It’s a meandering tale that will appeal to adults but that should also be on the compulsory school reading lists for tweens and teens in the region (an adventure that kids will enjoy and that imparts life lessons — and a quick geography lesson on the Rideau Canal system). Published this past summer, The Summer of Permanent Wants is a story about a grandmother and granddaughter, Gran and Emmeline, who transform a small canal boat into a floating second-hand bookstore and sail up and down the Rideau Canal Waterway. The books they have on board range from Huckleberry Finn to Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. Along the way, they encounter many marvelous adventures and even more marvelous characters, who live or travel along the canal. We caught up with Findlay to find out a bit more about the book…
To read a review, please visit this link at Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews.
Why the Rideau Waterway?
Nostalgia, mainly. As a kid I spent several summers on the waterway, often staying at the marvellous old hotel called the Opinicon in the village of Chaffeys Locks. I’ve also canoed sections of the waterway. It has a wonderful patchwork texture—some parts are settled and civilized, and others are quite wild.
Is the book for adults or children?
Both, and everybody in between. (Gran is 64 and Emmeline 11.)
Did you know what themes you wanted to explore when you started it? Did you have an ending in mind?
I usually have only the vaguest idea of where I’m going when I start writing, so no, I didn’t know what themes I wanted to explore, and I had no glimmer of a hint of a wisp of an ending. For me the act of writing scares up dozens of possibilities. One of them will keep circling back, and that’s your ending.
In this case, the ending is not the sort where things are rounded off—where you can say, “all’s well that ends well.”
That’s right, because things rarely happen that way in real life. As a reader I’ve always liked endings that hint at the story to come—that simultaneously look back over the book that’s finished and also look ahead, to the untold story. In this case, I think there is a strong element of hope and promise in the untold story.
Each chapter is a story in itself. Why that structure?
I wanted to write a book of tales, but also I wanted the tales to be linked — I wanted a deeper story to unite them all, a story which the reader discovers only gradually. So I guess it’s a (loose) kind of novel in the form of tales.
In the novel, there is a story about a woman who collects darkness (“A Patriot of the Night”) and one about a book that contains everything in the universe (“The Book of the Jewelled Net”). Where did those stories come from?
They came straight from reality. “A Patriot of the Night” was born out of my visit some years ago to the Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve in the Muskoka region, Canada’s first “dark-sky park” — a reserve set aside for viewing the night sky. It’s a beautiful place, and it makes you realize the extent to which light pollution has overrun the urban landscape. In the book I imagined a similar place, Hathaway Flats, that is the primordial source of all the darkness in the universe. In the story, a visitor comes to the Flats to borrow some of that old-time darkness, because her world has been completely taken over by “glow and glare.” Gran and Emmeline sympathize.
“The Book of the Jewelled Net” was inspired by a wonderful hand-crafted book, the work of a friend of mine, Dave Trattles, photographer and convivial wild man. It is a funky scrapbook made of exotic found items, and it’s layered in a way that makes reading it a continual re-discovery. Flipping through it a second time, I found things I had missed on first reading. That gave me the idea of book that is truly inexhaustible, that reveals something new each time you read it— that contains everything in the universe.
What was the most challenging part of the book to write?
Emmeline cannot speak due to a mysterious illness in her past, and she has a very limited grasp of American Sign Language. She’s the main character, but she can’t communicate except in fragments. While writing the book, I often asked myself why on earth I had chosen a protagonist who couldn’t speak. But really, I didn’t choose her — she was there from the beginning, and I could only do my best for her.