Nina Berkhout is an Ottawa novelist and poet. Her second novel, The Mosaic, has just been published in Canada by Goundwood Books. It is an exploration of the impact of war on the men and women who fight and on the journeys we all take to find ourselves. It’s set in Montana in the midst of the residue of the atomic age. Berkhout replied to some questions from ARTSFILE about herself and her fascinating and deeply moving new novel.
Q. Would you mind telling me a bit about yourself?
A. I’m from Calgary and have a BA in Classical Studies from the University of Calgary and a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. I’ve lived in Ottawa for over 10 years now. I came here from Winnipeg. I was working for a historical research company there and I transferred over to their Ottawa branch. That same year I took a job at the National Gallery and I’ve been working there ever since. My first collection of poetry was published in 2003, and it was based on an experience I had living on an out-island of The Bahamas, setting up a community museum. I’ve written five collections of poetry and The Mosaic is my second novel.
Q. Why are you a writer?
A. I write to try and understand things. I write because I love to read and I grew up in a home where books and writing were a daily part of life (my mom is a published francophone novelist). I write to discover and to escape. And I write because I can’t imagine not writing.
Q. Are you concentrating on novels right now. Are you working on a poetry collection?
A. Right now I’m just reading — fiction, poetry, and research-based materials, and taking notes on some ideas. I’m not working on anything concrete. I’m following a few paths.
Q. Tell me about the genesis of The Mosaic? What was the spark?
A. The spark came when I read a news article about a man in Kansas who’d purchased a decommissioned nuclear missile silo from the U.S. government in the 1980s and developed it into a subterranean home. I had no idea about these Cold War bunkers, and I didn’t realize how many active ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) there are embedded throughout the Great Plains, ready to launch. It terrified me and I became obsessed with it. My imagination took over, and I lost a lot of sleep worrying about the end of the world.
Q. When did you begin and when was it finished?
A. I did a year’s worth of research for this novel before writing anything. I began it in 2014, and revisions wrapped up this past winter. So the process from inception to publication took around four years.
Q. Your first book, The Gallery of Lost Species, was set in Ottawa. Why is this one set in Montana?
A. I wanted to set the story in Canada but we don’t have nukes in the prairies. I was going to invent something about our then-PM and a secret, massive nuclear arms program, but it was a complicated approach. I quickly realized that it made more sense to set the story where the warheads are located. My choices were Montana, North Dakota or Wyoming. I chose Montana because the landscape is similar to Alberta. It’s a landscape I feel a deep connection with. The thought of writing about the prairies and the mountains appealed to me because it brought me home.
Q. It is eerie to think that there are all these empty (and operational) missile silos in the U.S., hiding in plain sight.
A. I wanted to write a story that resonates with global crises occurring today, and which hints at future conflicts in which nuclear weaponry could be used. The residue from the atomic age should serve as a warning. At first the story may seem like science fiction or dystopian fantasy, but it’s simply set in our current reality that is laced with the possibility of nuclear warfare. Arms control treaties have reduced the number of warheads on our continent but it has far from eliminated them. It doesn’t matter if the arsenal is there for defence only. It’s like having a gun in a room. Or in a story. Eventually it’s going to go off.
Q. With the North Korean situation teetering toward confrontation, those silos look more menacing than they might have only a few years ago.
A. Einstein said, ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’ I had this front of mind while writing the novel. I was envisioning the threat of nuclear war in the not so distant future. But considering the current state of affairs south of the border and developing tensions between the US and multiple countries, it feels like a more immediate possibility. It’s scary.
Q. One of your protagonists, Gabriel, suffers a great loss as a youth and then is involved in an incident in Iraq. The story of PTSD and the damage that war brings to those who survive is known today. Why did you introduce this to the novel?
A. Initially I was only going to write about the missiles in the plains, but then I wanted to humanize this focus on warfare. That’s how Gabriel came to be, as a Marine returned from Iraq and living on his parents’ farm, in a region with many decommissioned and active nuke sites. I read first-hand accounts from young people enrolled with the Armed Forces, to try to better understand what drives them to participate in war. A great part is patriotism and love of country but there are additional factors, for example a lack of jobs or not having any other plans. For Gabriel, he’s about to graduate from high school and head off to study history on a football scholarship. He has everything going for him when his kid sister dies of leukemia. He enlists to escape personal tragedy. His own life is then shattered following two deployments.
