Ottawa Writers Festival: Newfoundland’s Lisa Moore finds inspiration on The Rock

Lisa Moore is part of a week-long celebration of Newfoundland writing.

Newfoundland Literary Pub Crawl and Dinner with Lisa Moore, Ed Riche, Eva Crocker, Robert Chafe, Bridget Canning and Kathleen Winter
When: July 4 pub crawl at 6:30 p.m. (sold out); July 5 pub crawl at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Lieutenant’s Pump, 361 Elgin St.
When: July 4 dinner at 7 p.m., July 5 dinner at 7 p.m.
Where: Fraser Café’s Table 40, 7 Springfield Rd.

The well-known Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore, at one point in her life, wanted to be a visual artist. She even went to the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design to pursue that career, but, in the end she chose another passion … writing. It seems to have worked out.

She still likes to paint, though, especially the landscape of her home province. It is an inspirational place for her as an artist and, more importantly, as a writer.

“Right now, where I had to drive to get reception for my phone, I am looking straight out onto an iceberg. It’s just white and aqua and beautiful. There are seagulls. In the foreground there are all these yellow dandelions. It’s pretty gorgeous sitting here on this old lane.”

No wonder Moore has set many of her novels and short stories in Newfoundland.

“William Faulkner talks about his postage stamp of land that he wrote about over and over again. I think Newfoundland is very similar. There are just endless stories that can be told here. There is something in the way people speak … (there is) a richness that you hear even though everybody watches Netflix and plays video games. The culture is constantly changing (but) … you can still hear really unique nuances in the way people speak about their experiences.”

Moore will be in Ottawa July 4 to begin two days of events celebrating the writing of The Rock hosted by the Ottawa Writers Festival and Canada Scene. Other writers coming include Robert Chafe, Ed Riche, Kathleen Winter, Bridget Canning and Eva Crocker (who happens to be Lisa Moore’s daughter).

These gatherings will put a focus on the vibrant literary culture of Newfoundland.

For Moore, “part of the reason that I live here is because I actually love the land and the landscape which just keeps opening up and opening up. We have a house in Conception Bay North and we live here in the summer. For a long time we had no electricity or running water and our children bathed in a river every day, or in the ponds. We are still discovering parts of landscape. It’s rich in wilderness and rich in stories too.”

Moore says the province is also home to some deeply felt and contentious debates around the exploitation of oil and hydro-electric projects and indigenous rights.

“We are living in tumultuous times here. It’s all part of the story that belongs to the postage stamps we live on.”

While her home does inspire her, her writing isn’t necessarily consciously choosing a Newfoundland theme.

“I’m working on a collection of short stories right now and they are set in Newfoundland, but I find with short story form I haven’t felt the necessity to tell a big Newfoundland story. It’s more like the stories happened to be set here because things I see and feel and touch every day are here.

“The novels I have been writing, I didn’t consciously choose to write particularly Newfoundland stories (Alligator is set in St. John’s and February is about the Ocean Ranger disaster), but they definitely have been. I’m not sure about my own process I haven’t fully figured it out, but I can’t imagine ever growing bored with the subject of Newfoundland.”

Part of the connection can be found in the tight knit community of writers, artists, musicians and theatre performers.

“Everybody knows everybody so there is cross-pollination. Everybody knows a good storyteller here.”

Isolation, she says, plays a big part in this desire to tell stories. But so too does a sense of redressing “being misunderstood,  economic disparity or being stereotyped.”

She believes there is a need to fight against those prejudices.

All of this exposes “a rich vein of storytelling in anyone you meet (even) in the corner store. There is a vein of irreverence that runs through the storytelling and there is a tremendous wit that, as I say, you can’t find that everywhere. There is a willingness to mine the hour and depth of even the smallest incident and blow it up so that it is hilariously funny.

“There are stories everywhere but it’s the ones here that just happen to grab my attention. I travel a lot and I have lived in other places but it’s a constant return” home to Newfoundland.

These days Moore is celebrating the emergence of her daughter Eva Crocker as a writer.

“I’m definitely the proud mother. I love the book Eva wrote (Barrelling Forward, House of Anansi). But I also love talking to her about the shaping of stories and those little details. We share our work all the time and offer each other notes.

“I am reading (the American writer) Eudora Welty again and she was talking about writing for the pleasure of writing. That struck home with me. It’s such an intense pleasure.”

Moore has always been a writer, even when she was trying to be a painter.

“I always wrote, all the time even at art school. I still paint too. I am, I guess, what you would call a Sunday painter. My focus is writing but painting is another kind of pleasure. I do show those pieces sometimes and sometimes I even sell them, but it’s not about that, it’s about the kind of intensity of seeing that is required to paint.”

Moore knows that the artist’s eye helps the writer’s ear.

“If you sit with a subject to paint it for long enough, you really must try to figure out what it is you are seeing. When you are watching the interactions between people, you really have to try to see it and hear it with the same kind of attention I would bring to painting.”

She paints landscapes from photographs and “sometimes I’ll go out and do a quick sketch. I don’t paint outdoors much although I have. I’ve had paintings rained upon.

“I’m very interested in (J.M.W.) Turner and the quality of almost abstraction that he has in his seascapes. I’m interested in that level of abstraction when you can still see that is a landscape but it is also about the paint, the texture and quality of light. It’s about vision and how vision works.”

Her most recently published book is Flannery (Groundwood Books) which is a young adult book that certainly works for an adult reader too.

“I wrote it as a YA novel but I didn’t know what that meant.

“I guess what it did come to mean to me was trying to access that feeling of being 16 and how new everything was and how vulnerable and fresh each emotion is. That newness means there are no scars or toughness you are just open.

“It is a modern story and I had to check with a lot of young people to see what had changed from my time at Holy Heart High School (her alma mater in St. John’s). I had to learn how to update the story.

Flannery is the 16 year old and the novel is a story about young love and about betrayed friendships.

“At that age young women have close friendships with other young women. Those betrayals between teenagers are more complicated (by things) like internet shaming.”

It was gratifying that Eva “loved the book, I think. She kept me on track too.”

Moore has an excellent perch to watch the writing scene in Newfoundland.

“I’m teaching creative writing at Memorial University. I am really excited about all the work coming out of the English department, it’s just blowing my mind.

“I am talking with people pretty much every day about the craft and it keeps me very current.”

She is a big reader, she says. The last book she finished was Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. She has also been returning “to stuff I read in my 20s like Welty and Faulkner and even Alice Munro. It’s interesting to see the work continue to surprise, even though I know the plot.” Life experience changes perception, she agrees.

“My ear is tuned toward humour now, more so than in my 20s. Literature was ‘serious’ then. It had to be soul-quaking. Now I’m open to the humour in it.”

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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.