Mike Heffernan was born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He is the author of the national bestseller Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster, which was adapted for the stage by Rising Tide Theatre. His most recent work has appeared in Riddle Fence, Our Times and performed on CBC Radio. He is currently working on The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories.
You are trained as a historical researcher. Why did you choose research as your area of specialization?
I always wanted to be a writer. But I never knew what I wanted to write about. After seven years of university, I knew I didn’t want to spend any more time in libraries and archives. I wanted to get out in the field. I wanted to write about “real” people with “real” problems. At the same time, I wanted to explore the past in creative ways. Oral history and creative non-fiction presented the unique opportunity to do both. Up to that point, I was using oral history as a source, but not as a methodology.
Our feelings we have about what it means to be “home” and how we connect with people are very complex. Talk a little about your affiliation to Newfoundland and Labrador and how it has shaped your research and writing interests.
I grew up in and around St. John’s. I’m close to my family, and I’ve had the same friends since forever. That sense of belonging, that close-knit relationship people from Newfoundland share, has shaped my writing probably more than anything else. Rig is very much about that, and how, through community, my parent’s generation overcame such a tough, tough time. It’s interesting that I’ve written a lot about our relationship to the sea and how that’s evolved over the last thirty years. Now I’m writing about how what’s happened out there, principally oil development, is shaping perceptions onshore.
RIG: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster is a collection of first-person narratives. What was it like collecting these stories and meeting these survivors?
It certainly wasn’t easy sitting down with people as they describe what was, for them, the worst week of their lives. The Ocean Ranger disaster is an experience they’re still trying to cope with even after almost thirty years. And that has an effect on you, the interviewer. It was almost always an emotionally exhausting experience. You can’t sit through those types of interviews and not be deeply affected. You can’t help but think about your own mortality. But for some of the family members I think it was something of a cathartic experience for them. Several times it was clear that they were very grateful to me for just writing about their son or husband. I had one lady come out to a signing to thank me. Writers don’t often get to experience that kind of thing. It’s very humbling.
I know that the Ocean Ranger disaster affected your family. Was that the primary inspiration for the book?
My father’s first cousin, Ron Heffernan, was one of the eighty-four victims. It wanted to write about his life, to find out who he was. That’s how the book got started. Thankfully, Ron’s body was recovered. His family got some sense of closure that comes with a burial. Most families never got that and went on wondering for years and years after. Is he on an island somewhere? Did he get picked up by Russians and lost his mind and doesn’t know who he is? My parents went through that whole experience of grieving—two memorial services, a funeral and a burial. Having always been interested in the past, I asked questions and knew about what the disaster meant in their lives. In many respects, it was their generations Beaumont Hamel. It came with such a great sense of shock. Making the decision to write the book came about just after the 25th anniversary. That was a big moment for the families and part of the whole collective healing process. All the stark images were in the media again, too, the news reels, the sound bites. Around that time you had the Williams` government using all the old clichés like “have not will be no more.” Stuff Brian Peckford had come up with almost three decades earlier. I felt like it was a good time to remind people that our greatest resource has always been our young people. Not oil.
Lisa Moore deemed RIG “a powerful and important book.” She also thanked you in the acknowledgments in her award winning novel February which is based on the Ocean Ranger disaster and its effects on a family. Although Moore’s book is fictional, is it similar to the stories you’ve heard and the people you’ve met in your research?
Yes, Lisa’s book is fiction but it certainly rang true, for me. What struck me most was the harsh reality of Helen’s plight. She’s young, a newlywed, with several children. Her husband gets a job on the rig and things are looking great for them. That was a story I heard quite a number of times. I mean, for a lot of young men, getting a job offshore was like a proverbial gold mine. An entry level position offshore in the early-80s was paying ten times the minimum wage. So it isn’t hard to imagine what it must’ve been like for those young families who were afforded the opportunity to stay home and raise a family, as opposed to moving to Ontario or further west in search of work. Lisa’s treatment of the grieving process was another aspect of the book which struck me. Many families, particularly the mother’s and wives, spent years and years waiting and wondering. Attending the subsequent Royal Commission, wanting to know the specific details of what happened in the early hours of February 15, 1982, when and how the men died, often brought some closure. Helen goes through all of that. I think that’s what Lisa got right—the emotional damage the disaster wrought. That’s what great historical fiction does—something I try to do with my own writing. It uncovers the human dynamics which more traditional forms of historical writing overlook—the emotional stuff.
Tell us a little about The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories.
Like Rig, it’s a collection of monologues from cab drivers and dispatchers. But it’s definitely not a history of the taxi industry in St. John’s. I want readers to get a sense of what the life of a cab driver is like but also how they see St. John’s from the front seat of a taxi. The voices are anonymous and they are organized like a stream of consciousness with each short monologue flowing naturally into the next. Each of the four sections will be introduced by an opening essay in which I describe my experiences interviewing these people. I guess it took me about a year and a half to figure out how exactly I was going to put it together. It wasn’t until I read the book Nam by Mark Baker, one of the greatest works of oral history I have ever read, before I figured it all out. Most times, I sit with a subject for at least an hour. When interviewing for this book I often sat with a driver for less than twenty minutes while he, or she, waited on a job. Their reminisces are mostly situational. Only a handful will be life stories. So the structure of the book was determined by the nature of the interviews.
We hear stories about cab drivers and their adventures a few times a year from the news. Will this next publication concentrate on the negative side of cabby life or will it be all-encompassing with the good, the bad and the hilarious?
I want this book to be a real departure from my earlier work. It will be full of humour, sadness and hope. It’s labour history; it’s creative non-fiction. It’ll be laugh-out-loud and other times it’ll be like a punch to the gut. Readers will be entertained and shocked. But they’ll also get a sense of what it means to be working poor. They’ll get a sense of the growing drug problem in the city and all those things which accompany it, for instance, violence and prostitution. I’m not trying to say crime is on the rise, either, but rather these are the things a taxi driver sees. It isn’t all bad, either. There are men and women out there who have been driving for years, some decades, who love it.