The Big Why: A Conversation with Michael Winter
My initial interest in Michael Winter’s The Big Why was primarily because its subject, Rockwell Kent, is an American artist that I actually can identify. When I worked at a bookstore in Fairbanks, Alaska, Kent’s small and elegant book, N by E was always popular with the tourists. Aside from his trip to the Last Frontier that the book was based on however, I really didn’t know that much about Kent’s work or his personal life. That fact that Winter chose to write about Kent through the guise of historical fiction made it seem much more approachable to me, and less intimidating. Having Michael Ondaatje’s ringing endorsement on the cover, (“A wild and bravely written novel that shatters the spine of ‘historical fiction’.”), didn’t hurt much either.
On the surface, Winter’s novel is about the period in Kent’s life when at the age of thirty he decided to leave New York City behind and settle with his wife and three children in the remote area of Brigus, Newfoundland. He was hoping to get away from the superficial nature of the city and find the quiet wonder that he believed existed in Newfoundland. Most of the appeal for Brigus was based on Bob Bartlett, the famous arctic explorer who had captained Robert Peary’s ship on his successful journey to the North Pole. Kent had heard Bartlett speak years before and then became friends with him and was so taken with the kind of man that he was, with his total lack of artifice and obvious deep love for his home, that Kent could not forget it. He believed he would find something that his life was lacking by moving to Brigus. Finally, in 1914, he convinced his wife Kathleen to give it a try. Then he packed his art supplies and left for the North, with his family planning to follow, after he had secured a home.
From the beginning, the move was to be not so much a grand adventure (although clearly that was part of it), but more an opportunity for Kent to put down roots in a place he was certain would welcome and inspire him. In Brigus he would become an even better painter, in Brigus he would feel at home, in Brigus, with men like Bartlett as an example, he would become a better man. Of course, none of these things happened, other than the steady improvement to his work, and what did transpire in Newfoundland was something that no one could have predicted. Did his marriage suffer? Yes, of course. Did he make friends and then lose them due to his outsized ego and arrogance? Again, of course. Did he end up being suspected as a German spy and deported along with his family? Bizarrely enough, yes -- and that is the part of the story that first captured the attention of Michael Winter, and the part that will certainly resonate most strongly with readers today.
Kent was a lot of things that, when combined together, were just too eccentric
for the people of Brigus. He wasn’t enormously wealthy but he talked about
money and gave the appearance of wealth – which was probably due to his
city upbringing more than anything else. He also took sides in age-old arguments,
something that is never a good idea for a newcomer to a small isolated community,
and, most difficult to understand in 1915, he did not embrace the British decision
to go to war against Germany. Kent spoke German, he loved the culture, and he
took issue with the reasons behind the conflict. All of this is perfectly legitimate,
in every way possible he was a typical man of the upper middle class of his
time, but combined with all of their earlier suspicions about him and his strange
ways, it was just too much for the good people of Brigus. It’s not such
a stretch to believe their response when we see today, in our “enlightened
times” what is said about Cindy Sheehan when she demands to meet with
the President, or what happened to the Dixie Chicks for one stupid comment thrown
off a stage during a concert.
Can you imagine would happen if you had the following exchange with a police officer:
There is some thought, Mr. Kent, that you might not be fully behind the effort.
The effort. I’m E for effort.
To fight the Germans.
I will fight no Germans.
So you oppose England.
I’m dead against the war.
But surely the British position is just.
The man was poised with a pencil to his notepad.
The British, I said, make a good condiment. Beyond that I see little to recommend the British. You spell condiment with an i.
But surely you don’t support the Germans.
I am a supporter of great culture, I said. Have you read Goethe? Listened to Bach?
You know you look a bit like a German.
How can you respond to that? I bid my apologies, excusing myself from a longer interview by having to tend to my pregnant wife.
I watched him walk up the path, past the Pomeroys’. He waved to Old Man Pomeroy. And then Old Man Pomeroy had him over.
Kathleen: What was that about?
I’m not sure.
And then -- well, then it all goes downhill for Rockwell Kent.
Michael Winter grew up in Newfoundland but only heard the story of Kent’s
time in Brigus a few years ago. “I had written a couple of books that
were semi-autobiographical and I got into trouble with friends and family. So
I wanted to try and make something up. I have friends who’ve written historical
novels and done very well by them… then a friend took me out to Brigus
one day and showed me this very old house. It was set off on its own and he
told me the story of Rockwell Kent, who I’d never heard of, and how he
was kicked out of the country for being a German spy. He then said Smallwood,
our premier, found the correspondence between Kent and the government of Newfoundland
-- fifty-year old correspondence -- and sent a letter to Kent’s heirs
apologizing on behalf of the province. Kent’s family sent Rockwell his
letter, as he was still alive, and Kent wrote Smallwood, no hard feelings (as
it is in the book). And so Smallwood invited him back with his third wife and
they revisited the house where he had real youthful dreams of living the rest
of his life. When I heard this story, I just knew I could write it.”
