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Ronald Wright came of age in an era of social unrest and change. It is unsurprising, given this background, that change and what passes for progress often provide the foundation for Wright's stories. Wright thinks a lot about "the incredible pace of change. Never in the history of the world -- or at least of mankind -- has so much change occurred within an individual's lifetime as has happened since the invention of the steam engine."
We see many of these changes in Wright's most recent novel, Henderson's Spear: "In one lifetime the south Pacific goes from being a place of recently reformed cannibal kings to a place where nuclear weapons are being tested by the great powers." Viewed through the lens of his novel, these changes come almost visibly to life.
Born in England, Wright traveled to Canada in the 1970s to work on a post graduate degree in archeology at the University of Alberta. Wright never finished his doctorate, nor did he move back to England.
"When you move to a new country," Wright tells me over drinks, "especially a bigger country, a country with more space and opportunity, perhaps you unfold in a way that you can't get back inside the box that you came in."
It's a feeling he shares with Olivia, the main character in the contemporary portion of Henderson's Spear. Olivia has moved from England to western Canada -- as did Wright -- and finds the concept of living in England impossible.
Wright echoes her emotion. "I go back to England," says Wright, "I still love it there, but I can't stay there for very long. I feel hemmed in. I feel the lack of wilderness and the presence of 50 million people and the fact that it's all developed from one end to the other."
The fictional Olivia and the real life author have other commonalties: one is a shared ancestor in the form of Frank Henderson, a British naval officer who, in the 1880s, traveled to the South Pacific with two of Queen Victoria's grandsons.
"Ever since I was a boy," says Wright, "there's been this big wooden spear hanging on the wall and the only thing we knew about it is that it belonged to this cousin, Henderson -- there was a real Frank Henderson -- and that this spear was his. And we knew a little bit of the story about what happened to him in West Africa."
Working from an old notebook of Henderson's, Wright was initially tempted to make Henderson's Spear a historical novel with Frank Henderson and his adventures -- real and fictional -- at its core. "But I wanted to go beyond that and I wanted to do something that would look at the 20th century from each end."
This brought Olivia into the picture -- the expat Brit filmmaker -- who moved to Canada though, as the book opens, we find her rotting in a Tahitian jail in the 1980s and writing letters to a daughter she has never known.
Wright takes these seemingly disparate threads -- the Victorian naval officer and the confused modern filmmaker -- and weaves them into a fascinating story. Henderson's Spear is suspenseful, warm, thought-provoking and deeply compelling.
Henderson's Spear is Wright's seventh book and his second novel. The first, A Scientific Romance, first published in 1997, received international attention and Britain's David Higham Prize for Fiction.
Ronald Wright, 53, lives with his wife Janice, an anthropologist, in Port Hope, Ontario, a small town not far out of Toronto.
Linda Richards: Henderson's Spear is such a layered book. There are plots within plots and stories within stories. There's so much going on, it must have been a challenging book to even think about writing.
Ronald Wright: This was a difficult book to write. It was much more difficult for me to write this than my previous novel, A Scientific Romance. It took me a long time before I knew how the two stories would come out: Olivia's story and Henderson's story. Now that I know how they turned out it seems obvious. Why didn't I think of that right away? But, of course, I didn't. It took a couple of drafts before it even occurred to me that she could be Henderson's descendant.
Were you writing the two threads side by side?
Oh yeah. I wrote them chapter by chapter, the way the book is structured. Sometimes I'd get further ahead in one story than the other, though. The easier story to write, by far, was Henderson's story. It was tempting to write something that was simply a historical novel and just stay within history and leave it there in the 1880s and 1890s. But I wanted to go beyond that and I wanted to do something that would look at the 20th century from each end.
Henderson was a later Victorian. He's living at the high water mark of optimism and belief in progress and the last thing you hear from him, late in his life, is disillusionment because of the First World War. It was something that people really experienced: the belief in progress. The belief that material progress -- the invention of new machines and faster transportation and all these new things that were coming out of the new factories -- that these were going to make human life better. All that belief was shattered in the trenches with the 11 million people who died in the First World War. And people lost their religious faith, as Henderson does.
So he's sort of there, leading you into the 20th century. I followed the definition of the 20th century that the historian Eric Hobsbawm advances in his book, The Age of Extremes. The short 20th century begins in 1914 and it ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, 1990. I thought he was absolutely spot on.
We don't really know when the 20th century ends. Some people say it ended on September 11, 2001. But certainly all the events from 1914 to 1990 are connected: the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Russian Revolution: they all flow out of the First World War. And all of those things don't come to any sort of resolution until 1990.
Henderson's Spear echoes that timeline.
