Secrets are a driving force in Samuel Martin's fast-paced thriller When the Dead are Razed.
His central character, Teffy Byrne, is a St. John's journalist who needs to keep silent to protect herself and her partner. She's trying to learn the secret of the deceased Teresa Squires, who has left a coded message in a journal.
But Martin struggled, as a mainlander now living in the United States, to write about the place and its residents.
Born in Belleville and raised in Weslemkoon Lake country in eastern Ontario, Martin moved to St. John's for PhD studies at Memorial University in 2008.
His first two books, This Ramshackle Tabernacle (2010) and A Blessed Snarl (2012), were published while he was living in the province, as a student at MUN and later as writer in residence at Fogo Island Arts.
He began writing When the Dead are Razed just before leaving the province in 2012 to pursue a teaching career in Iowa.
Martin describes When the Dead Are Razed as "a love letter to a place I miss terribly … in the form of a literary thriller." He recalls the tension he felt during the writing process between a sense of obligation to his new home in the U.S. and a longing to return to the island.
"I would spend all day in Newfoundland and then have to go back to Iowa in the evening, and it was always like this letdown. I don't want to offend the Iowa people but … my experience in Newfoundland was just very different from my experience here."
Wanting to do justice to the places he loved, he had doubts about his ability to portray the setting authentically from such a distance. "Am I romanticizing things? How do I keep this real?" he asked.
He struggled, he said, "not being from Newfoundland but living there, and moving away right as I was starting this project, and then taking the project with me and trying to maintain that authenticity."
Martin drew on the guidance of mentors in the St. John's writing community, writers like Lisa Moore and Larry Mathews, to help him assess.
"It's this tug of war, trying to keep things grounded but really missing the place and having a huge nostalgia for it."
Language and silence
Martin's approach to writing is imbued with the same cautiousness faced by his latest protagonist — and by his own family.
Byrne's story was influenced in part by a manuscript written by his grandmother. She had written a novel and given a copy to his mother for safekeeping.
Martin speculates that her novel was a way of expressing herself while feeling obliged to keep silent, "because it had been so much about her community, her family ... that she thought, this will hurt too many people, and so that fear silenced her."
Later in life, his grandmother found his mother's copy of the novel. "She took it down to the basement, lit a fire, and burned it. It was the only surviving manuscript of it, and we lost it. I had never gotten to read it."
Martin also draws a direct connection between his grandmother and a character in his second book, A Blessed Snarl. Ruth Wiseman is the wife of a pastor, who uses her hands as puppets to say the things she cannot express openly.
"I was thinking more at the time about people I'd grown up with who, I realize [now]…their lack of freedom was something I couldn't see because of my privileged position of being a male in this culture," he said.
"For a lot of my life I had not been aware that people were being silenced around me or felt like they couldn't say things that they wanted to say."
It's this awareness of the power of words, perhaps combined with a reverence for those constrained from expressing their deepest thoughts, that elevates Martin's latest work into something more than a suspense novel.
When the Dead are Razed is fictitious and highly stylized for fast-paced suspense; coded within the genre's constraints, we can see the author's quiet desire to "take a journey back and touch the place that was holy."