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Why novelist Mary Lawson’s imagination is like an ill-suited spouse

From the window by the writing desk in her living room, Mary Lawson looks out on a small garden that is muted, clipped and tidy in preparation for a mild English winter. That may be what she sees, but it's not where she goes – in her head, at least. That place is captured in a photograph that sits on the sill and is its own window onto a much different kind of winter. It shows a big yellow snowplow in a bleak Northern Ontario landscape of deep snow, pine trees and sombre, grey skies.

The frozen landscape, which might fill some with dread, opens a rich world for Lawson, whose latest work of fiction, Road Ends, completes a trilogy that began with Crow Lake, her best-selling first novel published to much acclaim in 2002, when she was 55. (Her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, was long-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 2006.) The photograph reveals the profound power of memory, as well as the willful nature of the literary imagination.

It took Lawson almost 30 years to find her true literary voice, perhaps because she thought that she should write about where she lived, and that place was England, not Canada, a country she had left as a young woman after growing up in a family of four children in Blackwell, a small community outside of Sarnia, Ont. Writing what you know – the adage many authors are taught to follow – doesn't necessarily mean setting fiction in the world you observe every day. It can mean that place where your subconscious is mysteriously rooted; the place that allows you to fill in blanks of character, tragedy, despair and triumph with such truth and confidence that you write as if you're living in its midst, smelling that scent of snow, hearing the crunch of ice under foot, knowing how such isolation can make a person feel and act.

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"I could never live now in a small Ontario town," Lawson says. "But I know it in a much more profound level than I will ever know this," she says, gesturing to the quaintness of her 1890s house in Kingston, a small commuter town along the Thames River on the southwest fringe of London. Dressed impeccably in a classic blazer, her blond hair in a smooth bob, Lawson doesn't look like a writer who feels compelled to sweat it out at the keyboard, slaving over her imagined world. Her legs crossed, hands folded in her lap, she has a measured way of speaking as she methodically traces the chronology of her writing life, those years working as an industrial psychologist and later, as a young stay-at-home mother of two, producing short "formulaic" romance fiction for women's magazines. It is more executive review than confession of tortured, creative angst.

Her relationship with her imagination seems like that between ill-suited spouses. She is neat and orderly, self-contained as a circumspect lawyer, while he (if it's a he) is spiteful and disorganized. And yet she has to follow him around, even along the garden paths he leads her down, tricking her into thinking it's the right way, only to discover a dead end. "I have wasted years – and lots of paper," she says.

Sometimes, her imagination just gives her the silent treatment. "You'd think I might have figured out a better way to do this," she says to me at one point, bemoaning her process like an exasperated spouse.

After her second book, she did think of leaving her writing life behind. But she couldn't. "I think it's to do with mental health, " she says, allowing a short pause. "Mine," she adds politely with a small smile. "When I don't have something to structure my thoughts, I just obsess all day about everything. I have quite a morbid mind," she says as she pours me a cup of tea and offers a biscuit. She and her imagination clearly need each other, and there are times, in the concentration of writing, when she feels an inordinate amount of pleasurable abandon. "Oh," she says girlishly, "the writing can be so much fun."

The genesis of Road Ends, a story of a dysfunctional family in the wake of a crisis, came while she was on a book tour in Oslo. She had a spare afternoon, so she headed to a museum dedicated to the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, and his famous work, The Scream. "He had done many versions of it," Lawson explains. "And there was a blurb describing the work, saying that the two companions on the bridge appear unaware of [the man's] anguish. And I had never realized they were in the picture. They're chatting, paying no attention. And suddenly I thought. 'What if he jumped? What would that be like?' That's where Tom comes from," she explains with prim modesty, delighted but surprised at the unexpected antics of her imagination.

Road Ends opens with a suicide of a friend witnessed by Tom Cartwright, whose promising academic career would have given him a way out of his small town. But he descends into a depression in a busy household of seven siblings, a mother who disappears into her own world every time she has another baby and a father who isolates himself in his study, unsure how to manage and frightened he might repeat the violence of his own upbringing. Told through different perspectives of family members, the story depicts the isolation of those who are unaware of one another's inner struggles, and how and where there is hope in clearing a new way forward.

It is a beautiful novel, with the psychological twists and turns of each character gently and poignantly unfurled. While we talk, Lawson's British husband of 41 years, Richard, remains in the background, refreshing the teapot and replenishing the plate of cookies. He has seen her through four excruciating years of rejection slips for Crow Lake, and long days at the keyboard. Now retired from an executive job, he helps her with research, accompanying her on trips to Canada to follow a road on a map to the farthest northern point in Ontario, and by reading her manuscripts.

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Their home is a scene of domestic serenity, with nothing out of place. On a wall in the living room, vintage photographs of a family cottage in Northern Ontario and portraits of her ancestors, dour-looking in black around the kitchen table, are hung in a symmetrical arrangement. And down a covered alleyway between their house and the next, tied to the rafters, a full-sized canoe hangs high up above the daily business of life, as if in the attic of her mind.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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