In a break from the book club Q & As, I’m delighted to present a series of questions and answers with highly talented new novelist Susan Sinnott. Susan’s much anticipated novel Catching the Light has just been published by Vagrant Press (Nimbus Publishing).
In Catching the Light two young people from a Newfoundland outport — athletic, extrovert Hutch; and shy, creative Cathy — are brought together against the odds when they both end up studying in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their journey is about more than geography. Cathy, when we first meet her, has a severe learning disability and has to repeat the same grade over and over. But her talent as an artist has given her the chance to transcend bad luck and a history of isolation. Hutch has been severely injured on a coach trip. This puts an end to his athletic prowess, and the ease with which he relates to the rough and tumble masculine world he knows. Catching the Light is a tale of how people on the fringes of society, either by upbringing or accident of fate, try to overcome their circumstances. It is a story of human interconnections too, and a deeply touching one.
Question 1: I’d like to talk about theme first. Catching the Light is a deeply compassionate novel. The narrative relates with such empathy and understanding to vulnerable people, people with fears, hopes struggles. Pain hovers around the story of Cathy in particular. Are you drawn to characters in fiction with the hardest struggles?
Susan: I think fictional characters always need a struggle of some sort to make them interesting: a yearning for something hard to reach, obstacles to deal with. The Hutch character grew out of my health care background, from seeing lives and plans being upended after physical trauma and seeing how difficult it is for people to adapt, to accept. Hutch had never faced the word “can’t” in his life until the accident and an eighteen year old is at such a vulnerable age and can react in such unpredictable ways, some quite destructive.
Cathy’s struggles were different, beginning early and increasing as she grew older. Of children with literacy problems, only a few have an actual learning disability, like dyslexia. Most simply become left behind in school. I wanted to explore the causes and effects of being “left behind.” With Cathy, the obvious problems with reading and writing would prevent her from attending art school, but the more insidious problem of her difficulties interacting with people made her socially isolated, so she was heading towards a very limited life.
Question 2: There is always a sense that being an outcast (as Cathy feels she is) is actually a little less painful than the first steps of receiving help. When new arrival Sarah Brooks gets involved as a mentor and support, Cathy has to open up and trust. This aspect is very vivid. Self-reliance is not always healthy. In this respect, the novel is a kind of eulogy to the power and importance of community. How central to your artistic belief was this aspect?
Susan: Absolutely central. The effort Cathy had to make to catch up scholastically would be huge but straightforward. However, avoidance had always been her way of dealing with social problems. Letting down the barriers and making herself listen to people and respond appropriately would be very painful, and would require a lot of courage and endurance and practice. This change in behaviour would be every bit as difficult as Hutch’s. It would also take time before she felt any benefits of being more “part of” instead of “outside of”.
Question 3: Your own experience as a come-from-away, if you’ll excuse the term, is reflected, I’m guessing, in the character of Sarah. What are the advantages and disadvantages when it comes to a writer originally from another country, or province, setting their story in Newfoundland.
Susan: I’m not sure about the CFA because I think I’m more here than there! I’m very careful of differences in attitudes and customs and especially in this province in diction, which can change from one area, or even one community, to the next. This is not all bad—in fact it’s fascinating! I had to check on geographical, generational, social and especially linguistic differences in every sentence I wrote, but I think I would have done that if I had grown up here. My husband and children were all born here, which helped, but they’re all townies so I still had to check with people from the north-east coast. It would be a shame always to have to write as an outsider. This has been my home for over forty years and I’ve been away from England far too long to set a story there. If you want to write from inside a character’s head, as I tried to do, you need to write as an insider, which is taking a risk of course. I just hope I haven’t made too many mistakes.
Question 4: Sarah is an intriguing third point of a triangular narrative. She doesn’t have a struggle that corresponds with Cathy’s or Hutch’s yet she provides a connection to the reader. She reminds me of a narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The themes in Wilder’s play are also about community. I think it works very well in Catching the Light. I’m wondering if you saw Sarah as a kind of alternate narrator, one who would be on the ground, among the weeds, interacting with the characters.
Susan: That is how I saw Sarah when I began writing the novel, but as I re-wrote draft after draft, the outside view became less and less necessary and her part shrank. She still played an important role as Cathy’s mentor in the first half of the book, and to show Cathy’s development near the end, but as Hutch and Cathy’s voices became stronger, so her voice as a narrator became less important.
Question 5: What’s next for you? Do you feel like working more with these characters, or related ones? I’m sure you want to check in on how their lives turn out later on. Or are you thinking of something quite different?
Susan: I’m currently working on a generational novel about a family with a secret, not at all related to this story. However I have ideas about what happens to everyone in Catching the Light so I may come back to them at some point.