An essay by D.R. MacDonald
Author of Anna From Away, coming this Fall
Here, D.R. MacDonald reflects on the setting in his new novel.
What did Anna Starling imagine when, from a magazine’s classifieds, she chose to rent an old rural house in winter, as far east as she could get, Cape Breton Island? Not exactly what she found, but when you seek a new turn in your life, the predictable is not what you need, or what you’re after. Her story called for a place in which, and a time when, she could lose herself.
Recently, a young columnist for the Globe and Mail railed sarcastically against Canadian publishers for favoring novels set in the past, “a purer and more noble time. You can set your novel in any period you want as long as it isn’t, well, now.” Any novel should be measured on its own merits of course, whether it’s now or then, but his impatience with the old is typical of his generation. In Anna’s case, I wanted her free of that very electronic clamor—its seductive ease and availability—that he champions, and the distractions of urban life.
The setting of her story has not changed substantially since Anna drove down that dirt road, long and snow-banked, to Cape Seal (based on Cape Dauphin) early in the 1990s. Now, high-speed Internet has reached even into its deadend: all you need is a phone line. To set a novel there now, you’d have to account for that omnipresent connectedness, pulsing for your character’s attention. Anna’s only link, beyond mail, is a fickle telephone liable to hissing silences: no surfing there. The introspection forced upon her by genuine isolation would have been possible only by an act of will, for avoiding, and evading, the Internet would itself have become a telling ingredient in her narrative, affecting not just how she felt about her evasion but about nearly everything else. A good story might arise from that of course. It’s just not mine, not hers.
Anna, an artist, is coming from a California college town, at middle age, estranged from her husband and perhaps part of herself. She wants a jolt, to put herself out of reach of all the blinding familiarities that obscured her relationship, her own actions and limitations. Artistically, she yearns for a new landscape, a vision that jars her consciousness.
Her house sits above the sea, at the head of a strait, the Atlantic broadening in the east, to the west the wide channel fades away toward low headlands and a large saltwater lake beyond, the heart of the Island. From the start, everything engages her anew—the homemade desk and its black, scarred varnish, old utensils (a wooden bread bowl, kitchen knives of dark steel worn thin on a grindstone). Out her windows, wandering animals (a wary red fox testing her leftovers, a howling coyote under an icy moon, the white blur of a fleeing hare), the ocean wind-driven and wild. In every sense, she has a lot to learn about this place and about herself in it, and she must gather it on her own, unmediated, wherever her explorations take her. No Facebook, no chat, no chatter, no flood of manic imagery.
Through her sketches and drawings, Anna seeks something like soul. What she observes and encounters in this unfamiliar place she must absorb and assess on her own: she has no quick outside reference, no Google. Her disconnectedness with the familiar, more sophisticated world she has left behind puts demands upon her character, intuition, powers of perception: you take whatever is at hand, and work with it. The immediate is what goads and pushes her toward discovery: her hikes along her rocky beach, examining its flotsam—a dead seabird from a colony on an offshore island, the gaping skull of a fish, tree roots long adrift, their flowing grain of greys worthy of a detailed sketch. In the upper woods, small birds bright in sparse spring foliage she’ll draw from memory, and, come summer, when mosses silence her steps, the lichen of long-fallen trees, their cinnamon decay, boles animals have grubbed in.
All Anna needs are her own senses, an active curiosity open to the natural world. Understanding the place she is in requires immersion, a slow awakening, the nourishment of time—not the rapidity of a screen and a keyboard. Her tools are not software but charcoal, pencil, pen, the sketchpad, the notebook. Her eyes and her ears, the feel of wind and snow and rain, of sun and fog. Nothing virtual about her world. The way she pays attention would not be the same in the Internet era. Something fundamental to her story would be lost.
The prospect of her opening a laptop to check email or surf the web on a lonely night would shrink the distance she has sought, the sometimes painful peace that comes with simply being out of reach—a state almost unthinkable now, and not attainable even in Cape Seal where GoogleEarth would already have a satellite photo of her house. Anna would think differently, act in ways influenced by the link inside that computer on her desk. But the option of logging into the rest of the world is not there, her solitude is not compromised by a vast net of electronic communication. She has no search engine but her own intellect and imagination, no sites other than her immediate one in which to lose herself, no millions of Web locales where she might assuage her longings and regrets or distract herself from the uncomfortable truths and conflicts that come to gnaw at her.
Eventually, Anna’s self-imposed solitude is shaken not by any technological intrusion but by a summer storm that pushes onto her shore a wrapped bale whose contents call up her past, and complicate her growing friendship with her neighbor Red Murdock. The outside world will know nothing of their dilemma. They must resolve it alone.
- D.R. MacDonald
Find out more about D.R. MacDonald’s upcoming novel, Anna From Away, here.