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Where in Canada: The Sum of One Man’s Pleasure
In his new novel bridging past and present, The Sum of One Man’s Pleasure (NeWest Press), Danial Neil sets his story of sixties homophobia on the luscious and somewhat out-of-time Vancouver Island. Danial walks us through the Island of his book below.
As with most novels that I have written, my one primary goal is to provide a felt experience for my readers, where each scene unfolds with tactile clarity, as much as possible, at least. I am always open to where my next novel comes from. I ask the Universe for a story, something important, what the world needs to hear. Sounds a bit self-righteous, I know, but I want my 900 hours of work to be worthwhile, intellectually and socially, and that I learned something important, that it contributes, at whatever level fiction can, to a better understanding of human endeavour and engagement. I do not work with an outline, but a simple idea. I wait for the muse. The story appears, and my characters, one by one, take their seats.
The Sum of One Man’s Pleasure is such a story, a story motivated by a particular time in Canadian history that has been hidden in the shadows, a period of gross mistreatment and abuse of LGBTQ+ people. It was the “homosexual purge” of civil service workers in Ottawa during the 1950s and 60s. It was a time of fear, when communist ideology threatened Western democratic countries. The protagonist, Fin Kenny, was caught up in the purge, and was one of the government employees fired from his job. He lost everything and was forced into hiding until a business acquaintance offered Finn a job as a groundskeeper at his estate. At this point, I had secured the premise of the story, the foundational elements to support the plot. The story only required the perfect setting for the estate, perhaps at the far side of the country. I chose Vancouver Island, an incomparable geographic backdrop, arm’s length from the rest of British Columbia. Yes, a sanctuary for Finn Kenny.
Vancouver Island had been on my mind over the past few years, perhaps unconsciously, as most of my recent novels have been set on Vancouver Island. It has wonderful elements of smalltown life, unique history, a rich landscape of forests, and, always the sea. I had been away from the West Coast for several years, and it seemed that the ocean was calling me home, what the romantic in me was saying, at least.
Spencerwood Estate was inspired by the Tudor manors of Vancouver’s West End. It is the heart of the story, set in 1963, where the plot develops, where the characters appeared in my imagination, and lovingly plunked into the great hall. Katherine Spencer, the Lady of the Manor, and The Bishops, caretakers of the estate. The Bishops anchor the story, its moral compass. And here I discovered the rich Black history of British Columbia. I discovered that Sylvia Estes Stark was one of 600 Black Americans who emigrated to the newly formed colony of British Columbia in 1858 at the invitation of Governor James Douglas. She and her family settled on Salt Spring Island, and later to Cedar, near Nanaimo. On a research trip with my wife in 2019, we visited her graveside in Ganges, Salt Spring Island, and were moved by the scale of her life. She died in 1944 at the age of 105 years old.
But, of course, Spencerwood could not exist without a local town, and its own host of characters. The area of Cobble Hill has always intrigued me with its rural appeal, as well as the name itself. I decided, due to artistic license, to create the village of Fawn Hill, complete with Church, train station, town hall, library, café, hardware store, bank, cinema, and gas station. It was like assembling a village scene at Christmas. It was such fun.
Photo of Cobble Hill by Alasdair McClellan.
As the story developed, there was a brief foray to the Cowichan River, where Finn Kenny and “Bishop” spend the morning fishing. It was on the return to Fawn Hill where historical content meets fiction. It was November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I borrowed from my own memory of that day. I was in grade four in Richardson School in North Delta, BC, when the intercom came on in our class and the principal announced that school was over for the day. I remember our teacher crying, and students visibly shaken from the news. It was a sad day, and spoke to how much the president was revered in Canada, even children with their limited understanding. The departure from Fawn Hill serves the story in one important way; it releases the reader from the confines of one space, the estate, where the richness of relationships is preserved and not overstated. And once again, in the final scenes, we experience an intimate scene along the sweeping shores of Qualicum Beach, and further still to Cumberland where painful scenes are presented against the backdrop of company houses from Cumberland’s coal mining complex.
Living on Vancouver Island now, I can see how geography, its relative isolation, informed the evolution of its society. There is a certain pristine feel to the Island, perhaps timeless in some ways. With 3400 km of shoreline, it is an island of boats and marinas, bays and coves, and astonishing marine life. Inland, it is the forests, the verdant explosion rising from the small towns. There is much to be thankful for, and much to protect. So, it’s no wonder that my current novel is set on Vancouver Island. I feel my way through my work, and I have found the perfect place.
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Danial Neil was born in New Westminster, British Columbia and grew up in North Delta. He began writing in his teens. The Sum of One Man’s Pleasure is Danial’s sixth published novel. In addition to having his novels celebrated for their wonderfully crafted characters, he was a contributor to poetry anthology Worth More Standing published by Caitlin Press in 2022. Danial lives in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.