Catching the Light by Susan Sinnott, Q & A

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).

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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.

Catching the Light is available from Nimbus, from amazon, and in all good bookshops. It is highly recommended.

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Q & A With The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes Author, Bridget Canning

Merriam-Webster defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn,” but is seems to me that the best modern satires, particularly topical satires, do a little more than this. The vices and follies they expose are collective rather than individual and they implicate us all because we are all drawn into collective absurdities.

I became acutely aware of this when reading Bridget Canning’s debut novel, The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes. The novel sees an obscure young woman, the Wanda of the title, turn into a media — and social media — sensation when she instinctively knocks out a deranged gunman by hurling a can of coconut milk. Her modest home becomes the location for a 24-hour media scrum and she comes under intense pressure to become the person the news networks, Facebook, twitter etc. . . want her to be. All the time, of course, she has problems of her own and these are on a far more human and humble scale.

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Q1. It seems to me that satire is quite separate from other literary forms in that writers either have a satirical gene or they don’t. You clearly do, and while you obviously have mastered all the other accepted crafts of writing, your type of satire seems to require a super-sensitive understanding of trends and currents of collective thought and behaviour – Zeitgeist, if you like. I found myself recognizing almost everything, although I hadn’t necessarily noticed noticing them before. Are you a very keen observer? And how much of this is conscious?

Bridget Canning: I try to take note of things as much as possible – there are different lists on my phone of descriptions, snippets of dialogue, interesting names. As for unconscious observation, I think my background in teaching has trained me to be reflective – for example, considering how a lesson went, what worked, what didn’t, etc. I spend a lot of time journaling and attempting to pick apart why things are the way they are. Teaching and studying education has made me a better writer.

Q2. One thing that comes through very clearly in this novel is a sense of place and society. I can experience St. John’s in this book – its hip, arty side as well as its more bourgeois side – and I think anyone reading the novel would emerge with an idea of what the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador feels like. How do your themes relate to your own relationship with St. John’s?

Bridget Canning: I’m not originally from St. John’s, but I consider it my home and love it dearly. It has everything I want in a city and community. However, it can be a frustrating devotion – unstable economy, heartbreaking spring weather, blatant nepotism, history of poor leadership. For me, St. John’s feels like a beloved friend who gets really stubborn when you gently suggest they maybe take a little better care of themselves.

In The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, I wanted St. John’s to be recognizable, but universal – as in, what happens to Wanda could happen in any city. Wanda is also not originally from St. John’s, so through her, I hoped to create recognizable “St. John’s scenes” –  but since she’s not really a part of them, there’s a distance that can make them interchangeable.

Q3. One of the strands in the novel is that we are all frantically searching for heroes and saviours. Do you think there is something about the present era that intensifies this belief in heroes? Would this story have been different in a different time?

Bridget Canning: I believe so. We’re the starter generations of the information age and concepts like fame and notoriety have expanded their inclusion. You could be the leader of the free world or someone who made a really funny video with your cat and the same amount of people will know who you are.

There is so much information that we reduce people to nuggets of meaning – listicles, memes, gifs. And we do this with our “heroes” – for example, the two Swedish students who caught Standford Rapist Brock Turner a few years ago. I read Buzzfeed articles praising their heroic actions, their faces were everywhere. I read comments about how people wanted their children to be like these two guys. Yet even with their actions and testimony, Brock Turner got a slap on the wrist. The heroes were idealized, but it still didn’t get appropriate justice for the woman they saved.

Q4. Do you think this kind of satire is uniquely urban? Can you imagine a rural topical satire, or would a rural story have a different objective and a different tone?

Bridget Canning: I don’t think it’s uniquely urban and much of Wanda’s situation is not distinctly urban – St. John’s is small enough for her to be recognized, and of course, she’s from a small town, so there’s the awareness of how her identity is impacted there.

When I consider a rural topical satire, Michael Crummey’s Sweetland comes to mind. The actual shrinking of rural life, the young people who leave to make money and it makes them worse – there’s so much play between different worlds there.

Q5. I wonder how this novel plays out in generational terms. Your protagonist is educated and a conscientious employee but is also precariously employed, and this landscape of young(ish) highly educated underachievers is all too familiar everywhere in the western world where the kinds of certainties the older generations enjoyed are no longer available. Is this consciously part of the satire? Do these circumstances give Wanda’s generation more bite than those that went before?

Bridget Canning: Oh definitely. When I consider so many of the “baby boomer” novels I read in my 20s and 30s where the young protagonist got a good, solid job or backpacked across Europe or went on a drug-fueled road trip, I think, how’d they do that? I had creditors after me for my defaulted student loan and I couldn’t afford a futon.

For many people of my generation and younger, economic security feels like a non-renewable resource older generations have depleted. It’s a frustrating reality, but fun to write about.

Q6. What are you working on now? Might the next Bridget Canning novel be a continuation of the same brand or something quite different?

Bridget Canning: I’m involved with a few projects. Currently, I’m working on a screenplay through the From Our Dark Side Incubator program. It’s a psychological thriller about a serial killer who targets internet trolls. I’m also doing the Masters in Creative Writing at MUN with a short story collection as a creative thesis. There’s also another novel manuscript I hope to pick up when I have time – not the same brand as The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes – it takes place during the early 1990s and is kind of a coming-of-age story. I’m also working with my writing group to put together a kind of coffee table book with photos of bathroom graffiti and writing inspired by it. So not busy at all!