As soon as you read any of Michelle Butler Hallett’s work you realize that she respects her reader. She expects a lot out of you and gives you even more in return in the form of multiple narratives, complex characters, and fistfuls of fury. I had a chance to chat with her about her latest book deluded your sailors.
One of Canada’s most courageous and original literary voices, Michelle Butler Hallett is the author of the story collection The shadow side of grace, and the novels Double-blind, Sky Waves, and deluded your sailors. Her work, at once striking, memorable and difficult to categorize, has been praised by Books in Canada for “economy and power,” while The Globe and Mail notes that “demons are at work – the kind that lurk in the subconscious and surface, depending on the individual, as either despairing visions or acts of outright brutality.” Sky Waves has been praised as “both raucously funny and deeply troubling” and “a dynamic and shape-shifting work that redefines the project of storytelling.” Her first novel, Double-blind, was shortlisted for the 2008 Sunburst Award. Butler Hallett in St. John’s.
Nichole Wright is a recurring character in your work. Is it fair to say that she is some version of you, her creator? In what ways are you alike?
I never expected Nichole to play a major role. Like a lot of my characters, she’s surprised me. I initially wanted someone who looked a bit like me, at my worst, in 2000s radio scenes in Sky Waves, simultaneously to deflect and have a conversation with flip ideas of simplified allegory and parody. I worked for several years at VOCM and NewCap, and I am related to the Butlers who got VOCM on the go, but my fictional VOIC is not a just transcription of VOCM. Nichole’s voice got louder and louder, and soon she was narrating chunks of Sky Waves. After a while, with narrative and characters, I lose any illusion of choice and just surrender. So I sat back and turned Nichole loose. What she had to say in both Sky Waves and deluded your sailors matters greatly to the novels’ themes, so it all fit.
Nichole is not me, not some autobiographical stand-in. I think Claire Furey in Sky Waves veers closer to me than Nichole does. Nichole’s much more interesting than Michelle, certainly braver. There’s not much phonetic or lettering difference between ‘Michelle’ and ‘Nichole,’ two French names relatively popular for girls in the early 1970s, but that’s one of the reasons I settled on ‘Nichole’ for her name, to spark questions of what makes a story, that and ‘Nichole’ meaning ‘victory’.
How are Nichole and I alike? We’re both fierce shit-disturbers, and we can both be a bit dense, a bit slow to pick up on things. Neither of us compromises on a vision, and we pay heavily for that. We’re troubled by personal and historical pasts and feel a sharp obligation to recognize and acknowledge pasts as part of trying to face the future and live a meaningful life. We crave love, justice, and peace. We love pretty hard and struggle to trust, often then being too trusting and getting hurt all over again, but the alternative, bitterness and despair, is worse.
Quill and Quire recently said DYS was a “challenging” read. And it’s no secret that your work is hard to classify. To me, it’s very Modernist and that work was considered difficult and elite. Are you influenced by any Modernist writers? If so, which ones? How?
I don’t set out to be difficult or challenging. I do think the form a story takes matters, matters very much. In my work, form serves and amplifies meaning.
George Orwell is someone I’ve studied for a long time. I admire the precision of his prose and his honesty in portraying human behaviour. His novels before Animal Farm and 1984 are a bit shaky – though Coming Up for Air is beautiful – but his essays are brilliant. I also like how he worked relentlessly, despite chronic illness.
For a long time, I resented TS Eliot and the way he used intertext. It still irks me, needing footnotes to get through ‘The Wasteland’. Yet here I am, come spinning out of an oral culture where old songs and stories practically float like fog in the air and can even function as a shorthand, weaving those songs and stories in shamelessly, and sometimes old poetry, too, wrapping it round the deep structure. We don’t experience life in a silent vacuum; I don’t want to write as though we do. When I use allusion, I want it to add meaning, but I don’t want to make my story incomprehensible if the allusion, or conversation with another work or idea, is missed. Connections. I’m on about connections.
American novelist William Gaddis is an influence, particularly in how I use dialogue.
English novelist Anthony Powell with his twelve-volume cycle A Dance to the Music of Time is increasingly an influence, especially as I interconnect more and more storylines and characters.
