Quill & Quire review of Late Nights on Air

Some writers are known more for their affectations than their output. They busy themselves grooming a persona, or perhaps a sartorial signifier (knotted scarf, horn-rimmed glasses) to flag their idiosyncratic nature. They hold up the wall at a neighbourhood dive, unravelling enchanting yarns that never seem to make it to paper.

Elizabeth Hay, though, saves it all for the page. In person, the 55-year-old author is reserved and fond of earth tones. She’s funny, but cautiously so. When she speaks about her memories of Yellowknife—where she lived briefly in the 1970s and where her new novel, Late Nights on Air, is set—she pauses and closes her eyes, as if she’s mentally evoking the exact moment.

Hay is a steady writer and much respected, best known for the complex and intimate Garbo Laughs in 2003 and the passionate A Student of Weather in 2000. The latter was nominated for the Giller Prize, and her 1997 short-story collection Small Change was a finalist for multiple prizes, including the Governor General’s Award. After publishing with several houses early in her career, she’s now settled into a steady relationship with McClelland & Stewart; Late Nights on Air, published this month, is her third novel with the house.

This book will no doubt be remembered as Hay’s “Yellowknife novel” or even her “radio novel”—it follows the lives of a handful of people running a northern CBC station in the 1970s. The characters’ various hang-ups are magnified and elevated by the lonely vastness. “The starting point of this book is that real voices have fictional faces,” Hay says when we meet near her Old Ottawa South home, a world of back lanes, canal views, and neighbourhood shops. “We hear just the voice and we make up a face that bears no resemblance to the real face. It’s an example of one of the ways we aren’t what we seem. And, in a way, anybody that listens to radio is a natural fiction writer, because you’re creating, in your mind, on the basis of a voice, a personality.”

Radio has long been a jumping-off point for Hay. Author Anita Lahey, who took a creative writing class at the University of Ottawa taught by Hay, remembers an exercise that involved listening to a radio interview with a runaway and then filling in the blanks of the story, addressing things that weren’t covered. “She was excellent and gave very salient feedback,” Lahey says. “I thought it was a very good idea for a writing exercise.” Says Hay: “The wonderful thing about fiction is you don’t have to be right. You just have to be convincing and imagine something sufficiently that the reader is also convinced.”

Hay herself worked in radio in Yellowknife for a couple of years in the 1970s (having followed a boyfriend up north), first as a receptionist, then as an announcer-operator. And a tremendous canoe journey the Late Nights characters take draws from Hay’s own 1978 canoe expedition along the Thelon River. The CBC building in the novel is the one she remembers, though she says the characters do not have real-life antecedents. In preparation for Late Nights on Air, Hay spent time studying at CKCU, an Ottawa community radio station that still uses clunky 1970s-era equipment. She also spoke to several old friends who worked in radio, including some she knew from Yellowknife.

That city crops up in many of Hay’s works, through explorations of Canadian history and through what she calls a north-south/hot-cold fixation. But this novel is the first time she explores the territory deeply, as much as she explores the medium of radio deeply. “What actually was on my mind more than Yellowknife was the whole dilemma of shyness,” she says. “For some strange reason, shy people are frequently drawn to radio as a workplace. They may be full of doubt, yet they go on air and that creates a real tension in their lives.” She cites the late Peter Gzowski, a publicly shining, privately shy person.

There are echoes of Gzowski in one Late Nights on Air character: Harry Boyd, the shy station manager who’s scarred by a disastrous foray into television. “I read about other radio broadcasters, too,” says Hay, “and some of what I read … filtered into Harry and others in the book.” Shyness also plagues another Late Nights on Air character: Gwen Symon, a young recruit who is reflective and modest but ambitious. She would seem to be a clear projection of Hay, though the author says only that, while the two are similar, “I like to make my characters a good deal braver than I am.”

Hay has hardly lived a sheltered or unadventurous life, though. Born in Owen Sound, she began writing poetry at the age of 15, before moving into short stories. She published early work in The Malahat Review and The Capilano Review. After leaving Yellowknife, she continued to work on and off for CBC Radio in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Mexico, where she met her husband, Mark Fried, in 1984. Fried works on policy at Oxfam Canada, with a side gig of translating books from Spanish to English. The couple lived in Manhattan for a time, but Hay says she was “dreadfully homesick,” a sentiment best expressed by the title of her 1993 non-fiction book about Canadians in New York: Captivity Tales.

That same year, Hay and her family moved to Ottawa. Her children, a 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, are now both in university. “One of the things I like about Ottawa is that you can be out of the swim here,” she says. “I think living in Toronto might be a bit of a pressure cooker. In Ottawa, it’s easy to live without comparing yourself to anybody else. I don’t have to worry about whether I was invited to this party or that party, and I don’t have to think up excuses to avoid this party or that party.”

Hay’s writing process involves taking notes in steno pads (she’s amassed a collection of 100, full of scribblings) and then transferring the notes to her computer. Of late, she’s been pulling half-finished short stories from her files and tweaking them, reshaping thin characters and pacing the narrative so that it is more meditative, thoughtful and deeper. Phil Jenkins, an author and close friend of Hay’s, says dialogue is her great gift. “She is very fond of good conversation,” he says. “She listens carefully and contributes extremely well.”

The backhanded compliment often levelled at Hay in the past was that she was a master of stories with no plot. When William French reviewed her 1989 book Crossing the Snow Line in The Globe and Mail, he favourably compared Hay’s “lyrical intensity” to the writing of another Ottawan—Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Hay calls it a “useful comparison” that changed her writing. “That was a book I had never been able to read,” she says now. “I don’t dispute that it’s an admirable book; I just found it overwritten. And I thought to myself, if I didn’t learn to tell a story, I was going to end up a fifth-rate Elizabeth Smart. That’s when I tried very hard to write stories that are more recognizably stories.”

That effort has culminated in Late Nights on Air, with its adventure, entanglements, and suspense. But the book also has plenty of emotional insight. At one point, station manager Harry Boyd scrawls at the top of a sheet of paper, “Do you know where your voice goes?” Authors like Hay must wonder the same thing. The beauty lies in imagining the answer.

Originally published in Quill & Quire in September 2007.

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