Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, is a history nerd and disabled person who writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her short stories are widely anthologized, and her essay “You’re Not ‘Disabled’ Disabled” appears in Land of Many Shores. Her first novel, Double-blind, was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award, and her 2016 novel This Marlowe was longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. Her most recent novel, Constant Nobody, won the 2022 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s.
Your five novels have taken us back in time to eighteenth and twentieth century Newfoundland, Elizabethan England, and now, with your latest book Constant Nobody, the Spanish Civil War. What is it about these particular places and points in history that made you want to write about them?
First, I should point out that the admittedly feverish plot of Constant Nobody catches fire in northern Spain, but most of the novel is set in 1937 Moscow.
I don’t start out with a moment in time in mind so much as an image or an idea. Sometimes the idea is linked to a setting or a time period. I want to write fiction about universal themes and human experiences which play out in highly specific settings. The more history I encounter (I am a student, no proper historian), the more I find highly specific settings bursting with conflict and huge social forces crying out for a story.
So I guess what draws me to these settings is first the environments – how people live, what they value, what they struggle against – and how one can, as both reader and writer, get lost in another time and place yet find oneself and one’s own deepest concerns playing out.
For my fiction set in Newfoundland: I have two Newfoundlands, the “real” one of our world, and an alternative-historical Newfoundland that votes for responsible (self) government versus confederation with Canada in 1949. The confederation referendums boiled up big questions of identity which remain today.
Elizabethan England? In 1993, reeling from a deep study of Christopher Marlowe’s plays, I checked out an introduction to Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy. It mentioned Kyd’s arrest and imprisonment in Bridewell. The accusation? Kyd was accused of writing a piece of seditious, violent, and hateful doggerel which alluded to several of Marlowe’s plays. Under torture, about which the government papers are quite open and blatant, Kyd identifies some papers mixed up with his as belonging to Marlowe, left over from a time when they shared lodgings. While Kyd is imprisoned, Marlowe dies of a dirty great knife in the eye. So, one or two things going on there. Now, I ask: who can resist that for storytelling?
What sort of balance do you like to strike between historical accuracy and creative licence in the stories you tell?
Yeah, that’s a tricky one. At some point, for me, the history must serve the story, even when we set out to have our story serve the history. Fiction is an art, and one makes aesthetic decisions. Even with that, one can be highly accurate; so much depends on the story and history themselves. Sharon Robert-Johnson would be a good one to ask about that, because she wants her story to serve history, to bring a monstrous injustice out of the whitewashed shed. With my alternative-history Newfoundland, I have a lot of freedom for anything set after 1949, but it still must seem plausible. A relatively independent Newfoundland and Labrador would still have a British Empire hangover.
In This Marlowe, I have Mary (Manna) Marlowe, Kit’s older sister. He adores her and tries to write to her, and she becomes a target of violence as pressure on him. The real Mary Marlowe died when the real Christopher was four, something I didn’t discover til fairly late in the writing. Like, really late – going to press soon. It was a rookie mistake when it comes to accuracy, but I decided I couldn’t and wouldn’t remove Manna as a character, because that would take so much away from my Kit character. So Manna ended up being a lesson in taking good care with my notes and giving long thought to my aesthetic design.
In Constant Nobody, fairy tales from both England and Russia churn the waters, so the novel’s apparent realism, like that of my first novel, Double-blind, is under strain. The Russian Revolution brought so much change, so quickly, and often with such violence, that people must have felt wrenched out of their reality and tossed into a new one. I tried to keep that feverish edge throughout the story, and I made up a station on the early Moscow Metro. Vasilisa Prekrasnaya is plausible, supports my themes and image patterns, and as far as I could see doesn’t cause anyone harm, so I invented it – but it doesn’t exist. It never existed. My story needed it, so I took various strands of history to serve my story.
Constant Nobody recently won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. What does this latest recognition of your work mean to you?
It means someone out there is reading and digging my work, which is wonderful. More pragmatically, it means I can continue to write full time. I started doing that in August of 2021 for the first time ever, and it’s been so good. It also means the Raddall family have tremendous love and respect for the first Thomas Raddall and his struggles, and the struggles of any writer.
I’ve made a lot of friends, though before the ABAs I hadn’t met either Sharon or David. Nor had I read their work. It’s easy to feel isolated way out here in Newfoundland and Labrador, even with our rich arts traditions. So I treasure my friendships, both here in NL and beyond. Hearing other writers describe their difficulties can be very reassuring, and it’s so much fun to cheer one another on. I use social media a lot to stay connected.
