A photo of Mary Lawson, author of A Town Called Solace, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a blue and grayscale background.
Features

‘J.D. Salinger changed my life’: 21 Questions with Mary Lawson

The author of the Booker Prize-longlisted A Town Called Solace on Alice Munro, the pleasures of pond-watching, and… sticking electrodes onto the chests of hairy steel-workers in Wales.

Mary Lawson has only been an author for two decades now, which makes her accomplishments in that time even more impressive: her first novel Crow Lake, published in her 50s, was a New York Times bestseller, and won a Canadian First Novel Award in 2002 and the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize in 2003. Her second, The Other Side of the Bridge, garnered Lawson a Booker Prize longlist nomination.

Today, the decorated writer is celebrating the recent release – and almost immediate Booker Prize-longlisting – of her latest novel, A Town Called Solace. Set in the northern part of Ontario, Canada in 1972, the book tells the story of three people brought together by fate and their life stories, which twist a narrative braid of remorse and grief, punctuated by a dark sense of humour.

The mark the novel’s release, we asked Lawson our 21 Questions about life and literature. Here, she discusses a young love of horses, a recent love of ponds, and the fan for whom one of Lawson’s characters truly came to life.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Alice Munro. Her writing is a kind of magic, I can’t figure out how she does it. I think she writes short stories because she doesn’t need to write long ones – she can say in a few pages what takes most of us a book.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Black Beauty. I was crazy about horses.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I reread it 40 years later and thought it was the longest sermon I’d ever read, but when I was a teenager it blew me away.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'When I was a teenager The Grapes of Wrath blew me away'

For Esme – With Love and Squalor. It’s a short story in the collection of that name by J.D. Salinger. I was in my thirties when I read it. It’s set in a tea-room in war-time England and centres on a conversation between an American GI and a young, very properly brought up English girl. It is hilarious and heart-breaking and the characters come across so vividly that you can almost reach out and touch them. In the course of reading it I changed from thinking vaguely that it would be nice to try to write, to thinking I absolutely have to write! So I did.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Sticking electrodes onto the chests of hairy steel-workers in Shotton Steelworks in North Wales, back in the 1970s. I was working in the Behavioural Science Unit of the British Iron and Steel Research Association, and we had been asked to assess the heat stress men were under while walking up and down hot slabs of steel, burning out defects with oxy-acetylene torches. Monitoring their heart rates (hence the electrodes), as well as core temperatures and recovery times, gave us an indication of heat stress for each individual.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Set your work in Canada. You write best about your home.’ It was said to me by the fiction editor of a magazine when I was trying to both learn my craft and make some money (not an easy task) by writing short stories.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I was told, ‘Set your work in Canada. You write best about your home.’

There are two of them, both by Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe. Those two books basically taught me how to write a novel. They are magnificently well-structured, simple but profound, with characters who stay with you forever. I’ve read them countless times, trying to figure out how she does it; my copies of both of them bristle with post-it notes.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

War and Peace. I’ve tried and tried.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A child psychologist. Children are the most interesting creatures I know.

What makes you happiest?

Being with my family. Trite but true.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

'If I wasn't an author, I'd be a child psychologist. Children are the most interesting creatures I know.'

Pond-watching. I got hooked on it many years ago when we dug a pond in our garden and filled it full of tap water, and in four days it was full of life. Eventually we had everything in there, from great-crested newts to dragonfly larvae so fearsome they could have been the model for the alien in Alien.

While I was writing Crow Lake my addiction became even more serious – a lot of Crow Lake grew out of that pond.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

My desk in the living room, looking out over the back garden. I don’t like to be shut away; it makes me feel I’m missing out on life, and I need – not want but need access to the outdoors. Family are welcome to wander in and out of the living room provided they don’t talk to me.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

It was years ago, at an event while I was on a publicity tour for Crow Lake. During the Q&A a woman said she’d been three-quarters of the way through the book before she realised one of the characters (Luke) was gay.

Me (slightly nonplussed): ‘Actually he wasn’t gay. Remember the scenes with Sally McLean?’

Her, after a pause, ‘Well, I still think he was.’

'Reading in the bath wrecks the books'

Me, ‘Um… well… he wasn’t.’

Her (hotly): ‘But you can’t know that!’

I’m still not sure if we were having an existential discussion or she didn’t quite grasp the concept of fiction and thought Luke must have been based on a real character.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Anne Enright. I love her writing and I’ll bet she’s great company. I’d order a takeaway – it would be unkind to subject her to my cooking.

What’s your biggest fear?

Pain.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Boundless energy.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

No. I prefer a shower, and it wrecks the books.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Tea.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Middlemarch by George Eliot.

What inspired you to write your book?

An image of a small girl standing at a window, watching a strange man carry four big boxes into the living-room next door. I genuinely have no idea where that image came from but it raised so many questions – what’s in the boxes, who’s the man, why is the child standing at the window, what is she feeling as she watches the man – that I had to carry on and find the answers.

 

A Town Called Solace is out now.

Author photograph at top: Graham Jepson
Image design: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more