With the release of “New Under the Sun,” Newfoundland and Labrador author Kevin Major has returned to adult fiction after more than a decade working in other areas.
Rather than knowing him through his adult fiction, some may know the writer through seeing his play “No Man’s Land,” taking in an operatic showing of “Ann and Seamus” with Shallaway youth choir, having a Christmas-time reading of “The House of Wooden Santas” or perusing the historical information of his “As Near to Heaven: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
“I guess what stimulated me into moving in this direction was doing the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. I uncovered a lot of stories where I thought, ‘This could really use a broader treatment,’” Major told The Telegram this week.
As a result of his interest in extending the history, “New Under the Sun” lands as historical fiction.
“This is a work of fiction and moves beyond the known historical record,” the author said. “You can’t help but do that if you’re doing historical fiction. You have to start imagining things.”
However, there are risks to taking well-known places or characters and working them into your own imaginings. “Some historians would take issue with what you’ve created and, I’m expecting, some will with this,” Major said.
His novel compounds the question of how much fiction and true history should be mixed, since it does not include just one time period from Newfoundland and Labrador’s historical record. It actually moves back and forth through time.
At the centre, holding it all together, is the story of a young woman named Shannon. Born in Conche, Shannon has moved to mainland Canada, becoming a Parks Canada employee. She has now returned to work on historical sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. The sites connect her to various peoples and times in provincial history, placing her at the centre of a historical web.
In one example as to why some historians might get their backs up, Major said he has connected Shannon’s story with the real-life character of William Cormack (1796-1868).
“I speculate — this is invented — that she has done graduate work on aboriginal people, specifically the Beothuk and, while she was in British Columbia, she was given access to some of the long-lost journals and letters of William Cormack,” Major said. “Interestingly enough, Cormack — who was a person that Shawnadithit lived with in the last few months of her life in St. John’s — he ended up in New Westminster, B.C. That’s where he died. So my scenario is that these letters and journal entries have been found in New Westminster and because she’s doing graduate work, she gets access to them.”
Despite the documents and other fictional pieces, the author said he did not simply weave a completely new history for the province in creating his novel.
“If there’s a known sequence of facts, than I try to stick to it. For example, the Cormack section, he did this at this date and then this and this, so I’m not going to kind of shift him around so he did things two years later or he didn’t meet so and so,” Major said. “So I try and stick to that wherever possible. But my imaginings of what transpired certainly goes beyond what’s recorded.”
Woven with his modern-day story of Shannon are the stories of a variety of peoples. “I’m really fascinated by this whole area of the tip of the Northern Peninsula to Southern Labrador so you could say maybe 100 kilometres in circumference. Not only the Maritime Archaic but the Innu, the Inuit, the Norse in L’Anse au Meadows, the Basques in Red Bay, the Beothuk ... so all these peoples came to this area, inhabited this area at one time or another,” Major said. “To me it’s totally fascinating what drew them to this particular spot.”
Major was asked why he decided to use the province’s history within his novel. Why not, in his return to adult fiction, write something a little less complex?
“It, I think, challenges the reader more. It challenges me more, in a sense, I mean that’s not the total reason I did it,” Major said.
“I would go back to this geographic centre. This time and people, even Shawnadithit, what they have in common, even Shannon has in common, is this landscape, this landscape over time. And part of what I’m trying to do is to show the attitude towards aboriginal people up through time,” he said. “So we see them as I imagine they would be without any contact with white people, through the Maritime Archaic, they were extinct before the white people appeared, through the somewhat friendly contact at Red Bay with the Innu people and then of course the rather tragic contact with the Beothuk. So how did this attitude, how did the attitude of the various people who came into contact with these peoples change? Is there anything similar? And what does that say about our present-day view of them?”
Creating his mix of true history and fictional extension has taken Major about eight years.
“But part of that delay to publication is that for a long time it didn’t fall into the hands of a publisher that wanted to publish it, basically. It was rejected by a number of publishers. I felt, because they didn’t understand clearly what I was trying to do,” he said. Not that the delay means anything.
“It’s happened before to me. I guess I have kind of a stubbornness. ‘House of Wooden Santas’ was rejected by five major Canadian publishers, much to their regret now. I have other books that have been rejected and then subsequently published by somebody else and ended up being successful,” Major said.
“New Under the Sun” has been published by Cormorant Books.