A writer's prerogative

Joan Sullivan
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Jonathan Butler's first novel, "Return of the Native" (Breakwater, 2007) was praised for its comic fusion of the themes of historical fiction (a retake of Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native") and a philosophical search for identity (the struts and chassis that create a Newfoundlander).

Butler, 39, formerly a co-editor of Descant, earned a doctorate from the University of Toronto in 2001. He knows revisiting a classic tome is a contentious literary tactic, as is his choice to insert real people (actor and writer Andy Jones, and novelist and screenwriter Ed Riche, for starters) into the narrative. But he feels this gives the text a sense of the true, which is vital. (And it is probably kind of fun.)

Jonathan Butler's first novel, "Return of the Native" (Breakwater, 2007) was praised for its comic fusion of the themes of historical fiction (a retake of Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native") and a philosophical search for identity (the struts and chassis that create a Newfoundlander).

Butler, 39, formerly a co-editor of Descant, earned a doctorate from the University of Toronto in 2001. He knows revisiting a classic tome is a contentious literary tactic, as is his choice to insert real people (actor and writer Andy Jones, and novelist and screenwriter Ed Riche, for starters) into the narrative. But he feels this gives the text a sense of the true, which is vital. (And it is probably kind of fun.)

"I intended to capture a sense of reality. People can get quite angry if their stories are made public via fiction. But you use the experience of your life. It's a writer's prerogative."

Butler was recently in Eastport for the Winterset in Summer Festival, and the day after the do wound down found him sitting in the August sunshine on the front steps of the Beaches Heritage Centre. It seemed a long way from Taiwan, where he teaches literature and poetry at Kainan University in Taiwan.

"When I got the degree I had a couple of choices for work, and Taiwan seemed the most interesting. I thought I'd try it for one year, and one year turned into two, and so on."

But when he does go back, Butler will carry the specific and compelling topography of St. John's with him. One of the things he is most happy with in "Return of the Native" "is how it honours the geography of the city. And how this geography is seen through the eyes of the protagonist (Udo Nomi) who is addicted to walking the streets of the city."

This activity makes Udo what Charles Baudelaire would call a "flaneur," defined as "a person who walks the city in order to experience it." This is a distinctly urban character, which Udo is, walking the downtown streets and the Battery in compulsive, soothing bouts. What he sees helps to reinforce who he is (and is beautifully illustrated by the novel's cover, a reproduction of Jean Claude Roy's "Morning Caress" (2002), "the perfect piece," said Butler. "It represented exactly what the character saw.")

As a writer, he is influenced by visual art, "but literature has its own job to do. If it is just describing what is happening then it is second best to film. I try to do different things."

Such as taking great care with the language, "and the play with the language, the playing with self. Udo doesn't take himself too seriously. That's a reference to Newfoundland sensibility in general." Humour is an important aspect in his writing. "Kenneth Burke (an American literary theorist and philosopher) once said we should have lived twice, and smiled the second time."

Butler writes every morning. "I try to get mechanical about it. Fixed. From 5 a.m. to 8 or 9 in the morning. There's an energy I get from writing when everyone else is sleeping. Other writers like to do this at night, put on a pot of coffee and start at midnight. But that doesn't work for me."

He aims for 1,500 words, which is sometimes less - sometimes a lot less. But it adds up. "I tend to get a novel together in a first draft in two or three month period, writing every day, even Sunday."

Of course, writing is rewriting. He is at this stage with his next book, "The Shah of Shea Heights."

"As I become a better writer, I am making sure it is about the reader. I've gone through the manuscript four or five times, asking - did I get the story out that I wanted to tell? And as important, even more important, what is the reader's experience of this? That's my job."

As a reader he's consuming some classics, early Nabokov ("the master stylist"), Cormac McCarthy ("from the late 1980s and 1990s, later he's more compact, I am unhappy at the loss of the beautiful periodic sentence"), and Don DeLillo ('White Noise' is one of my Desert Island books.")

Good literature matters. Butler knows this as a teacher, a reader and a writer, and he also heard it at a Winterset panel, 'What if Voices - Missed Opportunities for Newfoundland.' "I was really happy to hear Richard Gwyn, as an historian, make the comment that we need to view fiction as an historical source."

As the present unfolds, and the past revolves, "fiction, and stories, contribute a great deal to our sense of history."

Organizations: University of Toronto, Beaches Heritage Centre, Kainan University

Geographic location: Taiwan, Eastport, Newfoundland St. John's

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