Q. The Mosaic is seemingly Gabriel’s way to understand and heal himself. Do you believe that art has that power?
A. I do believe art has the power to heal. In The Mosaic, art acts as the antithesis of destruction by warfare and killing in that it is an act of creation, a birth. It represents the possibility of a new life for Gabriel. It’s a way for him to sort through the violence and atrocities. Art helps him understand how he feels about war. As for Twyla (the novel’s narrator), the mosaic helps her to find herself, so in a way it saves her, just as her interest in photography saves her, from following the path of a fun but superficial life of surfing in California with her boyfriend. Twyla’s grandfather was a photojournalist who travelled to conflict zones including Vietnam and she inherits his cameras. The more she learns about her grandfather, the more she comes to realize that photography is not only an art, but that the photos taken by her grandfather and others actually helped end the Vietnam war.
Q. Is Gabriel’s mosaic modelled on a particular piece of art?
A. The mosaic isn’t modelled on any work of art in particular but after it came to be, I found myself thinking of the Chinese contemporary artist and political activist Ai Weiwei — so I’d say it was subconsciously inspired by Ai’s art in general. The mosaic itself didn’t exist in my earliest draft, which focused more on Twyla’s relationship with Gabriel, and the after-effects of war on a Marine who was a doomsday prepper. But the story was too depressing. There was no hope or beauty. That’s when I decided to have him make art from the detritus of war scattered in the fields surrounding Halo (the Montana town they live in). After that everything clicked and the mosaic became the heart of the novel.
Q. Tell me more about Twyla.
A. Twyla is the novel’s main protagonist. At first she is simply searching for a way out of Halo, her military hometown. Her parents are too caught up in their own problems to encourage her in any direction. She enjoys taking pictures but she doesn’t realize she has any potential to turn this into a vocation until she meets Gabriel, and he encourages her. I chose the name Twyla because I’m interested in the etymology of words. The hidden meaning. The other story. The name is a derivative of twilight, those moments just before dawn or just after dusk. I imagine a post-nuclear world as one without that most poignant time of day. Twyla is Old English and it also means woven with two threads, implying strength.
Q. The Epic of Gilgamesh plays a role in this novel. Why?
A. Iraq has largely been forgotten as the media focus has shifted to other conflicts. I wanted to underline the devastation that the country has endured since 2003, including civilian deaths from violence that continue daily. But I also wanted to explore the rich history of Iraq, the art and culture steeped in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. The Epic of Gilgamesh serves as Gabriel’s inspiration when he makes the mosaic. It’s commonly accepted as the earliest surviving work of literature and one of the greatest of all time, yet it’s not that well-known. The poem has a contemporary feel to it and its themes are very relevant. It recounts the exploits of Gilgamesh, the tyrant king of Uruk, and his quest for immortality. It’s about humanity’s broken bond with nature, and how it’s idiotic to try to divide the world into good and evil. The epic is also about the bond of love. That’s what gets to Twyla the most when she reads it, not the king’s journey toward the meaning of life, even though his story parallels hers in some ways. For Twyla, it’s the part about profound love that stays with her.
Q. Do you have an interest in ancient Mesopotamia?
A. Incorporating art and history into my writing has always motivated me. Through Gabriel’s after-war story and the mosaic that he creates, I wanted to explore ancient Mesopotamia, specifically Uruk, arguably the oldest city in the world (250 km south of Baghdad). Mesopotamians were the first people to grow wheat and to divide time up like we use it now. It’s where the first organized governments happened. The first form of writing was discovered there, as were some of the first mosaics. I wanted to look back in time to cast a light on Iraq’s ancient, sacred sites and artifacts, which are being destroyed, or which are under threat.
Q. How would you describe yourself as a writer?
A. I’m not disciplined by nature. If I didn’t have a job I’d work in manic bursts, then do nothing for months. But I work full-time so I have to be disciplined! I get up early to write. I never have the energy to do anything aside from reading at night. On weekends I review and rework what I’ve written and I take notes for what I’ll work on the following week. I find when I break the spell it’s hard to get going again. So even on weekends I don’t sleep in much. But that quiet time before anyone else is up — watching the light change outside, having that to myself, it’s worth it.
Q. What’s your next project?
A. I’m not sure what I’ll write next but hopefully the subject matter will be happier. My first novel dealt with addiction and The Mosaic focuses on war, so I think I’m ready for something a little lighter. Although the darkness always seems to trickle in. But there has to be beauty there, too.