Being able to frame the story of his deportation around Kent’s decision to leave New York and his return years later to Brigus and the apologies of the Newfoundland government, allowed Winter all sorts of freedom to explore just what impact the time in Brigus had on the painter. Kent’s very unorthodox friendship with Bartlett was also an added bonus, as the men were so utterly different, but both giants in their day. Winter was determined to do the men justice, and used their personal writings to ground his own forays into who they were and how they lived. Certain key events in the book are completely factual, as Winter explained to me, “Kent did move to Newfoundland in the winter of 1914, he did return to sue his mistress to return the money he’d given her when their son died, Bartlett was away when Kent was in Brigus. That sort of thing I didn’t alter.”
What Winter has done with this book though is take those truths and build upon them a deep and emotional story about one man’s definition of love, and how it hurts those around him. He also goes further than that to make his characters as real and intense as they so richly deserve. “…the emotional life is all mine,” says Winter. “I did this because I wasn’t convinced by a lot of historical novels. They made the characters too polite and bloodless. When you read diaries that were private, that have been found from the past, you see that the writing, if it’s good, is hot and passionate and lively and desirous. That’s what I wanted.”
Kent published many books about himself and his travels, so Winter had a good reserve to call on when it came to developing his literary character. He also had Bartlett’s autobiography which prompted Winter to raise questions about the man that other authors have certainly shied away from. “He never married, had close ties to his mother, and was the only man on the Peary expeditions to the north not to father children with Inuit women. So there’s a lot of evidence that he was perhaps a gay man in a time and place where that life couldn’t be lived. He claimed in his writing to be a teetotaler and there’s a lot of evidence to support heavy drinking. The first chapter of his autobiography, which details his seafaring exploits, is called ‘The Trouble with Women’. Obviously [he] was a repressed man. So I wanted Bartlett, and Kent, to express their inner lives in my book.”
In many ways, Winter’s commitment to peel back the social veneer from his characters’ lives is startling. And while the book is certainly not a sexual romp, when Kent does seduce a local girl while his wife is away, it is not written as a casual moment in either of their lives, nor is it artificial and crass.
It decided things for her. When I took her up the narrow stairs that night I was stunned that I was with the body of that face. That face’s body was against my own. It was a lie about my wife and both of us felt the wrong in it. We did not face each other. It began in the narrow stairs. We made the movements that are like stairs. I held Emily with her back to me. It was as if we were not making love because we were not in a room, though it turned the stairs into a room. A place on your way to another place.
It is the beginning of the end of a marriage perhaps, but so beautifully and honestly written, that it is still too compelling for the reader to ignore. It is not a key moment in Kent’s life, but provides a key insight into his character. Sex was serious to Kent, always, and perhaps knowing that is what made it so hard for his wives to forgive him, or dismiss what he had done.
For Bartlett, Winter detailed his friendship with Kent (in many ways Bartlett
was the voice of reason that Kent foolishly ignored), and only unleashes with
a shock about the explorer’s life at the very end. I was floored by this
graphic passage and in response to my questions about it, Winter acknowledged
“I meant it to be read as rather unbelievable, that Bartlett had that experience. But perhaps, if he could live the extreme version of his life, that event might transpire. I have Bartlett say, after he confesses to that gay experience, ‘it’s hard to believe, isn’t it.’ That was my nod to the reader, a caveat of sorts. Don’t believe the facts in this book, but rather believe in the emotional terrain… the desire of the private mind.”
I kept thinking about that long after I finished the book, and how Winter also said “I think the early 1900s were, for the artistic set, a very liberal time. It’s hard for us these days; we are rather puritanical here at the start of the 21st century. And the worst thing is we think people a hundred years ago were all prudes. It’s nonsense.” I realized that he’s right -- one of the things that surprised me so much about The Big Why was how grandly Rockwell Kent lived his life, and how in comparison the smallness of those around him stood out. That does not mean that I admire Kent beyond reason -- he did things that hurt the people who loved him -- but I do think that his vision of a larger world, of living beyond the environment around him, might have been why he never really had a chance in a place like Brigus. Kent could not settle down enough to disappear in such a small place, whereas his friend Bartlett was desperate for the kind of invisibility that Brigus gave him. In his hometown Bartlett was just a local boy and an explorer, it was all he would ever be, and Kent would never be able to be just one thing, not even in exchange for peace.
I finished reading The Big Why over a month ago and I still think about it. It is one of those big amazing novels that captures your attention and sucks you into the lives of its characters in an instant. I am mightily impressed with this book, with every aspect of the world that Michael Winter has created. I think he has found his niche, and I most certainly hope that he will continue to craft historical fiction. The Big Why makes for some grand late night reading, and it has certainly filled me with the world of Rockwell Kent, and the passionate talent of a writer to watch.
The Big Why by Michael Winter