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Almost violently vibrant and sometimes shockingly frank, it's hard to imagine that one of Canada's newest international selling novelists was splitting fish in her native Newfoundland less than a decade ago. "Listen," she tells me with utmost sincerity, "I was quite happy hooking worms out of fish. Happy."
Donna Morrissey had never considered being a writer: it was more than not a possibility, it wasn't even an option she'd thought about. Then eight years ago, a doctor told her she probably only had nine months to live. It was a gross misdiagnosis and, in retrospect it was fairly trivial and quickly straightened out. But it changed everything: it shifted her world and started her on a path that would lead here: the author of two novels that have been effusively reviewed, with crtics comparing her to everyone from Shakespeare to the Bronte sisters to Annie Proulx, although this latter comparison tends to make Morrissey see red. "I didn't like her characters," Morrissey says of The Shipping News. "I didn't like the writing style and I didn't like the way she parodied the Newfoundlander." And though Morrissey is often referred to as "Newfoundland's Annie Proulx" she is the first to point that their work is very different.
Morrissey has strong opinions on just about everything as well as the ability to express these views engagingly. This is apparent in her most recent novel. Like her previous work, Kit's Law, Downhill Chance takes place in rural Newfoundland. Set around the time of World War II, the action involves two families in the fictional maritime outposts of Rocky Head and Cat Arm. "It's a universal story," says Morrissey. "It isn't a local story. It's cradled in a culture, but it has universal themes and universal emotions and that is why people in Japan can relate to it as easily as someone in Newfoundland."
This was also true of Kit's Law which Morrissey says gained a large following in Japan. "What the Japanese people have said they loved is the spiritual themes that went through Kit's Law, they loved the smallness of the communities and the interaction amongst people."
Donna Morrissey now makes her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia where she is at work on her third novel.
Linda Richards: I guess because I'm from the other coast, I find books set on your coast, the East coast, very exotic. It's the same kind of exoticism I find in books about the American South: the language is different, the people are different, the food: all exotic to me. Have you heard that, as you've toured?
Donna Morrissey: I've never heard it put quite that way, no. I just hear that, suddenly: There's a market now for your books [set in Newfoundland] and how is that and why is that? And yeah, you're different. I've always thought: Well, we've always been here, it's you that have changed. You've now opened up and are allowing room for us.
I was in Toronto for a couple years and then in Alberta, living. When I went back to Newfoundland I was standing on a bank looking out over the city and our harbor. It was the first time I saw the harbor since I'd been back. It was just that moment in time: the gulls were screaming and the boats were there and the sun was glistening on the water and the hotel was white against the cliffs and I thought: Jesus, this is exotic. It was the first time I saw it as a stranger and [what you said] just triggered the memory.
You're from a place in Newfoundland called The Beaches.
Does The Beaches figure at all into Downhill Chance?
No. I just put my geographical locations on the opposite side of the bay, just to do away with people looking for themselves.
David Adams Richards does that as well. Uses fictional maritime locations rather than real places.
Oh yes, because you just want to get away from people saying: There's Steve, or something. So it's got to be entirely fictitious, even the places, so people stop looking for themselves.
What's really amazing is that it's translated into Japanese and Dutch and German. Just doing the translations -- getting that Newfoundland feel and touch into the Japanese translations, or German [is] particularly challenging. [Laughs] But I did have a reader of the German translation come and meet with me one day and say: I'm totally amazed, but it worked.
What the Japanese people have said they loved is the spiritual themes that went through Kit's Law, they loved the smallness of the communities and the interaction amongst people. And what they've said was that, in Japan, that's part of the past now: that's receded. And spirituality is something that they're losing, which is an incredible shame because Japan's is a culture based on spirituality.
But it's exciting that you've struck a nerve with a culture that, on the surface of things, would seem quite different from the one you write about.
I've got to tell you this one thing: During translations, there's a 100,000 questions: What did you mean by this? What did you mean by that? Kind of thing. But the Japanese translators were so polite. It was mostly: So sorry to bother you, so sorry but could you please answer this question? And I would be, like: Come on you guys, ask me whatever you want! And they would e-mail again and say: That is very nice, thank you. But please, now, if you could take time, we have one more question. So sorry. And they were so goddamned polite! The last question they asked, the e-mail came through: We are so sorry, we missed this one. We don't know what this one is. It was a line by Margaret in Kit's Law that said: Can't go nowhere here Kit, for the youngsters wantin' to crawl up your hole.
