Nfld. & Labrador

How Facebook groups and coconut milk helped Bridget Canning write her 1st novel

First-time novelist Canning is flattered to be singled out among a provincial literary scene she describes as "vibrant."

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes is one of 4 books selected for NL Reads

Author Bridget Canning says it is 'wonderfully surreal' to be part of NL Reads. (Sheilagh O'Leary)

Sometimes artistic inspiration comes from the major events in life: birth, death, falling in love.

Other times, they come from the mundane. Take, for example, grocery shopping. It's an everyday task that nonetheless worked its way into The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes by Bridget Canning, one of the four local books that are part of NL Reads.

Canning has worked in several different places around the province, and one of the things a person has to do in a new community is figure out where to get groceries — and where to find their favourite items in an unfamiliar store. 

"When you go to grocery stores, they always put the coconut milk in different places," Canning said. And it's a can of coconut milk that ends up as a weapon, and the path to heroism, for Wanda Jaynes in Canning's debut novel, published by Breakwater Books in 2017.

Canning's own life hasn't yet involved a showdown with a mass shooter, but her personal experiences do mirror that of her main character in that one small but consequential way — "My searches through grocery stores in rural Newfoundland, looking for coconut milk," she said.

Applying local lens to big news

Having worked across the province as an educator for a decade and a half, Canning has become familiar with the ways that mass shootings have changed our lives, right down to our time in the classroom.

"We now live in times where we have lockdown procedure drills just as often as we have fire drills," Canning said. In her book, Wanda Jaynes is hailed as a hero after her quick action stops a local shooting.

"I tend to write about things that scare me," Canning said of her subject matter. "If something scares me I tend to dwell on it, and sometimes writing about it helps me figure it out."

Looking at the social media effect

After the shooting, the novel's title character quickly finds that social media plays an outsized role in her new life as a public figure. That's a component Canning did take from local headlines, specifically the fallout of provincial NDP MHA Gerry Rogers' membership in a Facebook group.

When then-premier Kathy Dunderdale brought down a budget in 2013 that included, among other things, cuts to the adult basic education program, there were strong public reactions, Canning said. 

Amidst that political atmosphere, Rogers was added to an anti-Dunderdale Facebook group.

Rogers said she had been added to the group by a user, and had not joined intentionally. After someone in the group made a threatening post about the then-premier, Rogers was criticized and removed from the House of Assembly. 

"There was a lot of talk about social media, and there was a lot of talk about the ways that people on social media throw around horrible statements, say threatening things," Canning said. 

The reaction to a threat, one that didn't materialize into violence, made Canning wonder how an actual attack like a mass shooting would resonate in a city like St. John's.

"It got me thinking, what if something like that happened here?" Canning said. "Why wouldn't it happen it here?"

'Wonderful but also really surreal'

Canning is flattered to be selected as one of the four inaugural NL Reads authors, a group that also includes Alan Doyle, Joel Thomas Hynes, and Gary Collins. 

"With that company, I'm kind of overwhelmed that mine was chosen so I'm very happy and pleased about that," Canning said.

It underscores an experience that Canning described as "wonderful but also really surreal" with the release of her first novel. 

"It took a while to get over that imposter syndrome or feeling fraudulent, that you make something that people enjoy," Canning said. 

"Or just putting yourself out there and having somebody read your work. So it is really wonderful when people get back to you and tell you that they really enjoyed what you made."

Welcomes attention for the local lit scene

Aside from the opportunity to introduce new audiences to her book, Canning said NL Reads is a chance for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to find out more about the rich literary scene flourishing around the province.

Iceland came up when Canning was discussing this very thing with a friend the other day. The Nordic country's capital city, Reykjavik, is a UNESCO City of Literature with a literary heritage that stretches from Icelandic sagas to a modern publishing industry that puts out more books per capita than nearly any other place on earth.

This province is often compared to Iceland, and a similarly rich cultural community should be one reason why, Canning said. 

"We need to draw more attention to it. We need to make people aware to go out of of their homes and to pick up something that someone has written, just to value and promote and open their eyes to what is happening basically in their backyards in their province," Canning said. "I think events like this are very important."

The panel discussion for NL Reads will be held at the A.C. Hunter Library (3rd floor) in St. John's on Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m.