Nfld. & Labrador

'This might hurt,' promises Megan Gail Coles on 1st page of new novel

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club presents a harsh reality of St. .

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club features harsh reality of St. John's

Megan Gail Coles' debut novel, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, is published by House of Anansi. (Submitted)

Before you even get to the title page of Megan Gail Coles' new novel, she's got a warning for you: "This might hurt a bit. Be brave."

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is a confrontational book, Coles says, but one with a purpose.

"I think when you are reflecting upon social norms and systematic oppression and/or exploitation, there's going to be a confrontation regardless of your intentions," Coles said.

How is it that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians … cannot go to a library or get swimming lessons?- Megan Gail Coles

"I think it is far more confrontational to be deceptive."

Her debut novel, to be released on Feb. 12 by Toronto-based publishing House of Anansi, takes place at a restaurant on Duckworth Street in downtown St. John's.

The cast of characters — some maybe less lovable than others — are living out a single day in February, and Coles tackles classism, sexism, and racism in the novel.

Those themes Coles are still prevalent in the modern restaurant industry, she said, so that's why she went with that setting.

"There are no heroes and there are no villains, as such. They're just humans trying to survive in St. John's, Newfoundland, on this day," she told CBC's On The Go.

"I have clear allegiances to some of the characters in the book … but even the characters that I am less aligned with, I still understand what it is they are trying for, because ultimately we are all trying for the same thing — we are all trying to find happiness."

Megan Gail Coles won the Winterest Award for her book of stories, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome. (Courtesy of Playwrights Canada Press/Breakwater Books)

Classist divisions

Coles has spent the last three years writing Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club and in that time, there have been some "very startling" news events in Newfoundland and Labrador that coloured her story, she said.

"Some things that definitely impacted my journey through the writing of the novel would obviously be the Muskrat Falls inquiry. It is in the news almost every day if not every day, and the growing inequality in our province," Coles said.

"We have the richest rich people in Atlantic Canada, and yet people talk about how poorly we are. And we feel poorly because we see our resource-rich province being mismanaged."

We are to some extent trapped here together.- Megan Gail Coles

And it's not just politics, Coles said; court cases of violence against women has been a big issue on her mind.

"I think all of these things, yes, they filter into the book because I think these are the things that ultimately bring us down low. We feel such pain and guilt and shame about the things that have happened and a lot of Newfoundlanders are feeling hopeless about the future," she said.

"I kind of think the only way to recover and to ensure this does not keep happening to us is to look at it in an objective manner and try to deal with that, rather than just waiting for the next, like, boom to happen."

Why can't everyone visit a library?

Growing up in rural Newfoundland, Coles said, made her the person that she is, so the things she thought as a child, contrasted with the province's reality, feature pretty prominently.

"I thought that the future would be a place for everyone where we had libraries and swimming pools. This is what I thought — all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would have access to, in the future, books and swimming lessons. And that is not the case," Coles said.

"How is it that did not occur for us? How is it that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, children in communities across the province, cannot go to a library or get swimming lessons? Like these are basic things that have been not a priority. Why aren't they?"

Newfoundland is a major character in her book, Coles said, adding that given her lack of experience in Labrador, she felt it would be disingenuous to talk about issues there.

"Labrador is someone else's story. I don't feel that I am the appropriate person to write that novel," she said.

"But I am a daughter of Newfoundland, and northern Newfoundland made me who I am, so if we're gonna write a book about the island and how the island impacts us as people, then I feel quite comfortable taking that on."

'This is it'

Newfoundland's location — a rock in the middle of the frigid Atlantic Ocean — makes it a place where things aren't accessible to people, including leaving, Coles said.

But growing disparity and high costs of living, Coles said, mean not everyone is able to escape. Ever.

Megan Gail Coles accepts the 2014 BMO Winterset Award in St. John's. (CBC)

"We are to some extent trapped here together. It's not affordable for people of a certain income to move beyond the island and people with privilege, people who have access to resources and mobility, don't understand that there are a lot of Newfoundlanders that can't get off Newfoundland. Even for a week," Coles said.

"There is no time when they can go and sit in the sunshine and feel a respite and recover from their lives. We don't see the poor, or some of us, unfortunately, don't see the poor because we don't live amongst each other anymore," she said. 

"But the island impacts them in a different way. There is nowhere for them to go, there is no other bigger city. This is it. This is their lives."

Author Megan Gail Coles talks about her powerful debut novel. 13:41

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With files from On The Go

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