1. Henry experiences life-threatening situations deep in a mine, in the desert sands of Afghanistan, at the bottom of a garbage incinerator, and out on the ocean. Discuss the metaphoric meaning of these incidents and how they affect the course of Henry’s life.
2. How does the author progressively develop Henry’s determined attempts to renovate the old house at Renews as a metaphor for his need to change his way of life?
3. Tender Morris gives Henry the nickname “minister without portfolio” and explains “You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere” (p. 33). What are your thoughts on this assessment of Henry’s character? What does Henry think about that title by the end of the book?
4. Tender and John talk with Henry about “seeking roots in a rootless tradition” and “of making a family and owning something old, of cherishing the past” (p. 38). How does this idea become a major theme of the novel and the impetus of Henry’s growth as a character?
5. The community of Renews, Newfoundland, is closely knit, and while it is warm-hearted, it also has a tendency to keep outsiders at a distance. How does Henry succeed in being accepted into the community while Rick Tobin and Larry Noyce do not?
6. Although Tender Morris only appears briefly in the novel, his influence on the other characters is lasting. Discuss how Tender’s actions and his approach to life have an impact on Henry and his friends.
7. After almost sleeping with Martha in a mutual booze-fuelled outburst of grief, Henry thinks “I am a good man … but I’m not a good man” (p. 56). What are your feelings toward the character of Henry Hayward? Do you identify with him? Do you agree with this quote?
8. “This man in the mirror has never owned a house, all he’s owned are contents. I’ve never owned people, and people have never owned me” (p. 85). Henry makes this statement while looking at himself in the mirror in Nellie’s bedroom. Discuss this moment of self-realization and how it pertains to the major themes of the novel.
9. What scene in the book had the most impact on you as a reader and why?
Minister Without Portfolio is, at its heart, a story of renewal and redemp- tion, of taking stock and setting down roots. It explores love and loss and the faint lines of circumstance and community that draw us together—and keep us apart. It’s about recognizing patterns in a life that seems to have no direction, seeking the courage to changes one’s ways, and learning at last that there is a difference between a house and a home.
It is no small coincidence that Henry Hayward finds himself in the tiny coastal town of Renews, Newfoundland. In the last little while, Henry has seen no small amount of tragedy and heartbreak. After being thrown out by his now ex-girlfriend Nora, he bounces from couch to couch, taking on contract tradesman jobs with his old friends Rick and John. When the opportunity arises for an infra- structure contract in Afghanistan, he jumps at the opportunity to step away from his troubles in St. John’s and to work with Tender Morris, a former hockey teammate and current army reservist.
Tender is more than pleased to have Henry and John with him in Kabul, taking them under his wing and showing them the ropes amid all the turmoil. The reunion is short-lived, however, when their jeep is ambushed on a routine recon run and Tender is killed. Henry returns home officially absolved of any blame but all too aware of the part he unknowingly played in the death of his friend.
Tender leaves behind his pregnant girlfriend, Martha, and his Aunt Nellie’s old deserted house, which he always dreamed of one day renovating. Grief and loneliness draw Henry and Martha closer to each other, and at her suggestion, he drives out to Tender’s house in Renews with the intention of making it a home.
It is here that Henry’s life begins to change. As he rewires the house and adds insulation, he gets to know his neighbours, and as he works on the roof and thinks about digging a well, he learns more about the tangled web that is the local community, and what his place is within it. He also learns the meaning of his relationship with Martha and her unborn child, and not a few surprising secrets about the people of Renews. This knowledge doesn’t come without its costs, both financial and physical, but Henry is willing to pay this mortgage on his future.
Q: Like your previous novels This All Happened and The Architects Are Here, Minister Without Portfolio has some autobiographical elements, most notably the incinerator scene. Do you find it cathartic to explore these experiences through a fictional prism? And considering the painful and tragic accidents that seem to occur when Henry’s around, should your friends and readers be leery of sitting too close to you?
I write about things that I’ve experienced or have heard happen because the event suggested some kind of significance. I was scuba diving once and everything under water felt important. The lens you look through magnifies objects, so a lobster looks three feet long until you reach out to touch it. But the friction of water slows down movement and the experience feels like it has cinematic importance: “They are slowing down the film, this must mean something!” is the feeling one has.
