Books

Megan Gail Coles debut novel explores the best and worst of Newfoundland

Megan Gail Coles is on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist for her debut novel.
Megan Gail Coles's debut novel Small Game Hunting At The Local Coward Gun Club is out now. (Playwrights Canada Press, House of Anansi Press)

Newfoundland playwright and author Megan Gail Coles takes no prisoners in her debut novel, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. At once a love letter to her home province and a skewering of its social evils, the novel introduces a complicated cast of characters at a trendy St. John's restaurant. As a blizzard bears down on the city, staff and friends contend with their own storm of issues brought on by addiction, trauma and betrayal.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 18, 2019.

Coles spoke to CBC Books about writing her first novel.

Love letter to Newfoundland

"The initial stage of conception formed around a response to what I saw happening in my community. Not one isolated incident, but a prevalent systemic exploitation of marginalized individuals on personal, professional and political levels. The novel that was coming, the novel that I knew I was going to write, was always going to be something that explored what I consider to be the aggressive classism, racism and misogyny that is present in Newfoundland.

"Some people talk about unconditional love as if means that you will continue to love someone regardless of their flaws and without any amount of examination. But I don't think that does anybody justice. I think it is far more respectful of people that you love, of places that you love, that you know them for everything that they are. I love Newfoundland despite all of the bad bits. I know our best bits very well — that's what formed me, what made me who I am. But I'm also aware of the things that it can improve upon and how sometimes ignoring or refusing to acknowledge those aspects of our character can endanger people in our communities.

I love Newfoundland despite all the bad bits. I know our best bits very well — that's what formed me, what made me who I am.- Megan Gail Coles

"This novel is a love letter. I'm beseeching Newfoundland. I'm beseeching Canada. I'm putting it all down on the page. It's not in any way a rejection of my home. In fact, I'm more committed to my home. This is like an act of commitment or devotion. That's what I think unconditional love is."

Stay true to your story

"I have a very literary prose style. I don't shy away from accent or diction. I'm comfortable with the fact that I was reared in an area, in a region of the country, that has a very distinct way of speaking. The prose reflects this. When you are writing something that is not being crafted for the centre, you can be concerned that the centre will be disappointed that you're not speaking broadly or directly to them. In those moments, I would remind myself that it would have served me well to have this book written when I was a younger woman. That helps you move through the self-doubt.

"Stay true to your story. Don't doubt that you know your book better than anyone else."

Art is not tourism

"People have asked me in interview situations why I write about challenging topics. I'm from a challenging place. We live in a challenging time, so I felt no desire to try to write something that was light or inspirational.

It is scary to say critical things about your home to your home and to the rest of the country.- Megan Gail Coles

"We are funny, gregarious, friendly people and we live in a beautiful place — but it's not my job to entice visitors to the island. That's not what my art practice is about. I think in Newfoundland and Labrador but also other parts of the country, we've confused our arts and cultural sector with our tourism sector. I have no intention of playing a part in that."

Writing fearlessly

"People come up to me and ask me about my fearlessness. That's the opposite of how I feel most of the time. It is scary to say critical things about your home to your home — and to the rest of the country. It is horrifying.

"You don't know how that will be received. I am full of fear, but I am also full of conviction that this is actually the right thing to do. Despite the fear, I do it anyway. I try to summon every ounce of courage in my body to be honest, or to tell some version of the truth that I think is necessary to move forward."

Megan Gail Coles's comments have been edited for length and clarityYou can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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