Gerard Collins is a Newfoundland writer, now living in New Brunswick, where he has recently received a generous grant from ArtsNB to write a novel manuscript entitled Black Coyote and the Magic Café. His first novel, Finton Moon, won the Percy Janes First Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2014 Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award, and was also shortlisted for both the 2014 NL Heritage and History Awards and the 2013 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Before that, his debut short story collection, Moonlight Sketches, which features a number of individual prize-winning stories, garnered the 2012 Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award.
Gerard’s short stories have won literary prizes, been adapted for a university radio play, and been featured in anthologies, journals, television, newspapers and on CBC radio. He has also published creative nonfiction, newspaper articles, journalistic pieces and academic book chapters. University courses have featured his short fiction, while the NL Department of Education has purchased Finton Moon for all high school learning resources centres across the province. He has a Ph.D. in American Gothic literature and has taught at Memorial University and University of New Brunswick.
Gerard regularly presents workshops throughout Atlantic Canada and recently hosted a writing retreat in Saint John. In April 2017, he is offering a retreat in Ireland that includes a five-night stay in a Dublin castle, an extensive tour of Yeats country in the West, and two nights in London, England. He has served as faculty at the prestigious Piper’s Frith writers’ retreat and as a mentor at the Write Stuff program for high school students in Saint John, and the New Brunswick Writers in Schools Program (WiSP). Besides private mentoring, he also has mentored for both the WFNB and WANL mentorship programs. He often edits manuscripts and serves on arts grants and awards juries. You can contact him at www.gerardcollins.ca or on Facebook.
4Q: Thank you Gerard for being our guest on the 4Q. Before we discuss your writing, it is well known that you have assisted many authors through mentoring and workshops. Please tell us about the upcoming workshops you are working on and the benefits to writers.
GC: Thanks for inviting me, Allan. I’m planning a couple of workshops in the Maritimes, but I’m most excited about the creative writing retreat in Ireland next spring, April 20 to May 1.
After the Saint John retreat last winter, which was a major success, a local travel company asked me if I’d be interested in taking the retreats overseas, and I immediately said yes. Last March, we sat down and designed what I think is the “perfect writers’ retreat”. Because this one is in Ireland, my first thought was that we should stay in a castle. So, for the first five nights, we’re staying at the Clontarf Castle hotel, which has a history that goes back to the thirteenth century. After five nights there, we’re heading over to Ennis, on the west side of the island, to stay at the 12th century Old Grounds hotel, and there’ll be visits to Galway, the Cliffs of Moher, a boat tour that includes a jaunt to the gravesite of Ireland’s most famous poet, W.B. Yeats, and a lot more. The tour company has managed to put all of this together – including lots of great meals and a two night stay in London, plus a panoramic tour of that city – for a great price that includes an extensive writing component.
On the retreat, I’ll be giving three creative writing workshops, providing written feedback on a ten-page writing submission, and consulting with each participant one-on-one. I’m most proud of that part because not many retreats do that – provide quality time with, and direct feedback from, the writer-in-residence. There’ll be plenty of time for writers to do walkabout tours, especially in Dublin, and to have long pockets of free time to do some writing on their own. I think that’s essential, as lots of writing actually occurs in the afternoons and evenings, after the workshops. The idea is that, in addition to the writing workshops and feedback, the surroundings – the culture and history of Ireland and of London – will inspire some creative thinking and research for years to come. It’s the kind of writing retreat that can influence a person’s whole approach to writing for a long time.
At the “A Winter’s Tale” retreat in Saint John this past February, we had a packed house for the weekend, and it was about the coziest, most inspiring atmosphere you can imagine. Many of the participants are still in touch with each other, as well as with me, and several have asked if we can do it again some time. At least one, and likely more, of those people are coming to Ireland with us, in fact. Mostly, it’s the individual attention to their writing and the uninterrupted time for writing that people enjoy, but the workshops and even the reading on the last night were pretty special, I’ve been told. One writer said on the feedback form, “This retreat has changed my life.” Pretty big compliment, but I can see how it’s possible. If you’re devoted to becoming a good writer, there’s nothing more valuable than having someone with experience tell you what’s missing from your writing, and what you’re doing well.
