Update! Megan Gail Coles' Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist so we're rerunning this interview from earlier this year. Don't forget to enter (on the left) for a chance to win the whole shortlist!
Today we're in conversation with Megan Gail Coles, whose debut novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club (Anansi) packs a powerful punch. The book explores the lives of a cast of characters whose lives intersect during a Valentine’s Day blizzard at a trendy St. John’s restaurant.
The St. John’s Telegram says “Coles' writing is agile, precise, muscular, vernacular. She invests in voice and perspective and the payoff inscribes the page. It’s poetry of a frank, rough kind: some of it is hard to read.”
Megan Gail Coles is a graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland and the National Theatre School of Canada, and she has recently completed a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia. She has written and produced numerous plays. Her first fiction collection, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, won the BMO Winterset Award, the ReLit Award, and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, and it earned her the one-time Writers’ Trust 5x5 prize. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is her debut novel. Originally from Savage Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Megan now resides in St. John’s, where she is the Executive Director of Riddle Fence.
THE CHAT WITH MEGAN GAIL COLES
Trevor Corkum: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is a searing, visceral novel. In an interview with The Telegram, you called it "a declaration of war on misogyny." Can you talk more about that, and what compelled you to write the book?
Megan Gail Coles: Newfoundland and Labrador has some of the highest domestic violence rates in the country. And I would hazard to guess we also have some of the lowest rates of reporting though I have no measure for that other than lived experience. I have experienced intimate partner abuse in all forms and I did not report. I am not naturally subservient, I am in fact fully built resistant, so I suspect domestic violence is shockingly common. Though physical, emotional and sexual violence remains hidden as women attach personal value to romantic and familial relationships. To be without a man, any man, is frowned upon. And there is a man shortage. Whole generations of Newfoundland men have been stolen by conflict, crisis and outmigration. So a bad man is better than no man at all.
But I reject that. That kind of foregone thinking puts women and girls in great danger and I will not have it anymore. There are countless reasons why our traditionally labour-based island has yet to relinquish this mentality. Many of them economic survival. Women in NL are brutally underpaid if we are paid at all. We have the highest wage gap in the country. 66 cents on the man's dollar. This increases to vulgar rates in rural-remote, northern regions where internalized racism has impacted access. I recognize my dollar is likely half that of a mediocre man and I feel daily robbed. These same isolated communities, of which I am a member, have little to nothing in the way of formal childcare or support services. There is not even a bus. You have to leave the man who smacks and gaslights you by foot on the only road out of town while everyone watches you walk away. Many of us don't make it and I've had enough of everyone pretending that doesn't happen when it is an open secret that it goddamn well does.
You have to leave the man who smacks and gaslights you by foot on the only road out of town while everyone watches you walk away. Many of us don't make it and I've had enough of everyone pretending that doesn't happen when it is an open secret that it goddamn well does."
TC: While focused on the lives of a group of characters connected to The Hazel restaurant—their relationships, desires, traumas, hopes and disappointments and dreams—the novel unpacks issues of class, race, and gender in contemporary Newfoundland and Labrador. How has the book been received so far at home? In what ways do you see these issues expressed and experienced differently in Newfoundland than elsewhere?
MGC: The book is challenging. It is 400-plus pages of densely packed hard truths. Some members of my community find that overwhelming and it is their right to feel that way. It is their right to put it down. Others, I suspect, are shocked and appalled and concerned that I have written it at all. We know as women what comes with expressing discontent and I am not content with the status quo.
Though, there are others who were waiting for a book like this, who didn't even know they were waiting for it. My book acknowledges and validates their lived experience. I see that they are struggling because I, too, have struggled. And feeling seen can fill a person with a lot of courage and hope. I think this is universal and so it does not surprise me when the book resonates with other marginalized communities. Of course it does. The booman comes for us all. Many of us have been running from classism, misogyny and racism our whole lives. So I turned to face that on the page and I hope it helped because it was not a painless turn.
Many of us have been running from classism, misogyny and racism our whole lives. So I turned to face that on the page and I hope it helped because it was not a painless turn."
TC: Some might feel the book paints an unflattering picture of Newfoundland and Labrador. One reviewer questioned whether anyone would “add St. John’s to my bucket list itinerary” after reading the book. How would you respond?
MGC: My novel is not a tourism commercial. I do not write to entice men. St. John's is a vibrant and complex modern city. I love my wild Atlantic capital. Do not disrespect her by assuming she was ready-made to fulfill your summer fantasy. I will not have my personhood, or that of my community, jeopardized or limited for some stranger's imaginary holiday bucket list. We may regularly stay up all night dancing but we are not put here to stay up all night dancing for your amusement. Come meet us as equals or stay home out of it.
TC: At the same time, the book demonstrates a very protective love for the province and its people. There’s a camaraderie among the outcasts, and an instinct for self-preservation that plays out in surprising and wholly unique ways for Olive, Iris, Damian, and the others. What challenges did you face in bringing these lives to the page?
Make no mistake, I love Newfoundland. It is where I was made. All my bad and best bits were formed in this rough rock by the people who reared me. A great many women especially have held the threads of me in their hands when I was undone. I write for them. I write for all the misfits and outcasts determined to be their whole selves on an island repressed by some colonial desire to parcel them. It is a challenge to navigate what some may view as conflicting notions but I see them as the same. I know all of Newfoundland's disappointments and shames, I know everything about her and I love her desperately still. I think unconditional love is love with full understanding. Not never-ceasing acceptance to the social detriment of the group but instead honest support to move through disadvantage toward a healthier place where one can thrive. I want that for my people. We should all want that for each other.
