Our Canadian Living Book Club pick for April is Consumption by Kevin Patterson, a novel set primarily in Canada's North. (Click here to read an excerpt from the book.) We spoke with Patterson about his inspiration, his writing process and his love of the land.
Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for this novel?
Kevin Patterson: I've worked in the Inuit hamlets of the west coast of Hudson Bay since 1994. Over that time I've been very moved by both the pace of social change there -- the loss of traditional ways of seeing the world, the affinity for and comfort with the land -- and by the social disarray that change of this pace produces. The way people live influences the way they sicken, and so there has been a corresponding change in the predominant pathologies and as a doctor I've been struck by the emergence of obesity and cardiovascular diseases even as some the traditional illnesses like botulism and "seal finger" and TB are settling a little.
CL: How did you develop the characters?
KP: The book began for me as picture of a woman in her house with her children all in bed as a blizzard hammers on the walls. The woman started talking to her children and as they began moving around they became more real to me. That sounds flaky, I know, but that was how it worked for me.
CL: Did you consult anyone in your depictions of Inuit culture, or have you spent enough time in the North that you feel comfortable navigating it?
KP: I pestered the janitors and the clerk interpreters and the translators at the Rankin Inlet Nursing Station for five years as I was working on this book.
CL: How does Amanda fit into the overall narrative?
KP: She's a counterpoint to Victoria's kids; she has similar problems and she makes the point that these are not the problems of the Inuit, these are our problems, Northerners and Southerners, and our increasingly disaffected kids who baffle, and are baffled by, their parents. The preoccupation with fantasy worlds of gangsta rap, Pokemon, manga, PS2, Wii -- all these are responses to neglectful adults; their uncles and aunts and parents who should be showing their kids how to move through the world but aren't for whatever reason. The kids aren't revered, so neither are the adults and so the cracks in families just ramify.
CL: I've read that Consumption was originally intended to be nonfiction. Why did you choose to make it a novel instead?
KP:Because at bottom, I'm interested in fear, and in courage and cowardice and these are easier to get at through fiction, where you can enter people's heads.
CL: And what is the role of the epilogue?
KP: It reveals Balthazar's thoughts in a way that he isn't able to directly. He is a timid man who is almost inarticulate about his demons, but the reader can see them in the way Balthazar describes the world in the end papers.
CL: Can you describe your writing process?
KP: Procrastination. Self-contempt. Admonition. Constipated little bits of agonizingly reluctant-to-emerge words. Unanticipated productivity. Gratitude. Repeat.
CL: You don't work full-time as a writer -- how do you fit writing into your schedule?
KP: I work on quiet call nights in the hospital, on airplanes and on my sailboat when I have a bit of time -- I cram it into wherever it will fit.
CL: Is there any significance in your choices to live in Canada's warmest region and also work in its coldest? What draws you to places?
KP: I like a certain grandeur to a landscape, which both the Arctic and coastal BC have. I like it to be at all times clear that people aren't the dominant fact of a particular geography.
CL: Who are some of your favourite authors? And your favourite books?
KP: • Mark Helprin: Winter's Tale, and his first two collections of short stories Dove of the East and Ellis Island
• Bruce Chatwin: Songlines, In Patagonia
• Patrick Leigh Fermor: Between the Woods and the Water; A Time of Gifts
• MFK Fisher: How to Cook a Wolf -- all of her travel/food writing
• Marissa Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
• Roz Chast: Crumby
CL: Are you working on any other projects right now?
KP: I have a new sailing/travel book about the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, called Becalm, underway, and also a book of oral histories about the war in Afghanistan which I'm helping edit. I also have a few journalism projects on the go.