The story involves a journey – from a place that was home but no longer can be to a place that really only exists as a hope for a better life. Cyberpunk meets The Grapes of Wrath. So some of the story takes place where I was living at the time (Calgary and southern Alberta) but a lot of it takes place in places I’ve only visited (Seattle, Idaho, New Mexico and Mexico). And of course some places I’ve only been in my imagination.
A lot of Canadian writing is deeply rooted in place. Landscape is another character for writers like W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Laurence. Where would Mordecai Richler be if he weren’t in Montreal? Robert J. Sawyer confounded popular publishing wisdom by setting many of his novels in distinctly Canadian places. Some writers write about where they live while they are living there; others, like Alice Munro, have to move elsewhere to return home in their fiction. And, of course many of the great new Canadian writers, like Ondaatje and Mistry, are immigrants who write both home and away simultaneously.
My first two plays were set in the NWT, where I lived for nine years. One was written while I was living there; the other shortly after I left. Two of the next three were set in my hometown of Amherst, N.S. It was only after I’d been living in Calgary for three years did I write something set in the city. My first novel, published over 15 years ago, was set in places that I or my father had lived in. My most recent books, The Steele Chronicles, are set in Calgary, but were mostly written while I was living in Ottawa. Most of it was written from memory.
Does the adage, ‘write what you know,’ require a writer to get the details of place precisely right? Or is there a truth that goes beyond the facts? One deliberate mistruth I told throughout the Steele Chronicles was about a jazz bar, Kaos Cafe, where I worked for a year. The bar first moved and then closed but in my novels it is right back where it was when I worked there. Metaphorically and emotionally, I needed it to be there. As I read through my old book, I come across scenes where I can say I definitely saw and heard those things; others where I know I made it up; some I can’t really tell. Does that matter? I don’t know – though as I get to the end chapters where the characters have to make new home in a place I’ve only visited – I may find out it does. Getting that right may be my biggest challenge yet.