Ottawa Writers Festival: Alan Cumyn headed north for his latest novel

Detail from the cover of North to Benjamin by Ottawa's Alan Cumyn.

Alan Cumyn’s most recent book North to Benjamin (Atheneum) was sparked by an experience in Canada’s North.

“A fabulous program run by the Writers Trust of Canada sends four Canadian writers north to Pierre Berton’s family home in Dawson, Yukon, for three months at a time.”

The Ottawa writer went there in 2014.

“I had wanted to do it for a long time. My dad was a prospector in his youth and he had all these tales of the North in Canada and I was raised on Jack London and Robert Service, and their fabulous old tales and poems.”

Alan Cumyn. Photo: Gwen Cumyn

He didn’t have an idea about a Dawson centred story when he went there. He was, at the time, finishing off his popular young adult novel Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend.

“But while I was there with my wife we did a lot of exploring in the community and area and got to know lots of people.”

Safe to day he fell in love with the place and started to get an idea of a book about a sensitive and intelligent young boy who was being dragged north by an unstable mother. “What would that be like to come to Dawson? I did know the feeling of arriving there and getting to know life there in a short period of time.”

“I felt I could write about that from a newcomer’s perspective.”

Dawson is a storied place and it is isolated so that combined forces one to think, Cumyn said. And read in the Berton House library where he indulged in books such as I Married The Klondike by Berton‘s mother Laura Beatrice Berton.

“To me the town which was built on the gold rush and the stories of the gold rush is still a quirky frontier town. There are artists there, miners, some government people and an Indigenous community.

“A lot of people come just to be far away and start again.”

His hero is a young boy named Edgar who is taken to house sit in Dawson by his mother where she hoped to wipe the slate clean.

Edgar is a sensitive kid and the move affects him. He stops speaking and he starts barking like a dog. But his mind speaks to the reader.

There are serious themes here of mental health and bad parenting. Cumyn doesn’t shy away from these issues.

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, for example, deals with the kind of unconscious instinctual issues young adults have, along with how we welcome strangers of another race or species.

“It has this ridiculous premise of a Pterodactyl coming to a high school as the first inter-species transfer student.

“I am not afraid to take risks and will add a twist. I hadn’t planned to make Edgar bark. It occurred as I was writing the book and I realized that was what was needed to happen.”

Edgar’s familiar is an aging, flatulent Newfoundland dog named Benjamin.

“I knew there was going to be a dog at the centre of the story. The dog was was going to be the thing Edgar was looking forward to in his move to the Yukon.”

Cumyn had a particular Great Pyrenees in mind as his model for Benjamin.

“He was an elderly giant who everybody loved who was drooling and in bad health like Benjamin. You just got a sense of a grand soul in this dog.”

Edgar, who was a loner by nature, needed someone he could relate to and that was Benjamin.

Edgar had been moved around a lot because of his mother’s instabilities so he needed inner resources to rely on. Pretty soon he starts using senses that are important to a dog to get around. That’s primarily the sense of smell.

“It made sense Edgar would take that on and understand the world the way Benjamin does. I had felt Edgar was reading the news by smell.” In this way Edgar investigates his new home.

“There is a great tradition of writing for kids of layering stories and putting enough in a story so kids (at all levels) will get something out of it. I expect for some it will be exciting read because it is an adventure story. But there is more to it than that.

“My thinking is kids are every bit as intelligent as older people. They just don’t have the same experience older people have. They are sensitive and understand the world through the senses and through intuition more than many adults do.”

Cumyn knows a fair bit about writing for young people. North to Benjamin is his 14th novel and he also teaches a course in creative writing for children at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has for 11 years.

He is teaching people from all walks of life who want to write for children.

“It’s a rigorous two year degree. I go to Vermont twice a year for 10 day residencies. The rest of time, I set up with four or five students and work with them at a distance.”

He likes teaching. It keeps his own writing fresh, he says.

“I have to think hard about what I am doing, what kind of story I want to write so that I can explain the process to other people.

He has published five books during the 11 years of teaching. He credits the teaching with keeping his interest up in writing.

“I feel I know better what I am doing. With novelists, there is youthful energy and original ideas which can come easier at a certain age. This was my 14th novel, I have already written about a lot of the stuff I was interested in and I’m not going to revisit that.”

That means he is working hard to “to stay as fresh as I can with my books” and interacting with other minds is stimulating.

“A book like North to Benjamin isn’t that personal to me. I’m not writing my own story here. In a way some of that low hanging fruit is easier to write about as a younger novelist.”

So it helps to travel to places like Dawson and it helps to interact with other aspiring writers.

Dawson was inspiring because of its history and of its nearby wilderness.

“Berton House is on 8th Avenue in Dawson at the top of a hill. Just across the street is Robert Service’s cabin in its original state. Just down the road is where Jack London lived. You can say hello to those guys metaphorically every day as you are tramping around.”

And the bush is right there.

“You have this sense of being right on the edge of the wilderness. Bears do wander into town. You have to be aware. You can smell them.”

Dawson can be a slightly scary and uncertain place for a visitor if you’re not aware, he said.

“We were told to beware of bears, not to go alone and wear a bell.”

The Yukon River, that cuts Dawson in half, can be a wild torrent at spring break up.

“People like the pioneer feeling of life in Dawson.” It gives them something, sometimes even a book.

In town: Alan Cumyn will be taking part in an event at the Ottawa International Writers Festival at Christ Church Cathedral that celebrates the life of storyteller and writer Jan Andrews on May 5 at 3 p.m. For information and tickets:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.