A novel way to see Labrador: Talking books with Michael Winter

Michael Winter visited Happy Valley-Goose Bay for the first time last week for a regional event held in honour of his Canada Reads shortlisted novel Minister Without Portfolio.

Minister Without Portfolio among 5 novels shortlisted for 2016's Canada Reads competition

Michael Winter says his trip to Labrador was a great opportunity to experience a little bit of the local culture.

Novelist Michael Winter is gearing up for one of the biggest showcases in his career to date in 2016's Canada Reads competition, and he stopped by Labrador last week for a far-reaching chat about his creative process, his career, and his shortlisted novel Minister Without Portfolio.

The book is one of 5 novels shortlisted for Canada Reads —  CBC's annual battle of the books competition —  and Winter is doing the best he can to handle the pressure.

Minister Without Portfolio follows a St. John's man's search for steady ground in Afghanistan, Alberta and back in Newfoundland and Labrador as he tries to get back on his feet after a tough breakup.

If the novel wins the annual prize, Winter's books will open up to a whole new audience of eager readers across the country.

The event was the first time a regional Canada Reads event had been held in Labrador, and Winter spent the day before his reading and Q&A getting a taste of what Labrador has to offer.

It was a whirlwind 24 hours for Winter, who had never been to Labrador, and he made the most of it by visiting with Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue at her tent in Sheshatshiu, jamming with Mina Campbell and Scott Russell at their home in North West River, visiting the Labrador Heritage Museum, and even cooking up his own steak at Happy Valley-Goose Bay institution Trappers.

Later that evening, Winter participated in a Q&A with Labrador Morning's Bailey White.

Michael Winter visits Labrador 0:41

He touched on a range of subjects including his feelings about being nominated for Canada Reads, the period of life depicted in Minister Without Portfolio, and his own "controversial" habit of writing about things that have actually happened to people he knows in real life.

On Canada Reads

Prior to the Canada Reads event, Michael Winter met with Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue where the two had an extensive chat and discussed storytelling techniques, and how they determine what to include in a story. (John Gaudi/CBC)

Bailey White: Let's talk a little bit about Canada Reads. Basically they call you, you don't call them, they call you … that's how that works?

Michael Winter:  I wish you could call them, that'd be nice. It's one of those things where you forget that there are any kinds of contests on the go at all. You just get a phone call. My publisher called me and said, "Michael, guess what? Your book's been nominated for Canada Reads ... now it's just the long list we don't know."

So then you think, well you look at all the books and there's 15 books and you think, "What are the chances? Then she calls again and says, "Now you're on the shortlist," and then she says, "And the person defending your book is the ex-wrestler Edge — Adam Copeland." It sounds ludicrous that a pro-wrestler would defend on national radio a book's literary merit, but then you realize the whole thing is a bit of fun, it's meant to encourage the reading of books.

Bailey White: Are you feeling competitive about it? 

Michael Winter: I have to say, a contest like this, where the whole country could be reading my book if the other four competitors fall to the wayside, I am kind of looking forward to that. Having said that, my sister Kathleen Winter was up for Canada Reads and she made it to the second last step — there was two books left. And my friend Lisa Moore in St. John's, her book won, February, and they both told me, they said, "Michael when it comes on the radio don't listen." I had it marked on the calendar, turn on the radio the third week of March or whenever it is to listen to the show.

I was like, "Why," and they said, "They're just gonna tear you book apart. You'll end up, your spine will be out, they'll have to carry you around in a bucket, don't listen to that."

It shocked me, but I think I'm just too curious. I want to hear what people have to say.

On writing what you know

After a day exploring Labrador, Michael Winter sat down for a lengthy Q&A with CBC Radio host Bailey White about Minister Without Portfolio. (John Gaudi/CBC)

Bailey White:  Despite being a fiction writer, you don't make stuff up.

Michael Winter: I am a little bit shy about it. It doesn't get me a whole lot of fans — [just] the people who know me, my family and all that.