Both Flannery O’Connor and her concerns with moral failures, especially those of “nice” people, and sudden, often terrifying, grace, and Franz Kafka and his exploring the grotesque and the frightening and apparently fantastic as a deeper reality, and perhaps deeper realism, have left their marks.
DYS takes place in different times and places. How did you create this world in the 1700s? What research did you do, etc?
I had the eighteenth-century storyline of deluded your sailors in my head for a long time, and I read a fair bit of history. I’m sure there’s stuff I got wrong. The precise date of when those living on the Isles of Scilly began to burn seaweed is up for debate, for example, and it’s unclear how the early European inhabitants of Newfoundland survived the winters – did they stay on the coasts, or did they all go inland a bit, of what? I crewed on a tall ship in 1996, which was a tremendous help for understanding just how small a ship is … and how big the ocean is. But all these details, while important, are texture. What matters to me was how the characters behave. Whatever the calendar reads, the characters need to be recognizably human, concerned with love, survival and power, not necessarily in that order.
I tackled the eighteenth-century storyline from different narrative standpoints. For a while, John Cannard told the whole thing, but that strained plausibility, despite how the characters are connected. I avoided letting Finn speak for a long time but finally had to face a truth: if that story is going to work at all, we need to hear her. In many different ways, I had to write Sky Waves – and get thinking about who speaks when, and why –first.
The level of structural complexity in this novel is heavier than in your previous work. The layering of stories within stories through various settings must have taken a ton of organization on your part while writing and editing. Can you talk about that process and how you do it?
Funny, I thought deluded your sailors would look a little more inviting than Sky Waves. At least deluded your sailors is relatively linear, if layered. I like layered work that unfolds in my head over time with repeated reading, viewing or listening. Once I figured out how to frame deluded your sailors, various echoes and conversations between Nichole’s story and the eighteenth-century story became clearer. I tried working on each part separately and would then get ideas for how to sketch in an echo elsewhere, mesh it all together. I needed eight hands. I was sick, too – fatigue, fevers, disturbed mobility, pain – things got hot and weird.
Once a reader’s finished deluded your sailors, he can see that ‘Acts of Fever’, the eighteenth-century storyline, is actually Nichole’s novel. With that knowledge, I’m hoping a reader can then see a story working, see how life and fiction can interest and wildly differ, see how Nichole takes her research and her own experiences and tries to do what Gabriel Furey asks her to: reach down inside her and haul out something beautiful. To do so is an act of faith, and that’s one of the reasons I call part three ‘Acts of Faith’. While this choice fits the themes – including that the past matters and might need another look – I’ve taken a big risk here. Deluded your sailors might make more overall sense, feel more organic and whole, once it’s read it a second time. Not everyone is willing to read a book more than once, and not everyone is going to be sufficiently interested in mine to do so.
For someone who hasn’t read any of your work, how would you describe it? What are the similarities and differences among publications?
The shadow side of grace is a collection of stories that looks at physical and spiritual violence and mercy. Some stories are realist, some a little more supernatural. Double-blind is a novel that looks at complicity in evil through Josh Bozeman, an American psychiatrist who works on patients under MK-Ultra protocol – that’s the brainwashing garbage Ewen Cameron and the CIA wanted to explore. My Dr Bozeman does not consider himself a monster. The narrative is first-person and fairly linear, with the realism under some tension as the narrator tries to hang on to what he thinks he knows in the face of other events. Sky Waves, set from 1901-2005 in a Newfoundland that votes Responsible in 1949, is a novel about how we communicate, with one another and with something greater, and how he love, and how we shatter our own voices. Sky Waves is organized as a drew – as 98 meshes in the row of a fishing net – with 98 interconnected chapters that go back and forth in time yet keep the overall story moving forward. The novel has several first-person narrators and a third-person omniscient voice. Deluded your sailors is a novel about acknowledging and recognizing the truths of the past and about who gets to tell what story and when. It’s organized in three sections. Parts one and three, ‘Acts of Folly’ and ‘Acts of Faith’, are set in 2009 in and around St John’s in the same fictional Republic of NL from Sky Waves, while part two, ‘Acts of Fever’, is set from 1719-34, in England, Massachusetts, at sea, and in Newfoundland. Deluded your sailors is linear, in that its time flows forward, but the two storylines are thematically intertwined. Various narrators tell the stories.