P.S. Duffy is the author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land. She studied history at Concordia University and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in communication disorders from the University of Minnesota. Duffy is a science writer for the Mayo Clinic Neural Engineering Laboratory in Rochester, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband.
You clearly did a lot of research for this novel. What inspired you to set your story during WWI and the Battle of Vimy Ridge?
P.S. Duffy: I didn’t set out to write about the war. When I began writing, I knew the story would involve the broken relationship between a son and his father, and that the father had experienced a war-related tragedy, which he could neither explain nor express. I wrote 250 pages of a pretty terrible book set in the 1920s before I realized that to truly understand the father I had to research the First World War in earnest. It took a year or two, and the deeper I went, the darker the terrain got until finally I felt my characters were my only way out. Setting the book during the war was no longer an option. It was a necessity. My characters were already there, their intimate, human actions my only hope of survival.
Having spent summers in Nova Scotia and attending university in Montreal, I was very familiar with the name, though not necessarily the events, surrounding Vimy Ridge, a battle as iconic to Canadians as Gettysburg or Valley Forge is to us. It put Canada, a young country then, on the world stage. I was both drawn to it and afraid to write about it. Then one day, I made the acquaintance of an old sailor somewhere in his 80s. He and I and a friend of mine were sailing a reproduction 19th century fishing boat from the town of Mahone Bay to the fisheries museum in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. He asked if I was going to set the story at Vimy. I protested it was too well known, too important. He took me to task. “People forget,” he shouted as the wind came up. “These young fellers forget. You write about it.”
What do you hope readers take away from Cartographer of No Man’s Land?
PSD: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a book that can be read on several levels. I hope readers are engaged by the intertwined external journeys of Angus MacGrath on the Western Front and his family and son in their coastal village in Nova Scotia, and by their internal struggles to navigate shifting, uncertain ground. I hope that the characters, even the minor ones, stay with readers long after they’ve closed the book. I hope readers come away with a sense that our ego — the sense of “self” that we need to survive this life — limits our generosity, but that connection, forgiveness, a sacrifice of “self,” expands us.
Are you working on anything now?
PSD: I’ve been writing flash fiction — for myself, really. The pieces are set in the early 1900s in Maine and the Maritime provinces and seem to hold the seeds of a novel. I like being there in place and in time, so I hope so.
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you as a child?
PSD: Books were part and parcel of my childhood. My father, a theologian and scholar, had stacks of them on his desk, on the floor, and shoved into the bookcases in his study. Except when sailing, he was never without a book, but it was rarely fiction. My mother read novels to me after school — Heidi, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and so on. As a family, we used to do oral renditions of Dr. Seuss books into my father’s huge reel-to-reel tape recorder.
The first “big” book I ever read on my own was Treasure Island. I was 10 and very impressed with myself and with the character of Jim Hawkins. Two years later, I read and re-read Nordoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty. Good and evil, pure and simple on first reading; qualified on second reading. Should Bligh have been sent off in a long boat 2,000 miles from land, or brought back for trial? Was Fletcher Christian a hero or a hothead? It was a dawning of the notion that the world was not black and white. And, finally, Catcher in the Rye. Attending a rigorous but very proper girls’ school, I was astounded by the subversive tone, the power of Holden Caulfield’s voice, but more than that, I was moved by his loneliness and sensitivity.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as a writer?
PSD: As a child, I wrote stories and wanted to be a writer, but also a history professor. Instead, I had a 27-year career in science, studying and treating adult-onset communication disorders, a career I loved. In the course of it, I had numerous academic publications including a graduate-level textbook. But I didn’t identify myself as a “writer” until eight years ago, when I began writing in the neurosciences for Mayo Clinic. My love of fiction and of history never left me, and in 2000 I wrote about my family’s time as American missionaries in China during the Communist Revolution. Seeing myself as a “writer” allowed me to hear the words my husband had been saying for years: “You should write. You should write.” And by that, he meant creative writing. I’m glad I listened and glad, too, that I waited until the time was right.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
PSD: The power of indies is the sales staff, for the simple reason that they love books. They know books — new or old, obscure or bestseller. And if they don’t know a title, they don’t look at you like you’re nuts, and often they’ll ask you more about it. A stranger when you entered, you’re instantly part of a community that respects the written word, not just sales numbers (not that those aren’t important!). Though I tend toward small bookstores, when I’m in San Diego, I go to Warwick’s, which is big and vibrant and celebrates both readers and writers. We’re lucky to have numerous independent bookstores in the Twin Cities and small towns of Minnesota. I’m impressed with their sometimes quirky, always reader-friendly individuality.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
PSD: I took this question literally. Here’s my stack from top to bottom:
- Traveling Sprinkler, by Nicholson Baker
- Monument Road, by Charlie Quimby
- Crucible of War, The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America 1754 – 1766, by Fred Anderson
- Let Him Go, by Larry Watson
- The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane
- Local Souls, by Allan Gurganus
- Goldfinch, by Donna Tart
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
PSD: To Kill a Mockingbird. If one of the tasks of great literature is to instill empathy, this book is as close to perfection as it gets.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three titles would you want to have with you?
PSD: I’d want books that made me forget I was all alone, and ones that might inspire me to write so that I could continue to forget. Thus, Atonement by Ian McEwan for the beauty and power of the words and story, and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx and Tinkers by Paul Harding to remind me what originality looks like. If no one was looking, I’d slip in a fourth book — something to make me laugh out loud — maybe A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson or Bossypants by Tina Fey.
The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy (Liveright Publishing Corporation, Hardcover, 9780871403766) Publication date: October 29, 2013
Learn more about P.S. Duffy at psduffy.com/
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