Yesterday at City Hall, the Pointe-Claire Library hosted an evening with prizewinning Canadian author Jane Urquhart which will certainly stand as one of the highlights of the Library’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
It also coincided with Public Library Week, a fact which seemed to genuinely delight Urquhart who claims that she would not have become an author without the public libraries that fed her creative imagination as a child and teen, and brought her the inspirational highs of such books as Wuthering Heights (which stoked her burning desire to gain access to the adult section as a teenage reader!), and which initiated her into the world of poetry—especially the works of Canadian poets Alden Nowlan and Leonard Cohen—where she felt that she had discovered “a secret language, on the edge of understanding”.
This won’t surprise anyone who has read Urquhart’s work: her writing voice is rich and poetic. What did surprise me, though, is how funny she is.
I’ve read three Urquhart novels: Away (1993), The Underpainter (1997) and The Stone Carvers (2001). I think I went on a streak a decade or so ago, and read them in close succession. But my memory of them has been bleached to some degree by everything I’ve read since then. What I remembered best is the quality of her prose and the tone, the mood of her works, which was subtle and solemn.
So it was especially delightful to discover her disarming and dry sense of humour. This was never more evident than when she read us an excerpt from her most recent novel, The Night Stages (2015). As Urquhart read, the poetic rhythm of her prose, the musicality of it became apparent, but so too did all of the wit and humour of the scene being described (set in the Irish countryside). It suddenly seemed so obvious! And it made me wonder how much of the author’s funniness had escaped me in my previous reading of her work.
Although the promotion of The Night Stages was the principal reason for Urquhart’s visit to Pointe-Claire, the evening soon morphed into an exploration of the process of creative inspiration and the interplay between a writer’s actual life and the fictional worlds he/she imagines.
This was so because it is the genesis story of The Night Stages.
It was fascinating to hear the author describe her personal connection to the myriad elements that she eventually wove into her narrative.
In her singular interpretation of the axiom “write what you know”, Urquhart set about explaining how a trip to Newfoundland reintroduced her to Ken Lochhead’s mural in Gander International Airport which provided the initial spark of inspiration for her novel, also sharing the fact that Lochhead was her husband’s friend, and that he had given her a folding postcard of the mural which sat near her laptop all through the writing of the novel.
She then described the serendipitous sequence of events that led her to purchase a small cottage in County Kerry, Ireland in the late 1990’s (where she lived and wrote several months a year for almost two decades and where a part of the novel is set), explaining that many—though not all—of the characters in The Night Stages were inspired by real people she encountered there. At once, I understood why the excerpt she had read to us sounded so authentic and vivid.
It is also during her time in County Kerry that Urquhart discovered the Rás Tailteann, Ireland’s own Tour de France, and the cycling culture that also figure prominently in the novel.
Because few of those in attendance had yet had a chance to read The Night Stages, plot details and themes were less important than Urquhart’s evocative firsthand account of a creative literary process that extended well beyond four years.
Still, through the mysterious alchemy of writing, she has created a work that extends the life of both the narrative and its inspiration.