By Tom Halford
What is the life of a story?
You might scoff at this question. You might snicker. Like some sort of blustering, Dickensian caricature, you might shout, “Books aren’t living things! They are clearly and inarguably inanimate objects!”
That’s true. However, if the right reader picks up the right text, then the story inside that book becomes immediately and intensely alive.
I can remember reading The Hobbit when I was a kid, and in between chapters, I would go walking barefoot in the tall grass just outside my bedroom window. I wasn’t in my parents’ backyard; I was hiking through Middle-earth towards some great adventure.
If we’re being honest, stories and poems are usually met with indifference. The majority of books collect dust, and most stories are forgotten; a few of them, however, are special. They spark something in a reader’s imagination, and that reader brings the story to life in his or her own way.
Daniel Scott Tysdal’s “The Poem” deftly shows how literature has a life of its own. Dark and comedic, Tysdal’s story captures the insane level of chance and chaos involved in the world of creative writing. In this story, a young poet takes a trip to Morocco, has an uncomfortable interaction with a waiter, and from this moment, a poem is born. The poem barely makes it into her first collection but it manages to have some longevity; she adapts it into a longer work, and a quotation from the adapted version is used as an epigraph for a successful science fiction novel. The life of this fictional poem takes many twists and turns.
Aside from Tysdal’s story, a few other works got me thinking about fiction as a living, breathing entity. Two scholarly studies which sparked my interest in tracing the life of fiction after publication include Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo’s Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Literature, which is about the various permutations of literary culture, and Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation, which is about among other things the idea of transculturation, which encourages critics to focus on the location of the source material and the location of the adaptation. If I am able to develop this work into scholarly research, then Philippa Gates and Stacy Gillis’s article “Screening L.M. Montgomery: Heritage, Nostalgia and National Identity” seems like a strong example of using adaptation studies to consider the various changes that one Atlantic Canadian text has taken overtime.
In my study, however, I was not so much interested in the source text or the adaptation (even though both were very interesting) as the person who was inspired to rework someone else’s art into a new form. By chance, I got into contact with a Scottish film-director by the name of Tom Gentle who was adapting “In the Fall”, a short-story by the legendary Canadian author Alistair MacLeod.
A few years ago, Gentle was on the island of Orkney, which is just off the northern tip of Scotland, and he saw the cover of MacLeod’s collection of short-stories titled Island. He thought it was a book set in Scotland, not Canada, and when he sat down to read, he couldn’t put the book down.
Gentle’s short-film titled “In the Fall” was released on July 25th of 2018 and premiered at FIN: The Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax. In my interviews with Gentle, we discussed a range of topics including some of the technical aspects of adapting a short-story into a short-film. One of the most striking striking parts of our conversation, however, was how he understood Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, which at the time of filming, he had never visited.
Gentle said, “My experience is very limited. Cape Breton is a place that I’ve never been and only read about through MacLeod’s prose. And all of his prose has a kind of magical quality … You always kind of mythologize something that you’ve never really experienced.”
There’s magic and mythology to the life of stories. Academic work sometimes looks past this sense of mystery and joy.
To be fair, I can’t imagine writing a successful SSHRC proposal to study mystery or joy. However, there might be funding to study the ways in which Atlantic Canada imports and exports culture with the rest of the world. Herb Wyile’s Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature seems like a perfect text to use as a guide.
I’ve taken the interview that I’ve completed with Tom Gentle, and I’ve fashioned it into a non-fiction short-story. Currently, I’m seeking a home for it. Ah-hem. My goal for now is to find other artists like Gentle who are adapting a work which originated in Atlantic Canada and to interview them as well. If you have stumbled onto this blog and know of anyone, please tell them them about my project.
Note to the reader: Please consider reading more about Tom Gentle and his work as a film-maker. You can find him on IMDB. His short-film adaptation of “In the Fall” is making the rounds in the festival circuit, and he is trying to find a larger venue for his work. Please check out this trailer for “In the Fall”.
Tom Halford is a dad, a novelist, and an ESL instructor at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland. He completed a PhD in Canadian Literature in 2016, which focused on ethics, surveillance, and representations of creative writers. His first novel Deli Meat was released this fall.