And the translators had written: Well, we know what a hole is, but why is it so dark there? And why is your children want to crawl up there? [Laughs]
I was so impressed by one of your cover quotes for Kit's Law. Thomas Keneally, who we've also interviewed.
How did you get a cover quote from Thomas Keneally?
Oh, Jesus! He drove me nuts. We got into a cab one night and we're all squished in and he was in the back with some kind of an accent, and I was up front with the cabbie. There were eight of us in Vancouver going to a Vancouver Writer's Festival event. Something came up and he said: Do we have a Newfie up there? And I said something over my shoulder like: With all due respect, they call us Newfoundlanders. But he kept it up and kept it up and I said: I don't think you heard me correctly. I'm a New-found-lander. Newfie stuff is just really irritating to me and I said to myself: I'm not putting up with it this trip, thank you very much.
So we get to this big humungous hall. We were all doing this event. And [he and I] got into another fight about something else again, I don't know what it was, but he started it, I bloody well remember that! And this guy said to me: Do you know who you've been fighting with all evening? And I said: No. He said: Schindler. Schindler's List. That's Thomas Keneally. And I said: Schindler's List? Oh fuck.
So I walked up to him and I said: Keneally. Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List. What the fuck you doin' sharin' our cab? How come you ain't in a limo? What are you doin' crappin' my evening? Don't you have your own entourage? So we started all over again. When we left I said: I think I deserve a quote for my book from you. And he said: Only if you give me a guided tour of Newfoundland when I come back. [to Canada].
Your work is quite often compared to Annie Proulx'.
Yes. I don't understand that. Do you? It's just the Newfoundland thing.
It's not a bad connection, in terms of Pulitzer Prize stuff and everything.
Yes. Hello? Newfoundland's Annie Proulx? That's me. What did I think of her book [The Shipping News]? I hated it. I couldn't stand it. The movie is even worse. Jesus, horrible.
You're certainly very different writers.
I just didn't like her book. I didn't like her characters, I didn't like the writing style and I didn't like the way she parodied the Newfoundlander. I don't think she meant to parody anybody, but she did. For example when she talked about the guy in the street walking up to this missus' door and asking for a phone book to call somebody down the road in Newfoundland. And so the missus comes out with the Ontario phone book. And I say: with all due respect, we wouldn't give you the Ontario phone book if you wanted to call someone down the street. So it was just that whole idea of parody and I totally resented that. And [she recites]: It was a true Newfoundland kiss, tainted with the flavor of flipper pie. That was the second time the book hit the wall.
Having said that, it wasn't just that Newfoundland thing that turned me off, I just didn't like the book, period. I didn't like the characters. When the hero and heroine kissed I nearly puked, they were so disgusting and loathsome to me at that time, the thought of them being sexual was something obscene. So it's not just that Newfoundland thing, I want to express that.
Was that the consensus out there? Did people hate The Shipping News out there?
No. People loved it. That's why I was so excited about reading it. I thought: Oh jeez, this sounds great. A lot of people hated it, too but, what really surprises me is the most people who hate it are people who moved to Newfoundland. The CFAs. They read it and say it sucks.
Did you say CFAs?
Yeah. Come From Aways.
[Laughs] I'm glad I checked on that.
Yeah: If you don't belong here, you come from away.
Did that [The Shipping News] inspire you at all? To write a real Newfoundland novel?
No. Absolutely not. I wasn't even thinking about writing at that point. I never ever thought I would write a book in my life.
Yeah. I had never written before and I was just approaching that novel as a reader, not as a writer.
I read somewhere that you didn't become a writer until after you were diagnosed with a terminal illness when you were in your early 30s.
That's right. I was given up to nine months to live. Up to: so any day now.
What was wrong with you?
They diagnosed me with tetanus and it was an East Indian doctor who was just in town for a six month stretch as an intern, or whatever that is that they do. tetanus is a very rampant disease in India, so he brought that [idea] with him.
Yeah: because you can get a shot for that here.
We had a shot. And when I went home, my father said: Listen lovey, you had your needle. We know you had your needle, so you ain't going to die. He was starting to reassure me a little, but then the phone rang and it was the doctor calling me back to the office. This time my mother went with me. And we figured it was going to be a big apology, him saying: So, sorry. But he was there with a book reading out what symptoms might occur, and he gave me pills to counteract the first symptom, whatever the hell it was going to be. I almost fainted.
