1. Amongst other characters, No Man’s Land features a clown, a bear raised from the dead, and a false Christ. The characters are complex, sometimes acting in contradictory ways, at times genuinely tender and at other times shockingly cruel. Can you talk about this complexity and how it deepens some of the core questions raised by the novel?
Most of the characters in the novel lack articulateness and tenderness when they’re together, whether sitting around the cook fire at night or riding as a group during the day. But when they loosen up in the evenings and drink, they are articulate in different ways, and in this side of each character, resides both tenderness and meanness.
While many readers might be preoccupied with the violence in the book, it’s not violence or meanness that concerns these characters. It’s the sense of brooding menace they grapple with, the way the violence hangs suspended in the air above each moment as they struggle between good and evil, kindness and evilness. There are many contradictions in each of these characters, especially Reverend Brown, that create something more powerful than harmony would. The characters are governed by an unsophisticated theological imagination where a sense of the sacred is at odds with their capacity for violence, an imagination they are not consciously aware of until they see it play out in their deeds.
2. The Reverend Brown (the false Christ) says, “Everyone wants the truth until they hear it.” Throughout the novel, we witness people drawn in by trickery and lies, and yet at moments truth can seem equally ruthless and difficult to recognize. How did the concept of truth shape the story as you were writing it?
We all live our lives under time constraints and our response to these constraints is a revelation of our truth. We know we are going to die at some point, but we choose to believe that death is far away rather than being pulled towards it quickly. It’s like we’re moving through life in quarters, the quarters diminishing each year despite our lives accumulating all of their material, experiences and sensations, so that by the end because our diminishment has been compounding against our will, we are often surprised at how fast the time has passed and we’re left with wishing for just a bit more time.
But this idea also flows in the other direction: after we die, our appearance on earth and our involvement in the lives of others continues to advance in quarters, contributing to the shape of the world in one way or another. Sometimes myths result, the obfuscation of truth, whatever those who remember care to remember and pass on. For the characters in No Man’s Land, traumas shape not only their lives, but the land and people who came before and who come after. It’s through this legacy of trauma, of violence being played out against the constraints of time, that I’m interested in exploring where the role of truth reveals itself.
3. Your panoramic descriptions of the wild are equally lyrical and objective. We register in our guts just how insignificant people are within this vast canvas. Can you reflect on the importance and meaning of wilderness in this novel?
I see wilderness and landscape as works of beauty, works of art. Southeastern BC is a stunning corner of the province, made less beautiful because of the coal mining and clearcutting that has taken place, ways that human beings have tried to exert their control on the land. And yet, despite this scarring of the land, it’s still beautifully flawed and imperfect. The area derives much of its identity from the Rocky Mountains that rise up steeply, while below narrow valleys are cut by exuberant rivers.
Prior to the rise of tourism, Southeastern BC was largely a poor area with low education, mobility and life expectancy rates. Many of the residents who grew up in the area, worked the land like their forebears. I often wonder if white settlers who try to exert control on the land—acts of violence—do so not for profit, but because to otherwise exist on a land without altering it for gain, is to give oneself over to something larger than oneself, to give up control and trust in this.
The uncertainty of how to feel about this art and its beauty, of allowing it to flourish in our lives, is very real. Today, environmental concerns are more visceral and dire, and yet we continue to accelerate the damage we’ve done across the globe, despite the clear warnings as to the harm we’re doing. This legacy of harm began with settlers who could not abide by the virtues and beauty and harshness of the wilderness they first encountered.
4. Would you like to share the basic idea/germ behind the work the very first time it manifested in your mind?
The background narrative for my short story collection, Bull Head, was that the characters lived in an area that was being exploited for its natural resources, and was wounded by systemic racism, intolerance of Indigenous peoples and an absence of morality. The setting of this narrative was a part of the world that is bound in the southeastern corner of BC, jammed up against the Alberta and US borders.
There are awful, repugnant and mythologized stories of a curse being placed on the area by the Indigenous people, the Ktunaxa. Tourism in the Elk Valley exploits this myth: T-shirts, keychains, posters, placemats and maps all promote an offensive narrative about the Ktunaxa’s role in how the area was settled. This “curse” myth is so deeply engrained in the community that the community has assigned the blame for every natural disaster that has harmed the area in the last 150 years (floods, fires, avalanches, mine explosions, etc.) to this curse.
The background narrative and setting in Bull Head gave me the germ of an idea that became No Man’s Land.
5. A work like this is about many things. How would you describe the most important questions this book deals with?
The novel explores questions of free will versus predeterminism. It asks how much are we in control of our circumstances and our lives, and how much are we powerless. And in the face of this, how might we live our lives. The novel asks what the role of one’s life is in the face of adversity, of violence, of cruelty. It explores questions of family and friendship, of inheritance and how this might affect the weight of our actions, and how our actions, whether “cursed” or not, set off a chain of events that might ripple across time, across generations.
And the story, of course, asks what value has the white settler brought to this land in eradicating the Indigenous peoples and the animals, and stripping away at the landscape itself in an attempt to mold the land into their own likeness, removing any vestige of how it appeared before—untamed, wild, beautiful. Attempts by settlers to control others, the land and its peoples have always been about the settler’s refusal to control or decentre themselves from a role they originally created for themselves.
6. How long did it take you to write the first draft? What was the core of the developmental process between drafts? As you moved through drafts, were you working mostly on the structure, the story world, aspects of style and language, or something else?
I wrote the first draft quickly, by hand, over the course of about 12 to 16 weeks. I used a loose historical narrative that I originally had in my collection, Bull Head, but had stripped out as that book neared publication. This narrative line was then about 3,000 words, spanning decades.
As I moved through the first draft (and second and third) of No Man’s Land, I used this narrative line as my structure and filled in the other parts, totaling about 800 pages handwritten, approximately 180,000 words. I tried different points of view, often within the same sentence or paragraph, I changed the names and genders of characters throughout the manuscript and the earlier drafts were filled with much more violence. But the engine that kept me on track was language, which seemed to swagger more when I wrote about the setting. Eventually, this translated into the characters of Reverend Brown and Davey, the two sides of landscape that are present: the horrifyingly complex and indifferent, and the sublime, stunning beauty.
7. What was the most satisfying aspect about writing this book (other than perhaps the satisfaction of finishing it)?
Ha! Finishing it, yes! After nearly ten years, finishing it was satisfying, but also terribly frightening. Here was this project I worked on quietly and steadfastly, a project that took up many quarters of my adult life, and greeted so many milestones in my personal life, the most recent being a pandemic. Once I was done, I was both elated and drained, but not empty. I felt a depletion that comes from sustained work, pleasant and emptying and filling at once.
It was hard to let go of these characters with whom I had lived for so long. The satisfaction in this project from the beginning has always been in the doing, the writing and dreaming and spending time in this world, learning what the characters were telling me, learning what they were teaching me. It has never been about finishing, whatever that means (is a work ever truly finished?).
When we write a book, we learn how to write the book we’re writing. I realize that sounds obvious, but until you’re into it, you don’t realize what a trove of challenges you’re going to encounter.
8. What were you most conscious about in dealing with the backstory?
Avoiding backstory was one of the challenges I set for myself in writing this book. And as the drafts mounted, it became apparent that regardless of my personal challenge, the book demanded a lack of backstory. It’s not essential to these characters what their histories are as they interact with one another, themselves and the landscape. What matters is how they respond to what’s going on and how their responses reveal who they really are. The emotional response of characters is what I’m most interested in driving the story—I believe that a character’s backstory can be understood through their decisions and actions in the present.
9. What was your main concern about your choices regarding the point of view? Did you try alternative points of view for the protagonist / main characters before settling into the final points of view that you ended up using?
Early on I sensed that the novel would require an omniscient point of view. But in a process of elimination and to get to know the characters and story better, I experimented with different points of view for a few drafts. I worked primarily with first person and third person limited told through the perspectives of Davey, Reverend Brown, Will, Jack Smith, Bulah and even Grace. I also alternated points of view from first to third between some of the characters, but still neither of these experiments offered the larger perspective that the story required, so I returned to the omniscient. This point of view matched the landscape of the novel, physical and metaphorical, and more importantly it matched the detached narrative voice. Cold, matter-of-fact, at times incantatory, like a mantra or hallucination, relentless in its lack of judgement or sympathy toward any of the characters. The challenge, of course, was how could this indifferent voice and perspective draw in today’s reader? I spent a great deal of time micro-detailing physical and sensory details that accumulated over the story to convey a range of emotional notes. Whether this was successful or not, is up for debate for readers.
10. What kind of research did you have to engage in order to create the story world?
I researched continuously while writing this book, rather than devote a period of time to research at the beginning. Each dip into research helped me solve various problems that would crop up in the drafts, offering specific details or ways of thinking that the novel required. Much of my research did not make it into the novel (books are made out of books), but it gave me an invaluable grounding from which to tell a story I lack personal experience with (life in the 1890s, religious revivals, violence towards animals and humans, abuse, knife wounds, horses, guns, the delivery of a baby, etc.).
I regularly consulted with the King James Bible; the works of Shakespeare; and the ethical treatises of John Locke, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Butler, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Hick and Moritz Schlick. I referred to theological works including Buddhist texts and rituals, Christian texts and rituals, and early 1900s revival philosophies in BC. Colourful local historical texts of the Elk Valley, Crowsnest Pass and Steveston helped my research. I’m indebted to the generous staff at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, the Steveston Historical Society, the Fernie Museum, and the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre at the St. Eugene Mission. I also spent time hiking, fishing and climbing in the Elk Valley, Crowsnest Pass and Columbia Valley over the last decade of writing the book. This immersive, physical experience with the landscape was invaluable.
John Vigna’s first book of fiction, Bull Head, was published to critical acclaim in Canada and the US in 2012, and in France by Éditions Albin Michel in 2017. It was selected by Quill & Quire as an editor’s pick of the year and was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. His novel, No Man’s Land, was published in Fall 2021. An Assistant Professor of Teaching at UBC’s School of Creative Writing, he lives in Steveston, BC, with his wife, the author Nancy Lee.