( As opposed to normal book reviews, this time we present an ariticle written by the author on how and why he wrote the article)
A Land Apart
Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing says whenever he gives talks someone in the audience always asks, “Where do your ideas come from?” He always answers, “I have no idea.”
A Land Apart is my first novel. And I, sort of, know where the idea came from. I, sort of, have a sense of the influences that created it. But I have no idea why I responded to them. Or why I spent years crafting the story. What drove that interest so relentlessly remains a mystery.
The two main influences for the novel I experienced decades ago. One was a history teacher in Grade 8 who brought the life of Etienne Brulé, a historical figure and the hero of my story, to life. Brulé sees the Wendat, this indigenous tribe, exotic, fearsome, coming from somewhere deep in the interior of this wild and demanding land that will one day become Canada. And he gets pulled in. He wants to be part of it. A year later when the Wendat return to trade with the local tribes, he returns as well to the few Frenchmen in a hut that will later become a settlement and later still the town of Quebec. At first no one recognizes him. He has fully embraced the Wendat way of life. He doesn’t say, that was a cool year but I’m glad its over. He heads back out with the Wendat five hundred miles into the wilderness and pretty much spends the rest of his life with the Wendat.
That caught my thirteen-year old attention. I never forgot it.
The second experience happened on an eight-day canoe trip down the Bloodvein River in northern Manitoba when I was seventeen.
I lived then in a soup of anxiety, resentment and rebellion. But out in the woods, paddling, portaging, breathing in that pristine and beautiful land, I began to settle down. Around day six as I awoke one morning, rather than the immediate, relentless chattering of my mind invading my awareness, I felt peace. Laying on my back, with the morning sunlight filtering through the tent walls, I felt connected to some expansive and kind benefactor. I felt at home. Deeply at home. That feeling I projected onto Brulé and why he stayed out with the Wendat.
Those two experiences set the stage for what became A Land Apart.
That isn’t exactly “where the idea came from”. But it give a hint at least.
I have been a painter, an artist, all my adult life. Mainly landscapes. I never equated landscape with narrative, with telling a story. In fact I tended not to put figures in my landscapes because they became in my mind kind of a lazy, clichéd pivot in the design of a painting. So really I avoided narrative in my paintings.
The truth is about a decade ago I had arrived at what felt at the time something of a dead end with my painting. After decades the fascination and fire was gone. So like Dante:
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
One day talking with a filmmaker friend of mine, I told him about Brulé. “Write it”, he said. And for some reason, still not clear to me, I did. I filled my life researching and writing that story. I immersed myself in narrative as I honed, whittled and clarified, rejecting and adapting, until I arrived at some organic whole. A structure.
Now I’ve taught structure in painting for decades. I teach composition, the foundational design that a painting rests on. So I felt I was coming back to something familiar. Of course the structure of a story plays out over time while the structure of a painting presents itself whole in the moment.
During the writing process I also became fascinated by graphic novels. I was usually more interested in the graphic style of the artist than the story. But as the novel progressed I began to see images within the story. I began to see how illustrations would enhance the story. I began to see paintings as a narrative vehicle. The opening illustrated sequence I envisioned like a filmmaker with his camera man high in a helicopter seeing the vast and beautiful landscape and then circling down in a great arc to come in tight on Brulé paddling. That sequence introduces us to Brulé, but it also introduces the land, which plays a defining role in the story.
Once the writing of a novel is finished, there are months of editing, designing, proofing, printing, promotion and so on. I wonder, after seeing how many years A Land Apart has taken, what to work on next. I could go back and just make some beautiful paintings. No story. Or explore a graphic novel idea. I’ve got a book tour coming up next month, and a painting workshop to teach right after that. Then, perhaps then, whatever is next will start to call for attention. Will crowd out some of the other ideas. But who knows where these directives come from. And why.