Author Michael Crummey tells a whale of a tale

On Tuesday, Feb. 8, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Michael Crummey reading from his award-nominated novel Galore (Anchor Canada, 2010). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.  

Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the argument went on.  A man delivered from the whale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones.  Entrance and exit.  Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not…

from Galore
by Michael Crummey


Early in his appearance for the Canadian Writers in Person series, Michael Crummey admitted, “I’m a faux-Newfoundlander.”  Raised inland in a small mining community of western Labrador, the author of books often set by the shore is not an angler and gets seasick on boats. This did not stop him from exploring the history of this disappearing culture, “writing about it to find my place in it.” 

Right: Michael Crummey 

Writing for a living did not occur to Crummey until he fell in love with poetry while a student at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Even then, he wrote in secret with “a deep-seated suspicion I sucked.”  Eventually he decided to submit for a school poetry contest and won the prize of three hundred dollars, giving him the “mistaken impression there was money in it.” After publishing a few books of poetry, he decided to switch to novels. His first was a struggle to write but despite his own negative thoughts, he decided to “hang on no matter what.”  Even though River Thieves (Mariner Books, 2003) was critically acclaimed, Crummey feels that he did not hit his stride until his most recent novel, Galore.

Galore was written as a celebration of Newfoundland culture. He was most interested in writing about the folklore, that unique element that is really “the cultural DNA of Newfoundland.” For research, he spent a lot of time in the archives and talking to people in the community. “Some of it is just listening for sayings and the things people say.” The result was an attempt to cram “all of Newfoundland into one fictional community,” using some of its most outrageous tales.

The novel models the way folklore works, the memory and significance of witnessed events shifting with each new telling, with each new generation. Crummey described the story of a man who rose from his coffin and walked home, later turning his deathbed into a daybed. He reinterpreted this story for his novel, noting, “There are different versions of the same story in every county.  These stories are constantly shifting in oral culture. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant, because it says something about the place.”

It is fitting that Galore spans a hundred years and several generations because it shows how characteristics are passed forward. Because of its relative isolation, approximately 93 per cent of the current population is directly descended from Newfoundland’s original settlers. Thus, Crummey is writing about the present as much as the past because his characters “literally are those people.” Though there is no detectable autobiography, he grew up watching his father’s world disappear, and writing about it carries the story forward, breathing new life into the history of a people.

Crummey has a natural storytelling voice, reading from his novel with a poetic cadence. It is not surprising that this is so interwoven with his sense of self: “the stories were created and told by Newfoundlanders and now the stories are creating us.” When asked if he would write about any other place, he paused before saying, “Why would I? Newfoundland is the place that made me.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, are also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. They are sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.  At 7pm on March 1, in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, Rabindranath Maharaj will read from his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy.

Chris Cornish, a former teaching assistant with the course, has since graduated but continues to attend the readings.