Formed by Fire
by Tara Bradbury
The Telegram (St. John’s)
14 July 2012
“Sometimes you need the distance to be able to see more clearly,” says Samuel Thomas Martin. It’s a philosophy he’s learned the hard way, and a theme that could be applied to his new novel.
Martin, author of the BMO Winterset Award-shortlisted collection of short stories, “This Ramshackle Tabernacle,” has just had his first novel, “A Blessed Snarl,” published by Breakwater Books.
The book isn’t without some heavy subject matter: Patrick Wiseman, a Pentecostal pastor, moves back to Newfoundland with his wife, Anne, and son, Hab, to start a new church.
Anne leaves him for a man she met on Facebook and Hab moves in with his girlfriend, Natalie, a girl with an alcohol problem and a fiery past.
While Patrick deals with the loss of his marriage and a confrontation with his father — a Catholic who may or may not be covering up an old crime — Hab has troubles of his own with Natalie. Hab begins to wonder about her when a woman is nearly burned alive in a house fire.
The novel started out as a series of short stories, based not around Patrick, but Natalie — and the idea for her was inspired by two real-life events.
When Martin, an Ontario native, and his wife, Samantha, moved to St. John’s, the moving truck shipping their possessions to Newfoundland caught fire. The couple lost most of their belongings.
“We had to sort through insurance stuff, and what wasn’t fire damaged was smoke damaged, so that was a big ordeal, dealing with that and all the emotions tied up with something like that when you move,” Martin says. “We had to start at ground zero. I think we lost 70 or 80 per cent of our stuff. That experience was percolating, but I didn’t want (the stories) to be about my experience. I wanted to draw on what I knew about it emotionally.
“A friend of ours came to visit us from New York and she had just had her tenement building in Chinatown burn, and she actually lost everything. We were sharing stories and then I asked her if I could use that idea.”
From that inspiration came Natalie, the right side of the story. Martin then began searching for the left half, a character who was as far removed from Natalie as possible, but whose life could still intersect hers.
Having grown up in the Pentecostal church and having recently read Marilynn Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gilead,” a fictional autobiography of a dying pastor who is writing letters to his young son, Martin came up with Patrick.
“I’m very interested in what people believe and how that changes,” Martin says. “There’s this kind of idea that the only plot arc in terms of faith is if people have it and lose it and become enlightened. I know a lot of very interesting stories about people who begin a faith journey in a certain community and they don’t wind up there. They’re either forced out or they choose to leave, or sometimes the community collapses on them, but they’re looking for something beyond themselves. I wanted to balance that with people doing that in a secular context.”
Martin wrote 16 short stories for the book, in a mix of tenses and points of view. At the last minute, and after getting feedback from different readers, he pulled it back from the publisher and restructured it. He turned his series of mini-canvases into one big painting, so to speak.
“I said, ‘If it’s going to be a novel, I’m going to put it all in third person and follow the storylines as I have them.’ It actually became more fun at that point,” Martin says. “I lined up the small canvases and I could see what colour needed to flow into the next one. I just created enough distance that I could add in a bit, and I think it became more richly textured.”
Martin had originally planned to create a sort of illuminated manuscript, combining his writing with artwork. Because of the costs involved, he later settled on using images instead of chapter titles, as a visual metaphor and a way of illustrating the story in each chapter. There are four: a Gerald Squires lithograph called “Winged Torso,” Jim Maunder’s “Man Nailed to a Fish,” an image from Boyd Chubbs’ ink drawing series “I Make a Covenant with my Eyes” and a fiery photograph, taken by Martin, called “Guy Fawkes Night,” taken Nov. 5, 2010.
“I had Natalie in my mind at that point, and I thought it was a picture she would take,” Martin explains.
“A Blessed Snarl” has been officially launched, and is available in bookstores. Next week, Martin will hold signings at Chapters, Coles, Costco and other independent bookstores, and an Atlantic Canadian tour is planned.
He’s begun working on his next book, another novel, which he says is set on a ficticious island off the north coast of Newfoundland and is inspired by a recent artist residency he completed on Fogo Island.
At the end of the month, however, he and Samantha are packing the moving truck again, this time headed to Orange City, Iowa, where he’ll start a job teaching creative writing at the local university.
The couple has talked about what would happen if the truck caught fire this time around, and have come to the conclusion that something like that can’t happen twice.
“The other conclusion was that even if it does, we’ve been through it,” Martin says. “It would still be shocking, but we know that we could survive it.”