Writer in Residence

The Art of the Novel: Interview with Paul Butler

By Bianca Lakoseljac

By Bianca Lakoseljac: OB Writer in Residence 

Almost a decade ago, after reading Paul Butler’s novel NaGeira, I felt that I needed to read everything this author writes. When I was president of the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto Branch, I invited Paul to give a full-day workshop on creative writing to our branch. The workshop left us inspired, enthusiastic, and encouraged to pursue our love of writing.

Paul Butler is a Canadian-based author of nine novels. His next novel, The Widow’s Fire (2017, Inanna, Toronto) https://www.amazon.com/Widows-Fire-University-Paul-Butler/dp/1771334053, is an exploration of the shadow side of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. Butler’s work has appeared on the judges’ lists of Canada Reads, the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards shortlists, and he was on the Relit longlist three years running. He was a winner in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s annual Arts and Letters competition four times between 2004 and 2008 at which point he was asked to be chair of the Arts and Letters committee.

Butler has written extensively for magazines and newspapers over the years, penning a number of features and cover stories for Canada's History Magazine, book reviews for the Globe and Mail, and writing for other publications including Canadian Geographic. As a writing coach, he has worked with several university campuses and through his own company, HB Creativity. His roster of clients includes several prize-winning novelists who continue to use his services on a regular basis.  He hosts a blog, www.paulbutlernovelist.wordpress.com  and through this runs an annual contest, the Instant Hook Writing Contest.

I am certain you will find Paul’s insightful discussion on novel writing informative and engaging.


1.      Bianca Lakoseljac: Of the novels you wrote (or are working on), do you have a favourite?

Paul Butler: I see my novels as children and I love them all equally. But I am always most absorbed by the one I am working on. This is always the baby of the family requiring all the emotional attention until another one comes along. What’s been absorbing me most recently is the novel, The Widow’s Fire to be published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. It explores the shadow side of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, and was a joy to work on, partly because I love Austen’s novels — her characters, her insight, her irony and wit — and partly because from a 21st perspective we see certain things very differently, especially in regards to the justness of the existing social order.

This difference opens the door for the 21st century writer. My novel starts where Persuasion ends.  While Austen’s protagonists and main characters are usually of respectable standing in society — in Persuasion the heroine and hero are a baronet’s daughter and a naval captain — The Widow’s Fire is carried by those who live outside respectability, or on the margins. Among the characters are servants, former slaves, a resurrectionist, and a woman who makes a living through blackmail. It is to this last character that our heroine, Anne Elliot, and the hero Captain Frederick Wentworth, fall victim. I had immense fun juxtaposing early nineteenth century assumptions of virtue with a number of societal ‘outsiders,’ who have radically different views. It gave me a chance to see how Austen’s characters would have dealt with issues which don’t exist in Austen’s universe at all, such as sex outside marriage and sexual orientation.


2.      BL: Which of your novels was the most challenging to write?

PB: Possibly Hero (2010) because it involved trying to tackle a major taboo, namely the way we (still) commemorate war and its victims. Some of the phrases that have become very entrenched into the language of mourning, such as “supreme sacrifice” “gave their lives” “our freedom”, seem wildly at odds with any logical analysis of what war is really about. I think there is a very legitimate desire to show respect for the dead and those who suffered. The challenge comes because, as a writer, I don’t feel I’m showing respect by repeating phrases I don’t think are truthful. I think that the more important the issue, the more writers have a duty to be accurate in their use of language.

There is immense pressure not to argue with existing phrases that essentially romanticize war. But when I started to write Hero, I realized I had no choice. I had to argue with them because the way we commemorate war shapes the likelihood of preventing war for future generations. The novel becomes particularly useful in this regard, as well as challenging. As a novelist I was able to dramatize, rather than plainly state, what I felt, which was roughly, ‘no, they didn’t give their lives; their lives were taken against their will’ or ‘they didn’t make the supreme sacrifice; we (society) sacrificed them’.

