Books·How I Wrote It

Why Alison Watt wrote a novel inspired by the Halifax Explosion

Dec. 6, 2017 marked 100 years since the Halifax Explosion. Alison Watt has a personal connection to that history, and it inspired her debut novel.
Alison Watt is a Vancouver-based painter and author of Dazzle Patterns. (Freehand Books)

Dec. 6, 2017 marks 100 years since the Halifax Explosion. It was a devastating moment in Canadian history, the impact of which still resonates today. Alison Watt has a personal connection to that history — her grandmother came to Halifax shortly after the explosion, when the city was in desperate need of workers in the wake of the disaster.

The British Columbia-based author, teacher and poet's first novel, Dazzle Patterns, is a fictionalized account of a year in the life of three young people in a love triangle trying to deal with life in the aftermath of the explosion. It is currently a finalist for the 2018 First Novel Award.

In her own words, Watt explains how she wrote Dazzle Patterns

Family ties

"My grandmother is from the Annapolis Valley and came to Halifax to work after the explosion because people were needed in the city to work. That's where she met my grandfather, who worked in the Merchant Marines. The story actually began as nonfiction, based on the life of my grandparents. 

"I hadn't actually met my grandfather, he died before I was born. I had no records or memoirs, so I made it up. And that's how I tumbled down the slippery slope into fiction. I think it often happens when you write fiction — another story emerges. This secondary character had emerged with a much more interesting story. That secondary character became Clare [one of the main characters in Dazzle Patterns].

"The Halifax Explosion is such a big event that if you situate anything near it it's kind of like a black hole. It sucks the energy in. It was such a momentous event and there was so much drama — it just felt right."

The significance of glass

"Glass is important in the Halifax Explosion because so many windows shattered. Clare ends up losing an eye —  as many people did. They were standing at windows watching the explosion, then the windows shattered. Or they were watching the ship on fire down in the harbour and then it blew up and the glass exploded. So there's that connection with glass.

"But once I started reading about glass making, I became interested in the metaphor of glass and the metaphor of transformation. Glass is made from basically sand, and it becomes something between liquid and solid. It moves from an elemental object into something utilitarian, but also very beautiful. There is the whole act of the artist's role in the transformation of the glass.

"I'm an artist myself. I didn't set out to write about art, but these things just find their way into our work. Dazzle Patterns is as much about art as it is about war and love."

Finding the good

"I would hope that the book conveys the costs of war both at home and abroad — the confusion and casualties are not always just in the arena of battle. That said, even in the ugliness of war — and the Explosion was really collateral of the conflict — beauty and spirit survives in many forms and is what the foundations of survival, both personal and cultural, are built on. The people of Halifax were incredibly generous, brave and resilient in their response and recovery after this event. One hundred years later, I think culturally, we carry, fears of impending disasters — climate, terrorism, new wars. The research and writing of this book has given me an abiding sense that the inherent goodness of people emerges in great crisis."

Alison Watt's comments have been edited and condensed.


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