Your fourth novel This Marlowe features a character, Robin Poley, who is physically disabled. As you’ve pointed out, the name of Robin’s condition, ankylosing spondylitis, is never mentioned in the book itself because “Elizabethans did not understand the condition the way we do.” Can you share a bit more about the process of writing about the experience and social framing of disability from another time period?
I am so glad you’ve asked me this question.
First, I need to make clear that I suffer from ankylosing spondylitis – ank spond for short. It can be agonizing. The fatigue alone disables me. I’m enjoying a really good patch of health right now, not in remission but definitely stronger than I’ve been in years. This could change at any moment. I’d be appalled, but not surprised, to wake up one morning stiff and in pain and exhausted in a bout that could last weeks, months, years …
I thought my experiences with ank spond, labours, miscarriage, kidney stones, and bile duct inflammation would make writing about the pain Tom suffers in Bridewell easy. I thought my shared experiences of agony that can make you pass out would make Tom’s pain more authentic on the page. I was wrong. Language, or English at least, doesn’t leave a lot of room for pain. The best we can do is metaphor: stabbing, burning, boring, shooting. Chastened, I felt like an arrogant failure. Then I saw a solution: show the effects of the pain, show how it breaks Tom, changes his thinking, damages him for the rest of his life. And that, with my limits as a writer, was the best I could do.
So why give Robin Poley ank spond? I was playing with Elizabethan tropes on disability, the famous one being that a person’s character is displayed in their physicality – Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example. This becomes very interesting when we look at the real Sir Robert Cecil, Acting Secretary of the Privy Council and later Lord Salisbury, clearly a capable and powerful man able to navigate court treacheries. Cecil suffered from scoliosis and had a noticeable hump. Did onlookers consider him a potential threat because of his mind, or because of his spine? Then there’s my character Robin, based on the real-life Robert Poley, an agent so well known that later Ben Jonson parodies him in a poem. That led me to thinking that the real Poley might be struggling to find work at that point, if everyone knows he’s an informant and spy, and I also needed a strong motivation for my character Robin in 1593. The real Poley was present at Marlowe’s death, according to the coroner’s report, but it was Ingram Frizer who stabbed Marlowe. I really wanted the death of my character Kit to mean something, so I decided early on that Robin, onetime mentor and friend, would be the one to kill Kit – which meant, in a way, that I was the one to kill Kit, because I had to write the damn thing. So on that level, giving Robin ank spond is a joke with myself. In my fictive world, ank spond makes Robin worry about his future. If he physically can’t move well or move without being noticed, if he’s in severe pain with debilitating fatigue, then he won’t make a very good spy, and he’s unlikely to be trusted with any sort of official desk job. I took a big risk here. It looks like Robin serves the Elizbethan understanding of disability, that is, a crooked body means a crooked mind and soul. In fact, Robin subverts it. Robin does terrible things in response to overwhelming social forces, not because he’s disabled. That he is disabled only makes him more vulnerable to those forces.
Earlier this year you offered a four-week workshop to WFNS members called “The Presence Of The Past: Writing Historical Fiction.” What are some of your top tips for writers who are interested in exploring this genre?
Dig. Dig for the stories. Dig for the details. Study source materials, if they’re available, to get some idea of the world views of people at that time and to consider what the opposing views might be. Deciding to set a story in 1954 may not be enough. Why 1954? Where in 1954? Who in 1954? What is the story, big and small, that’s hauling you into the time period?
In a previous interview with The Miramichi Reader you said “I knew since the age of seven I wanted to write fiction.” What drew you towards storytelling as a child?
I just loved books. I would handle them long before I could read. I love getting lost in a story, love the journey of trying to understand what it might feel like to be someone else, somewhere else. I was scribbling before I could write. I started reading and writing before school. Sesame Street was a big push there. And phonics. Loved me some phonics.
My favourite novels when I was a kid, it turns out, featured a girl as a protagonist, and a flawed girl at that, awkward and mouthy, well-intended, passionate, smart as starlight and stunned as your boot, in a distinctive setting: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne books, Mary Calhoun’s Katie John books, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I related to Anne, Katie John, Ramona (and her big sister, Beezus), Harriet, and Meg deeply, and I think you can hear them in my characters Christy Monroe, Claire Furey, Nichole Wright, Matthew Christopher Finn, and Temerity West.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin