Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Every Road Has a Destination

Canadian novelist JUNE HUTTON talks about her first novel, Underground, and her long, seldom-smooth struggle to get her foot on the authorial ladder

THE ROAD TO PUBLICATION for a début novelist is seldom smooth. Mine was typically long and uneven. Perhaps that is thematically fitting, given the subject matter of Underground, a story about struggle, perseverance and personal victory. Al Fraser’s search for identity and purpose takes him from the mud of the Somme, through the parched Canadian landscape of the Great Depression and on to the burnt fields of Spain deep in the throes of civil war. In other words, a journey along one of recent history’s rougher roads.

Two distinct yet similar images were the story’s genesis. My father told me that his father had been buried alive in a trench at the Somme, and had to punch a fist through the dirt to signal rescue crews. To me, that fist was a powerful symbol of defiance. It said: I will not die. Later, a co-worker told me that her father had fought with Canada’s MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion in Spain. I was curious and began reading up on those soldiers, and found that their salute was a raised fist, a symbol of defiance against fascism. A lightning bolt of ideas began zapping between the two images of the raised fists. How could I connect them? What sort of man would fight in both wars, and why? The story grew from there.

Underground was many years in the making. Long before I began work on my novel, I was learning the craft of writing—as a journalist for five years and then a short-story writer for seven years. The novel itself, from early scratchings on paper to eventual publication, took another seven years.

During Underground’s infancy, I was teaching high school English part-time, struggling to squeeze in writing when I could—on a bus, while going for a walk, doing the laundry, preparing lessons. A thought would strike and I’d write it down before it was lost in the bustle of life. I carried a notebook with me wherever I went and it didn’t take long to fill one. From there, I moved to my laptop and began piecing scenes together. I would print copies and edit, then go back to the screen, then back and forth, repeatedly, until I was satisfied. When that happened I’d workshop it with authors Jen Sookfong Lee (The End of East, The Better Mother) and Mary Novik (Conceit), who are my friends and fellow members of the writing group SpiN (www.spinwrites.com).

For me, the most intensely creative stage of novel production is that beginning, after perhaps a draft or two, when I have a vague notion of where the story is heading, but am free to add whatever I want and just see what happens. At that point anything is possible. A new character can appear. Or an old one, disappear. The chronology can shift. The story can still move in unexpected directions.

My protagonist is purely fictional, though he represents many of the men of his generation whose lives had been shaped by war and deprivation. For that reason, I felt that Al Fraser had to be an ordinary guy, a worker, not a famous person from history. I wanted him in that mud, a common foot soldier fighting in deplorable conditions, and returning to a hard life back home, damaged by what he had experienced. His eventual acknowledgement of an unsavoury act he committed on the battlefield leads to his decision to go to Spain. War then becomes a means towards Al’s personal redemption. I used rising shrapnel as a physical symbol of that memory—the bits of war that he has brought back home with him—and this motif runs throughout the novel.

Other sub-themes emerged that connect to the overall theme of identity. Love, for one, which I wasn’t expecting. Also, the camaraderie among workers. Only after the novel was nearing completion did I realise that the camaraderie extends to men in war and on protest marches, too. But each of these is a world without women and, increasingly, as the story grew, so did Al’s longing for a female presence in his life, for love, as a means of becoming whole.

But the struggle to finish Al’s story was soon eclipsed by the struggle to convince the book industry it wanted the story. My husband and I had moved to Toronto, Ontario, for a few months for his work. Toronto is the publishing centre in Canada, so while I was there I decided to look for a literary agent. I phoned John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists and described my novel to him. He asked me to send sample chapters, which I did. He then agreed to meet me, and asked me to bring the remaining chapters.

We met several times, in fact. During our last meeting the manuscript, bound with elastic bands, sat in the middle of the table. John had read it, liked it, but felt it needed more work. He was going to decline taking me on as a client. As he discussed the manuscript’s weaknesses, he nudged it across the centre to my side of the table. As I replied with its strengths, I nudged it back. Watching the bundle’s unsteady progress back and forth across the table was nerve-wracking. I often wonder if he noticed. I told him I was willing to keep working at it, and we discussed ways to improve it. A couple of times he picked the bundle up and my heart was in my mouth until he dropped it back down onto his side of the table. At last we reached an agreement, and John said he would have a contract drawn up and sent to me. It was summer and I was wearing flip-flops, not the usual attire for a business meeting, but I was ready to hop into the waiting car and begin our nine-day drive back across Canada and the United States to our home in Vancouver. It was a victorious return. I had persevered. I was represented. I knew publication was only a matter of time.

My journey was not over, though. Author Jack Hodgins, winner of many awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canadian-Caribbean region), agreed to go over the manuscript with me and offer suggestions. John then asked me which publishers I was most interested in, and I named two, one of which was the small but award-winning Cormorant Books. Publisher and editor Marc Côté read the manuscript in one weekend, and by the Monday was on the phone to John saying he wanted to buy Underground.

We then embarked on the process of turning the manuscript into a novel. The time from the signing of the contract to publication was the standard two years. My manuscript was put through the usual process of extending, cutting, deepening, and in general, revising, revising, revising. There’s nothing like a book deal to sharpen the focus and fire up the creative juices. Again.

JUNE HUTTON is a former journalist and teacher whose short fiction has appeared in many literary journals in Canada. Her first novel, Underground, documents the events that led a Canadian soldier to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Hutton read from Underground at the Suzhou Bookworm in early 2011. She was in China to conduct research for a novel about the wild west of North America, Chinese immigrants and opera. She lives in Vancouver, Canada. Check out her website at http://www.junehutton.com/.

Coordinated by ERIC FORBES
Reproduced from the October-December 2011 issue of Quill magazine


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