“It’s not another book about Newfoundland, is it?”

Over a year ago, I launched my website, www.thegoldandsteelsaga.com, and announced to anyone that would listen that I was working on a fantasy series. My first step in getting the word out was to get myself a business card and canvas Sci-Fi on the Rock 9, where I knew a potential audience would be. (I had attended Sci-Fi on the Rock twice before, loved it, and couldn’t wait to go back again) As I began talking to other attendees and briefing them on what the series was about, I found myself answering the same question at every second or third interaction: “It’s not another book about Newfoundland, is it?”

For those of you who have read As Fierce as Steel, (thank you for that, by the way, it means the world to me) you know already that my series is definitely not about or set in Newfoundland and I assured everyone who asked that question of the very same thing. However, what their question highlighted at the time was a growing sentiment among young, adult readers towards the more renowned pool of local writers. They feel as though there is no variety in locally produced material beyond it being a non-fictional account about, or a fictional story set, in Newfoundland and Labrador. To be honest, I felt the same way myself and if a local writer had approached me with the same pitch, my response might well have been the same as the one I frequently got. In fact, until I started going to conventions like Sci-Fi on the Rock, Avalon Expo and Atlanti-Con, I had no idea there was any variety in local writers. Over the past year, though, I’ve met incredibly talented authors like Scott Bartlett, Erin Vance, Matthew LeDrew, Ellen Curtis and Nicholas Morine and somehow, despite their skills with the written word, I had never heard the names of these young Newfoundlanders mentioned anywhere in local media. The question of why, seemingly obvious at this point, was one that I didn’t find a resounding answer to until I was a published author myself.

On April 1st of 2016, at Sci-Fi on the Rock 10, I launched As Fierce as Steel to the literary world. Within a month, one hundred and ten copies were sold and sent amongst the masses to be read and hopefully enjoyed and I am already working at the next instalment. At the convention, I spoke with familiar faces from conventions past and even more readers and as every one of them picked up my book to have a gander at, that same question cropped up again and again, “It’s not another book about Newfoundland, is it?”

What I came to understand from my fellow writers that weekend and what I have been learning through my own experience since then, has highlighted a bleak outlook for all but a few young writers.

This province’s arts and tourism identities have been built on showcasing the beautiful island I call home and our equally breath-taking piece of the mainland that is Labrador. Art galleries in the city are full of colourful, vibrant art pieces featuring dories, saltbox houses, fishing stages, majestic seascapes, rows of colourful St. John’s townhouses, and every other facet of the Newfoundland culture that can be rendered on a canvas. Stores across the province are abound with t-shirts, hats and keychains emblazoned with cultural items and phrases like the Newfoundland Dog and ‘Waddya at, b’y’ and it is all well and good, as after all, we have a unique cultural identity here in this province and we have every reason to be proud of that. As such, alongside that art and merchandise or in its very own local section of the province’s bookstores, you’ll find a selection of books written by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that come in one of three varieties:

  1. Fictional stories set on the island or in Labrador.
  2. Non-fictional stories about local history or news-worthy events of the recent past that took place in Newfoundland and Labrador. (By far the most common)
  3. A book written by a local celebrity/politician.

What you won’t find, though, are books written by people from this province that feel that there is more to being a Newfoundlander and Labradorian writer than writing solely about Newfoundland and Labrador. These are local writers who do great work and are worth celebrating and showcasing as members of this province’s wellspring of creative talent and there is no reason for them not to be among the local offerings. Yet, the powers that be in the writing and publishing world of a province that has built a reputation of communal togetherness, kindness and generosity have almost unanimously shunned the new era of writers into the underground.

It’s a bizarre phenomenon I had to experience for myself to really appreciate and I got my own taste of it just over a month ago when I approached a local distributor. I went to their offices with my personal copy of As Fierce as Steel, the cover art of which (by local artist Christina Hamlyn) grabbed their attention and the initial response was quite enthusiastic. I let them borrow that copy to peruse and a week later the book was unceremoniously cast aside with an email. Why? Because Gold & Steel did not meet their self-imposed standard of having something to do with Newfoundland and Labrador.

On one hand you can almost see the sense in that: their market is generally driven by tourists and Newfoundlanders living abroad who want a taste of home and the foundation of their brand is built on delivering that expectation. However, on the other hand, because they and the local publishers are so intent on delivering only that niche product, they are telling any emerging creative minds that the people with the power to support them in their own home province will do no such thing unless they conform to this relatively tiny, niche market that is already over-saturated. They are telling these young people to either leave or survive on their own, as anything not about Newfoundland and Labrador is unmarketable to the distributors/publishers. Rather than help these young minds break through into mainstream North American (and international) markets, they (and I) are getting cold-shouldered for not meeting an increasingly outdated and overdone standard.

The local market is full to the point of utter apathy with books about local culture and history and that I keep hearing the question in the title of this blog post time and time again reinforces that notion. To that end, there is no reason that Scott Bartlett’s Taking Stock couldn’t share shelf space with Jack Fitzgerald’s collections of historical stories, Victoria Barbour’s romance novels or Alan Doyle’s autobiography. In fact, it absolutely should be sharing space with them and Scott and the others I listed earlier should be celebrated as young, creative talents that are ‘made right here’ as the old marketing campaign from the late 90’s went. What better way to show the readers of this province that our writers can produce more than “Yet another book about Newfoundland”.

This is the only province in Canada with such a distinct self-identity, largely because we were so late coming into the Canadian fold and also due in part to our relative isolation from the rest of the country. That same identity and the stubborn determination of the distributing/publishing community within to not show any diversification, are driving the next generation of readers and writers alike away. Anywhere else, these same young writers would be tasked with providing quality, marketable material to publishers in whatever genre they so choose. If it meets that criterion, it has a chance of being sold and they have a chance of living their dream. In Newfoundland, the dream lives or dies by whether the writer happens to set their story in Newfoundland.

As I said before: there is more to being a Newfoundland and Labrador writer than simply writing about Newfoundland and Labrador. There is a huge world out there to write about and some of us have even created huge worlds of our own. We are from this province, we love this province and we give back to this province and will for decades to come. That alone is just as worth showcasing as anything that happens to be written about Newfoundland. Engen Books gets it and they’re the only publisher in this province that I have seen that does, but the bigger brands seem to be deaf to it and they’re the ones that control the market. What that means is that until one of them takes the initiative, or Engen can gain a larger foothold, the young writers who happen to think outside the Newfoundland and Labrador box are effectively shut out and reliant on the local convention circuit unless we are discovered by an outside source.

As it currently stands, though, I aim to keep supporting the underground community that the fine folks at Engen have helped to bring together and we will continue to espouse the essence of what it means to be a Newfoundlander. It is that communal togetherness I spoke of earlier and it runs deeper than the aesthetic of dory boats and saltbox houses can convey. It is the will of a community to survive against whatever the environment and the times can throw at them and the generosity shown to family and neighbour alike to ensure that they can make it through anything. It’s what has kept the tough and hardy people of this province going for generations and keeps these determined, spirited writers working away at our keyboards and supporting one another.

Until next time, may good fortune be upon you.

Chris Walsh.

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