Bell Island’s Paul Bowdring revels in language. His previous books The Roncesvalles Pass, The Night Season, and The Strangers’ Gallery have all received accolades; including: 2013 BMO Winterset Award, 2014 Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage and History Fiction Award, and nomination for the 2014 ReLit Award and International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Bowdring’s latest novel, Mister Nightingale, published by Vagrant Press, explores author James Nightingale’s return to Newfoundland after 30 years in Toronto, post-failed marriage, and still trying to grasp his dreams. Nightingale’s homing is a story of returning to familiar unknowns – creative and domestic uncertainty.
What inspired the story of Mister Nightingale?
I think I tried to imagine an unlived life. I spent a couple of years in Toronto as a very young man, have been back many times since, and I could easily have stayed there, spent my entire adult life there, as many of my friends have done, part of a diaspora that has colonized southern Ontario. And I could just as easily have stayed in Vancouver or London, England, where I lived for a time. So this novel, Mister Nightingale, is written from the point of view of a character, a writer, who did stay away, and then comes back home after more than 30 years, to “familiar unknowns,” as you put it.
You were born on Bell Island (so was my grandmother). How did Newfoundland, Bell Island in particular, shape you as a writer and thinker?
Well, I don’t really think of myself as a thinker, if I may put it that way, or as a Newfoundland writer or a Canadian writer. It seems to me sometimes that writing short circuits thinking altogether (reason and logic, that is), or keeps it at bay, that it is mainly an intuitive process. So much of what is “composed” seems to take place at a subconscious level, and that same intuitive process continues when the really hard part begins –putting the composition into words.
With regard to being shaped as a writer, no doubt one’s geographical, political, cultural, social, and ethnic background molds you in ways that you may not even be aware of, but the heritage that was most influential for me as a writer was a literary one. The writers that immediately come to mind as important are mainly from the English tradition: Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Beckett, Kafka, Camus, and most recently novelists such as McEwan, Ishiguro, Coetzee, and Richard B. Wright. And no doubt many others that I’ve read and forgot. It’s literature that begets literature.
Your writing is rich with elegance, style, and Newfoundland flair. How does the rhetoric of this place inform your storytelling?
Nowadays, it seems that TV and radio news reporters have adopted storytelling. “Here are the stories we are following this evening…” You hear that all the time. And just the other day I heard a reporter say, in connection with a “story” about a missing child: “The family were hoping for a happy ending, but the alleged author of that ending was arrested today.” How’s that for appropriation.
“Yes –oh dear yes –the novel tells a story,” as E. M. Forster said famously, and sadly, almost 100 years ago. I’m not seriously interested in storytelling per se. Reviewers have often remarked that my novels are not heavy on plot –an understatement –that I am first and foremost a “stylist.” That is probably true. I am interested in story mainly as what Forster called “ a repository of voice.” If you can find the right voice for your narrator, your storyteller –always a very difficult thing –the story will take care of itself. You don’t have to worry about it anymore. You can focus on other things: style, for instance, by which I don’t mean mere embellishment, but all the other formal elements besides voice (imagery, structure, etc.) that go to make up an integrated and convincing work of fiction.
When I hear the word “rhetoric” I imagine voices, and, once again, it’s persuasive fictional voices from my reading that I hear rather than the everyday drone of political ones. The voice of the butler in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for instance -so persuasive that he has deluded himself!
How do you approach your creative process? Where do you write?
With extreme caution, mainly intuitively, but doggedly, as if I were maintaining a watch or a vigil. It’s a very unpredictable process –one day a diamond, next day a stone, as the song goes. I don’t work from any detailed schemata. I would find that very boring. But for a large, longterm project like a novel, which is just the opposite of a tweet, doggedness, perseverance is very important. After a certain point, however; the thing will develop a life of its own, and lead you on. As to where I write, I have a room of my own, with diplomatic immunity.
What do awards like the Winterset, and ReLit mean to you as a writer?
Well, I have very mixed feelings about competitions and prizes for literature. They are part and parcel of our whole celebrity and sports obsessed culture. They are essentially lotteries, and a few deserving writers get singled out, but the large majority get ignored. I would trade any award for a half dozen thoughtful reviews in some large circulation magazines or newspapers. This sort of attention has dried up almost completely for most published writers. And publishers seem to depend almost entirely on prizewinning for publicity now –the Giller, the GG, the Winterset –and do very little in the way of promoting the books they’ve published. Having said that, I do greatly appreciate the fact that a jury of my peers, if only three readers, has read one of my books attentively and thought highly of it. Sustained, undistracted, close reading is becoming a lost art these days.
What were some of the challenges writing Mister Nightingale?
Perhaps the most difficult was seeing St. John’s as a stranger might see it. It was also the setting for my previous two novels, and some reviewers said that the city itself was almost a character in those books! I’ve lived here most of my life, and the place is in my head and heart, a psychological and spiritual landscape as much as a physical one, so separating myself from that sort of intimacy was no easy task. Also, writing a novel whose main character, the narrator, is also a writer has advantages and pitfalls. For one, there is the danger that it could be very self indulgent. Also, writers, for the most part, lead quiet, uneventful lives, very solitary lives. This is necessary, of course, if any real work is to be accomplished, but it is also a matter of temperament, I think. Artists live most fully in their imaginations. Reading about this sort of life, however, could end up like viewing a poorly painted still life, but of course still lives well painted can be just as aesthetically satisfying as any other type of painting.
The advantage of course is that the author knows the details of the writing life from the inside out. The challenge is to make it convincing and engaging for the general reader, the non-writer. Humour helps, and I think there is a lot of it in Mister Nightingale. Also, at least half the book deals with other concerns: the pains and pleasures of human friendships generally, and family relationships in particular, with spouses, sisters, fathers, and daughters. A few readers have told me that they found the portrait of the father in this book, who has dementia, to be the most moving and interesting part of it. I was very happy to hear that, for I loved creating that character.
I’m about five chapters into a new novel. It’s been taking shape in my head over the past year or so, waiting for release and sustained attention. I learned early on that the best thing to do after a new book comes out is to get to work as soon as possible on the next one. Otherwise, all your time and energy gets sucked into a huge anxiety vacuum: watching and waiting for the response to the last one, and that is completely beyond your control. Not to mention being very hard on the nerves.