Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published by The Irish Examiner on 21st January, 2009.
Gil Adamson is in a fluster. The 48 year old from Toronto missed her plane from London, and says the whole day in Dublin has felt a bit surreal.
“It was all a mess,” she tells me, when we meet at RTE where she has been recording a radio interview.
Gil is full of praise for her publicist, who managed to rearrange her schedule without a hitch.
“He’s amazing,” she says. “I arrived and said ‘the first interview must be gone,’ and he said, ‘I just moved it.’ And I thought, ‘to where?’”
“I love Ireland,” she says. “I’ve been before because my husband has family here. His father emigrated to Canada.”
Adamson’s debut novel is a strange tale set in the Canadian Wilderness in 1903. A young widow flees from her pursuers in blind panic, as scared of her mind as she is of the elements. She’s killed her husband, and his brothers are out for vengeance.
Her journey is a rich one; as she moves further from civilisation she encounters a cast of increasingly eccentric misfits. The Outlander is an exciting page turner, but it’s the language that makes the novel such a breathtaking achievement.
One can only agree with writer Ann Patchett when she said, ‘The Outlander deserves to be read twice, first for the plot and the complex characters....and then a second time, slowly, to savour the marvel of Gil Adamson’s writing.’
That, for Gil, is the most perfect blurb imaginable. Because before the acclaimed poet and short story writer even knew what she’d write about, she was clear that it was the language that mattered to her most of all.
“I remember coming out into the living room and talking to my husband, Kevin Connolly, who is also a poet, and saying, ‘in the next thing I write I want to put the greatest possible pressure into every line.
“My book will probably be hell to read, not fun for readers, but I want to push as hard as I can on the language. And that,” she says, “comes from a poetic impulse. Many novelists would not think of their writing that way even if the end product came out that way. They would probably start and end with the plot, and write in their natural style. I was not sure what my style was.”
She didn’t know what her plot was either. She wrote the novel sequentially, starting with the first line and finishing with the last.
“It was, honestly, written one stage at time,” she says. “At any stage of the novel I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I really didn’t.”
There are flashbacks to the widow’s childhood, and it becomes clear that some of her problems stem from that time. Daughter to an invalid mother who then died, and a passionate but disinterested father, the child had never been praised.
“I think that is more common than we think,” muses Gill. “I come from a long line of people who raised their children to be tough. You don’t give them praise because it will make them soft. What you want for children is for them to be hungry for life and to push themselves; and the assumption somehow is, ‘if you are soft with them that will not happen.’
“I remember my grandmother saying you were not then allowed to go to a baby. You’d just teach them to cry. I have a fascination for how profound the simplest things can be on how a child is. A child is very much a sponge for their environment.”
Near madness is another preoccupation.
“Some people are afraid of violence. Others are afraid of cancer. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and that, I think, is so frightening. To forget everything, for me, would be a nightmare. And this is definitely a book of me working through my fears of things like fear of
death, fear of being cold and lost, and fear of losing your own mind.”
The book took 10 years to write. Was that a frightening prospect?
“No. It was an awful lot of fun,” she says. “It was like sitting down and telling a child a story off the top of your head. Often the story has its own logic, but from time to time the plot gets lost, and you go, ‘oh yeah, where will we go next?”
Does the plot take over, or as writer, is Gil God?
“That is a really good question,” she says, to give herself time to think. “It’s a bit of both, really. I don’t prescribe to the idea that I am a conduit for some wonderful beam of sunlight that will end up in the book. Yet I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t looked at something they have written and thought, ‘how in the world did I come out with that?’”
When the book was finished, Gil was remarkably slow to send it out.
“It was such a pleasure to write; and so lovely to have this world that was mine that it was hard to let go,” she says. “And I really did not know how the book would be received. It is and odd tale and the language is odd. I didn’t want a publisher going ‘that was nice but let us know when you have another one.’
“l sent 60 pages to an agent. She liked it, and asked for the rest, but then she changed jobs. Kevin pushed me to do something with it, and in the end he pulled it out of the drawer. He gave it to his poetry editor who gave it to the fiction editor. She got back to me in four days.”
And that is not the only way the husband she’s been with for 22 years helps her.
“We talk about writing all the time. I have never had to join a writer’s group because he is right there to bounce ideas off. He’s an excellent poet and editor, so anything I submit has already been stepped on by him.”
Adamson works as a part time freelance editor too. She always has, and finds the job very calming because it uses a different part of the brain from writing. After University, where she took a degree in Anthropology and Philosophy, she worked for a publisher full time, but she has always known she was destined to write.
“I remember writing a poem in class in Grade one, and I did rather well and liked it. But writing was not seen as a great career. When I said, ‘I am going to be a poet,’ my parents said, ‘you can write poems in the evenings, dear, when you get back from your career.’ There was, very much, a push on women my age to get a career and to be professional and to make money.
“I think writers, though, have to invest in a negative economy and not work. This book took me 10 years, and even it makes a phenomenal amount of money that is not good business. If I had made only a tiny bit of money I still would have been as happy with the book.”
The Outlander by Gil Adamson is published by Bloomsbury at 13.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.