Michael Winter: How I wrote Minister Without Portfolio

Michael Winter is making his first appearance this year on Canada Reads, CBC's annual battle of the books. The veteran author's latest novel, Minister Without Portfolio, will be championed by actor and former WWE wrestler Adam Copeland

Minister Without Portfolio tells the moving story of a Newfoundland man who uproots his life while trying to recover from a difficult breakup. 

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The first scene I wrote was of our narrator standing, in wintertime, looking at the house that he's thinking about living in, and a beaver swims under his feet. That was a story a friend told me happened to him - he was standing on clear ice and a beaver swam under him. And I thought, that's a great moment - you think you're all alone and then there's this transformation of nature just a couple inches beneath your feet.

Everything that happens in the book is true. It actually happened, every single thing. It may not have happened to me, but it happened to a friend who told me a story. Certainly all the things that go on with that house, all the forest fires and water bombers and stuff, that's all taken from my life. I don't mind saying that because I've changed so many things around with the chronology and the collage of events that all of that is made up, but it all happened to me or comes from stories that were told to me.

When I was a kid, my father had a cabin in the Gaff Topsails in Newfoundland, and we went there from the train in a blizzard. When we got to the cabin there was no snow on the ground, but when we tried to open the door we couldn't, because the inside of the cabin as completely blocked with snow! The snow had sifted through all the gaps and collected inside, and we had to charge at the door to get inside. So that's a totally true, hilarious story... I mean, at the time I was maybe 12 years old and I was probably freezing cold and crying, but it was a great scene and I knew it was going to go into this book.

I can write anywhere. I know some people need distance - they need to get away from a place in order to write about it. But I've never felt that, and I'm grateful for that. I don't have a good excuse for not writing, so I just try to write every morning, Monday to Friday, and once I've done that I can then be a convivial, domestically blissed person to live with. If I don't write in the morning I'm a grouch and I'm moody and not fit to be with. I have coffee and then I go to write and I just disappear for three hours and then I end it and then I'm just a normal human being.

While I'm writing about how much of a tough bind this character is in, I try to do what a good sonnet does. A sonnet essentially says, "Life is terrible, everything is against me, oh woe is me." And then the last two lines of a sonnet are "and yet, I'm alive, and I'm in love." I try to do that with my characters. Yes, they're in tough places, but at the end of a paragraph or at the end of a scene, I make the sky blue again.


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