Sometimes I'm on these panels with other writers, and this question comes up from the person who's running the interview and I've heard other writers, they get all haughty and say, "That's not based on my aunt, how dare you this is fiction." Then the other thing is if they do admit, they say, "Yes that is my aunt and she was so happy to see herself in print, she was really pleased by that."

Well ... I've never had anybody in my life come up to me and go, "I saw that little conversation that we had that's in the book, it was really nice." They're upset, they're always upset and they don't like it, and they sort of consider it that I'm a spy in the house of love is the way it's put.

No amount of me telling them that, "I only write about you because I love you — if I didn't love you I wouldn't be interested," — but that doesn't appease them at all.

Bailey White: Do you warn them ahead of time?

Michael Winter: If I was a better human being I would do that, but I'm a coward.

My brother drives a cement truck in Edmonton, and he's older than me, and he's six feet five and he's 240 pounds. As a kid we used to fight all the time, and I just swore when I get bigger and stronger than you, and he's always been bigger and stronger than me. 

He's never read a word of my writing and he was in the depot a little while ago and another cement truck driver said to him, "Paul, have you read your brother's book?" and my brother said, "My brother has a book?" And he said, "Yeah, I just got it from the library and, you know, you should read it because it's all about you."

So my brother came to me and he said, "You know, Mike, I'm really hurt that you wrote about me."

I said, "Oh are you upset that when your first girlfriend when you broke up with her she was so distraught that she went out with me?"

And he said "No, I didn't know about that, but you know, I'm ok with it."

I said: "Are you upset that that time when you and the guys went down to the rec room and you used to smoke hash and dream about robbing the little coop grocery store bank, and even with a stocking over your head, you're six feet five and everyone would know who you are, so you never did it?"

He said, "No it was really funny, it was really great to read that stuff, I'd forgotten about those guys and that sweater."

And I said, "What is it?" 

He said, "Mike, I picked you up once in the truck and I had the dog with me and we came to the red light, and I put the brake on and the dog's snout touched the windshield and then you wrote this, you wrote "There was a series of dog snouts on the windshield."Mike that betrays a trust."

All this to say: You never know what the thing is you're going to write that's going to hurt somebody, you never know what that thing is. But I can't help it, I'm not very good at making things up, I find people really interesting, and I find their stories really interesting, and I find writing them and dramatizing them very satisfying.

I can barely change the names, I'm that lazy of a writer.

Bailey White: Did it take you a while to work up the nerve to say, "I'm doing it," or have you always written this way?

Michael Winter: I've always written this way, and I always pretend that I'm not publishing anything that I'm just writing a story or narrative for myself and I pretend that nobody will ever read this. If I thought that people were going to read something it will completely change how I write.

On Minister Without Portfolio

Michael Winter says that he was given a crash course in Labrador culture during his visit as part of the Canada Reads event. Here he is at the Labrador Heritage Museum in North West River. (John Gaudi/CBC)

Bailey White: Do you think of it as a coming of age novel?

Michael Winter: I guess so, I mean, I'm trying to think now what does that mean. We're teenagers, and then we hit 20, and 21 and 22 and we're adults. We're out in the world, we have a shot at it. We try to be adults, we try to be with somebody, we try to make a life together and for some of us that works out, and we're with those people and we're in that place for the rest of our lives.

But there's a large segment of the population where that doesn't happen, where things either fail or, if you want a more positive word things change and you're not with that person anymore, you're not in that community anymore, and you're a bit older. You're in your late 30s, early 40s and you start thinking, "Well, is there a second act? Is there a chance for something new again?" And I think that's where a lot of these characters are, they've had a first shot at being adults and now they're coming around the corner, shaking things off that were either hit or miss and saying, "I'm going to try again."

Competition starts March 21

Beginning March 21, the five novels selected for 2016's Canada Reads competition will be debated live on CBC Radio, with one book being eliminated each day until the winner is crowned on March 24.

With files from Bailey White