The People Who Stay is a tale of love and redemption in which the heart of family beats like the relentless tide against the rugged Newfoundland shores. Recently e spoke with author Samantha Rideout about the novel and her passion for writing.
When and why did you want to be a writer?
As my mother can attest courtesy of the hundreds of exercise books and binders filled with loose-leaf stories, I have been a diligent writer since I learned how to print. I was always mesmerized by the process of creative writing and how a few blank pages could transform into a something beyond reality. Plus, I was big fan of Robert Munsch. That guy spins a good story; comedy, heart, he has it all! My first grade teacher, Mrs. Barnes, was able to find me his address so I could send him fan mail. I think it’s the only fan mail I ever felt compelled to write, probably (in part) because mail is a fading out as vehicle to express admiration, but I wanted to write him because I was impressed with what he could do and that admiration of him and authors in general made me want to become one.
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
Somewhere along the way, no matter what your profession is, I think all people ask themselves: “Why am I doing this? What is this contributing to society? Am I doing this for selfish reasons? Is this worth the time I’m investing here?” Usually these questions don’t crop up during the fun, exciting writing phase. These are more questions for the editing process, when it’s not so fun and you wonder if there’s a point to your labour. As a reader, I think about how books have a powerful impact and that’s what I want to achieve with my writing. From highbrow to lowbrow, books across the spectrum have made me feel inspired, empowered, emotional, and a million other things. Whether a book is teaching me something or making me feel something, that connection with the written word is something that encourages me to write. Maybe I’ll spend two years working on a book and only one person will read it really connect with it, but if you flip that around, I’ve written something that someone connected with in a meaningful way. That makes it worthwhile during the non-so-fun revision phase when I’m not all hyped up on inspiration. I write because I love it, but I feel my efforts are justified because of the end product: books! If I wasn’t such an avid devourer of books, maybe I wouldn’t still be writing as diligently as I did when I was a little girl. When you’re little you just do what you love, because that’s why kids do, but when you’re older and there are constant demands on your time it feels good to have a reason to keep doing what you love. So I guess I do it for the love of writing and reading books.
What inspired/motivated you to write The People Who Stay?
I wrote the first draft of this novel about five years ago in the awkward summer between my undergrad and the rest of my life. After five years at Memorial (that’s a lot of coffees from Treats in the UC), I had moved home from St. John’s for four months before I started my job in Miami the following September. It’s an awkward age to come home. The people who stayed had their own families, children, houses now and the people who left were still gone. I was in this weird in-between place with ample free time to think and write about all this. I went on long walks through my hometown and spent too much time thinking and listening to introspective music on my iPod, and somewhere in all that I wrote The People Who Stay before I moved to balmy Miami in September when the Atlantic Ocean air was just starting to get crisp and cool. I became a person who left…Now with more perspective I’d like to rewrite it but it would be a different novel about different characters and even Newfoundland would be different in a new version. You can only write about a specific place and a time at that moment in history. Nothing ever feels the exact same way twice.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
It was be difficult to create a version of Newfoundland that is true. Its fiction, but you want readers to feel like it’s real. There are competing interests because I definitely didn’t want to legitimize any “Newfie jokes” because even the word “Newfie” strikes me as offensive because of the pejorative connotations that have been created by the jokes and negative perception outside the province. People seem to believe that Newfoundlanders aren’t intelligent or cultured, but there are some incredible smart people and plenty of culture. Next year a play about Newfoundland is going to be on Broadway here in New York, and these are the inconvenient truths (and I apologize for inadvertently quoting Al Gore) that people would rather ignore and plaster over with a joke about “how to get a Newfie out of a tree.” On the other hand, I didn’t want to write a novel that felt like a tourism commercial or an iceberg calendar. I didn’t want to create an idealized Newfoundland. I wanted it to be Newfoundland as I experienced it growing up and perhaps growing out of a small town “around the bay.” Caught between opposing interests, I tried my best to write about a town that felt like my own small town. I wanted it to feel authentic. Some parts were a little gritty or ugly, but in the end I’m glad I embraced some of less flattering aspects of our “East Coast Lifestyle.” It’s better to be real and a little unflattering than to create an adulated fantasy to which no one can relate.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
I think it would have to be seeing the beautiful cover by Graham Blair when the book was about to be released. Book cover design was one of the things I studied in grad school and unofficially study at least once a week as I shop for books (in a real bookstore, not just online), so I understand how a cover can make or break a book. The cover is the first impression of the contents and it’s kind of like trying to meet someone at a bar, it doesn’t matter how great the personality is, if the outside isn’t attractive, it’s going to be hard to get picked up! Book shopping and meeting people at bars have more in common than one might think and seeing this cover made me think this, “Hey! This book has an awesome opportunity to get picked up!” It was an incredibly validating moment.
What did you learn during the process?
My mother is always right. I originally finished writing what is now Part I of The People Who Stay, thinking the novel was over. After I gave it to my mother, who is always my first reader, and she told me the ending was “terrible” and that sounds like I’m exaggerating but I think that’s actually a direct quote. Maybe she said terrible and depressing, but either way, she didn’t like it. So I went back to the drawing board and came up with Part II, which gave the novel a more satisfying end. I’m a big fan of the bittersweet ending, as a reader and a writer, but my mother reads more than anyone I know so I have complete confidence in her opinion. And if I wasn’t sure, it was clear when I read a review earlier this week that said they almost wrote the book off as chick lit until the second part saved the day—in other words, my mom saved the day. Between you and me, she’s always right.
