Coach House asks Tristan Hughes a few questions about Eye Lake
Coach House Books asks author Tristan Hughes a few things about Eye Lake.
CH: We've heard that Clarence O’Callaghan -– the eccentric entrepreneur who discovers Eye Lake and later disappears -- is based on a character from your life. Is this true?
TH: Yes, it is true. Clarence is based on my great-uncle, Tom Rawn. Tom was the original settler of a town called Atikokan, in northwestern Ontario. He arrived there in 1899, in a canoe -- or where 'there' would be (it was just bush back then) -- and started building a hotel and a house. They say he'd somehow guessed that the CNR was going to put a line through the area (and sure enough, a year or so later, they did.) I grew up hearing family stories about Tom. He came across as a romantic, larger-than-life figure, a kind of backwoods entrepreneur -- restless, visionary, mysterious and maybe a little bonkers too. And then, to add to the romance and mystery, forty years after arriving in the area he went off alone into the woods on a prospecting trip and vanished off the face of the earth.
CH: Eye Lake features three characters from different time periods who disappear inexplicably. Why the fascination with mysterious disappearances?
TH: I guess Tom might well have been the original source of that fascination. I've always been interested in the ways that the missing haunt us, and in how the impact of a disappearance can continue on through the generations -- manifesting itself firstly as the emotional limbo of semi-bereavement, and then later as a persisting absence, a question mark that hovers forever over the history of the family. We inherit the missing and the disappeared: it is the branches of our family trees that are inexplicably and abruptly broken that perhaps most strongly demand our attention.
CH: You've lived in Wales most of your life. So why set your gothic novel in northern Ontario? Is Wales not creepy enough for you?
TH: I was actually born in Atikokan, and spent the first five years of my life there (plus all my summers while I was growing up), so it seemed rather inevitable I'd write about it in the end. These days I divide my time more or less evenly between Wales and northern Ontario. I think I'm very lucky that the two places that are most special to me, that I love most, are also places that I find endlessly fascinating and compelling. They are my greatest resource as a writer.
CH: In Eye Lake, you work with a very distinct first-person voice. Eli O'Callaghan, despite his learning disability, is a compelling storyteller and social observer. What made you choose to tell your story through Eli?
TH: This may sound a little weird, but in some ways I think Eli chose to tell it that way. I'd always had the story in mind, or a version of it at least -- the first story I ever wrote, as a nine year old, was about my great-uncle -- but I'd never quite figured out how to tell it. Then one day I sat down at my desk and started writing and Eli's voice kind of took over. He unlocked the story for me: once I'd discovered his voice there was no other way to tell it.
CH: Does the fictional town of Crooked River, Ontario have any basis in reality? How about Eye Lake?
TH: Yes, they do both have a basis in reality. Crooked River is based on Atikokan, and Eye Lake is based on a nearby lake called Marmion (most people call it the floodwaters). Marmion was created in the 1940s when they drained a lake called Steep Rock and diverted the Seine river, in order to mine the iron ore beneath the bed of Steep Rock. It was one of the great feats of civil engineering in Canada at that time. I remember being taken fishing on the floodwaters as a boy, and seeing the tree trunks still sticking up out of the surface of the water, and looking below at the boughs of a drowned forest. My grandmother used to have a camp on Steep Rock Lake, before it was drained, and she still remembered them draining it –- remembered watching from the shore as the waters fell.
CH: Near the novel's beginning, Eli says: 'In my experience most water is like a good dog: give it time and it'll find its way home, back where it belongs.' What does this statement signify in a novel about departure and abandonment?
TH: In many ways Eye Lake is a novel about return and recovery as much as it is about departure and abandonment; or at least there is a precarious balance between those themes in the book. I think the end of the novel holds out some kind of hope that both the characters and the landscape will recover from the scars their histories have left on them. There is always a chance they will find their way home.
CH: One of the most evocative images in the novel is that of the faux-European castle submerged in a lake in rural Ontario. Where did this idea come from?
TH: It came initially from a real castle in the wilderness, called White Otter Castle. It was built north of Atikokan in the 1920s by a man called Jimmy Mcquat, in what is still quite a remote area (you can only access it by boat or float plane). He built it all by himself, by hand, out of logs, and it took him over twenty years to complete.
It's still standing, and I've visited it several times. Nobody knows why he built it.
CH: Eye Lake is a story about industry: its successes, its failures, its costs and its ultimate decline. It's also about the weird pathology that prompts industrious people to work harder and harder, sometimes on completely futile projects. Can you talk more about the theme of industry and the way it operates in your novel?
TH: There are two types of industry at work in Eye Lake: mining and the building of the castle by Clarence. In many ways Crooked River is a classic boom and bust town. It's the nature of extractive industries to take what they came for and then move on, leaving behind the people and landscape they've so dramatically shaped: whole places and communities that linger on in the aftermath of the history that brought them into being. Eye Lake touches on some of the psychological consequences of this process; it is often pervaded by the haunting sense of loss and confusion it leaves behind.
I'm intrigued by buildings that don't have their origin in anything practical or pragmatic -- that are built out of love, or ambition, or faith, or madness … or just because. There is something baffling and tragic -- and oddly noble -- about the quixotic endeavours of builders like Clarence.