Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Nico Rogers

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Nico Rogers

When you're wandering in the fog though you've walked the same path a thousand times since childhood, it can happen that you no longer know where you are. And if you lose yourself in this way, walking in the fog along your normal road, there's a good chance you'll come face to face with a figure you'll take to be a stranger… (Nico Rogers, The Fetch)

Nico Rogers talks to Open Book about his multi-voiced, haunting book The Fetch (Brick Books), and how both the act of writing and facing the net on a breakaway have invited the ghosts of his past.

Nico Rogers will be reading at The March Hare West on Friday, March 4th at the Brass Taps in Toronto. Visit our Events page for details. The March Hare, Atlantic Canada's largest poetry festival, then heads east and concludes in Corner Brook, Newfoundland on March 13th.

Listen to Nico Rogers read an excerpt from "Praying to Boulders to Berries" in the podcast below. For readings of other poems from The Fetch, please visit Audioboo (with special thanks to Brick Books and Julie Wilson).


Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Fetch.

Nico Rogers:

The Fetch is a book of voices arising out of the lives of people who populated outport Newfoundland some 70 years ago. Drawing on family recollections, interviews with elders and extensive research in archives and regional museums, it is a hybrid — neither a novel nor a collection of short stories. It’s a volume of tales and prose poems containing a broad range of characters. There is the slow-witted girl who has lost her mother and now has only the cow named Fatty for a friend; the hard-bitten captain of a schooner in recoil from the ways of his alcoholic father; the child born premature, swaddled in olive oil-soaked linen, placed in a pan and incubated in an oven. And so on, 28 vignettes in all, all tightly written and highly evocative of outport Newfoundland before Confederation.


The Fetch is subtitled "A Book of Voices," and I certainly felt that the voices you inhabit took on lives and stories of their own. Each piece could be described as a prose poem or, perhaps, a vignette or postcard story. Could you tell us about the form that you used and why you chose this style?


I didn’t set out to write a collection of vignettes or stories or postcard fictions or anything else that can be identified as a specific form. I just wanted to write a book. What I really wanted was to write a novel. Some years ago, my dad had tried his hand at a novel, and though it had plenty of charm and many small jewels in it, he agreed it wasn’t going to survive publication. I tried very hard to improve that book and to make a co-authored work of it. That failed, and failed miserably. So I set out on my own in 2005.

I went to Newfoundland where my dad walked me around the grounds where he had grown up, introduced me to many fine people, and then was gone. I stayed for a couple of months in which time I built up a library of Newfoundland books and an archive of narrative sources. When I started to write, I imagined that eventually all of these snippets would grow together and shape a novel. I was very slow to learn that the book I was writing would become its own thing. I had to stop thinking I was in charge. The book is a hungry lover, and if the writer isn’t going to do the fetching, it will just turn its back and leave him staring at the ceiling all night.


Old black-and-white photographs are interspersed between the poems. Why did you decide to include these photos, and how do you want them to contribute to the reader's experience of the text?


The reader’s experience is her own. I have my own reasons for each of the photographs. For me they offered access to the creative process by either stimulating creation or allowing me to let go of a piece by giving it closure. The photos were doors. Some of them came before the story and others after. Because the book is focused on voices, and nobody is in control of describing the overall setting, the images fill that void. I also didn’t want to leave my stories alone inside that book. They’re voices. They don’t have the protection of an overarching narrative, or even the description of landscape. I see them as stranded without the photos.

As for what I want for the reader: I hope she sometimes sees the lips of these photographed people moving, maybe even their bodies stir out of the frame and walk off the page. For me those people are quite alive. They are my own fetches. They are the ones who watch over the stories and keep the book from falling apart. They also speak of the very real people who lived in a world I have attempted to emanate and to whom I am indebted: the dead. I would never have let these stories go into the world by themselves. The photographs show the real people who once lived in ways that my stories can only reach for.


Skipper Malcolm is a character who appears in more than one poem. What can you tell us about him and his role in The Fetch?


I read your question and could only immediately recall Skipper Malcolm from “Praying to Boulders for Berries,” where we see his broad shoulders in the golden light of the lantern as he delivers a stone of flour and then walks away from the narrator’s mother, not giving her the kiss the boy had hoped to see. I’ve had to turn to the book to see where else he shows up. And when I did that, I found him playing much the same role elsewhere: a solid, giving presence. He is a man full of light — a pure and rare man who circles the periphery. He’s like my grandfather, as I imagine him. I was raised to think my grandfather was a saintly man — whether he was is beside the point.

Skipper is a fetch, and a fetch is a guide, but not many fetches are saints. I hardly knew my grandfather. I saw him once in a hockey rink, and that memory is like a dream I can immediately call up. He appeared beyond the glass. I was eleven and on a breakaway. He had been dead for more than five years by then and I had only met him once, after he had been handicapped by a stroke. I don’t know why I saw him in that strange instant. He was standing beyond the goalie. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I lost the puck. I looked down for it, and then looked up. He was gone. Fetches are known for their love of trickery. He was no saint. He was just a good, kind man full of light and a bad sense of timing. The book is dedicated to my father, but it’s a call out to him as well. I think he showed up that day to tell me where I should put my energy.


