Megan Gail Coles on building empathy and understanding through fiction

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

On Nov. 24, the 2020-21 Canadian Writers in Person Lecture Series presented author Megan Gail Coles reading from her debut novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. York University Teaching Assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Megan Gail Coles joined the Canadian Writers in Person series at York on Nov. 24 via Zoom to read from her debut novel, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. The reading was followed by a Q-and-A session that gave students and the reading public had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the writer.

Canadian Writers in Person continue on Nov. 24 with a reading of Megan Gail Coles' "Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club"
Canadian Writers in Person series presented a reading of Megan Gail Coles’ Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club on Nov. 24

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club (House of Anansi Press, 2019) takes place during one day in February, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where Coles resides. Born and raised in Savage Cove, Newfoundland, Coles wanted to write a novel that reflects the people and places that she knows – and in so doing, she wrote a novel that also speaks to people of all backgrounds who’ve had similar experiences of being marginalized.

The structure of the novel, which received a Giller Prize nomination, is reflective of the Newfoundland storytelling tradition. “I come from a background … with an oral storytelling tradition,” Coles said. And drawing on this tradition, she has created a unique novel that uses line breaks and repetition as forms of pulling in and engaging the audience.

Many have commented that the novel is very immersive, as it slips into various characters’ perspectives. “The intention was to have people feel as if they were living in the bodies of the characters, regardless of whether or not they shared those characters’ perspectives and/or lived experiences,” said Coles. “In fact, I think that being able to be immersed in someone else’s lived experience to that degree is how we build more empathy for people that are not like ourselves. I was very purposeful in having no distance.”

Because of the lack of distance between readers and what is occurring to a character physically and emotionally, there are times when readers have to put the book down, as some scenes can be quite triggering or upsetting. This is why the novel comes with the warning “This might hurt a little – be brave.” Coles said that this is a warning to the readers that they might have to put the book down when they need a break, and also a kind of warning to herself that this is a difficult story to tell.

Coles’ characters make choices shaped by the culture they grew up in. Our expectations of some of the men in the novel – to step up, to stop the cycle of abuse – are unrealistic because how would they have these skills if they hadn’t been cultivated in them? “When you’re under duress your whole life and have not been given the coping skills, it is unlikely that you could suddenly be different, never having had that life experience,” said Coles. “Adverse childhood experiences make it impossible for people to be there for each other in the way that we need to be there for each other, to ensure that we don’t get further hurt.

“In Newfoundland we have a kind of desperate economic history that doesn’t allow for a lot of space and comfort and time to think about how you want to be different as a person, because you’re everyday trying to figure out how to keep your lights on, or how to keep your house from under a pile of snow. Basic survival has become the default. Rather than thriving, we’re just surviving,” added Coles.

And this is what the Canadian Writers in Person audience saw in the characters of Small Game Hunting: men and women who are just surviving the misogyny, racism, abuse and violence that are just part of their lives.

What Coles hopes for her characters and for Newfoundland and for Canada is that by telling and reading stories like this, we can have a more honest dialogue about the things that we need to work on. “No one is served by unaccountability and self-indulgence. That does a disservice to us all.”

On Jan. 19, 2021, author Carol Rose GoldenEagle will read from her book, Bone Black (Nightwood Editions).

Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at or Professor Gail Vanstone at All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 8.30 p.m. on Zoom.