What was very traumatic about it was that it triggered old trauma. I had a brother who had gotten killed and I had been very traumatized by that not long before. And then my best friend, in the very same town, passed six months after that. So it was really these things that happened to me that affected me heavily. So when he gave this diagnosis, it was like [she slaps her hands together] instant: my brother, my friend, now me. There was no room for doubt and after that I just went into a total panic, anxieties all over that stuff.
Thank God, Donna! Look what it did. [Indicating her most recent novel.]
Listen, I was quite happy hooking worms out of fish. Happy. Anyway, I went for a year being totally paranoid and scared.
And you had kids by then, didn't you?
Oh yeah, I'd had my kids. They were little, but they were kids. They were six and 11, something like that. But I was functioning with all of these fears and paranoias and anxieties and not knowing what or how. Coping with them in my mind. It was only after I started university that I discovered my illness. I discovered it in a psychology book. Generalized anxiety.
It wasn't tetanus?
But wait, you jumped. You started university after the diagnosis?
Yes. I was working in a fish plant, you see. So when I came down to it, the doctor diagnosed me with mono and I had to quit work. It wasn't mono. It was generalized anxiety. It's an illness. And when I quit work at the fish plant, I suffered for about six months at home, and I was dying. And I thought: I need to go to university. I need to learn about what the hell this is. I went to Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland and enrolled.
But wait: between diagnosed with fatal tetanus and enrolling in university, did you discover you didn't actually have tetanus and that you weren't going to die?
Yes. We went to the hospital in Cornerbrook and the doctor said to me: Look, you're not going to die, because if you were you'd be dead by now because the guy gave you a booster shot. And if you have the disease and they give you a booster shot, they're going to kill you. [Laughs] So you obviously don't have tetanus. I could have sued! Oh Jesus, I could have sued. But I was just too freaked out to do anything. It was horrible. And from there to university.
What did you take at university?
No math: whatever the hell, but no math. And I became a social worker.
But wait a second: how do go from that, to this?
It's a really bizarre story.
I want it.
Well, after I did social work, I decided I really didn't like it a whole lot. And I was still battling those fears and everything else. That didn't go away, just because I knew what it was. I worked for a year and a half as a social worker after I graduated -- got divorced and all of that. Then went to Antigonish, Nova Scotia to do an adult education course because I wanted to get out of social work.
The instructor was really, really fantastic. She was like a Jungian analyst of sorts and she kept saying to me: You're a writer. And I kept saying: No, I'm a social worker. And she kept saying that and I kept correcting her and then she said: If you're not, you ought to be! And I said: Why do you keep saying that? And she said: Because you're the first person I'd rather listen to than talk to.
But she really hammered at me. It was like something was working through her when I look back on it. And even when we'd parted, she'd call me and say: Are you writing? So finally I said: Fuck! All right.
Then one day I decided to write her a letter that was really glorious, like: Oh, my dear and wondrous friend! It is with such glee that I sit here this morning... and then there was that moment when I hit upon a metaphor and that was it. It was just like that, and I've never stopped writing every day ever since. And that was eight years ago.
So Annie Proulx? [She makes a dismissive motion with her hand.] She had nothing to do with none of that.
Your life has changed entirely.
I have it back now. I have it back. That misdiagnosis took it. It's a difficult thing, this anxiety. But you work with it. It's stronger than you, or it can be. And it overwhelms you.
Are you working on anything right now?
Yes. I'm working on my third novel and I can't wait to get back.
Can you talk about it at all?
Not a chance!
I had to ask though, didn't I? Tell me about Downhill Chance.
It's a universal story. It isn't a local story. It's cradled in a culture, but it has universal themes and universal emotions and that is why people in Japan can relate to it as easily as someone in Newfoundland.
Critics seem always to enthuse about your work. I mean, they get poetic about Donna Morrissey's writing. Another quote about Kit's Law. The Daily News in Halifax said you were "Like a twentieth century Bronte sister."
Get this one from back east, it said: The eloquence of the King James Bible and the cadence of Shakespeare..." My father was reading it to me [on the telephone] saying: You hear that, lovey, you hear that? And I said: Jesus, daddy, oh yes! My father thinks this is it. You know: She is now sainted. As I get consumed into heaven any second now. | July 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.