By Mick Lowe
“I aim to do for nickel what Zola did for coal.”
Those words—my own words—expressed the edgy, cocky aspirations of a 26 year-old newly arrived in Sudbury exactly forty years ago this month.
They have remained my mantra ever since, and now, as a stroke-crippled old man of 66, I am on the verge of realizing at least part of that lofty youthful ambition with the roll-out of my first novel, The Raids: Volume One of the Nickel Range Trilogy, to be released in trade paper this month by Baraka Books of Montreal.
I have spent the intervening years writing—non-fiction, mainly—about the Nickel Belt in a variety of guises, long-time freelance correspondent for the Globe and Mail, featured columnist for a small, Sudbury-based community tabloid, even teaching print journalism at the local community college, all of which provided surprisingly useful training for a fiction writer.
But nothing proved as useful as the aforementioned garden variety ischemic stroke which nearly took my life on the morning of Friday, May 1, 2008, and which has left me a hemiplegic, more or less completely paralyzed on my left side, ever since.
The transition from journalism to fiction was enabled by the disability that has left me confined to a wheelchair and to life in a nursing home for the past several years. My first attempt at turning Sudbury history into fiction—a novel based on the years that pioneering Canadian newspaperwoman Kathleen Blake Watkins “Kit” Coleman spent in nearby Copper Cliff at the turn of the twentieth century—was admittedly a failure. The thing was stillborn, in my eyes, at least; it just never came off the page.
The reason, in hindsight: I was doing the only thing I knew how to do, had done, in the case of my wildly successful first book, Conspiracy of Brothers: A True Story of Bikers, Murder and the Law. First published in 1988, this true crime offering is still selling a quarter-century later, and bids fair to outlast me. This chain of events triggered multiple epiphanies: that I stood on the verge of achieving what every artist desires—having their work live on after them; but that achieving that goal presupposes one’s own death, and what fun was that? So perhaps artistic immortality is overrated after all. I elected to change my epitaph from “Solvency Eluded Him” to “Meh–Immortality Was Overrated.”
But my health breakdown also helped me to understand something I probably should have recognized sooner: that the technique that works in one genre (thoroughgoing research and meticulous detail in the case of Conspiracy) does not in any way ensure success in another. But in the case of my abortive attempt Kit: A Novel of 1901 that was all I knew how to do, and it proved fatal. Decades of slavish devotion to reporting the facts had wrong footed me when it came to writing fiction.
The stroke, perversely, helped, because I was, suddenly physically unable to visit the archives, to look things up. Instead, isolated, alone and immobile in the middle of the night in my nursing home Lazy Boy writer’s chair, I was forced to rely on my imagination, to make things up. I soon realized that this worked; my decades of mining the facts in the Sudbury Basin combined with my imagination had equipped me to visualize the re-creation of actual, historical events that occurred years before my arrival in Sudbury. The synthesis was a happy one. Only through partial physical paralysis was I enabled, nay forced, to make that wonderful leap of faith that is the sine qua non of any successful novelist.
I already anticipate that this transition will strip a lot of gears, especially among Sudbury readers who know me best as a crusading, at times even an investigative, journalist. And I’m sure this switch will inspire a number of queries—“why did you choose to tell this story as fiction?”
The answer is a simple one. Like most writers of historical fiction, I have tried to maintain a certain discipline when it comes to respecting known historical events, by avoiding anachronism and resisting the temptation to rewrite history. But The Raids is based on an actual historical event that is already, like so much Canadian history, on the verge of being forgotten, succumbing to the fate of so much Canadian history, what I call this country’s willful amnesia.
That said, The Raids at its core contains a key historic premise that, while still very much in vogue here in the Nickel Belt, will prove shocking to many: that, owing to Sudbury’s essential strategic nature (the United States has no nickel deposits of its own), the Central Intelligence Agency conducted a clandestine psychological operation that destabilized Sudbury, and that created a virtual civil war in the streets here at the height of the Cold War.
Only fiction would allow me to posit such a premise—the Agency’s operating cloak of “plausible deniability” remains intact, and no concrete proof of this assertion has ever been found, or at least not yet. I believe, in this Golden Age of the Whistleblower, of Wikileaks and the internet, of Edward Snowden et al., proof that the U.S. secretly destabilized a community in the heartland of its closest ally will eventually emerge; that it’s only a matter of time.
In the meantime, I have hewed closely to the doctrine of verisimilitude as my fictional standard, striving to re-create characters, settings and plot points that are as realistic as possible.
Whether, in the end, The Raids and the remainder of its trilogy will be allowed admission to the same literary Pantheon as Germinal, Emile Zola’s great naturalist work of the French coalfields of the Second Republic I confess I very much doubt.
Whether our work outlives us; whether we are towering literary figures or lowly scuffling Sudbury scribblers, we are all members of the late Margaret Laurence’s great Canadian authorial tribe. We are all tellers of our nation’s stories, and, in the end, that is all that really matters.