Home is where the heart is — and the stories are — for author Heather Smith

·4 min read
Submitted by Heather Smith
Submitted by Heather Smith

"There wasn't really a specific spark that started this book," says Heather Smith from her home In Waterloo, Ont.

"I sit down and I start to write, and as silly as it sounds, I kind of just make it up as it comes along."

Born and raised in Newfoundland, Smith has lived away from the island for some time, but her connection to the province and its many stories is stronger than ever.

With memorable past titles like Ebb & Flow and The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, Smith's work, which is geared toward young adult readers, evokes certain times and places in the province's history, from placid outports to the streets of St. John's.

Turning once again to her home in her latest book, Barry Squires, Full Tilt, Smith began her ode to St. John's with only the vague idea of a young boy and his aspirations to become a dancer, and, like many a great Newfoundland story, it all started at a bingo hall.

"I just went from there and then his family came to me," Smith said.

"Once I started getting that sense of his family, and where he lived in St. John's, and what his experience of St. John's would have been, that's when the story came alive. And once that happened, I just ran with it."

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Growing up in St. John's, Smith had plenty of material to work with when crafting the world of her latest novel.

Being away from home, however, only strengthened her emotional attachment to the city of her youth, especially at a time when it's impossible for her to return.

"I left in '93, and I come home twice a year," she said.

"I think being away for most of the year kind of intensifies that feeling of nostalgia that you get for your hometown, especially during COVID."

Though Smith draws on her own experiences while writing, she said it's difficult not to let things become too romanticized, though missing home gives her that extra connection to what she's writing.

Submitted by Heather Smith
Submitted by Heather Smith

"I guess it's my own experience mixed with a sense of yearning to be back there. That situates me right in the heart of St. John's again."

Barry Squires, Full Tilt is speckled with details that convey the unique humour of Newfoundland, like Smith's invented old-age facility, the One Step Closer to God Nursing Home.

"I find that there's a lot of dark humour in Newfoundland," she said, adding that it often counterbalances the plain old foolishness.

"If you don't laugh about it, you'll cry."

Balancing nostalgia and realism

While Smith draws upon the nostalgia of home to colour the world of Barry Squires, her depiction of St. John's in the early 1990s is anything but sanitized.

"Being away from St. John's, sometimes you look back and you romanticize things a little bit; well, there are certain things you can't romanticize."

Submitted by Heather Smith
Submitted by Heather Smith

No place is perfect, Smith said, and St. John's is no exception to the rule. As much as she loves the city, her dedication to representing it truthfully means tackling difficult issues, like race and poverty.

Central to the novel is Barry Squires' companion, Saibal. while he may seem rough around the edges, Saibal has to contend with locals and tourists alike who don't see him as a Newfoundlander because of the colour of his skin.

"When it comes to racism, no place is immune," Smith says, "and you don't need to see it to believe it: all you have to do is listen to the stories that you hear from people of colour, especially of late, of their experiences growing up in Newfoundland— it's not always pretty."

Looking to accurately reflect the experiences of many who grew up in St. John's in the early 90s, Smith says that if she was going to have a character like Saibal in her story, then it was important to touch on these very real issues.

"For somebody like Saibal, who was living in St. John's in 1993, I don't imagine it was a completely, 100 per cent warm and welcoming scenario," she said.

"To write that it was would be doing a disservice to people like Saibal, people who have either been born and bred in Newfoundland, or have come to Newfoundland to live."

I think people reading the book, they'll see themselves in it a little bit. - Heather Smith

In her acknowledgements, Smith pays special attention to the writers, actors, and other artists who she's admired over the years, and who've helped to shape her and many other's perceptions of Newfoundland.

Smith said she's had her own experiences seeing Rick Mercer and Tom Power at a past Regatta in St. John's, so it seemed only natural that Barry Squires would run into some notable Newfoundland celebrities himself.

"I think people reading the book, they'll see themselves in it a little bit," Smith said on CBC Radio's Weekend AM in November, "because we've all had those sightings where we're kind of like, 'Oh my goodness, who's that walking through the streets of downtown? Oh, it's Gordon Pinsent.'"

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador