As airport layovers go, not many end up producing brilliant novels. Yet novelist and poet Jane Urquhart can recall the exact four hours in lonely Gander Airport 25 years ago—the revelatory Lochhead mural, the chance copy of a Simone de Beauvoir biography stuffed into her purse—that seeded the material for her tender, meditative eighth work of fiction: The Night Stages.
I first visited Gander Airport, Newfoundland in the autumn of 1992, after a hair-raising flight from St John’s where I was Memorial University’s first “come-from-away” writer-in-residence. I had no idea at the time that the journey would form the basis for the beginning of a novel called The Night Stages that would be published 25 years later, or that such a large number of images from the day would be so permanently implanted in my visual memory.
I recall the walk across the tarmac in St. John’s. The wind was strong enough to cause small whitecaps to appear on the puddles I walked past, and so wild and unfocused that it undid my shoelaces before I reached the plane. As I endured the terrifying half hour trip that followed, I remained innocent of the foreknowledge that meteorologists and weather forecasters would play such an important role in a book that was a quarter of a century away from conception. I just wished that they had dispatched warnings dire enough to persuade the airlines to keep the lurching prop plane I was travelling on out of the turbulent sky.
I had cashed in my air points for the pilgrimage because I wanted to see a large mural that was painted on one of the walls of the modernist terminal at Gander. I knew a bit about the terminal: how it had been completed at a time when most trans-Atlantic flights stopped at Gander to refuel, and how the Canadian Government had spent millions creating a showcase for this remote pit stop they were boastfully calling “The Crossroads of the World.” I knew the mural had been commissioned in 1958 by this same Government for the new Terminal’s grand opening in June of 1959. I also knew that one or two years later jetliners developed fuel tanks large enough that stopping in Gander was no longer a necessity. Over the years, the building had become a sort of infrequently visited ghost terminal, its leatherette banquettes, its terrazzo tile floor, and its beautiful modernist mural frozen in time.
I wanted to see the mural because it was painted by someone that I knew—Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead—and painted in egg tempera, a painstaking medium I had tried out once or twice myself in a Media of Art History Class at University only to conclude that it was messy and time consuming method of getting colour on a flat surface. I knew that Ken had broken tens of thousands of eggs in the process of making the mural. I loved the surreal nature of this, and I admired his persistence. When I saw the mural itself, that day, all alone in the large interior of the echoing terminal, I was even more powerfully affected by its size and clarity than I had anticipated. Somewhere, someday, I was going to have to write about it. But in 1992, I had no idea how.
And there was something else. It would be four hours before another prop plane arrived to take me back to St John’s. One could only admire the pink and black women’s washroom for so long, or pace around the plastic plants while looking at the celebrated terrazzo floor. I could always turn back to the mural but it was hung at such an angle that occasionally my neck needed a rest. Luckily I had stuffed the book I was reading—a biography of Simone de Beauvoir—into my purse. It was while I was reading the excruciating section describing the end of her affair with American realist writer Nelson Algren that I realized that Simone herself would have had to stop in Gander on her in-and-out journeys to visit Algren in Chicago, including her final return to France after Algren had made it clear that their relationship had ended. The weather in Newfoundland was unreliable at best, as I had come to know. Modernist or not, the terminal was essentially located on a piece of tundra in the middle of the North Atlantic. What a place to nurse a shattered heart! And what a fascinating, multi-dimensional work of art to contemplate while one was doing so!
For years I told people that I had read in “some biography” that a fogbound Simone de Beauvoir—on her way back to Sartre and France—had been grounded in Gander for three days after leaving—or more accurately after being left by—Nelson Algren. It was only when I cited this fact in the presence of a celebrated de Beauvoir scholar that I was forced to admit that, while de Beauvoir’s plane would have stopped for certain to refuel in Gander, I had no reason to think it had been grounded for three days. For some reason or another, my unconscious mind had needed to extend the amount of time that Simone de Beauvoir had spent in Gander Airport. Perhaps her very real emotional pain had combined with the artistic achievement evidenced in that extraordinary painting by Kenneth Lochhead—had made me want to expand and develop the situation. Eventually I concluded that I wanted to write a novel.
As to the novel, there was a problem, well, two to be precise. The first was that, alas, with time, I found myself liking Simone herself less and less. I did not like her snobbishness, and I was horrified by what I came to know about her political leanings during the Second World War. Even her work was appealing to me less than it had when I was much younger. The second problem was that almost everything I have written in the past twenty years has been conceived and worked upon in the west of Ireland, and the west of Ireland is a fearsome and beautiful landscape that does not like to be ignored and that has a tendency to muscle its way into one’s work. Simone began to fade, and finally vanished altogether, and another character, one who knew the rough weather of the Kerry landscape, stepped in to take her place.
Jane Urquhart’s previous novels are The Whirlpool, Changing Heaven, Away, The Underpainter, The Stone Carvers, A Map of Glass, and Sanctuary Line, all of which have been published internationally. She is also the author of a story collection, Storm Glass, and four books of poetry. A nationally bestselling author, Urquhart has received numerous awards, including the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, the Harbourfront Festival Prize, and Canada’s Governor General’s Award. She divides her time between Ontario, Canada, and Ireland.
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