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Tristan  Hughes

Tristan Hughes

October 2008

Tristan Hughes is Canadian, but you would hardly know it.

For one thing, the Prairies scare him.

"I find that open space somewhat terrifying," says the award-winning author, who has produced three highly-acclaimed novels in the past five years. "I get that same feeling in northern Ontario," he continues over a beer in the padded and warm environment of a Toronto hotel lobby. "I get this fear of the bigness of it," he says, shrinking down a bit in his chair for emphasis.

Born in Atikokan, a small town in northern Ontario, he moved with his parents and elder sister to Wales, where his father was born, when he was 4, and for the next 10 years of his life returned to Canada every summer for three months.

But it is the Welsh landscape that comforts him most and informs his writing - at least for now. His recent novel, Revenant, is the first to be published in Canada - a testament to his rising importance on the literary scene. Like his previous novels, The Tower and Send My Old Bones Home, it is set on the Isle of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, in northwest Wales where his father's family has had a farm for several generations. The younger Mr. Hughes, now 36, still lives there, as his parents do. "I made the big move about two miles down the road to the town," he chuckles.

With its moods, beauty and dark, secret spaces, his island moves through his novels like a character. In Revenant - the word means something or someone who comes back to haunt you - it is there as a presence alongside the three childhood friends who return to the island 10 years after one of their gang, Del, drowns accidentally at sea. The novel is beautifully told; the sentences as perfect as an ocean view.

"There are psychic geographies," Mr. Hughes explains. "They are connected to your imagination. They charge it."

Wales is under his fingernails. "The places I write about in Wales, I've pretty much got my hands filthy from every piece of dirt in that area. I grew up working on that farm, and I think that creates a very strong emotional attachment to a place."

But northern Ontario is under his skin, too, he says. Or rather, in his blood. "I've been bitten so many times now by mosquitoes, I'm immune. I think half my blood is mosquito saliva," he jokes.

The northern landscape is another of his "magic places," he says. "Atikokan has one of those population signs, and I vaguely remember it once said 5,000 people. Now, it's an incredibly optimistic 3,000."

His next novel, as yet untitled, will be set in a northern Ontario town. "Oddly enough, I feel compelled now to write about there. Maybe because it's connected to my childhood," he muses. "A lot of writers become transfixed on childhood memories. So much of writing is an attempt to recover some lost place, and that lost place is very often childhood."

His mother's family has a long history in Atikokan. His great uncle, Tom Hawn, founded the town more than 100 years ago after travelling there by canoe. There were no roads. The railway had gone through, and he decided to build a hotel near a storage depot, which was the only building. Later, an ore-mining industry caused the town's population to swell, but by 1980 operations had shut down. Mr. Hughes's mother spent her young life there, until she went to Wales with her husband, whom she had met when he came to Lakehead University in nearby Thunder Bay, Ont., to teach history.

He may be Canadian, but Mr. Hughes's time in Wales has served to permeate his personality. Not just his rolling Welsh accent, but also his demeanour give him the quality of a lad who likes a good story, a pint of beer and a laugh with his mates. He chuckles often and slaps his knee from time to time, tipping back in his chair, when he makes jokes. It is not the character one expects from someone who has a PhD in literature from Cambridge University.

Even the impetus to begin the serious business of writing novels came from a boyish accident in the middle of the night, when he was clambering up a castle wall. "I was drunk one night with some friends, and there is this big, 12th-century castle in Beaumaris [on the Isle of Anglesey]. It was built by the English to repel Welshmen, so my fall proves it still works," he rambles on, laughing. "I fell off and broke my back," he recounts. "I broke my vertebrae, and the doctor said that if I had fallen a little bit this way or that," he says, twisting his body slightly to demonstrate, "I probably wouldn't walk again."

For seven months, he was in a body cast, which gave him the perfect excuse to sit down and write his novel. "I couldn't do anything else." He was contemplating a teaching career in academia at the time, but he had also won the Rhys Davies Short Story Award. "It was a pivotal moment and very risky, because I had been trained for a teaching job, and yet I knew if I did that I would put off writing."

After spending a short time convalescing at home with his parents, he lived in "some soaking, rain-splattered, leaky caravan in the middle of a field with no electricity and a little gas stove," writing his novel in longhand - and going to the pub at night, of course. The first novel was published in 2003, the second 2½ years later, and the third two years after that.

"Part of the task of literature is to familiarize landscape, to give it stories, to give it language, to make it something that is not so frightening," he says to explain his interest in geography.

He has travelled across much of Canada to familiarize himself with its landscape, to explore some of its corners, mountains and the scary expanse of Big Sky country. Revenant won't be his last book about the Isle of Anglesey, he figures, but for his next novel, "it was time to get off my island."

See Tristan Hughes at the Vancouver International Writers Festival!

The Globe and Mail, Oct 6, 2008
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