Nanaimo author Lawrence Winkler has spent his literary career detailing his travels around the world and the places he has visited.
Those journeys took him to his wife’s home country of New Zealand, where 10 years ago they purchased properly on the Coromandel Peninsula on the country’s North Island. On that land Winkler discovered the remains of a 19th-century gold mine and a cave that was the rumoured final resting place of a pre-contact Maori boy. Winkler’s writer’s mind soon got to work.
“I needed to write another book because I was just inspired to do that and this place was just driving me crazy because there’s all kinds of neat natural history,” he said.
Instead of returning to his typical narrative non-fiction approach, Winkler chose for the first time to write an historical novel. At first he had difficulty coming up with a plot so began researching the area’s history and geography.
“I’m a phenomenologist,” he said – one who studies consciousness and experience.
“So I like to take what I see around me and dissect it.”
From those observations came the narrative, and “from the narrative, I sort of wrote an anthem of where I was living,” Winkler said.
The novel, The Bolthole, takes place in three historical periods, what Winkler calls the eras of stone, gold and chrome, with the author’s property – his “bolthole” – tying them together. Winkler explores these periods through the characters of the pre-contact Maori boy, a late 19th-century gold tributor and a contemporary Canadian physician who purchases the land. Winkler said once his ideas were in place the story structured itself. He wrote it in four months.
“It’s the quickest thing I ever did, so people have suggested maybe I should give up narrative non-fiction and just concentrate on novels but I think I could only do that once in my life,” he said.
Winkler debuted his book at a New Zealand library in November. As an outsider he was unsure how the residents would receive his book about their country. He said the response was “fantastic.”
“They were fascinated by all of this. I was nervous because there are a lot of people who do know a lot about the history there and I was afraid they’d walk up and decimate me,” he said.
Winkler said his audience was surprised to hear how severe the lives were for the Maori (“The village next door could knock you off at any time,”) and miners (“They didn’t have good nutrition and a lot of them died quite young and very few of them made a go of it.”).
Now The Bolthole is making its Canadian debut at the Nanaimo North Library on April 3. Once again Winkler doesn’t know what to expect.
“It’s not our culture, but I think there’s enough humour in it and there’s enough commonality of experience that people, I hope, will enjoy it.”
WHAT’S ON … Lawrence Winkler reads from The Bolthole at Nanaimo North Library on Tuesday, April 3 at 6:30 p.m.