Tom Dawe is one of Newfoundland's most distinguished writers. He is an Order of Canada and Order of Newfoundland and Labrador recipient, St. John’s Poet Laureate and he has published 17 volumes of work.
His latest is The Wonderful Dogfish Racket (Pennywell Books/Flanker Press), illustrated by fellow Newfoundlander, C. Anne MacLeod.
In this Q&A, Dawe shares some intriguing insights into the children’s book (also beloved by adults), his creative process and his life as a writer.
What motivated or inspired you to write this book?
TD: I have always been interested in folklore and history. “The Wonderful Dogfish Racket” had its genesis in a couple of images from my childhood – an old man shooting crows for money because the government had placed a bounty on these creatures in response to farmers’ complaints – and my elders talking about the dogfish plague and the government bounty that got out of control. So I constructed a tall tale around the dogfish problem. As the book progressed, the plot became richer with folklore, the usage of old Newfoundland and Labrador words, legend, motifs of politics, witchcraft, gender issues, etc.
Did the work come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
TD: I was a long time struggling with the ending until the charmer rescued me. Once she came into the story things moved faster.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
TD: With so much material in my head and notes and scraps of paper all over the place, the task was how to sort it all out. Of course there is always the problem of starting, confronting the blank page, that dreadful space.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
TD: It was a pleasure to work with Anne MacLeod. How wonderful to be looking forward to her beautiful paintings, her refreshing interpretation of the story. Additionally, I had great fun playing with the language, making rhyme, etc.
What did you learn during the process?
TD: I’m not sure what I learned. Perhaps what I really learned resides in that type of realm St. Augustine was talking about when he said, “I know until you ask me.”
What has the response to the work been so far?
TD: I’ve seen no review in print yet, though many people have said that they enjoy the book, pointing out how much it is a volume for adults as well as children. Everybody seems to love the extensive glossary for old words, phrases and folklore at the end.
What made you want to be a writer?
TD: Whatever it was gave me no choice in the matter. I don’t remember when I didn’t want to create something.
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
TD: Yes. It’s something I have to do. I’m miserable if I don’t.
Is your creative process more one of inspiration or perspiration?
TD: This is a difficult question. For me one is critically relative to the other. Many things inspire me but I tend to be lazy; yet a lot goes on for me in such essential laziness. Once I get down to work, I am inspired even more as other ideas crowd in on me. The most difficult thing of all is staying on track. I’ve always been a more Renaissance person than a specialist.
In your estimation, what makes a good book?
TD: Long after the covers are closed, a good book still speaks to me. Often there are whispers inviting me back to certain specific sections. Sometimes a firmer voice calls me back to the whole. I have a very large library because I find it difficult to part with a good book.
What are your thoughts on the current state of literature in Atlantic Canada?
TD: I am no expert on the topic of Atlantic literature but I read a lot and it seems to me that the literature of this area is in great shape. The Atlantic Canada Book Awards seem to get richer each year with many fine titles appearing.
What can we do better?
TD: Just keep doing what we are doing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
TD: Good writing is a celebration of the concrete or the specific. Never be too abstract. And always write about what you know. Above all, keep journals and notebooks in which you jot down everything that catches your fancy.
What’s next on your creative agenda?
TD: I’m just finishing up my legacy project as poet laureate for St. John’s (2010-2013), a limited edition collection of poetry called, “Shadows in the Aftergrass: Poems Sometimes Haiku.” Also, I am contemplating some new poems, a journal and a children’s book based on an old Christmas ghost story.