A great many women especially have held the threads of me in their hands when I was undone. I write for them. I write for all the misfits and outcasts determined to be their whole selves on an island repressed by some colonial desire to parcel them."
TC: So many incredible literary works have come out of Newfoundland and Labrador in the past few decades. In what ways to you feel your work is in conversation with other writers and artists from your home province? Have you been inspired and influenced by any writers in particular?
MGC: I am in constant dialogue with other writers and artists. There is no start or stop to it. I am fully immersed in my community. I am actually writing this from a hotel room on Newfoundland's sunny west coast because I am touring the province with my TYA play speaking to teenagers about enthusiastic consent. I had the loveliest experience at a theatre talkback in Stephenville recently. There are some really lovely people around that inspire me to keep on. Lisa Moore and Joel Thomas Hynes are my primary Newfoundland writing influences. They know this, of course. I suppose I am like their literary lovechild, fully grown and off leash. I'm not sure what they make of this. I dare say, it would be fun to ask them.
Lisa Moore and Joel Thomas Hynes are my primary Newfoundland writing influences. They know this, of course. I suppose I am like their literary lovechild, fully grown and off leash. I'm not sure what they make of this. I dare say, it would be fun to ask them."
Excerpt from Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club
Olive waits below the sad mural painted in memory of some long ago drowned boy.
She can see up and down Duckworth Street from her perch though there’s not much to see this early in the morning. A scattered taxi slogs by carrying fiendish-looking passengers who attempt to discreetly smoke from barely cracked windows. Discretion is a skill they have fallen out with but they don’t know that yet. They still fancy themselves stealth, piling four parka-plied humans into a single toilet stall, scarves dangling beneath the door, telling tails on them all.
Volume control is a thing of delusion in the confined spaces they inhabit. It will be years before this is fully realized by those who escape the scene or are thrown into adulthood by overdose or pregnancy. These lucky few will feel overwhelmingly, retroactively embarrassed by their one-time rock star fantasies. Olive can hear them bawling about their supposed betrayals as clouds of tobacco smoke and slurry syllables updraft skyward through the slightly parted window.
But Olive forgives them their make-believe follies.
They are no better or worse than most of the half well-off, half grown-up humans she has met. They are just flawed and vulnerable to the pitch. Olive is no different. She has chased the white dragon into smoky rooms where grad students complained about unkindly thesis feedback while wearing thousand dollar watches. A holiday-tanned winter wrist, a baggie held aloft, another Volvo fob serving key bumps round the ring. Under such circumstances, Olive is for the most part silent. She can pass for one of them until she releases language into the world.
Olive often holds her rural tongue for fear of being found out. She is not a card-carrying member of the townie majority. And rarely are there other fugitive faces for Olive to hide behind on nights when she wants to get on the go. There was a Mexican painter once. A Russian musician. There was the one Pakistani fellow whose name Olive could never recall. She did not think it was unpronounceable, she just could not pronounce it.
There are lots of words still beyond her reach.
Like Olive can think of no words to describe the pain felt where her pants nearly meet her feet. She winces and tucks her chin farther inside her coat. She tries to push her neck back to save from catching skin in the zipper. She sniffs back hard and swallows a slippery lob. Her grandmother would not approve of hoarding mucus in the body but her grandmother would not approve of much of what she does lately. Olive sighs and swells and swallows spit to slide the lob along.
Ollie my dollie, get a tissue.
Her grandmother’s voice is always a program running in the back of her mind. But Olive can’t sacrifice a tissue on mere mucus this morning. Her store of napkins is running low and the last time she tried to hock and spit the wind gust blew snot back onto her sleeve. The line of mucus running from her lips to her elbow turned her weak stomach over. A middle-aged woman in a bright blue Canada Goose coat muttered oh for the love of god as she hurried past the translucent boundary. This made Olive feel gross.
She swallows that gross feeling down again while she waits.
She can distract herself for a time from the damp soak settling in her heels by watching the craven-faced respectable people meander to their grown-up jobs after a weekend of pretending to be twenty-five. They are not twenty-five. They are not even thirty-five and feel as such. Most internally promise to stay home with the kids next weekend as they turn their faces to or from the sunshine depending on the quantity of painkillers ingested in the car. This temporary commitment to sobriety is bookended by revolving party systems.
Some relish vitamin D while others resent it.
The division will not last long, though, as the sun already has started to duck back inside the nimbostratus. It will storm again today as surely as the nearly forty will go out again in four days’ time. The babysitter will be called. The cat will be let in. They will flee their houses for a little look around.
Get the stink of house off ya.
They will reliably cloak this smell of domestication in alcohol and nicotine and self-loathing until Monday. Mondays are for quitting everything. Again. Except when it storms on Monday. Then quitting everything is pushed to Tuesday.
Today is such a Tuesday.
The weekend warriors refuse to sell out and so have fully bought in pound for pound.
Olive is just the same. She too had been sold the notion of party drugs as lazy fun and and then fast gobbled them hand over fist. Swallow, snort, smoke; ingestion is an irrelevant matter of personal preference and ease. There is no wall to wall them out. Or in. Drug trends are trending along regardless of national media reports daily updating all on their progress east and upward. Olive has watched the same scenes play out on repeat in dark corners of the late night since arriving in Sin Jawns.
And they’ve gone and stashed the kits everywhere to protect against the siren call. A first line of defence kept behind wine bars. Under the bathroom sink. In purses. And Olive knows she must address the long list of reasons why self-medicare is needed to comfort her.