“I was broke. I didn’t have any money, and it was hard.”
Michael Winter is eating scrambled eggs and peameal bacon in a downtown Toronto café and telling me why he signed with a new publisher, Penguin Canada, last spring. By then, Winter had already published several books, most recently two novels with House of Anansi Press, and he’d become an established Canadian author, well known to publishers and media types – though he still hadn’t reached a wide general readership. Then Nicole Winstanley, a senior fiction editor at Penguin, offered Winter the largest advance of his career: $150,000 for a two-book deal, he says. The first book in that deal – Winter’s new novel, The Architects Are Here – is scheduled to appear in bookstores on Sept. 8, and everyone involved has a lot riding on it. Will this be Winter’s long-awaited breakthrough?
Already, the Penguin deal has allowed the 42-year-old author to begin thinking about possibilities that were previously closed to him. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I can not worry about how I’m going to pay the rent.” The Newfoundland-raised Winter has lived in Toronto for the past eight years; he now shares an apartment in Toronto with his girlfriend, novelist Christine Pountney, though they usually spend their summers back in Winter’s home province. With the Penguin money, Winter deepened his roots on the Rock by buying a home in Conception Bay – a ramshackle 100-year-old house with no running water or electricity, surrounded by pastures on a dead-end road leading to a lighthouse.
It was while renovating that house that Winter experienced another, much less pleasant, life-altering event. In a freak accident last September, Winter fell into a garbage incinerator while disposing of some old roofing materials at the local dump. He fell some 12 feet onto a burning pyre, and then tumbled down the same distance into the ashes at the bottom of the smouldering mound, only to discover there was no way out. Fortunately, a couple of locals at the usually deserted dump rescued him. A good thing, since the heat had literally begun to cook him. “It had just gotten to my elbow and shoulder,” he states, pointing to his right arm, “and it was working its way in.”
The ordeal lasted only about four minutes, but it put such a fear into Winter that he began pondering his own mortality. “I should be dead,” he tells me. “If those guys hadn’t been there, oh, I’d be gone.”
So, with the nest egg from Penguin in place, and with thoughts of extinction filling his head, one more life-altering event took place. Winter had a conversation with Pountney that, as he recalls, went something like this: “We’re okay for four years? Let’s have a baby.”
Michael Winter was born in Jarrow, England, in 1965. His father, an industrial arts teacher, moved the family to Newfoundland three years later, eventually settling in Corner Brook. After high school, Winter attended Memorial
University, graduating in 1986 with a BA in economic geography. Over the following years, however, he would follow a different calling: writing stories; establishing the Burning Rock Collective in St. John’s, along with such authors as Ramona Dearing and Lisa Moore; and spending eight years as editor of the now-defunct literary journal Tickle Ace. Winter’s first book of stories, Creaking in Their Skins, was published in 1994 by Quarry Press, also now defunct. In 1999, editor John Metcalf took notice of Winter’s work and published his second book of stories, One Last Good Look, at The Porcupines’ Quill. That same year, Winter moved to Toronto, where he subsequently published two novels with Anansi: This All Happened (2000) and The Big Why (2004).
The Architects Are Here is both a return to form and a departure. The Big Why was a historical novel narrated by real-life American artist Rockwell Kent, but the new book sees the return of Winter’s fictional alter ego, author Gabriel English, who is the narrator of all of his pre-Big Why work. In those books, English’s life bore such a striking resemblance to Winter’s that the author sometimes found himself in hot water with friends and family over perceived betrayals. “I wrote about my family, my friends, people I love,” he states. “I couldn’t change it? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t change it? I mean, I was an idiot to not do that.”
The new book is different: while it’s narrated by Gabe English, there’s little in it that will elicit the ire of loved ones, Winter says. In The Architects Are Here, English chronicles his ill-fated relationship with his friend David Twombly, a millionaire IT genius, and with Nell Tarkington, Gabe’s elusive lover. Infused with both doom and humour, the story follows Gabe on an arc of tragedy and absurdity that moves from his youth in Newfoundland to his adulthood in Toronto, and then back to Newfoundland. Those who enjoy what Q&Q reviewer Nicholas Dinka called Winter’s talent for “linguistic pointillism” will find much to enjoy here. They will also find, for the first time, a contemporary narrative about larger-than-life characters embroiled in a plot that reaches mythic proportions. This is Winter’s most fictional fiction to date, and it is written with tremendous confidence.
But is all this enough to garner the type of sales that recoup hefty advances? The Big Why reportedly netted an advance of around $60,000 – an advance that Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan is on record as saying has not been earned out by the book’s sales.
In any case, Nicole Winstanley, who has worked for Penguin since February 2006, was undaunted. “No, I don’t see it as a risk at all,” she says of her decision to sign Winter for big money. “Michael is incredibly beloved in the Canadian literary community. He’s had impressive reviews…. His sales have been, obviously, not what Sarah MacLachlan hoped for, but they’ve still been really respectable and we see so much more potential for him.”
Winstanley also sees Winter’s audience as representing “a younger generation, particularly on the East Coast,” and Penguin hopes to expand that audience by serializing the novel on the networking website Facebook, posting 300-word distillations of each of its 17 chapters throughout the summer. (There’s also the second book in Winter’s contract to consider: it’s being billed as a true crime story set in Newfoundland, but beyond that, all parties are being highly secretive. No delivery date has been set.)
Winter’s agent, Anne McDermid, also thinks The Architects Are Here will garner Winter a large-scale readership. “The book has all the anticipated qualities of Michael Winter’s writing,” she says. “This time it is combined with a strong and suspenseful storyline.”
As for Winter, he becomes uncharacteristically tight-lipped when asked how he feels about the track record of The Big Why. “I think it’s common enough,” he says, of books that don’t earn out advances. “One would hope that given time, [Anansi] will earn back that money. I think that’s probably all.”
Winter’s hopes are likely not in vain. “There is absolutely not even one iota of ill will between us and Michael,” says Lynn Henry, current publisher at Anansi, adding that Winter’s backlist titles are all “good steady sellers.” And Winter’s profile with the general public is, in fact, expanding. He served on the 2006 Giller Prize jury, alongside big guns Alice Munro and Adrienne Clarkson – a very public nod of approval from the literary establishment.
But while Winter may be a man about town in publishing and media circles, he says such celebrity is the icing, not the cake. “That’s a very small world,” Winter says, “and it’s not a world that I’m fully in. I’ve got lots of friends who are not part of that at all. It’s sort of amusing to be in there, and I enjoy it, but my heart is another thing entirely. Which is what interests me with autobiographical fiction. We all have a private life that has nothing to do with the small public tip of the iceberg. In the end, if that tip disappears, I’ve got the rest, which I’m very happy with.”
No doubt. When I interviewed Winter in mid-May, he and Christine Pountney were packing up for another summer at their home in Conception Bay – and Pountney was six months pregnant. Their baby is due just before The Architects Are Here hits bookstores. When asked how that makes him feel, Winter replies, “Like I’m finally getting things done.”
“I was broke. I didn’t have any money, and it was hard.”