Yes. Exactly. It's sort of a frame on that timeline, without going into the 20th century that much, the 20th century is being seen from both ends. I knew I wanted the two stories separated by roughly a century, but it took me a long time to work out how the personal story of Olivia would tie in with Henderson. That was difficult. And in the earlier form of the book there was more emphasis put on the Herman Melville film that [Olivia is] making. But, in the end, I think there's a balance that worked out OK.
Is writing a laborious process for you?
Hmmmm... yes. Every book is different, you know. A Scientific Romance; the whole idea came to me one night. I was sitting at home having a few drinks. Not only drinks: I was in a slightly altered state of mind. Somebody had given me some grass and I hadn't smoked anything like that in a long time. I sort of gave it up in my late 30s because I found it made me paranoid.
Anyway, I was sitting at home, by myself. My wife was out that evening and I had a couple of drinks and I thought: Oh, I'll try this. I'll have a go at this stuff. Why not? And, of course, I wasn't prepared for how the technology has improved in terms of marijuana farming. I remember the kind of stuff when I was a hippie that people used to grow and you'd have to smoke about a bail of it to get high. So I was toking away quite merrily and suddenly I realized: Whoof! And, in that state, the whole idea for A Scientific Romance popped into my head. I even had some of the characters, like the Scottish laird who is black and MacBeth.
And the hundreds of year old Scotch.
Yes. Yes! All of that popped into my head that day and I ran upstairs and went to the computer and started tapping this stuff in just for the hell of it, thinking: This is really silly. This is a really silly idea. Tomorrow I'm going to go: Oh, no. [Laughs] But it just kept coming. And I didn't keep smoking that stuff, I can tell you that.
So I had the outline of the book and what remained was just simply to fill in the blanks and flesh out the plot and the characters and find the voice. But, with this book, it was very laborious. And there was a lot of research involved. A lot of historical research. And many pieces to fit together. Because it's set in real time -- the past and the present, more or less -- I had to try and get it as accurate as possible, allowing myself room for the fiction. But I wanted the surrounding historical context of it to be as accurate as possible. So it was a very different process from writing something that's set 500 years in the future.
Henderson's Spear was a lot of research?
Oh yeah. And most of that got thrown away. I mean, I spent six months reading and researching Herman Melville. Reading Melville himself and then reading all the stuff written about Melville and a lot of literary criticism on his books. I kept a tiny fraction of that material.
But it becomes part of the back story, doesn't it? And adds to the richness of the book.
Yeah. Absolutely. I think Hemingway said: The little bit you keep is just the tip of the iceberg. The other 90 per cent you don't put it in the book, but you needed it to find an elegantly shaped tip of an iceberg.
I could sense the research that had gone into the book early on. When Henderson is going off with the princelings on the new steamship. And you describe the feeling of being on that boat, right down to the way the new paint smells baking in the stacks. There was something very beautiful in that. And I felt I was there.
The smells, yeah. Writers always have to remember to put smells in their books. Smell triggers so many memory sensors and parts of the brain. A smell will give you a childhood memory just like a song will. But, yeah: that was fiction. It wasn't something I got from research, consciously. I don't remember reading about the smell of paint [on a new steamship]. But it occurred to me that, a new ship: the first time they fired up the engines and they have all these steam pipes on those Victorian boats and they're carrying this high pressure, high temperature steam, that the ship would smell of paint.
What led you to this book?
That's an easy one to answer. The book comes from a real spear that came down in my family much as it is described in chapter one or whatever of the book. Ever since I was a boy there's been this big wooden spear hanging on the wall and the only thing we knew about it is that it belonged to this cousin, Henderson -- there was a real Frank Henderson -- and that this spear was his. And we knew a little bit of the story about what happened to him in West Africa. The chapter about his capture by the Sofas and his narrow escape by falling asleep, that is true and is based on his own writings.
Wow: so some of that is family history.
Right. I've changed a few things. But it's essentially true, that story, and I relied quite heavily on something that he wrote. I went and saw his report to the colonial office of that experience and also found that he'd written some magazine articles for a magazine called The Idler, in 1898. This was what made Henderson's story so easy to write: I had his voice. I had a sense of who he was and how he would speak and how he would write. So it was a matter of just continuing in his style and shaping the material [that he had written] to work within my novel [but] I tried to copy his voice all the way through.
And his voice is very clear. His voice is strong. Olivia's voice would have been more difficult to write.
Much harder, yes. A woman and a modern character. It's much easier to write a historical character because there's nobody around who is going to say: Well, actually it wasn't that way. Or: People didn't say that in those days. [There are] words that have changed their meaning and I tried to be very careful about that, but there's nobody who is going to pop out of the woodwork and say: Hey, we didn't do that. We didn't say that.
