The good old days
On preserving the past, in context
A few years back I did an eight-week online course called The Science of Happiness through the University of California, Berkeley.
The course taught about the extensive research that has been done, or is in progress, about what science says truly creates happiness in people.
One of the most fascinating things I learned was that it has been discovered that the brain has a protective mechanism whereby it dulls the memory of a negative event and heightens the memory of positive one, to preserve happiness.
The theory is that this is a deliberate protective process that the human brain has developed so that people can move on in life after a traumatic experience. It shines the past so that often, nostalgia over a time gone by is prevalent in the stories told.
My conversation with Gary Collins, whose books are set in this province’s past, made me consider that this might be true for a culture as well.
But first a bit about this highly successful author: How does a logger become a writer? Collins recollects reading the labels on Carnation Milk cans as a young boy and his own life in the woods provided inspiration. He had an interest in what he calls, “romantic geography,” giving the example of images of “moonlight down through the trees, shining on a lake.”
Knowing his knack with words, at one point someone asked him to write a eulogy. For many years that was one of his regular writing practices. When his daughter submitted one of his stories to “The Herald”, they published it and that began a five-year period where he wrote under a pen name for the publication.
Then-editor Ryan Cleary encouraged him to write a book so he wrote “Cabot Island”. It became a best seller in five weeks. With his thirteenth novel, “The Crackie”, just released through Flanker Press Oct. 25, Collins is finally calling himself a writer more than a logger.
He is particularly proud of his stories of Indigenous people such as Soulis Joe and Mattie Mitchell. He is quick to point out what an honour it is to be entrusted with the stories given he isn’t a member of the Indigenous community. He also felt the weight of the same responsibility with “The Last Beothuk”, a story not about the last presumed Beothuk, Shanwdithit, but instead about Kop, a man who lived perhaps 40 years later.
At times the research angers him. He explains how Mattie Mitchell brought the first cartographers across the province.
Historical documents of the event give great detail about the Englishmen, the schooners, the merchants, dates, days, weather but Mattie Mitchell was only ever referred to as “The Indian.” Descendants’ journals identified him as Mattie Mitchell.
Collins is brutally honest in his contemplation about those times.
“I often wonder,” he asks, “if I had come over here as this macho Englishman, would I have been any different?”
“Tell it like it is. Life is not always pleasant,” he advises anyone writing about Newfoundland’s history
I agree with him. History is often buffed and shined. It’s quite common to hear of the “good old days,” but they weren’t always good and rarely were they great, particularly for the Indigenous, the povertystricken and women. In actuality, often it was downright awful.
Given that we’re physically wired to remember the positive, it’s all too tempting to write nice happy, nostalgic versions of days gone by.
Henry Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.”
Collins’ new book, “The Crackie”, will be released on Oct. 25 by Flanker Press. He will be part of the Literary Tour NL at the Fogo Island Central Public Library on Nov. 3, and a panelist at the grand finale event at AC Hunter Library in St. John’s on Nov. 17.
For the full interview tune in to the Bridges radio program available on podcasts on all major platforms and at https://www.spreaker.com/show/bridges-radios-show