Jane Urquhart on writing Away


We asked each of the Canada Reads authors to share a "story behind the story" with us. Today, Jane Urquhart reflects on what it's like to return to Away after writing it over 20 years ago.

Award-winning biographer and historian Charlotte Gray is defending Away during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

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About 25 years ago I sat down at a desk in Ottawa and began to write the novel that I already knew would be called Away. I had chosen the title as the result of something that happened during my first, very brief visit to County Antrim in Northern Ireland, the place whence the Quinns, my maternal forebears, had emigrated during the 1840s. Midway through a casual conversation in a pub in Ballycastle, while I waited for the ferry that would take me to the mysterious Rathlin Island just offshore, an old man told me that a person could be stolen by "those from the other world," and that if this were to take place, a seemingly exact replica would be left in the stolen one's place. Except, he explained, there would be something distant and different about the one left behind, something indefinable, but perceivable nonetheless, and that this person would then be said to be "away."

In recent years I had been very interested in what happened when someone moved from one geography to another. Many of my friends were new Canadians, on the one hand, and my own tribal Irish family had never quite recovered from leaving the place they all still referred to as "the old country," on the other. In spite of the fact that by the time I arrived they had been absent from Ireland for a number of generations (and next to none of them had ever laid eyes on the hills and coastlines they described with such emotion), the Quinns held very strong political opinions concerning their abandoned homeland. I was curious about this, primarily, I suppose, because I knew that the emotional attachment and the political opinions were in me as well, making Ireland a sort of imaginary and spiritual place of residence all through my childhood and young adulthood while my heart, of course, belonged to Canada. When the old man told me about the state of being "away," I felt that it was a beautiful metaphor for being in one loved place and longing for another, either emotionally or physically, or both.

This book would be written all over Ontario but I was in Ottawa for its beginnings because, although I had already published two books of poetry and three works of fiction (one of these was a collection of short stories), I had made very little money from my writing and was obliged to accept writer residencies to provide myself with a bit of income. So, at the time, I was writer-in-residence at the University of Ottawa. Actually, it had not occurred to me that I could ever make a living from my work and I was delighted and honoured to be asked to fill the post for a term.

The first scene of the book, which takes place on the island of Rathlin, came to me so swiftly and so powerfully that, although I can remember the colours of the autumn maple outside the third story window, and the look of the open Hilroy notebook on the white desk in the room, I cannot recall the act of writing it at all. I do know, however, that after I had finished writing, I was so exhausted that I descended the stairs to a bedroom and slept for several hours in the middle of the day. It had been a gift to me, this opening scene. Beyond the island setting, and the vague notion of being "away," I had no idea where any of the narrative was coming from, and the process of receiving it had knocked me sideways.

It would always be like this while I was writing this book. Every preconceived notion I brought to the table was swept aside by the characters and narratives that presented themselves once I sat down to write. I had wanted, for example, to write a novel about Irish emigration to Canada and the death of D'Arcy McGee with McGee himself as a major character. In the end, however, while the assassination figures in the story, McGee himself, to all intents and purposes, never appears. Other less celebrated but equally interesting men took his place; a spirit, a school teacher, an ambitious farmer, two hotel keepers, a skunk charmer, a brilliant aboriginal philosopher, and a charismatic Irish activist and dancer. And on the same path walked the complicated women who pulled together the threads of the book.

It is long enough ago now that I think I can see the young woman who wrote Away with a certain amount of clarity. She was not without ambition, but it was not ambition that caused her to write the book. Instead, I like to believe that she was moved by curiosity and joy, sometimes humour. And I know that there was sorrow there as well, as there ought to have been. Because of Canada Reads, I have been forced, all these years later, to re-read her whole book cover to cover (something I might never have otherwise done) and have found that I was able to do so as if it were written by someone else altogether. I am happy -- and more than a little relieved -- to report that I was pleased with the book that young woman wrote, and so gratified to know that on the twentieth anniversary of its original publication it is still able to speak to this country of First Nations and immigrants for which it was written.

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