Mary Lawson finds literary gold in the hard landscape of the Canadian Shield

November 23, 2013 9:19 PM

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For seven years, Mary Lawson says, she struggled to write her third novel. It was a difficult and lonely time for the author of Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, both of which had done very well indeed.

But really her writing career has never been easy. The 67 year old author was a bit of a late bloomer who started writing short stories in her 40s, when her children were young.

“When I started, I was writing about the U.K. (where she lives) and the present time. It wasn’t until I wrote one that was set in Canada that I got a phone call from a magazine editor saying ‘Mary you’ve got a novel here and you have to set your work in Canada; your writing goes up a notch when you do’.”

“That short story became Crow Lake so I have quite a lot to thank her for.”

But sadly she can’t remember the woman’s name. She lost touch with her because “the book ages (four years) to get published and by that time she had left magazine and I couldn’t trace her.”

Crow Lake made Lawson was a full-fledged Canadian success story. Her second book did eqaully well and then it came to do a third.

“I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time. Part of the problem was I was two years without an idea in my head after The Other Side of the Bridge.

“It was really alarming. I thought, ‘My God is it really over so fast’. Twenty years of rejection slips and then two books and that’s it.” But finally an idea came.

“It wasn’t just a single thought. First, I was in Norway and I had an afternoon off and I went to the Art Gallery and they had a whole room dedicated to Edvard Munch’s The Scream. All the different versions.

“A plaque beside one said: ‘His companions at the far side of the picture appear to unaware of his anguish’. And I thought ‘Wow, they do seem to be just chatting and here is this guy absolutely at the end of his tether. What if he jumped, what would their reaction be.”

That was the starting point for Road Ends, a story about deep family dysfunction set in northern Ontario.

Lawson obtained her B.A. in psychology in Canada and at age 22 found work and eventually marriage in Britain, where she has lived fulltime since, even though she returns to Canada and to northern Ontario pretty much every year for extended visits.

“When I came over to England in 1968 a B.A. was all you needed to work in the field. I worked in research for years until I had a family. I could not have written this book if I had not had children. More that anything they give you insight into yourself.

“There is nothing likely family for really interesting dynamics; you never run out of subjects.” One wonders if that’s Lawson the psychologist/mother talking.

In fact she runs her books by her psychotherapist sister and her psychologist husband at each stage. “They read them and say ‘That doesn’t or does work’.”

The other source of inspiration for Road Ends was a documentary in which a family allowed cameras in to watch how mother and father interacted with one boy who was basically out of control.

The telling moment in the film was when the father, who would repeatedly lose it on the child was asked about his relationship with his own father.

“Nature/nurture has always interested me. It’s fascinating. I made a lot of the mistakes my parents made and I can see now that it is just that was how you reacted to that sort of incident and even if you say ‘God couldn’t I have been a little more understanding’, the answer is no.”

Lawson has been widely praised for her depiction of northern Ontario. She comes by it honestly.

“We had a summer home in the Muskoka area. The Canadian Shield does comes down that far and it is to me the most beautiful landscape there is. I just love it.

“When I wrote Crow Lake, I set it in a little farming community, basically because I hate doing research and as I grew up in one, I didn’t have to do any research. But then I thought a sense of isolation would be important for the story and I shifted the community 400 miles north, partly for the isolation but mostly, with the help of hindsight, for nostalgia so I could write about that area which I liked.”

“When I was writing Crow Lake, I had no expectation of writing another book. And it wasn’t until I finished it and started really missing it that I thought I would set another there.

“I was part way through The Other Side of the Bridge when Crow Lake finally sold after four years of rejection slips. It was then that I thought maybe I could do a trilogy. Really it’s three books set around a landscape.”

Writing about the area has spurred her to visit it more and more. She regularly stays with her brother on Manitoulin Island. And she has spent quite a lot of time near New Liskeard.

When Lawson is writing, it’s six days a week. And when the publisher’s deadline looms, it’s seven.

“I am so frustrated because I know there has to be a better way. I should be able to plan it out, I’m sure that really professional writers do. I only seem to be able to do it by trial and error.”

What is admirable is that Lawson has made a success of herself later in life.

“After Crow Lake came out, just when it hit the book stores over here I got a phone call from the BBC asking ‘Would I come and talk about being old.’ I know it is unusual, I was most definitely a late starter and a slow learner but I know that if I had written these books earlier they would certainly not have been the same.”

I most certainly hope not,” she said. “(But) I’ve used all my ideas up in this one.”


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