In Hero, Elsa, a character who had lost many family members in the Battle of the Somme, feels rage and helplessness as Field Marshall Haig is welcomed as a hero and inaugurates the war memorial in St. John’s, Newfoundland, seven years after the end of World War I. I knew that Elsa, and many people who felt like her, existed, but I also knew there would be little record of them and their thoughts because the pressure to be silent would have been so intense. Any sign of discord or dissent would be (incorrectly) interpreted as disrespect for the war dead.

A novel allows you to give voice to the voiceless. It addresses that feeling that, although you must speak, you know that if you do you will come across like the drunk heckling a church service. In a novel, you can create the context for unspeakable thoughts. You are able to say, listen I don’t agree with the way you are using language but it’s not just bloody-mindedness, it’s out of a genuine respect for the victims of war. 


3.      BL: What are your thoughts on the first-person POV in novel writing?

PB: I think most modes of narrative are entirely valid in the right circumstances, but the trickiest, the hardest to justify, is the combination of first person and present tense. While it might imply both intimacy and immediacy, it is most likely to distance the reader by drawing attention to itself and looking like a device. We don’t really comment on our own thoughts and actions while they’re occurring, after all, so the writer must have extraordinary skill to convincingly replicate the pulse of thought and feeling in prose for this to work.


4.      BL: How important is the setting? How do you decide on a setting for your novel?

PB: For me, place and era have to relate to the story’s theme. The choice, in my experience, is usually easy and automatically comes with the story. It relates to the belief system in play in a certain time and place. I set Easton and Easton’s Gold respectively in 1610 and 1640 because I wanted to explore the idea of a privateer who crossed the line into piracy when a change in English foreign policy meant peace with Spain. These eras are associated with Galileo, Montaigne, and Hobbes. I was interested in the shock of moral relativism because it was a way to explore the very fine (and artificially constructed) dividing line between legal and illegal as it existed then and in our own post 9/11 era when the US and allies sought to justify invading Iraq.

I like writing novels which are essentially historical and modern at the same time. I am fascinated in the parallels we find in history. For several years I have been working on a novel set in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. This was the largest recorded eruption in history and caused a drop in world temperatures as well as failed harvests and fisheries. St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the novel’s main settings, was completely stranded during one of the winters which followed. Fires, riots, racial tensions, and roaming mobs of starving people evoked the sense of the approach of the Last Judgement. It’s set two-hundred years ago but I don’t think I’ve ever written a more contemporary novel. We, also, are living in a state of preparedness, a time of enormous moral struggle, when principles we thought we had safely secured — about equality of race and gender, for instance — spiral out of control plunging us back in time. Nature is turning on us again and this time it’s all the more ominous as it’s not the result of an accident but our own actions.


5.      BL: Do you work from an outline?

PB: Yes and no. I write stuff down but usually forget to look at it because it’s the act of writing which actually helps organize me and gets my head straight. I do write down names and dates and times of day and things which have to be kept consistent. You don’t want something to happen on a Friday and then have Sunday falling four days later. But I like characters to speak for themselves on the page which requires not being too strict about a written plan. I like it when characters surprise me and push my plotting off balance. This means they are doing their job as characters. The plot has to accommodate them.


6.      BL: What do you consider the most difficult aspect of novel writing?

PB: I find being between writing projects very difficult, not knowing what to write about, starting something then stopping because I realize I’m not all that interested after all or because I’m repeating myself. Something always comes, but the waiting for it is very hard.


7.      BL: Is there a single most important thing a writer should do before starting a new novel?

PB: Make sure you create characters whose motivations make sense to you, whose motivations you can actually feel on some level even if you don’t like or respect those motivations. This is the fuel of a novel, the thing that drives the writer (and the reader) onward.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Bianca Lakoseljac second novel, Stone Woman, which relives Toronto’s 1967 “summer of love”, has just been released by Guernica Editions. Bianca is the author of a novel, Summer of the Dancing Bear; a collection of stories, Bridge in the Rain (Guernica, 2012, 2010); and a book of poetry, Memoirs of a Praying Mantis (Turtle Moons Press, 2009). She is TWUC liaison for the National Reading Campaign, past president of the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto, has judged various national literary competitions, and has served on a number of literary contest panels. Bianca taught at Ryerson University and Humber College.

You can write to Bianca throughout the month of November at writer@open-book.ca