You worked on this manuscript at Banff Centre's Writing Studio. What was this experience like, and how did your work there help to shape the book?


I went to the Banff Centre without thinking that this book was anything other than a collection of narratives compiled one overtop the other, some with photographs to accompany them. I also went with a tremendous will to work hard and bring the work to its next level: publication. What I got instead was a collapsed back from swimming in glacier fed water followed by two weeks of limping around, popping muscle relaxants and trying to keep a focus, any kind of focus, on writing. I think I wrote two short pieces in that whole month.

Aside from writing, I got a boost of confidence from Edna Alford who seemed taken by the work, as did Greg Hollingshead, who helped me sharpen a few things here and there. Then the manuscript got into the hands of Don McKay. Don helped me with the order of the pieces, and then he was generous enough to come up with a title. He called me one morning: “What do you think of titling it The Fetch?” I really didn’t get it. He took me down to the library and showed me the OED definition. I had shivers. Each meaning applies to some fragment in the book, even — or, especially — the nautical ones. I consider myself pretty lucky to have had him title my book. Lucky but not terribly bright. It took me several months to finally accept it as the title.


You have also been working on a novel that you call a thematic companion to The Fetch. How did your writing process differ for the two projects?


It was a totally incomparable experience. The Fetch was all about short, intensely focused bouts of writing within which I could occasionally create the draft of a piece in a single day. Writing the novel was much more like an extreme endurance sport because it brings you close to and then beyond death. I came out of it a survivor: toughened and wizened. In The Fetch, I saw these ghosts and they took me only for a moment, held my hand, and put me to work. Of course, it’s not really ghosts, or maybe it is, but it certainly isn’t automatic writing. There are endless hours of research involved. Once the data from that settles, the mind is ripe for writing — that’s my process thus far, and I’m now subjecting myself to the same with hard rock mining history in northern Ontario.

I call the voices ghosts, and think that sounds pretty awkward, but it’s a lot of how it is. When I’m writing, I rarely feel alone. I draw in a presence and try to hold it there. In The Fetch, those voices did not consume and exhaust me. I could still have a life and not feel like I was half-wraith myself most of the time. With Beyond Long Hungry, the tentative title I’ve given the manuscript I’m about to start shopping around, I — and mean I, the entire me — was consumed. I had a few periods within the last three years when I couldn’t work at it for several months at a time, but in the months when I could really give myself to the book, I did just that, and was sure I’d come out of it renamed Jonah for having been swallowed and dragged away.


There are a good number of very strong voices in poetry coming from Newfoundland these days — Mary Dalton, Agnes Walsh, Mark Callanan and James Langer come to mind. What is it about the culture and community of Newfoundland that encourages such engagement with language?


In my case, it might not be right to add my name to a list of Newfoundland poets. I was raised in northern Ontario and am the result of a coupling between a Newfoundlander and Franco-Ontarian, which makes me genetically drawn to storytelling, especially if it involves the opportunity to exaggerate and tell lies that everybody agrees are acceptable and close to truth if well told. As for Newfoundland itself, I think a person has to spend time there to really get it.

That aside, it can be a dangerous thing to see caricaturing of Newfoundland English in comedy. There’s a lot more to its palette than the colour of wit and hyperbolized verbalisms. Language there, to me, is a loved and living thing. My first relationship to it is through empathy. Yes, there’s more humour per square sentence than anywhere else in this country — Saskatchewan being the second funniest province, I do declare — but there’s also a profound sense of place, not to mention music and drink and good, mad folly. Also, I don’t have a respectable accent in speaking Newfoundland English. I don’t even know where the rhythm in the writing comes from. I guess it’s just part of my psyche. Old roots, deep cells. That kind of thing. It’s also posturing, faking, mimicry. The stuff a writer needs to be good at.


What direction do you think your writing will take you next?


I have hopes that Beyond Long Hungry will find a publisher within the next year, which I say as a display of quickly fading youthful enthusiasm. I’ve now relocated to my home turf in northern Ontario where I’m doing research in early industrial hard rock mining, as mentioned earlier. My intention at this point is to carry the son of the narrator in Beyond Long Hungry into a mining town and to put him to work. That said, I have to be ready to follow the book once it gets started. I can only write if I am willing to listen to the book. This is my mantra. (Remember, my name is Jonah. I do not see where the whale is headed.)

Beyond Long Hungry is told in the voice of a sixty-year-old fisherman’s wife who lives along a rugged, imagined coastline — much like the Labrador coast. This next work, which I’ve already dared to title and should have the good sense not to express, is called Darius! Darius! If the book grows into what I’m imagining of it, it’ll focus on the mining life of Darius Toyler. But don’t believe any of that until it ends up in a book. For now, just read it as Jonah talk.

Nico Rogers is a storyteller and performance artist, and has appeared at writing and folk festivals across the country, as well as on TV and radio. He has taught writing and literature in post-secondary institutions in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton and now lives in northern Ontario via Toronto. He has recently completed a manuscript for a novel tentatively titled Beyond Long Hungry, the story of an aging fisherman's wife. He is now at work on a new historic fiction project focused on hard rock mining.

For more information about The Fetch please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.


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