Canada Reads·In Conversation

Megan Gail Coles wrote a novel to have a frank conversation on what ails the nation

YouTube star Alayna Fender defended Coles's debut novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club on Canada Reads 2020.
Megan Gail Coles is the author of Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. (CBC)

Hailing from Savage Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Megan Gail Coles maintains a specific and critical perspective on her home province and the country at large.

This comes to bear in the writer and playwright's debut novel, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, a book with themes of addiction, trauma and betrayal involving a complicated cast of characters at a trendy St. John's restaurant. 

Alayna Fender defended Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club on Canada Reads 2020.

Coles spoke with CBC Books about her love of literature, writing about trauma and social justice and her Canada Reads experience thus far. CBC Books named Coles a 2020 writer to watch.

When did a love of books start for you?

"When I grew up on the Great Northern peninsula in the 1980s, there were no bookstores in our region. There were only our school libraries. So outside of school and the school year, there was no library to go to. The only way to purchase books, outside of the local pharmacy, was the Scholastic Book Fair.

"Before they came to set up in the gymnasium, the homeroom teacher would hand out the little flyer. I had a book budget that my parents would allow me to spend every time the fair came. I would labour over the flyer like I was making serious life choices!

Seeing all the books laid out and walking around the book tables was my happy place.- Megan Gail Coles

"My parents read to me before bed every night. This was also like a commitment to what I would be listening to at bedtime. Nothing, even the amount of diligence and preparation that I put into selecting my books, ever prepared me for the moment when we would go down the stairs to go into the gymnasium.

"It was maybe the happiest day of the year for me. Seeing all the books laid out and walking around the book tables was my happy place. Then being able to take them home and read the characters and stories had a huge influence on me."

Shelagh Rogers talks to 2019 Giller Prize nominee, Megan Gail Coles, about Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. 17:07

What role did books play in informing your sense of self?

"Books exposed me to the rest of the world. The idea of other kinds of social organization was first introduced to me through books and through education. This is something that has regressed in this country. I'm concerned about the cuts to education that seem to be rolling out all over the country — and the lack of awareness as to what kind of people we're making now.

"We're depriving children the ability to think critically by not giving them all the tools that we had. Why would we do that? Who does that benefit? How will they be able to navigate the ever-shifting global economy and the global climate?

Books exposed me to the rest of the world.- Megan Gail Coles

"Unfortunately, the school system that I grew up in doesn't exist in rural Newfoundland anymore. We've gone back in time. The teachers are doing their best, but the situation doesn't necessarily make their lives easy. But the kids are smart and determined and well loved. It is actually a systemic problem that we have in my province. I think it's the same for the whole country."

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is your debut novel. Being a playwright as well, why did you conceive this as a novel and not a play?

"It's not a play because of the format that a play requires. Inside of a play, there is a social contract that you engage in whereby you agree to go into a room with a group of people and have a shared lived experience. That social contract allows for people to break from the action when the action becomes something that is triggering for them. I'm cognizant of not doing any further damage.

The book is about opening up a discussion about how we could potentially change things to heal people.- Megan Gail Coles

"The book is not about hurting people. The book is about opening up a discussion about how we could potentially change things to heal people. If someone finds themselves in a situation where they are under great duress, then they're kind of trapped. I don't want anyone to feel trapped inside of a trauma.

"In a novel and in longform fiction, the length is such so when you start talking about misogyny and racism and classism and violent capitalism, you better give people enough space to breathe. So it is about allowing people to engage with the book when they feel like they can. But also it's giving them permission to put the thing down when it becomes too much and they need a break.

"We don't know what's going on in each other's lives. And there are sections of the novel that are demanding of the reader."

How did you manage to handle the tone in the book, given the frank subject matter it deals with?

"I've been very frank about what the subject matter is within the book. So prior to even engaging the book you know what this purchase is going to be. My personal trigger warning inside the book is, 'This might hurt a little. Be brave.'

I'm being open and transparent. I think that sets a kind of tone of owning that this trauma is not isolated trauma and this is something that we are all experiencing together.- Megan Gail Coles

"On every single page, even before that, I am preparing the reader for what is about to happen and acknowledging that I come from the world that the book is inspired by. I dedicate the God damned thing to myself and to the island.

"I'm being open and transparent. I think that sets a kind of tone of owning that this trauma is not isolated trauma. This is something that we are all experiencing together."

What has it been like having a book on Canada Reads?

"The Canada Reads experience so far has been illuminating. It is diverse, in the kinds of stories that are being told and the kind of people from across the country who have been brought together to defend or support those narratives. 

I mean to talk to the Canadian public. That kind of dialogue is ultimately what I'm after and what a lot of writers are looking for as well.- Megan Gail Coles

"I don't know necessarily if that is done in other avenues. This is less about author profile and more about the subject matter — which I think is a unique experience.

"I've never had an opportunity to address Canada. I don't mean leaders and arts and culture professionals; I mean to talk to the Canadian public. That kind of dialogue is ultimately what I'm after and what a lot of writers are looking for as well. Writers want to talk to the people because we're a reflection of the people. Our work is indicative of where our society is.

"So if someone in Canada reads Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club and they don't like the characters in the book, they had best remember that we made the Olives, the Irises and the Johns too. And if you have a problem with that, then you have to change the conditions that created the problem. It's not an individual problem, it's a systemic failure. We are us. We are them. This is Canadian."

Megan Gail Coles' comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2020 contenders

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