Michael Crummey’s Galore opens with a man found in the belly of a whale off the coast of Newfoundland. The stories and events that surround this mysterious man, Judah, and the lives that he touches in two feuding families draw the reader into the mythology, folklore and history of 19th-century Newfoundland in weird and wonderful ways. The book is dense — full of original characters and tall tales, and the reader may be reluctant to leave the shoreline, no matter how bleak the life there is depicted at times.
Crummey, a poet and novelist, hails from Newfoundland, which also serves as the backdrop for much of his writing. His first book of poems, Arguments with Gravity was awarded the Writer’s Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry. His first two novels, River Thieves and The Wreckage, were both national bestsellers in Canada. Galore, his third novel, has already been awarded accolades in Canada, including the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for fiction.
By collecting and interpreting all the folktales you used in Galore did you learn anything about Newfoundland that surprised you? Did you “pack it all in” to Galore or would you like to incorporate additional such stories into another novel?
There were plenty of surprises, often about things I thought I knew beforehand. I wasn’t aware of just how strong a tradition of witch-lore, of spells and counter-spells, existed here for example.
But it was the breadth and depth of Newfoundland’s folk culture that was most surprising to me. There was a point where I had to stop going to the archives and reading journals and community histories because I was feeling overwhelmed by it. Every time I opened a book or document there was another character or anecdote or detail I wanted to get into the novel, and I realized there was no end to it. That the novel would never actually get written until I cut myself off. So there’s truckloads of material in the same vein out there. Whether I want to be the person to use it is another question.
Even with so many characters, and their lives echoing off one another, they were all still quite distinct. Did you have a favorite(s) ?
There were definitely some characters who were close to my heart, or who I was particularly interested in writing. Father Phelan was the riskiest character I’ve ever written and I think there was a time in my life when I would have tried to make him less what he is, to protect him (and myself I guess) from what a reader might make of him. But I just let him go in Galore. And he was an exhilarating son of a bitch to follow around.
Bride was another. She was originally just a walk-on and after the first scene in which she comes to the doctor to have her teeth pulled I thought I was done with her. But she was too good to let go and kept showing up. I kind of fell in love with Bride in the same way the doctor did.
The characters of Bride and Dr. Newman: Would you ever want to revisit them, or maybe pursue/expand on the idea of the American fish out of water in Newfoundland? I found their story and characters very compelling.
Well I don’t have any plans to work directly with the characters or story-lines from Galore again. I’ve been asked about the possibility of a sequel or going into certain characters more in depth, but I’m finished with that particular world. I feel like I did everything I wanted done in Galore and it would be a pale imitation to go back to it.
The fish out of water in Newfoundland, though, is something I could see working with again. There are hundreds of stories of strangers coming to the island — usually intending to stay briefly, or arriving by accident — who end up making their lives here. And I’ve always been drawn to those people, the doctors and nurses, the teachers and missionaries, the sailors, the thrill seekers, who get swallowed up by Newfoundland and can’t seem to leave.
I’m curious about William Coaker and how much of his character was historical and how much fiction. I wasn’t able to find out much about the man on the internet. Did you feel compelled to specifically anchor Galore in time, or an obligation to tell the story of the FPU (Fisherman’s Protective Union)?
I knew from the start that I wanted the Fisherman’s Protective Union to be part of the book. It is the great “what if” moment in our history. The entire story of 20th century Newfoundland would have been completely different if Coaker had succeeded. We might still be an independent country.
That’s all speculation of course, but it’s impossible not to wonder. Even truncated as it was, what Coaker accomplished was extraordinary. Delegations from a number of Scandinavian countries came to study what he was up to and implemented many of the reforms in their own fishery that he was fighting for.
Coaker himself was a bit of an enigma. No one knows why he did some of the things he did (his about-face on conscription being the most obvious example). And he was almost certainly gay and living the closest thing to an openly gay life it was possible for a public figure to live at the time. The union was basically a one man show and once Coaker left it fizzled into irrelevance. An interesting character who has shown up in one disguise or another in several Newfoundland novels.
My original intention was to have Eli Devine be a Coaker-like figure, to have him undertake the founding of a fisherman’s union and start a political movement that unravels just at the moment it seems they’re about to change the country permanently. But as I did the research it became clear to me that Coaker was so singular and unlikely that it would be impossible to have a character in Paradise Deep go through the experiences that created him. And it made more sense to let Coaker be himself and have Eli become a kind of right-hand man.