I do private mentorships as well, and it’s pretty much the same. I love teaching, and I guess it shows. It’s really gratifying when someone tells me I’ve had a positive influence on their writing.
4Q: I am presently reading your novel Finton Moon and am enjoying it tremendously. Can you give our readers a brief synopsis and tell us what inspired this story.
GC: Finton Moon is the coming-of-age story of a young boy raised in a strict Catholic family in small-town Newfoundland, and people come to believe he can heal with his hands. It’s a funny book, in some ways, and it’s also dark in places. There’s are a couple of mysteries at the heart of the novel, with quite a few interesting characters – my favourite probably being the witchy neighbour Bridie Battenhatch, whose daughter Morgan is a bit of a wild child. He has a best friend named Skeet, and there’s a girl named Mary he is in love with, and another girl named Alicia, from a very poor family, who loves Finton from afar. She even stalks him a little, but she’s a good and kind person. There’s a murder in the town, and Finton’s father gets accused of being involved, and this traumatic event affects Finton’s faith – and social life – quite a bit. It’s a pretty complex, but lighthearted novel. Every day, someone writes or says how much they love Finton.
The inspiration for Finton Moon is my own upbringing in small-town Newfoundland, to some degree, although it’s not autobiographical. I think anyone who reads it will see that there’s a balance between reality and fiction – drawing on what you know in order to create something magical and new. Finton’s ability to heal was inspired, in large part, by some time I spent in the Fraser Valley in B.C. where I was first introduced to spiritual activities like reiki and touch healing that are partly matters of faith and partly quite real. I’m not a great believer in many things, but there’s no denying the physical effects of touching, hugging, therapeutic massage and that sort of thing – for Finton, he doesn’t know if it’s real or not, or where it comes from. He just knows that it seems to work, and that ability makes him an outsider. I know a little bit about that, and I’m sure lots of people can relate. On some level, we’re all outsiders, I think, or at least have known times when we felt like strangers in certain surroundings, among certain people.
4Q: Please share a childhood anecdote or memory.
GC: Most of my best memories are stories I was told about myself, and I’ve told them so often, they seem like memories, even though I actually have no true recollection. I once called out my grandmother because I was displeased with something she had done. I was only four, but, according to family legend, I stood on her front door, in quite the huff, and told her: “You bastard, Nanny!” It must have looked pretty funny to her, although appalling, too, I’m sure. I also, apparently, got chased all the way home by a huge moose, after I’d wandered into the woods near our family home. One of my favourite memories is of skipping Sunday mass to go out on the bay in “Uncle” Rich Power’s dory with him. He said, “Your mother won’t mind, b’y.” He was an old man, who taught me a great many lessons, like how to make a whistle from a dogwood tree, and I believed every word he said. But, apparently, my mother did mind.
4Q: In addition to your novel, you have a collection of short stories called Moonlight Sketches, both of which are available at Chapters. What are you working on now and what’s in the future for you Gerard?
GC: Primarily, I’m working on a novel called Black Coyote and The Magic Café, set in modern-day Sussex. I’m enjoying writing that one. ArtsNB has helped me out with a generous grant for writing it, thankfully. As a full-time writer, that financial boon helps a lot, especially because it’s so competitive and so many writers are worthy. I’m also working on a short story collection called Dying of Exposure, and I recently finished a new novel called My Sister’s Walls, which, although I’m still tinkering with it, I’m hoping will see publication in the near future.
As for the future, I’ve made a shift away from university teaching and towards full-time writing. I’m also doing some mentoring – although I’m pretty selective, being careful of my writing time – and I’m finding that I enjoy giving workshops and, especially, writing retreats. The future looks pretty bright, I must say. The ideas are flowing, and the writing gods have been kind. The time off from teaching right now should yield a pretty good crop of new publications over the next few years. Writing plus travelling makes for a pretty good life.
Thanks again, Allan. I’ve enjoyed this series you’re running on local authors, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
**And the good news is that Gerard will be back next week with an excerpt from his novel Finton Moon. This will be the first back-to-back guest appearance on the Scribbler.
Please leave a comment below, we would love to hear from you.