More than just airwaves and light

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The Canadian North is a subject many authors have tackled with varying degrees of success. In her latest novel, the Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay manages to not only capture the soul of 1970s Yellowknife, but also essence of the people who lived there.

Late Nights on Air won the Giller Prize up against the likes of M. G. Vassanji’s Assassin’s Song, Alissa York’s Effigy, Daniel Poliqiun’s A Secret Between Us and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero.

Hay drew on her experience working at the small CBC station in Yellowknife from 1974 to 1978 when writing the novel.

“I wanted to get across the atmosphere of the North,” she told the Journal. “And by ‘the atmosphere of the North’ I don’t just mean airwaves and I don’t just mean light, the wonderful northern light. I wanted to get across the political atmosphere.”

Hay is speaking at Queen’s today as part of a panel discussion hosted by the English Department and CFRC 101.9 FM about Late Nights on Air.

The Northwest Territories during the late 1970s were immersed in the major political issue of the Mackenzie pipeline construction.

The proposed gas pipeline would have run from the Beaufort Sea to markets in southern Canada and the United States. Heavily supported by businessmen, many locals opposed the project because it would have a negative impact on the environment.

Although none of her characters are directly involved with it, the Mackenzie pipeline issue runs deeply throughout the novel because it was so vital to its setting, Hay said.

“Those questions about the future of development in the North and the future of the Aboriginal peoples were central to the time.”

Hay said she chose to deal with northern issues that were outside her characters because she thought it would make for a deeper story.

“By dealing with those larger questions, I felt I would have a larger book,” she said. “I don’t mean a longer book, I mean larger, in the sense of more substantial.”

Despite its political undertones, at the heart of Late Nights on Air are the relationships forged between the characters working at Yellowknife’s CBC radio station.

The novel opens with Harry Boyd, the night broadcaster and later the station’s acting manager, hearing a voice on the radio and falling in love with it. The voice is later revealed to belong to Dido Paris, a woman of unusual beauty who is both central to the story and absent from much of it.

Hay said presence in absence is what radio is all about.

“The voice on air is with you and not with you,” she said. “You get the person in a way, but you only ever get part of the person.

“So a voice comes into the house and you are with that voice just as you are with the memory of a person who isn’t actually there.”

In the novel, radio is a place for the characters to be alone with themselves and an imagined audience, which allows for much of the early character development.

Hay said the singularity of her characters, who interact and form bonds but remain distinctly individual, is representative of her memories of moving to Yellowknife. She said her first year in Yellowknife was the first year she didn’t go home for Christmas, an indication of the isolation the people there experience.

“All of these characters who form very intimate friendships and working relationships are very aware of how alone they are up there,” she said.

Despite their solitude, Hay said her characters form a kind of family, something she enjoys exploring in her writing. In her past novels, A Student of Weather and Garbo Laughs, Hay explored different family dynamics between sisters, parents and children or husbands and wives. In Late Nights on Air, Hay said she chose to move toward people related only by situation and shared experience.

“With Late Nights on Air I had a small radio station, so that provided me with a professional family and all of the relationships inherent in that, and the tension and the rivalry and loyalty inherent in any family, whether it’s a blood family or a professional family.”

Populating her “professional family” was the next step for Hay, who said character development is the driving force behind her writing process.

“My novels never really get going until the characters take shape,” she said. “Nothing really starts to cook until I insist to myself that it’s time to start with the characters.”

Hay’s characters range in age and experience but all are portrayed with equal intensity of feeling. While it’s difficult to determine a main character, the novel revolves around the lives of Dido Paris, Gwen Symon, Eleanor Dew and Harry Boyd.

Hay said although some of the characters have characteristics of people she has known over the years, they aren’t based on anyone specific.

“You can’t create a character from nothing, you use yourself or people you’ve met or read about,” she said. “The beauty of fiction is the freedom it gives a writer, so you don’t want to be tied to some actual person, you want the character to be free and surprise you. … I get to know my characters over time the way I get to know real people over time.

“I tried hard actually not to model any of the characters on just one person, but I certainly made use of different qualities that I’ve noticed in various people over the years. The trouble with modeling a character on someone you know is that then that character doesn’t really come alive.”

Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, and went to the University of Toronto. She later worked as a CBC radio correspondent in Yellowknife, Winnipeg and Toronto. After a stint as a creative writing professor at New York University’s continuing education department from 1986 to 1992, she returned to Canada and has since lived in Ottawa with her husband and two children.

Hay began her writing career in 1989 with the publication of Crossing the Snow Line, a collection of short fiction. She followed this with two books of creative non-fiction, The Only Snow in Havana, published in 1992, and Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York, published in 1993. In 1997, Hay published Small Change, a collection of short fiction that was nominated for the Governor General’s Award.

Hay’s first novel, A Student of Weather, was short-listed for the Giller Prize in 2000 but lost out to Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children—the only tie in the Giller’s 13-year history. Hay served on the Giller Prize jury for the 2005 award.

Her experience with A Student of Weather had prepared her for the possibility of not winning.

“Because I had been short-listed before, I was able to avoid one of the pitfalls which is to hope against hope that you might win,” she said. “These awards really do set you up for failure in a way, for failure and disappointment. So you have to go into them as levelheaded as you can possibly be, enjoying the fact that your book is there on the list and you’ll go to a nice party.

“You can’t not have hopes, but you can lower your expectations.”

Lowered expectations aside, Hay said the sales boost an author gets from an award nomination is undeniable.

“In both cases I felt enormous relief [to be short-listed]. It’s just so much lovelier to be on the shortlist than off it,” she said. “Because these awards do matter so much in terms of sales it just is heartwarming.” Despite the welcome sales boost, Hay said she doesn’t write for the accolades. She said she writes her novels because of what they bring to her life, whether that’s the illumination of some past event or the opportunity to explore something totally outside her own experience.

“Sometimes you write what you know, sometimes you write about what you don’t know about what you know and sometimes you’ll go way out on a limb and write what you don’t know,” she said. “I do think it’s important to … write about things that really matter to you.”

Hay, who began writing when she was a teenager, said no matter what she’s writing about, her goals stay the same.

“What I always want to achieve is an intensity of expression, an intensity of character, so that … I will feel more alive,” she said. “It seems to me what books can do for us is make us feel more alive as we write them and as we read them.”

Elizabeth Hay is participating in a panel discussion of Late Nights on Air, hosted by the English Department and CFRC 101.9 FM, this afternoon. The discussion begins at 2:30 p.m. at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

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