So too with the memory I have of certain experiences. I know in my gut they have some resonance if only I trap them well on the page. With the incinerator incident I had to turn half of the scene over to the two men who watched me fall in. They were sitting in a truck drinking rum, and I realized that what they were experiencing must have been shocking. So, I had to invent what their reactions would be, how they would feel. I knew, at that moment on the page, it was more interesting to see their response to my falling in than to stay with me in the bottom of the inferno.
A friend of mine works on the Hibernia oil platform. Dangerous work. After I was hit by a humpback whale, he told his friends about it. They asked, “Is that the same guy who fell down the inciner- ator?” “Yes, it is,” my friend said. They told him, “Tell your buddy he should stay indoors.” So that’s what I do most often. Stay indoors and write it all down.
Q: Likewise, Henry gets up close and personal with a whale while out in his dory, in much the same manner as in the online video of a humpback whale thudding into the side of your boat back in 2011. How did it feel to survive an encounter with a whale and then to become the star of a viral video as a result? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aVY_-oue4I)
I had the camera out there in the dory because my partner, Christine Pountney, had just returned in the boat and said she’d been hit by a whale. I didn’t believe her. So I rowed out there and suddenly I saw this humpback’s tail and I knew he was diving. He was heading straight for the dory. The whales are where the caplin are, and the cod are feeding on these caplin too. So if you’re jigging for cod, you are going to have some interaction with whales. I can say emphat- ically that nothing in my life prepared me for the visceral feeling of having a whale lift the boat I’m in out of the water, to see his long white flukes under the boat, the great smooth back rise up under me, the smell of his rancid breath, hear the snort he gives as he exhales, and then the disappearance again, leaving that footprint, a smooth glassy surface like a scar on the water from where he broke through. I have done ayahuasca, a Peruvian medicine that makes you see visions and understand that all energy and life are connected— this encounter with a whale was exactly like being under the spell of ayahuasca.
Q: I’ve read in an interview that you bought a house in Newfoundland with no electricity or running water from a nonagenarian named Nellie back in 2007. When did you recognize the metaphoric value of renovating a home as a potential story idea? How long does it generally take for a story idea to go from initial inspiration to getting put down on paper?
On the contrary, I knew from my own experience with novels that dealt with this material that having a character fix up a house is very boring to read about. I was leery about how much material in the book dealt with this renovation. It’s not like watching an episode of Mike Holmes. So, whenever I could, I had other people on the page talking to Henry as he’s fixing the house. It’s his interaction with the community that’s interesting, not how he replaces a sill or rewires the fuse box.
I don’t have an initial inspiration. I work from a few solitary events that I knit together. A friend told me about walking to school in winter using a frozen river as his path. One morning, through the clear ice, he saw a beaver swim under his feet. That image started the book. What does it mean? I’m still not sure. But the motif occurs throughout the book. For instance, Henry sees his friend Tender die while peering through the windshield of the jeep. The book ends with a dead beaver disappearing from the trunk of a car that carries Tender’s daughter. I had no idea this type of image would attach itself to so many scenes.
Q: You split your time between Toronto and Conception Bay. What is it about the people and the land of Newfoundland that inspires you to return there in life and in your writing? How has it changed culturally since when you were growing up there as a boy?
Norman Levine was the first real writer I ever met. He came to Newfoundland to do a reading, and I interviewed him for the local literary magazine. He knew I wanted to be a writer. He said, “St. John’s is a small place. Do you have interesting friends?” “Oh, yes,” I said. “Then you can write here.”
Levine’s advice was “If you don’t have interesting friends, move.” I think the same can be said for the community you’re in. I have cultivated a number of very good friends here in Toronto. The trouble is most of them are writers. That means the material that crops up involving them belongs to them. I’m left with the experi- ences that occur around the bay in the small town we live in during the summer and, sometimes, a frozen week or two in the winter.