How did you feel when the book was completed?
It felt gratifying to finish it because unlike a lot of the concepts or characters I build into stories, this felt like a story I had been working on my whole life, long before I ever thought up Sylvia or Charlie. However, once it was written I worried that it catered to such a niche market that it might never end up going from a binder of typed pages to a bookshelf. There was some validity to that worry because it did end up being years before it became anything more than a personal project, but now that it’s out there on bookshelves across the world it feels great to have created a medium to share the strange and sentimental shores of Newfoundland with people who stay, leave, and those who are discovering Newfoundland for the first time in these pages.
What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
I’ve been critical of it myself, which is the double edged sword from any writer who is also an avid reader (unless they are kind of arrogant). I read so many phenomenal books that when I re-read my own work it’s pretty depressing, but the feedback I have received thus far has been better than I could ever have imagined. Most surprisingly, there have been many men who have expressed great appreciation for the book. One man told me he loved the funny details, another couldn’t put it down, and one man said it’s the first thing he’s read in years and he finished it in two days! All the while I’m stunned because I set out to write a book for millennial women to combat the usual fare of Newfoundland literature (you know, fishing boat captains, hunting seals, not something you would necessarily chase with Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes) and yet it seems to appeal to that same audience I was expecting to sit out this Newfoundland read. What I didn’t realize was that when Newfoundland is the main character, the gender or age of the protagonist doesn’t matter. People who love Newfoundland love to read books that showcase their beloved province. I think it’s probably the same reason all the front row seats at elementary school concerts are highly coveted. It doesn’t matter if a kid hits all the right notes, parents want to see the object of their unconditional love center stage.
What makes a good book?
I love this question because I love good books! Any book that leaves me feeling satisfied is, in my opinion, a good book. Yet within that there are pockets of different types of good books: Works like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale disturb you with a dystopian reality and challenge you to think about gender roles and package feminist ideas into a fictional resource that rivals profound speeches or a long form journalism approach to conveying those ideas. P.S. I cannot wait for the ten episode series scheduled for production next year—over thirty years after the book was first printed. There are books that you can’t read without sharing them—the book club books that demand discussion; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; anything by Meg Wolitzer. Then there are dazzling books like The Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald that pack a lifetime of drama into a hundred pages. Of course, the books that make you laugh from writers like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, they are good books too. From the can’t-put-down books to the change-your-life books to the re-think-everything books to the can’t-wait-for-book-club books, there are just so many different definitions of what makes a book good that it’s impossible to boil it down to one simple thing that suits everyone. Yet every reader knows when they’re reading a good book, no matter what type of books they prefer. When you find a good book, it’s something you just know. Some readers have specific must-haves for a book to be good, like those terrible read-the-last-page-first people (*cough* my mother *cough*) and they won’t bother reading a book without a happily ever after. Meanwhile, to someone else the devastating ending is what makes it a good book. My appetite for good books is broad but as long as I feel satisfied, even if (spoiler alert) Gatsby dies at the end, to me, it’s a good book.
Is your creative process more 'inspirational' or 'perspirational'?
Inspiration—100%! When I get fired up about a new idea for a novel, I might as well say goodbye to my family and friends for the next couple months because I’m writing in every spare second and even in the back of my mind while I have to be occupied with something other than my story. When I was back in Newfoundland a few weeks ago to do book signings and interviews for The People Who Stay I got a germ of an idea for a Christmas novel about a big family set in the same town of Cuddlesville, which readers got a taste of inThe People Who Stay. In less than a month I’ve plotted out the entire novel and I’m already nearly 100 pages into it. When I’m inspired it’s like I need to get the whole story out as soon as possible. I write the same way I read a page-turner. I have the same desire to write about what happens next, the same way I want to read “one more chapter” until I finish a book at two in the morning.
What are your thoughts on Newfoundland's literary scene?
There are certain misconceptions of Newfoundland’s literary scene and I know because I’m part of the problem. When I think about Newfoundland books, the first thing that comes to mind is my Pop Anstey’s bookshelf. It’s unfortunate because there is a new thing happening in “Hashtag NL Books” and there are books being written and published for a new audience, but we, speaking as part of the millennial generation, need to start consuming these books and changing our antiquated perception to encompass the fresh and fun Lisa Moore reality of new Newfoundland literature. Newfoundland books aren’t just for your grandfather’s book shelf anymore! Maybe #NotYourPopsBookshelf will become a trend and change it all overnight. But probably not.
What's next on your creative agenda?
I recently finished a completely out-of-the-box project that I took on to stretch myself as a writer. I’ve titled it How I Lost My Best Friend and it’s a cold case thriller about a flight attendant who went missing from a transatlantic flight in the eighties and now her best friend is trying to locate her before the missing woman’s mother dies. Though I should be up to my waist in editing to turn this draft into a polished manuscript, I’ve instead become completely carried away with my new passion project, tentatively titled A Girl Named Christmas. I’ve wanted to write a novel about a big family for years now but it always seemed like it was too ambitious a project, but with some wind in my sails from the positive feedback for The People Who Stay I decided there’s no time like the present. Besides, my mother is probably the single biggest consumer of Christmas books this side of Montreal, so if nothing else I can potentially use it as a Christmas gift! I’m really excited about it and I haven’t been able to stop writing this new novel since I finished plotting it out a couple weeks ago. Maybe if I can keep up this momentum I can come back for another interview with Arts East next fall with a new release!