News and Interviews

Robert Chafe on Writing a Play About a Man Who Spent His Life Freeing Things Only to Become Trapped Himself

Robert Chafe

Governor General's Literary Award winning playwright and author Robert Chafe has made a name for himself with both his acclaimed original plays and fiction and his stunning stage adaptations of works by his fellow Newfoundland writers, including Michael Crummey and Wayne Johnston. This year, Playwrights Canada Press released the book version of Between Breathshis newest play. 

Between Breaths follows Dr. Jon Lien, who has, for 20 years, managed to combine environmental heroism and support for the hardworking fishermen in Newfoundland. He does so by working to free humpback whales caught in fishing gear, saving the whales and returning the valuable gear to its owners. After a lifetime of hard, physical work, he finds himself facing aging, paralysis, and dementia in a body that once served him unquestioningly. Inspired by a real figure, Between Breaths is a poignant story of loss, identity, and resilience.

We're pleased to welcome Robert to Open Book today to talk about the play as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we ask seven questions to discover as much as we can about a writer's newest work.

Robert tells us about the moment he knew he had to capture Jon Lien for the stage, learning to accept his needs during the writing process, and the play that, for him, stands at the pinnacle of what works for theatre can do. And excitingly, he teases his next big project: an upcoming musical adaptation of Kathleen Winter's Annabel. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Robert Chafe:

My new book is my play Between Breaths. I guess I started writing it about six years ago. I had gone through a pretty tumultuous yet revitalizing process while working on my previous play, Oil and Water. As I describe in the introduction to Between Breaths, I was on a new-found track of deep engagement with a kind of emotional muse, consciously forcing myself to seek out narratives and ideas that elicited an inexplicable emotional reaction, and then setting the goal of the writing process as an attempt to explain or make sense of that gut reaction. The story of Jon Lien was one such story. I had known of him and his work for a long time, but one day when I encountered his name again, I felt a punch to the gut and a swell of tears. I knew that there was something there to be unearthed. 


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


Jon was an animal behaviourist who moved to Newfoundland to specialize in seabirds. He eventually became a noted whale research and rescuer, freeing over 500 animals from fishing net entanglements. He was also a great friend to Newfoundland fishermen, going the extra mile with his rescues to ensure their nets weren’t unduly damaged and often staying after the whale was free to help pull in a catch. I originally thought the play would be about his great skills of meditation and compromise between conservation and industry. But as I dug into his story it was actually his illness and death that guided the telling of the story of his life. The last eight years of his life were defined by a slowly progressing paralysis and dementia. It became apparent pretty early in the process that I was writing a play about a man who spent his life freeing things, only to become trapped himself.


Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


All the big changes happened up front with approach. Once I was set on what kind of story I was telling it flowed pretty much unabated in that direction. Not to make it sound easy. I had set out to tell the story backwards, and the intricacies of that were hard on my head. All told I went through about 8 drafts over three years before I wrestled it into submission.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


Time, time, time, and more time. I’m very slow. And a good day of writing for me usually results a few choice lines. And to even get that I’m settling in for hours of staring at the ceiling and crippling doubt. Isolation helps. I’m taking a lot of self-imposed retreats these days. It takes me hours just to get the world of the play, so a single interrupting phone call can derail an entire day. It all sounds so dramatic. But I’ve learned to be a bit more accepting about my needs for the work, and being selfish taking that time.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Long walks or drives certainly help. Going back and reassessing the research. Sometimes I dig into my iTunes library and create a playlist, songs chosen for their mood or lyrical content. An egotistic reminder of past successes doesn’t go astray, reminding myself how hard the work has been in the past, and the fruits of seeing it through. But honestly, every piece feels different, and every obstacle feels new and higher. As a friend once said to me: you just have to sit down to work, and power through.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


Something that engages the heart and brain in equal measure. Something that makes you work a bit, but that rewards you for it. Something that feels socially consequential yet deeply intimate and personally resonant. Tall order, right? In terms of plays: Kusher’s Angels in America still stands at the pinnacle of what I’d love to be able to do. The last book I read that did everything for me was Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on my first musical, book and lyrics. It’s an adaptation of Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. It’s a story about an intersex child born in rural Labrador in the late sixties. They are raised male by their parents, but encounter the truth about their body and soul at adolescence. It’s a gorgeous thing, about an outsider desperately trying to find their way in. I could be argued all my work is about that. Wow. I think I just learned something about myself!


Robert Chafe has worked in theatre, dance, opera, radio, and film. His plays have been seen in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, and include AfterimageOil and WaterTempting ProvidenceUnder Wraps, and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Robert has been shortlisted twice for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, and won in 2010 for Afterimage. His first book of short fiction, Two-Man Tent, was released in 2016. Robert lives in Newfoundland.

Buy the Book

Between Breaths

Dr. Jon Lien is a risk-taker and respected researcher, working for over twenty years in the dangerous waters off Newfoundland to rescue massive humpback whales and save the fishing gear in which they’re trapped. With his head down in freezing waters and armed only with a snorkel and knife, Lien saves the lives of over five hundred animals and earns the hard-won respect of Newfoundland’s fishermen. But his toughest battle comes at the end, as his body is slowly conquered by a relentlessly progressing paralysis and dementia.

Between Breaths moves backward in time, from Lien’s final moments to his very first whale intervention. As his life becomes further and further confined, his mind stretches back in memories of release and salvation. Based on a true story, Robert Chafe crafts a raw portrayal Newfoundland’s “Whale Man” in this beautiful and poignant play about the parts of ourselves we hold on to after everything else has gone.