The North marked novelist’s art, now she returns the favour

If tourist numbers spike in the territories this summer, we might have novelist Elizabeth Hay to thank. And she wants royalties.

If tourist numbers spike in the territories this summer, we might have novelist Elizabeth Hay to thank.

And she wants royalties.

Her Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights on Air is set in Yellowknife at a CBC Radio station besieged by the advance of television.

It’s 1975. Justice Tom Berger’s Mackenzie Pipeline inquiry is underway and First Nations are struggling to find a voice in a growing territory.

Four coworkers take an arduous, tragic canoe trip into the Arctic wilderness.

The novel is laden with nostalgia and history that resonated with Canadian readers.

“People from the North love to talk about the North,” said Hay, who will read during next week’s Yukon Writers Festival.

She’s received plenty of e-mails from readers who say the book has reconnected them to their northern experience or given them the desire to head north.

“There is some kind of hunger for the North that operates in us,” she said.

If a flood of Canadians head north looking for adventure or romance inspired by Hay’s novel, her agent might get a call.

“I want a commission,” said Hay, laughing.

“We’ll have to devise a hotel royalty.”

From the vast Arctic tundra to the confined booths of radio broadcasting, place in Hay’s novel offers her characters plenty of reflective moments.

Migration — of the Dene, the caribou and people trying to escape or recapture their past — emphasizes the transient nature of the North.

“There is a romance about the North, which has to do with the openness of it and the isolation,” said Hay.

“You feel when you travel north that you’re entering another world. Those of us who have a northern sensibility feel we’re coming home. There’s a real attachment.”

Hay, 56, lives in Ottawa but lived in Yellowknife as a young woman in 1974 while working at the CBC.

It served as inspiration for Late Nights on Air.

Garbo Laughs, her last novel, was small and Hay felt she was ready to tackle a larger work.

“The North seemed to offer me a canvas that would be large on the one hand and small on the other, because the radio station itself is small but it’s set against this huge backdrop,” said Hay.

“The interplay between the two seemed interesting.”

In the novel, Gwen Symon drives 3,000 kilometres to Yellowknife in her Volvo, partly inspired by an old radio drama about a northern explorer, to work in radio.

The interim manager, a failed television host who returned North, hires her on a whim but Gwen’s shyness keeps her colleagues questioning her abilities.

“I was really interested in the notion of shyness — that’s where (the novel) probably all began,” said Hay.

“I’ve always been interested in the phenomenon of shyness and how people overcome it. And I thought I could explore that in the laboratory of a small radio station.”

Hay said she had to overcome her shyness she picked up as an adolescent entering puberty.

“Almost without expectation, we all think of ourselves as shy, which can be a surprise to observers who think of us as otherwise,” she said.

“People will assume I lost my shyness in radio, but it actually made me more self-conscious.”

Once she started teaching creative writing to adults, her shyness abated.

“Having to talk to them and entertain them, that helped me a lot,” said Hay.

A long canoe trip in the novel is based on a similar journey Hay took, albeit with more tragic results.

They moved across the wilderness like a ragged troupe of toiling actors, it seemed to Harry, transporting sections of a colorful banner, namely the tents and canoes and packs. Ralph the gentleman duke. Eleanor the wise Queen. Gwen the moody princess. And he, the blistered and bitten and disgruntled fool.

The tale of John Hornby’s doomed trek through the Artic in 1927 is interspersed with the personal drama and bedroom shenanigans of the radio employees.

“My memory is faulty so I’m a writer who relies a lot on reading,” said Hay.

“The writing and reading go hand in hand. They feed each other.”

She also relied on the memories of old friends and coworkers to relive her northern experience, including the contentious Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline debate that follows Hay’s characters throughout the novel.

Several employees at the CBC become politically active, and the stoic Berger makes several appearances, including a poignant late night phone call to Gwen’s radio show.

That night she played a heartbreaker by Emmy Lou Harris. It ended and she said, “That was so beautiful, let’s hear it again.”

And Judge Berger called out of the blue to thank her.

He agreed to go on the air for a moment, and Gwen introduced him as The Great Listener. She asked him what he did with his free time, and he confessed he’d gone to see Shampoo at the Capitol Theatre, Warren Beatty exposing all the pitfalls of being a certain kind of male. “Really, it was a very good movie,” he said with a wonderfully amused laugh.

The Berger inquiry was a seminal moment in northern development and First Nations history, said Hay.

“There was a significant change after it,” she said.

“The aboriginal groups were just finding their feet and the 10-year moratorium bought time for them.”

“It’s a constant and complicated issue: how to provide people with employment and protect the land.”

The 2008 Yukon Writers Festival starts April 30 with a reception and reading at the Beringia Centre and continues to May 8.

Hay will also read in Tagish, Mayo, Dawson City, Carmacks and Teslin throughout the week.

As well, Kevin Chong, Ivan Coyote, Robert Priest, Jerome Stueart and Jon Turk will be in attendance and participating in a young authors conference.