Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Sarah Tolmie

Sarah Tolmie is a poet, speculative fiction writer, finalist for the Crawford Award and professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her books of poetry, Trio in 2015 and The Art of Dying in 2018, were shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award and the Griffin Prize, respectively. Her fiction includes the novels The Little Animals (2019) and The Stone Boatmen (2014), the dual novella collection Two Travelers (2016), and the short fiction collection NoFood (2014). 

Tolmie's new novella is The Fourth Island.

My Q& A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

If your book is set on an island — and explores what has been called “island knowledge” — you need the word island in the title. This book is set in the Aran islands, off the west coast of Ireland. There are three of them. This story imagines a fourth one: The Fourth Island. The title came to me early on. Various people suggested adding in “Aran” but I resisted. It seemed to me more evocative without it.

What's in a name?

Names are critical. They are critical in verisimilar or historical fiction (and there’s a lot of that in this book) and differently critical in fantastic fiction (and there’s a lot of that, too). In the first case you need plausibility and accuracy; in the second you need good sound. As a poet I am always fussy about how words and names sound. Names in this book are regional and historical and as such they do a lot of work differentiating cultures and periods. For example, much of the timeline of The Fourth Island runs through Inis Mor (a real Aran isle) and Inis Caillte (the lost island that I invented) in 1840 and the names there are Irish (Mairin, Aoife, Jim Conneely) where in an intersecting timeline set during Cromwell’s campaigns in the seventeenth century the significant names are English (Meg, Richard).

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would have liked this particular book. I would have loved to have written it at 18, though I could not have done so. A lot has come together over a decade of fiction writing for me and I think this novella finally achieves a kind of assuredness and repose that I associate with Ursula Le Guin, who has always been a touchstone.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings. As a rule, endings. Certainly with this book, difficult to draw to a close. I had the text of the ending written into the first draft but transposed it several times. On the other hand, in my 2019 novel The Little Animals I wrote the last page very early on — possibly as an incentive to keep working on a long book that was very tough to write. The Aran isles book, on the other hand, flowed out seamlessly and was complete, end to end, in three months. Only sorting out the ending took time.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see some of me in my characters. Other readers who know me personally might see more. Many of my central characters are contemplatives: artists or scientists. The biggest stakes are about ideas. I have written one or two action heroes here and there but they rarely hold my attention.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a medievalist by training so almost all historical phenomena interest me. I am highly interested in the history and practice of dance, and of natural philosophy and early science.
Visit Sarah Tolmie's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Fourth Island.

My Book, The Movie: The Fourth Island.

--Marshal Zeringue