The main character in St. John's-based author, musician, and CBC Poetry Prize longlister Heather Nolan's debut novella
This is Agatha Falling (Pedlar Press) is a product of her environment and her past, calling up the notion of our connection to physical place. Below, Heather talks to us about her book, how Montreal served as the spot for her ideas to become a first draft, and how Newfoundland is rooted in her life and writing. Read on for our chat and an excerpt from This is Agatha Falling.
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INTERVIEW WITH HEATHER NOLAN
All Lit Up: Tell us about your novella This is Agatha Falling and how it came to be.
Heather Nolan: This is Agatha Falling is a consideration of memory, how memory shapes our actions and reactions, how it pushes up through our present via our senses in ways that blindside us, how memory itself is an unreliable narrator that only brings us back to how we felt in any situation, not necessarily what really happened.
As a first novel, the ideas came to me in a very slow collection process over the years preceding the writing of the manuscript itself. I have been developing and writing these characters for several years without a real story to tell. Once I sat down and came up with the story and figured out the timeline, the first draft came together very quickly. I decided it was time to write it, and I had a month of vacation time, so I headed to Montreal, which has always been a place of inspiration for me, and started to write. I knew that fragmented narrative was going to play a role in how I wrote, and after a few days of trying to write on a laptop, I realized that this wasn't how I needed to work on this project. I started spending my mornings walking, taking the Metro across town, sitting in parks and cafes, and writing little fragments as they came to me in a notebook, and then afternoons piecing those together to see how they fit. It was so satisfying to work like this, to have pieces of paper to rearrange as I needed. It started to feel very evident to me exactly where each fragment needed to go to build the story. I spent three and a half weeks in Montreal and completed the first draft a few days before I left.
ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our physical place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
HN: I once read a line which I have never been able to find again to cite, which was something like "You can't simply live here without reacting to the landscape and the weather" — and I feel as someone who has lived in Newfoundland for most of my life, the physical environment is always vying for my attention. Our ways of surviving in our environment, and in that vein, our ways of perceiving the surroundings, art, culture, and ourselves in this and other places, will always carry that fundamental lens.
My writing has been rooted in place, and I consider all stories to be rooted in place, whether explicitly or not. It's always there. In This is Agatha Falling, the places where Sophie spends her time—downtown St. John's and its bars—become her environment, the lens through which she sees everything in her life, so that when she leaves those places they are still a part of what she perceives.
Since writing this book, I have become more and more conscious of how place inspires my writing.
ALU: Who are some of your favourite Newfoundland-based writers?
HN: Don Mckay is one of my favourite writers of all time, and perhaps the one who got me thinking about place. His essay collection Deactivated West 100 shook the way I think. Another writer can do nothing better.
Doug Walbourne-Gough is a poet from Corner Brook and a great friend, and I have great respect for his writings on memory and loss, and his economy and precision of language in Crow Gulch.
Mary Dalton has also been a huge influence of mine, in writing about place, and the depth, rather than width, that place requires. Understanding place means understanding history. Her essay collection Edge is a favourite.
Terry Doyle's short story collection Dig has a fantastic way of merging the mundane with the profound that I love, and an undercurrent of political bite.
Eva Crocker's short story collection Barrelling Forward is more the absurd and the profound, but it's the style in her writing I love most. Hers was the first story I read about St. John's where I recognized the city.
There are too many more. Agnes Walsh. Lindsay Bird. Stan Dragland. Michelle Porter. Lisa Moore. Joel Thomas Hynes. Sharon Bala. And a mind-boggling list of amazing emerging writers in the province who will be signing book contracts any day now.
The sun glinting on the frosted window was what woke Sophie early, crystals thick and sharp, sending prisms of light staggering through the room.
It was the light tickle of hair against her cheek that woke her, the sudden wait-what’s-that texture of the wiry mass she was buried next to, smelling of sweat and stale cigarettes. A soft sigh, and the texture shifted; the light brush of skin as a warm, sleeping body affirmed its new position.
She became aware of her left arm, tingling with bloodlessness, holding the source of the stale smell. Pools now, warm and even, pouring over her elbow, fingers of her right hand draped over the curve of a hip bone. Her hand buzzed against taut skin. She pictured her fingers imprinted across the bone, fitting in imaginary grooves.
She became very aware that she was naked.
What woke Sophie was the flood of cold air that rushed in to fill the gap where Sal had been before he shifted and rolled, the connection between their bodies broken. He wrapped the covers around his body like a shield. Sophie listened as Sal lay still as a waking person can, mimicking the easy breath of sleep.
It was a noise not like sleep that her mother made all those years ago. It was a noise not like sleep, and much more like a wave of broken glass scraping against rock. It was a noise not like broken glass, much more like a rasping breath that her mother had made. It was a noise not like rasping breath, much more like circling the drain.
And there was Sophie on a shoreline, mid-winter, the cold North Atlantic waters lapping up over her sneakers, depositing fine layers of ice there. Peering into the darkness. Hearing the coastal sounds of chaos, noting a faint disturbance in the black air around her. Fumbling over massive motherly beach rocks. Calling out into the night, not at all like a siren.
Heather Nolan is a writer, musician, and photographer who lives in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Her most recent work can be found in Riddle Fence, Newfoundland Quarterly, WORD magazine, The Paragon, and The Overcast. She was longlisted for the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize. Her work explores connections between landscape, place, and identity.
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