Jane Urqhart on The Next Chapter

Each Monday leading up to the Canada Reads debates, The Next Chapter will interview one of the authors (or, in the case of Two Solitudes, the author's friend and editor). CBC Books is replaying these interviews here for your enjoyment.

Today, we present Shelagh Rogers' 1993 conversation with Jane Urquhart, author of Away. Charlotte Gray will defend Away during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

This interview originally aired on January 14, 2013.

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In Irish mythology, a person can be taken "away" by otherworldly creatures and "an exact replica may be left in their place." Jane Urquhart learned this over twenty years ago when she was visiting the north of Ireland. From there, a germ of an idea would evolve into a sweeping saga of a novel: Away. Away, which tells the story of three generations of O'Malley women from 1840s Ireland through to 1980s Canada, was published in 1993 and would go on to be a Canadian bestseller for 132 weeks. It would seem as though the Canadian book-buying public was swept "away" by this enchanting story.

The concept of away comes into play in several ways in the novel. It kicks off with Mary being taken "away" in this traditional sense. But when Mary and her family must emigrate to Canada to escape the Irish potato famine -- a time which "people either died or they immigrated or both" -- coming to a new country and learning a way of life evokes a similar state of being.

"I felt that this being an exact replica of yourself is very similar, I imagine, to how someone might feel who has emigrated from another culture," Urquhart told Shelagh Rogers back in 1993, when Away was first published. "I come from a long extended Irish tribal family and I wanted to understand how they felt emotionally when they arrived in Canada in the 1840s and, as a result, make a connection between what those people experienced ... I think it's a very disorienting thing."


The book also acts as an exploration of the strong connection Urquhart's family still feels to Ireland, a place many of them had never seen. "Ireland was a big issue in my childhood and my uncles were very attached to it and very emotional about it. I always found that quite fascinating because, of course, they'd never been there," Urquhart said. "I wanted to know what the strength of that pull was."

As a result, Urquhart's characters are all very connected to landscapes. Different characters are connected to different places for different reasons, but all experience a loss "atmospherically" similar to Urquhart's uncles. This feeling, Urquhart believes, is universal. "The sense of loss and grieving and mourning for lost landscapes and lost cultures and lost tribes is something that human beings have been experiencing for thousands of years."

It's something Urquhart herself has experienced. "In my life, I see that landscape around me is changing utterly. It will probably never be the same again. The world that I knew as a child is gone. It has vanished from the face of the earth. I suppose that the sense of reconstruction that is found in the novel is a result of that," she said.

Urquhart finds this sense of loss is bittersweet. "I find this very heartbreaking but I also find that it connects me with the larger population of the world that I wasn't aware of until I wrote the novel."

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