One other note on my decision to include a real historical character: the novel moves from the mists of early settlement in a location that seems to have almost no contact with the outside world, the kind of self-enclosed and liminal place where you could see a man being cut out of the belly of a whale. Over time the “real” world begins to wash up on the beach, with the arrival of the Church, the school, elections, etc. And the otherworldly elements begin to recede at about the same pace. So it made sense in a way to have a “real” historical figure appear in the novel roughly around the same time that Judah is disappearing from it.
Besides Gabriel García Márquez, who would you count as your literary influences? Are there any specific books that have influenced your writing?
Well this is something that changes all the time. Marquez has been huge for me in the last few years. There’s no question that Galore wouldn’t even exist if I hadn’t read One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there’s often a book or series of books at the root of my novels, that offer a spark which makes me think the novel I’m thinking of writing is possible. Ian MacEwan’s Atonement was a big influence on my second novel. Cormac McCarthy was pretty huge for me around the time I was writing my first novel.
Beyond those direct lines, though, it’s all pretty murky as to how exactly writers I love come through in my own work. I’ve been reading Alice Munro for 25 years now, but couldn’t point to her in my own writing. Ditto for and Raymond Carver and Margaret Laurence and Mavis Gallant and on and on.
There’s something genealogical about Galore, and not just in the family tree chart at the beginning of the book. I’m curious if your research has made you trace your own family’s Newfoundland roots.
I was interested in playing with the fact that Newfoundlanders are all related. Some 90-odd per cent of the current population of 500,000 people are direct descendants of an original settler population of 18,000 which was split pretty much 50/50 between Irish and English. If you go far enough back, you could probably find a familial link between everyone on the island.
Haven’t done much on my own family genealogical story, although my mother has done a little on her own. On Dad’s side the line is pretty murky. His grandfather was buried in Newfoundland, but whether he was born here or came from elsewhere no one has any idea. Records were pretty scanty in outport Newfoundland, and the ones that did exist often disappeared in church fires or the like.
Some characters are very likable (Bride, Dr. Newman, Callum, Absalom, Esther, Abel) and some just the opposite (King-me, Ann Hope, Eli). Were they intentional, or did some personalities happen as the story grew?
In some cases I had a pretty clear idea of what people were like. I found a report about a trial in which a woman was suing a neighbour for defamation — the neighbour claimed the woman had taken away her cow’s milk by force of witchcraft. As soon as I found that I knew the book would include a witchcraft trial. And I also knew exactly the character of the woman accused. Devine’s Widow more or less announced herself at that moment.
A lot of the personalities in the book just kind of happened. I was writing my way through generations and each succeeding generation had to be obviously connected to those that came before them, and unique enough to hold the reader’s interest. I was just playing it by feel most of the time.
The landscape was such a huge part of the book. I think I might have preferred a map of The Gut, Paradise Deep, and The Tolt, to the genealogical chart (which does give a few romantic developments away). Did you ever consider a map, or did you just have the visual landscape in your mind as you wrote?
Well you’re the first to ask for a map. I would have been happy to include one if it had come up. Although I think my own sense of the place is impressionistic and a map would have felt forced somehow. Early readers were very keen to have a chart that helped them keep track of the myriad of characters and I don’t mind the family tree giving away some of the “plot” developments. I’m more interested in why things happen the way they do. And I like to think a second read, when a reader already “knows” what’s coming, can be just as satisfying as a first, if a book is written well.
Do you have any desire to take the supernatural aspects of Galore a step further and write a long-form ghost story?
Not at the moment, no. I was only interested in the otherworldly aspects of the story in so far as they seemed an integral part of the folk culture. I’m not sure I’d be able to suspend my own disbelief over the course of an entire novel. But if the right story came along, I’d probably take a shot.
Even with all of the love/hate and life and death the book is quite funny. Did you surprise yourself at how funny some of the characters were?
I was surprised by specific instances in which characters said something funny that I hadn’t planned on. But the humour was definitely something I was shooting for and when characters were “speaking” I tried to just let them have their say. Newfoundlanders have a reputation for humour, particularly in dark circumstances. In dialogue, in conversation, in story-telling, Newfoundlanders are the funniest, most acerbic people I’ve ever encountered. This place was almost exclusively an oral culture up until a generation ago and there’s no question that this encouraged the “gift of the gab” which seems endemic here. Our crowd have got mouths on us. I really wanted that to come across, the sense that humour — particularly in how people speak with one another — is a central part of the character of the place.