Newfoundland has changed considerably since I was a kid. I tell my own son stories of when I was growing up, and I’m amazed at the things we did. Outdoor adventures. They sound like something from the Wild West era. Of opening up the land. Frontier stories. Having said that, a friend has just bought several acres of land at the end of a dirt road in Newfoundland and is cutting down some trees to build a house. He told me that no one, in the history of the earth, had ever cut down a tree on this field. So this kind of primary experience with the land can still happen, even as we’re filming it to upload onto YouTube for our friends to see.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the Afghanistan section of the book? What sort of research went into writing it?
It occurred to me one day that Newfoundlanders were in Afghanistan and that an army is a community of sorts—a loyal family that cooper- ates—and if I wanted to write about contemporary Newfoundland, I might want to include this group of people. I interviewed several veterans and tried to get them to describe the details of their working conditions. I’d interrupt them and say “No, stay in the jeep, tell me what the dashboard looks like. What are the sleeping conditions, how do you eat, where are the latrines.” This surface of their world, that’s what I wanted them to describe.
Q: What authors and novels have had the most influence on your writing style?
The writer that influences me doesn’t have to write like me. The writer, you sense, has captured the way his or her mind works, the crazy logic that is individual and sees the world in an independent way. If you read Jim Harrison’s food essays in Brick magazine, you get the feeling that he’s trapped how he sees the world. So has Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Charles Portis does this very well, especially in Norwood and The Dog of the South. Larry McMurtry in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. Xavier de Maistre in Voyage Around My Room. Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage. Joan Didion in Play It As It Lays. Walker Percy in The Moviegoer. Viola Di Grado in 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. Somerset Maugham in The Razor’s Edge. All of these writers trapped a voice and stayed true to that voice through the book.
Q: Conversely, what non-writer would you say has been the most inspirational to you and your career?
I’m not a fan of the great person, or a model to hold up in life, of someone to emulate or admire. I’m far more interested in the fractions of people, how character is betrayed even when covered up in yards of cloth. The muffled truth that blurts out occasionally from all of us. I keep my ear tuned to that. To everyone involved in these slight aberrations from society’s well-worn path. Eccentrics, I guess. But you don’t have to be an eccentric, just have occasionally eccentric thoughts and do not censor yourself from that thought. Realize it’s the unvarnished truth. The eccentric is only the person who says the unconventional thought. That’s what I’m interested in pulling out of the people I pass every day. I was buying stamps at the post office this morning and started getting into a strange conversa- tion when I realized, “Boy, I need to get out more.”
Q: What drives you back to the blank page every day? Has your approach to writing changed at all over the course of your career?
It’s exciting to try to describe an action in a new way. To decide that no one is going to smile, ever again, in one of my novels. So then what else do people do with their faces while they are talking to one another? Or where are their hands as they listen? There are a lot of nods and winks in novels, far more than in real life, so I’ve discarded them. I will dilute the percentage—that’s my contribution to liter- ature. So, what is the alternative set of postures that occur while a human being is smiling? Articulating them on the page is a lot of fun. Oh, the character is smiling, the reader thinks, and the writer has not used the word smile.
It is strange to go back and read an early published story. I was more philosophical in my twenties. I hung out with students of philosophy and religion. I was interested in injecting ideas into my plots. Now I’m more trusting that the details will suggest ideas. Also, on a technical level, there were a lot of physical troubles of setting that I used to have which I’ve mastered to a certain degree so I don’t have such pains describing a scene. Alistair Macleod, at Banff, once read a story of mine and said, “These two people are carrying a canoe to the lake, but I don’t know who is in the front. It’s important that the reader know the woman is in front.” That sort of basic “setting of the table” I’ve learned to do much better.
Q: If someday you found that you were no longer able to write, what type of life would you pursue?
There are a hundred things I could be doing and would find inter- esting. As long as I have people around and books to read, what I’m doing with my hands feels less important. Balance is good. One day of teaching a week. Getting my hands in the soil. Travelling a bit. Creating dinner. Making love with someone who loves you. The worse things for me would be to lose my hands or have trouble walking or discover I’m not around someone who likes to laugh. There’s an old age home at the bottom of my street here in Toronto, and there’s a man sitting at the table in there alone with a view onto Bloor Street. He looks pretty curious. His eyes are alive. You have to stay curious.