About The Author
Mary Lawson was born and brought up in a farming community in Ontario, but moved to England in 1968 and now lives near Kingston-upon-Thames. Her debut, Crow Lake (2002), was translated into 23 languages. Her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, also set in the fictional town of Struan in Northern Ontario, was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club.
Her third novel, Road Ends, extends from the silver rush in Northern Ontario in the early 1900s to London in the 60s. Mary Lawson gently reveals the intricacies and anguish of family life, the push and pull of responsibility and individual desire, the way we can face tragedy and, in time, hope to start again.
Below, Mary discusses how she was able to draw on her own experiences of the Swinging Sixties for the London sections of the book, how she wrote her second novel to distract herself from the rejection of her first and what makes winter in Ontario tolerable.
Author image © Graham Jepson
Questions & Answers
In Road Ends you return to the Northern Ontario town of Struan, which was also the setting of Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge. Did you always know you were going to return there and also revisit two or three of the characters from those novels?
I'm aware now that when you read the books it does look as if they were planned, but the truth is I plan nothing when I write. Crow Lake, my first book, evolved out of reflections on my childhood growing up in a small farming community in Canada, and although the themes of the book are universal I set it in Canada because I felt that was where it belonged. I had no idea that other books would follow. But I loved writing Crow Lake, and when I'd finished I missed it - missed the writing, missed the characters, missed the excuse to spend time in Canada inside my head. So when I decided to write another book (principally to distract myself from the rejection slips Crow Lake was gathering) I set it in the same area. On an impulse, I decided to link the two books by having one character in common - Dr Christopherson. Only after The Other Side of the Bridge was finished did I realize that if a doctor was required in the second book it would logically have to be Dr Christopherson, because I'd said in Crow Lake that he was the only doctor for a hundred miles.
It took me more than five years to write The Other Side of the Bridge and by the time it was completed, Crow Lake had stopped garnering rejection slips and was a bestseller. That gave me the confidence to begin a third book. From the outset I felt that the story required the rigour and isolation of a northern setting, and by that time I knew the imaginary town of Struan so well that it seemed natural to set Road Ends there. Once again Dr Christopherson put in an appearance. Then, when I was about half way through Road Ends, I realized that there was also a role for two of the main characters from Crow Lake. I was delighted; I'd always liked both of them and it was great fun being able to revisit them at a different time in their lives.
But their appearance wasn't planned. Nothing was, it all just evolved. Each book stands on its own - you don't need to have read any of them to fully 'get' the others.
You paint a very vivid and realistic portrait of London in the 60s. How far were you able to draw on your experiences when you first moved to England in 1968?
I was twenty-two when I arrived in London back in 1968 - almost the same age as Megan - and I drew heavily on my own impressions when writing that bit of the story. By and large the way London strikes her is the way it struck me. The noise! That was the worst thing. And the crowds! Oxford Circus at rush-hour almost literally took my breath away.
I had a much easier time of it than Megan because one of my brothers was here, whereas Megan was entirely on her own. In addition, I had spent three years at university in Montreal, whereas Megan had never seen a city before. But still, London and Londoners in the 60s seemed to me, little girl from the sticks that I was, to have a confidence I had never come across before, and I did find it intimidating.
Megan didn't so much leave home as escape or even flee to London. How far do you identify with her and her absolute need to leave Canada?
I'm not sure that Megan felt an absolute need to leave Canada, specifically. She felt an absolute need to leave home, and I most certainly identify with that. I grew up in a small farming community like the one described in Crow Lake - a church, a school and a general store. Much as I loved it, by the time I reached my late teens I was desperate to leave. I craved the anonymity of a big city, where no one knew you or knew your family and you could be (or so I thought!) whoever you wanted to be. It was while I was writing Crow Lake that I realized fully, for the first time, that you never leave your home or family entirely. For good or ill, they are always with you.
How did you decide which of the three narratorial voices would be in the first person and which in the third?
As with everything else in my writing, the structure of Road Ends wasn't a conscious decision. Edward was a difficult character to write. He behaves so badly to his family that it is hard to have any sympathy for him, and yet I felt that at heart he was a good man. The question for me as I was creating him was why he behaved as he did. There is a saying: 'To understand is to forgive.' I needed to understand Edward if I was going to do justice to him. I needed to get inside his head and work out who he really was, and convey that to the reader, and the best way to do that was to 'become' him. Essentially that is what you do, when you use the first person - and it's what you're asking the reader to do.
I didn't think about it like that while I was writing it though - this is rational hindsight speaking! I tried him in the third person and it didn't work, so I tried him in the first person, and that worked better.
Parents who are absent in one way or another, whether through death or neglect or other circumstances, are a recurring theme in your novels. How conscious is that?
Not only is it unconscious as I'm doing it, I don't know where it comes from! I can think of no parallel in my own life. It's a puzzle.
You came to writing relatively late and struggled to find a publisher for Crow Lake. What made you persevere in the face of repeated rejection?
It was very difficult. Very demoralizing. Crow Lake was turned down by one literary agency after another for almost four years. If I hadn't had such a supportive family I'm sure I would have given up. But I loved writing, so I kept writing, and eventually I got lucky. A tremendous amount depends on luck in this business. Unless you 'know' someone, which I did not, there is no guarantee that any book, however good, will get published.
You are very sympathetic to all your characters, even to those who on the surface are the least likeable or who even go out of their way to alienate themselves. Do you feel the past always justifies the present?
I don't feel the past justifies the present, but I do feel it influences it.
Your characters pay a high price for their mistakes but are their mistakes also the making of them?
I'm not sure about the answer to this one. In Road Ends Megan makes a trivial mistake that has far-from-trivial consequences, and yes, you could say it is the making of her in that it forces her to deal with life in a foreign country on her own. But Arthur Dunn, in The Other Side of the Bridge, makes a wrong call when his infuriating brother Jake cries out for help, and I think it's hard to find any good that comes from that. And in Crow Lake, Matt Morrison pays a desperately high price for his mistake, and I wouldn't say it was the making of him. It didn't destroy him though - I think it's is important to say that. He dealt with it, and made a good life for himself and his family in spite of it.
What makes winter in Ontario tolerable - it seems so harsh, relentless and unforgiving in Struan it's hard to work out why people stay.
I'm sure many people in the north ask themselves that question every winter! But every summer, what with the lakes and the forests and the long hot days, they forget. Winter or summer, the Canadian north is staggeringly beautiful. It gets its hooks into you. A lot of people - particularly those who were born there - find it very hard to leave, and many who do are drawn back.
There seems to be something about landscapes that challenge you; they remind you of your insignificance, and I think that's a good thing.
Can we look forward to hearing more about Struan in the future?
I hope so!