In a modern character, of course, everybody knows the cultural context that you're working in. And if you're a man writing a woman, or the other way around, then you have to be very careful and that involved research, too. It also involved getting help from native informants in the shape of women that I know [Laughs] who were willing to read early drafts of the book and say: Now, a woman wouldn't do that. Or: Wouldn't think that. [And] there was remarkably little of that. They helped me a lot on the details, but nowadays we live in a culture that is so unisex that what a woman can do or might do or might think is not all that different from what a man can do and might think. It's not as different as it was in the past.
You're a Brit?
Actually, my father was born in British Columbia but moved to England when he was 10. I was born and grew up in England and then in my early 20s I came out to Canada to go to grad school. The University of Calgary. I was supposed to do a Ph.D. but I never finished it: dropped out but ended up staying [in Canada]. Not because of the family connection it's just that they were teaching stuff that I wanted to do.
What were you studying?
In the book, Olivia -- who has moved from England to Canada -- talks about how she couldn't see folding herself back into living in that crowded place. Is that a feeling that you share?
A new world kind of feeling?
Yes. When you move to a new country -- especially a bigger country, a country with more space and opportunity -- perhaps you unfold in a way that you can't get back inside the box that you came in. That's certainly something that I've felt. I go back to England, I still love it there but I can't stay there for very long. I feel hemmed in. I feel the lack of wilderness and the presence of 50 million people and the fact that it's all developed from one end to the other. Until you get up to Scotland and parts of Wales. All the southeast, which is where I'm from, is one village after another and fields and paths and people everywhere. So, coming from England to a place like Western Canada is an extraordinary experience. It opens you up in ways that you haven't expected so it can be very difficult to go back after that.
You live in Port Hope, Ontario. Is that a very big place?
No. It's a small town: about 10,000 people. It's -- at the moment, anyway -- a nice old Victorian town that has a lot of artists and writers and media people. Various kinds of musicians. It's sort of far enough from Toronto that it feels rural and a nice pace of life. It's a great community. Everybody knows everybody. At the same time you are close enough to the city that you can get in when needed. It's about 60 miles to Toronto.
How many books have you written?
Henderson's Spear is my seventh book, but second novel.
When was your first book?
It was published in 1984. My first book was Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in Peru which has just been reprinted.
Your first novel, A Scientific Romance was very successful.
Yes, it did very well. Especially in Britain and translated into a few languages. In Britain it won a prize...
The David Higham Prize for Fiction.
Yes. And the book had a good reception from the critics everywhere.
Change is one of the main themes in Henderson's Spear.
Yes: the incredible pace of change. Never in the history of the world -- or at least of mankind -- has so much change occurred within an individual's lifetime as has happened since the invention of the steam engine. Because Henderson goes out there on a ship that, even though it has a steam engine on it, is basically a three-masted sailing ship that somebody from Shakespeare's day would not have any difficulty recognizing as a ship. And yet, if [Henderson had] lived into his 80s he would have witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima: the atom bomb. In one lifetime the south Pacific goes from being a place of recently reformed cannibal kings to a place where nuclear weapons are being tested by the great powers.
It seems quite a leap from archeology to novels.
Well, I was never a professional archeologist. I simply took it in grad school and then, as I said, dropped out of it. My early books sort of grew out of [my] interest in the native civilizations of the Americas: the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas. Two of my early books, which were travel books, one is about Peru and the other, Time Among the Maya, is about the Maya era. The third of those travel books was called On Fiji Islands which is not about archeology very much, but was about the interconnection of past and present in Fiji. And that led indirectly to [Henderson's Spear] because it led me to an interest in the South Seas.
Archeology is a very good background for a writer. What a writer needs -- at least, for the kind of writing I do -- is a perspective on your own culture. Julian Barnes said that a writer needs to be an outcast by nature and universal in sympathy. I agree with that and I think that some kind of academic interest ... in history or archeology are very good ways to take you away from your own milieu and make you reflect on the culture that you live in and see its strengths and its failings and its dangers.
An archeologist is very conscious of the path of human development. For 99 per cent of our career as a species we were hunter gatherers and then just in the last one per cent -- which is since the ice age -- we developed farming which led to cities and large populations. All the things we have in civilizations -- social classes, systems of government, buildings -- led to a massive increase in our impact on the Earth, which is what I was writing about in A Scientific Romance. But also in this book, too. Trying to capture that accelerating pace of civilization. It's sort of almost like a yeast that is growing all around the world and gradually taking over the natural world. Or not so gradually: quickly taking over the natural world. | February 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.