Books

How environmental destruction and family trees inspired Michael Christie's new novel Greenwood

The novel by the B.C.-based author is on the longlist for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Michael Christie is the author of Greenwood. (McClelland & Stewart)

Michael Christie is a novelist based on Galiano Island, B.C. His previous work includes the 2011 novel The Beggar's Garden, which won the Vancouver Book Award and was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. His 2015 novel If I Fall, If I Die won the Northern Lit Award and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

His latest novel is Greenwood, an epic 512-page tale that spans several generations of a West Coast family. In the year 2038, Jake Greenwood works as a tour guide on a remote island in a world that has suffered from an environmental collapse. Jake makes a discovery about her ancestry — and learns how the secrets and lies told within families can have an impact for generations.

Greenwood won the Arthur Ellis Award for best novel.

Christie spoke with CBC Books about writing Greenwood.

A cinematic novel

"This book was more demanding than pretty much anything I've ever done in my life. It's such a large story, with so many moving parts and so much interaction between the respective time periods. I was conscious of that while I was doing the research, which was a lot.

"I did a lot of reading about the Great Depression in Canada and the Canadian timber and farming industries. I also looked at the early days of the environmental conservation movement, particularly in British Columbia. I looked at a wide array of books to build this big world. 

I was thinking more cinematically than ever before in writing this book.- Michael Christie

"I tend toward more tangible writing. I get uncomfortable when I spend too long inside someone's head. I like to work with things, with places and with landscapes. Whether that's writing about people who are searching for food or writing things that one can physically experience as reader.

"I was thinking more cinematically than ever before in writing this book. I didn't write it as a screenplay but I was certainly aware of moving the story in a cinematic way."

Making words count

"I was conscious as I was writing Greenwood that it was going to be a longer work. I knew it was going to involve different characters and multiple generations. I knew that the page count was going to creep up as a result. But I tried to make the book as propulsive as possible from a story and character perspective. 

"The writing has a momentum to it. The idea was that it wouldn't drag readers through those 512 pages. It was about keeping things brisk while still deepening character. As a writer you must think about that." 

Climbing the family tree

"I was thinking of the idea of a bloodline and wanted to complicate the idea of a family tree. The whole book is an extended metaphor of a family tree.

"Genealogy isn't a simple story. In my own personal life and experience, families are built much more than they are born. Looking back into your ancestry, all those people have a name and story of their own. There are so many stories to be told in family history so the narrative in the book is structured in that way."  

Writing is building

"I write in a little 10-by-10 cabin that I built on Galiano Island. Pretty much every square foot of wall space was taken up by something Greenwood-related. This includes character maps, physical maps, notes — all kinds of stuff. I was trying get a handle on planning a narrative of this size. The novelist Gabriel García Márquez once said that all writing is essentially carpentry.

Genealogy isn't a simple story. In my own personal life and experience, families are built much more than they are born.

"That's something I think is true. People tend to get lost in the romantic idea of the artist. Writing is a lot of careful construction — fitting pieces together and making sure that the book is balanced — and that it does what it's supposed to do." 

Michael Christie's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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