Books·How I Wrote It

Michael Crummey: How I wrote Sweetland

Michael Crummey explains how he wrote a book where the entire last half features only one character.
Michael Crummey is the author of the novel Sweetland. (Holly Hogan/Doubleday Canada)

How do you write a novel whose entire second half (give or take a couple of pages) contains a single character? If you're Michael Crummey, you start with a certain kind of Newfoundland old timer — "pretty crusty on the outside, but emotionally as soft as butter." You call your dog, Buster. And you start on page one. The result, Sweetland, is the powerful story of Moses Sweetland, the one person in a small Newfoundland community who refuses a government resettlement package.

Michael Crummey reflects on the creation of Sweetland, from his hand-me-down workspace to the decidedly non-literary start of his writing day. 

Writing blind

"I have no organizational devices. I'm not proud of that, and it probably makes my life a lot more difficult than it needs to be. I do take notes as I'm approaching a book. I write down little story ideas or anecdotes that I think would be good in the book. But then when I sit down to write it, I never look at those notes. Don't ask me why. It would make sense to look at those notes. But for the last two books anyway, I've started at page one and just gone. It seems to be working for me. I could be wrong about that." 

Father figure

"I didn't realize this when I was writing the book, but when I was fleshing out the character of Moses Sweetland, the main character and really the only person we follow for the last half of Sweetland, I was dropping in a lot of bits and pieces of my father's life, which I've never done before in a novel. I thought they were just interesting stories to make the character feel more real. And it wasn't until I had finished the book that it struck me that what Moses goes through, particularly in the second half of the novel, has a lot of similarities to what a person facing a terminal illness goes through. And it became clear to me then that the biggest influence on what happens to Sweetland and on the trajectory of the novel as a whole was watching my dad fight cancer, and then die of it. And although the book, on the surface, is about resettlement, in many ways I would say that what it's really about is mortality and what the way we face that mortality says about us as people." 

Where the magic happens

"I have a little office on the main floor of our house that used to be our middle daughter's bedroom. The room is painted lime green and I was too lazy to repaint it when Robin moved downstairs. My friend Stan Dragland helped me build two huge bookcases. I made a desk out of the leftover plywood. There is a chest of drawers behind me with a printer on top of it and a huge poster of David Blackwood's Fire Down on the Labrador over my left shoulder when I'm sitting at the desk."

A healthy relationship

"Before Sweetland, my novels kind of moved in and took over my life. With my previous novel, Galore, I went to sleep thinking about the book, I woke up thinking about the book, all day long I thought about the book. It wasn't unpleasant, but it did occupy an awful lot of space. With Sweetland, my experience was very different. I would get up in the morning, fold some laundry and watch SportsCentre. And then I would spend two to three hours writing the book, with my dog Buster sleeping on my lap. For the rest of the day, I did other things. And in the evenings, I would sit and watch bad television with my wife and whichever of the kids were around, and I would drink my Sapporo and eat my Kettle Brand salt and pepper chips, and then go to bed. Then in the morning, I would do the same thing again. The book occupied a very intense but prescribed part of my life, and it felt like a very healthy relationship to have with the novel. I was worried for a while that that meant I wasn't giving everything I had to the book, but I finally made peace with it when I saw what was happening on the page, which to me felt like something I could get behind. I am hoping that if I ever write another novel, I'll write it in exactly the same fashion."

Michael Crummey's comments have been edited and condensed.