Valerie Compton’s Road to the Thomas Head Raddall Award for Atlantic Fiction

Tomorrow night, the winner of the 2012 Thomas Head Raddall Award will be announced, and its generous $20,000 purse will enrich one writer’s life, quite literally. It is essentially the Giller Prize of Atlantic fiction, and this year’s well-rounded shortlist is Heather Jessup (The Lightning Field), Valerie Compton (Tide Road), and Sir David Adams Richards (An Incident in the Life of Markus Paul).

Heather and Valerie hit the road together last month on a Raddall Award roadtrip, and both came back speaking highly of how a literary award can bond writers and celebrate literature, and heighten a sense of community in CanLit. A refreshing take, in the face of imposed competition surrounding awards.

Heather Jessup and I drove 1,400 km together, to readings in Charlottetown, Fredericton, Wolfville and Halifax. We talked about books and writing and life. We made time to seek out good cups of coffee and to put our feet in the water on PEI’s south shore. In Fredericton, my publisher, Goose Lane Editions, took us out for a lovely dinner, and after the Wolfville reading we enjoyed the Gaspereau Press version of welcome: a restorative bonfire evening under more stars than I have seen in years. All along the way, we met wonderful, attentive readers with fascinating observations and questions. It was amazing to read with David Adams Richards at St. Thomas University. And on the last evening, we had the pleasure of reading together with the Atlantic Poetry Prize nominees, Sue Goyette, Warren Heiti and Anne Simpson, at The Company House in Halifax.

“David Adams Richards’ Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul and Heather Jessup’s The Lightning Field are both such beautiful books,” she says. “I have been reading and admiring David’s work for about 25 years, and I instantly loved Heather’s novel when I read it last winter. So I feel honoured that mine was chosen alongside these two. And what a thrill that it’s been chosen for this award which recognizes the life’s work of Thomas Head Raddall. Reading Raddall’s wonderful novel The Nymph and the Lamp was one of the great pleasures of my summer.”

Compton has been writing for twenty years, and a chunk of Tide Road was shortlisted for the CBC’s annual short fiction award in 2004. Her novel tells the story of a mother whose daughter drowned under unsettling circumstances, leaving behind troubling questions and a husband and daughter left stunned by her sudden absence.  The police declare it an accidental drowning, but her mother Sonia suspects otherwise, including foul play at the hands of her son-in-law. Her daughter’s death forces Sonia to “revise her perception of her daughter’s life and dramatically change the way she lives her own.” It is a fantastic novel.

The novel emerged not out of an idea but rather from my fascination with the image of a character who kept appearing whenever I sat down to write: I could see her face, and I could see from the expression on her face that she was trapped in some kind of desperate muddle. So I began the novel in order to work out what was troubling Sonia, and then I completed it in order to try to help her out of all the trouble she was in.

Compton’s crisp, bright writing, is paired with Tide Road’s motif of dealing with loss. The novel hinges on this pull quote from the book, “Memory changes, as the events of history never do … it depends on where you start, on the details you attend to, and the ones you let slip away.” Tide Road is about denial, she says, “and the effect of self-deception on one’s relationships and sense of self. It’s also, I hope, a roadmap out of that dangerous territory.”

When asked what writers have informed her style, she makes a good point. “I’m not sure a writer can recognize her own influences, and I think often the writers we admire are the ones who do things we struggle with. I admire Penelope Fitzgerald for her subtle use of implication and historical oddities, Catherine Bush for the way she makes the details of interesting work part of her characters’ emotional lives, Margot Livesey for her psychologically complex investigations of loss and deception, Lauren B. Davis for her empathy and moral clarity, William Trevor and Alice Munro for their flawless sentences and narrative sleight of hand. I could go on and on,” she says.



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