True stories of a writing life

Queen’s alumnus Michael Crummey returns to his old trodding ground as a guest at this year’s Kingston WritersFest

Queen’s alumnus Michael Crummey draws inspiration from his hometown of Buchans, Newfoundland.
Queen’s alumnus Michael Crummey draws inspiration from his hometown of Buchans, Newfoundland.
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For a storyteller, Newfoundland-based author and Queen’s alumnus Michael Crummey is pretty satisfied with the truth.

“I’m actually a Queen’s dropout,” he confessed with a good-natured laugh a few minutes into our phone interview.

“I did a one-year Masters here, then my first year of a PhD,” he said. “But I realized that a PhD in English literature is not the place to be if you want to be a writer.”

Since his Queen’s days in the late 1980s, Crummey has pursued the writing life, producing published collections of poetry, short stories and non-fiction as well as three novels.

“Afterwards, I swore I’d never come back to the campus,” Crummey said, adding that he ended up living in Kingston for several years after his Masters working with the Public Interest Service Group, a volunteer organization for social and environmental justice issues. “Kingston was my home for almost 14 years and I loved it there,” he said.

Crummey has since settled down in Newfoundland, but Kingston hasn’t seen the last of him. He’s back in town this week as a guest speaker at the Kingston WritersFest, an annual event that’s been rejuvenated this year with an expanded program and a lineup of more than 25 celebrated Canadian authors.

This Thursday, Crummey will be part of a panel discussion on the new male hero in literature alongside fellow authors Joseph Boyden and Mark Sinnett. Crummey will also lead a smaller Master Class.

“It’s called ‘Writing the Fabulous,’” he explained. “We’re looking at how and why writers use fabulous or otherworldly things in their writing.”

When asked what inspires his own work, Crummey is quick to credit his home province.

“Living back in Newfoundland has changed my view of the place, and my sense of how I belong. It’s definitely had a huge influence on how I write. Even while I was away in Kingston, 95 per cent of what I wrote was about this place.”

Crummey got an early start to his writing career, although he made sure to keep it a secret.

“I started writing during my undergrad,” he said. “But mostly I was a closet writer. I didn’t tell anyone I was at it.”

It wasn’t long before Crummey’s talent was discovered—he had his first book of poetry published by age 30. His debut novel, River Thieves, was shortlisted for the 2001 Giller Prize while his second, The Wreckage, was a Canadian bestseller.

“It’s really a question of plugging away at it—I went from job to job, looking for enough to live on while still leaving time to write,” he said.

Now Crummey writes full time, although this fall he’s taking a break from the traditional rhythm of his work.

“At the moment I’m in between books—it’s kind of odd. It sounds blissful, but without the book to anchor my days I feel a bit lost.”

Crummey said he plans to spend time touring for his new novel Galore, a multigenerational story set in Newfoundland about the relationship between two fictional families—one Irish Catholic, one English Protestant.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before,” he said. “It was a chance to write about the folklore of Newfoundland, the crazy outlandish stories collected in its history. It has a lot to do with the cultural DNA of the place—what makes us who we are.”

When he’s not writing, Crummey keeps busy by spending time with his family and fueling his penchant for running.

“I’m supposed to run my first marathon on Sunday,” he said. “Because the writing life is so sedentary and cerebral, running has been a big relief to be able to get up and move around.”

When asked what advice he’d give to aspiring writers, Crummey returns to his flair for giving the straight-up truth.

“There are very few really tangible rewards at any point in a writer’s life,” he said. “But gird up your loins and keep plugging. The other thing is to read. Read, read, read and read some more.”

The panel discussion “Lives of Boys and Men” takes place Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn downtown. Admission to on-stage Kingston WritersFest events is free to Queen’s students with a valid student card.

The Journal’s guide to Kingston WritersFest 2009

What: Lives of Boys & Men
Who: Joseph Boyden, Michael Crummey, and Mark Sinnett with moderator Steve Heighton
When: Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Holiday Inn
Why: Boyden won the Giller Prize last year, Queen’s grad Crummey is a potential nominee for this years prize and Sinnet and Heighton are two local authors. The gaggle of guys plan on discussing the “new male hero” in literature. This will be a rare opportunity to see so many acclaimed authors on one stage.
Cost: Free rush tickets for Queen’s students.

What: Inside Hana’s Suitcase
Who: Film and Media professor Clarke Mackey and other panel members
When: Friday, Sept. 25 at 4 p.m.
Where: Etherington Auditorium
Why: Inside Hana’s Suitcase was the talk of this year’s HotDocs festival in Toronto and has been given an early release at this year’s Kingston WritersFest. Based on Karen Levine’s best-selling book Hana’s Suitcase, Larry Wienstien’s film follows the suitcase of a Jewish Holocaust victim, Hanna, as it travels to a teacher in Japan. Her class unravels the mystery behind the suitcase as the film jumps between countries.
Cost: Free rush tickets for Queen’s students.

What: Spike the Punch Literary Cabaret
Who: Billeh Nickerson with D. J. Berger, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Jennifer Londry, Mariko Tamaki, Jeanette Lynes and Andrew Binks
When: Friday, Sept. 26 at 11 p.m.
Where: The Holiday Inn
Why: Nickerson is an exciting up-and-coming Canadian poet. His poetry has been dubbed groundbreaking and he was Queen’s University’s writer in residence in 2008. With other poets, he’ll get some words up on their feet in this interactive event. Oh, and there’s a bar.
Cost: Free rush tickets for Queen’s students.

What: Saturday Night SpeakEasy
Who: Bill Richardson with Billeh Nickerson, Jeanette Lynes, Gil Adamson, Kevin Connolly, Lorna Crozier, Emily Schultz, Kim Echlin and Leon Rooke.
When: Saturday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m.
Where: The Holiday Inn
Why: Do you secretly wish you were Jack Kerouac? If so, put on your beret, light a cigarette and head to the Holiday Inn. CBC radio host Bill Richardson hosts this 1950s inspired night of jazz music and spoken word poetry.
Cost: Free rush tickets for Queen’s students.

—Emily Whalen

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