong.
5. What research into rural communities and poverty did you have to do in order to write the book?
None at all. I drew on my memories of the community I grew up in, and on the time I spent in the north as a child. I’m very lazy about research, which is one of the reasons I chose to set the book in an area and a time I know well.
6. All of the characters felt extremely personal. Which do you feel the most affinity for and whose position do you sympathise with most?
I think I feel most affinity for Kate, mostly because of writing her in the first person. It took me 5 years to write the book, and for all of that time I was trying to see the story from Kate’s perspective – you get to know a character very well that way. She is not entirely likeable – she has been badly damaged by loss, and as a consequence has become rather narrow and judgmental – but I hope that I have written her well enough that readers understand and forgive her.
Kate has my sympathy too, though. She has been through a lot, and now she has to live with the knowledge that she has been the cause of most of Matt’s suffering.
I feel for her there.
7. The ponds seem to be a recurring theme in the book. Would you say they are symbolic of the relationship between Kate and Matt?
Yes, they are. The ponds are real – they were back behind the railroad tracks when I was growing up (and are still there). They were a source of great delight when I was a child, and initially I set the story around them purely out of nostalgia. But as the novel progressed, it seemed to me that the ponds became for Kate a symbol of the ‘golden’ period of her childhood, before Matt let her down. At university, Kate decides on her choice of career partly because of a fear that ponds might not survive the effects of pollution. She says, ‘I imagined myself going back to them one day in the future, looking into their depths and seeing … nothing.’.
8. What do you think is at the root of the sibling rivalry which develops between Luke and Matt?
I think a lot of the tension between Luke and Matt stems from the fact that their balance of power has shifted. Until their parents died, Luke was very much the ‘lesser’ brother. He was your standard bored, sullen, resentful teenager. Matt was the one the family hopes were pinned on – nothing much was expected of Luke. Both boys had adjusted to their rolls over many years. They might not have liked the status quo, but at least they were accustomed to it.
And then comes the accident. Traumatic though it is, I think the accident is the making of Luke. By giving up his future to stay at home with his little sisters and give Matt a chance to go on with his education, Luke moves from being the family problem to being the family solution, almost overnight. He becomes the head of the family – mother and father, rolled into one.
I don’t see Matt as having a jealous or resentful nature, but even so, that would be quite a change to adjust to. He is hugely indebted to Luke, and that debt would be a heavy burden. You expect your parents to make sacrifices for you – that is what parents do – but you don’t expect it of your siblings.
To complicate matters, Matt genuinely doubts Luke’s ability to provide for and bring up the girls. His lack of faith would be galling to Luke.
Add to that the anxiety, uncertainty and grief which both boys have to deal with, and you can imagine how raw their edges would be.
9. Why did you choose Northern Ontario as the background for this novel? Have you lived there yourself?
I was brought up in a small farming community in southern Ontario, but my family had a summer home further north, which had been in the family for generations. It is in an area called the Canadian Shield – wild and inhospitable, but absolutely beautiful. It is still my favourite landscape. It is largely uninhabited, and the communities up there can be isolated in a way that you would no longer find in southern Ontario. This suited the story very well.
10. Crow Lake is your first novel; do you have any plans to write a second book?
I am working on a second book now. It is not a sequel to Crow Lake, but it is set in the north – in fact in Struan, the (ficitional) town closest to Crow Lake. Bo may wander into the story. At the end of Crow Lake, Kate says that Bo has a job as a cook in a restaurant in Struan (still slinging saucepans about), so I think she’ll be there, though she won’t have a very large role.
11. I adore the images on the cover for both the hardback and the paperback editions of this book (had to buy them both!) How much input did you have towards the design of the covers and do you like the end result?
Thank you for buying two copies!!
I’m a newcomer to all this, so I don’t know whether my experience was typical. I believe that in theory, although publishers generally consult the author over the cover, the publisher has the final say. I was very fortunate: I wasn’t keen on the paperback cover (who are those two little boys?) and Vintage very kindly said they wouldn’t use it if I really didn’t like it. In the end, I decided that they probably knew more about selling books than I did, so I gave it the go-ahead. (As it happens it has done very well, so they were proved right.) The hardback cover I loved, so that was no problem.
12. What inspired you to write this novel?
That is a difficult question. No one thing was the inspiration for Crow Lake, but I think a number of things played a part. About ten years ago we dug a pond in our garden. We filled it with water from the garden hose and then left it, and within four days it had life in it. I started watching it more closely then, and that made me recall the ponds of my childhood (see Q 7). Quite soon after that I wrote a short story set around those original ponds. It had only two characters – Matt and Kate – and one theme – hero worship; specifically, what happens when the hero fails. The story did very well, and it was suggested that I use it as the basis for a novel. I couldn’t see how to go about it though, so I did nothing with the idea for some years. Then when my parents were dying I spent a lot of time with them, back in Canada, in the little community where I’d grown up. It was a difficult time, but I did a lot of thinking about issues of family, home and childhood, and when I got back to England, I discovered that I finally knew what it was I wanted to say in Crow Lake.
I realize that sounds a bit woolly, but I think the process – the germination of an idea – actually is a bit woolly! It seems to go on at a subconscious level, and it’s very hard to understand it yourself, and harder still to put it into words!
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