For Nova Scotia author Leo McKay Jr., the impetus behind his acclaimed novel Twenty-Six was a sense of responsibility.
“Originally I started writing a book that was very political, that came from a place of deep anger…[but] I also had another book that was more the story of a family and family relationships,” he said, answering audience questions at the Dal Reads author event last Friday at the University Club pub.
“I read a quote by John Gardner who said that art is really just bringing two things together, and that’s when I realized I needed to put my two ideas together.”
McKay’s Twenty-Six, a fictionalized account of the Westray Mine disaster, was chosen as the Dal Reads selection for this year, a program which encourages the Dal community to share in reading and connecting with a selected novel. At this year’s author reading, dozens of students, employees and community members came out to hear McKay discuss his acclaimed novel, which is also this year’s One Book Nova Scotia reading selection.
Bonnie Neuman, vice-president Student Services at Dalhousie, says that Dal Reads is about bringing the Dal community together through arts and culture.
“New students coming in have to opportunity to read the same book as their professors and senior students. This provided a common ground for discussion.”
Sharing Nova Scotia's history
Generally the chosen books have illuminated Nova Scotian and Canadian history. Past Dal Reads selection The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, told the story of an African American slave’s journey throughout the southern United States to Great Britain, Nova Scotia and back again.
This year’s book is no less insightful – it highlights the social and economic hardships of life during the late 1980s, leading up to the second largest mine disaster in Canada's history, which occurred in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. The construction and horrific destruction of this mine is paralleled in the book by a family whose lives are fundamentally reliant on the mine.
The tragedy plays out in the space between money and survival, in a community where a closed mine might as well mean a closed community. The chance to open up mines that had originally closed down in the 1970s was an opportunity that many, including supporters in both the federal and provincial government, couldn’t pass up, even though many warned about the mine’s instability. When the mine collapsed on May 9, 1992 in a methane explosion, all 26 miners working underground at the time were killed.
Writing through tough subject matter
Growing up alongside these real-life events gave McKay the material and passion to create both a first-hand account of life and a way to bear witness to the disaster.
“While this is a piece of fiction, I didn’t want to let the government off the hook,” McKay stated during his reading.
There is obviously some tough subject matter McKay had to push through when writing, from abuse, to alcoholism, intimate relationships to teen suicide, and looming in the background of it all was the Westray explosion.
“When I got stuck, or wasn’t sure that I could keep writing I just told myself that this was about the journey. If you look in the novel you can see that the first word is death and the last word is life. I just had to keep reminding myself that I had to write my way from death to life."
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