Photo: Mark Raynes Roberts
Anna Porter Takes Her Readers Into the Dark Side of Cottage Country
In a Q&A about 'Gull Island,' Anna Porter talks about giving her psychological suspense novel a gothic edge / BY Rosemary Counter / September 1st, 2023
While the titular Gull Island of Anna Porter’s new, eighth novel is imagined, anyone who’s ever visited Ontario’s cottage country will surely recognize the Toronto-based publisher-turned-author’s favourite setting (a far cry from her previous novel Deceptions, which was set in Paris, Strasbourg and Budapest). From the long trek up Ontario’s Highway 400, musky board games and sketchy Wi-Fi service (if you’re lucky and the weather’s co-operating), Gull Island is every cottage you’ve ever been lucky to have visited. Lovely in the summer, sure, but ever been there in the cold, all alone?
That’s the gloomy fate of Porter’s lead character, Jude, tasked with travelling solo to the family cottage to find and retrieve her father’s will. The estranged patriarch has been missing for six weeks, possibly dead or even on the run, given his shady Bahamas-based business dealings that made the family rich. Among the dysfunctional bunch that also populate the story are Jude’s ever-critical mother, her semi-separated partner, a jealous sister and her two complicated children, the ashes of the family’s beloved dog and a handful of mysterious hangers-on whose presence all make sense soon enough. And, let’s not forget the many critters who like to visit at midnight, both big (bears) and small (racoons and snakes).
“Until now, alone on Gull Island, I thought I hadn’t believed in ghosts,” writes Porter, who channels Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson’s is-there-or-isn’t-there supernatural presence. Isolated on the island, without hot water or electricity or access to the mainland, it’s not surprising Jude starts to unravel at a rapid pace. Right after I finished the book, I called Anna Porter for a similarly sinister chat about gothic romances, cottage critters and the friendly ghost that lives in her basement.
Rosemary Counter: You can’t see me right now, but my mouth is hanging open. I won’t say why in this article, but wow!
Anna Porter: Yup, it happened. I knew the ending before I started, but I wasn’t sure how I would get there. The story is carefully constructed so that it doesn’t jump out at you … until it jumps out at you. I’ve written five mystery novels before, and I suppose this is almost a mystery, in that there are clues to be found as you go.
RC: Both of Jude’s parents are absolutely horrendous. I hope you cannot relate at all.
AP: I’ve seen those sorts of parents, especially that kind of mother. Usually, it’s someone who’s own life has somehow not been what she expected it to be and there’s a resentment toward her kids. I’ve seen kids so hurt by that kind of parent, but I’m not one of them. My mother was nothing at all like Jude’s mother. But I never knew my father because he vanished when the Russians were gathering Hungarians to be workers after Hungry was defeated in the war. My father was collected off the street, where he was standing in line for bread. I was just barely alive then, so I have no memory of him. My book Kasztner’s Train was about the holocaust in Hungary, so clearly it haunted me.
RC: Is Gull Island at all inspired by real life? Do you have a cottage on an isolated island?
AP: Our cottage is similar, though it’s a shared island, about 20 minutes from the harbour by boat. Like ours, the cottage is a prefab and we added to it as the years went by. All that is based on our cottage is the vegetation and animal life. Georgian Bay looks sort of like a Tom Thomson painting: rock, more rock, then a few trees.
RC: There’s something spooky about cottages in the off-season. It’s too quiet, cold, abandoned and possibly haunted.
AP: Well, it could be haunted. I’m not ruling out the possibility that there’s something a little more gothic going on than in a regular mystery. I’m a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, because there’s so much going on that isn’t ever fully explained. I think there are definitely ghosts in that story. Wuthering Heights is another of my favourites for the same reason. They both have this sense of, ‘Is something going on here, or is everything somehow explainable by natural phenomenon? Is it all in her own head?’
RC: There’s definitely some of that in Gull Island. I thought maybe there was a Tell-Tale Heart situation going on, or it could just be raccoons outside? There are a lot of terrifying critters in this story.
AP: Oh yes, that part’s true. I’ve seen one of those mouse-trap water buckets and they’re really, really terrible. I’d rather have a live mouse than a bucket of tortured and murdered ones. Jude is all alone on the island, so the animals around her become important and they all have a function in the story. The seagull, for example, is standing there looking at her, threatening her. When you’re alone at a cottage, it’s so quiet at night that you can hear everything and it can get very, very scary. A raccoon scratching at the door is terrifying. I find birds, especially crows, very scary. A murder of crows is scary every time. Or maybe there’s a ghost after all!
RC: Do you really believe in ghosts?
AP: I absolutely believe in ghosts, and I think I may have seen one once or twice. We used to have a ghost in the basement of our house. She was a lady wearing pink slippers and a pink dressing gown. She was in the basement, probably doing the washing. I got a glance of her a few times, maybe, but my friend who was sleeping in the basement came up one morning and said, “Who was that woman downstairs? I thought I was the only one here.” Then she said she was wearing a pink dressing gown. Actually someone else who slept in the basement saw her, too. She was a perfectly benign figure, just going about her business. I would love to write a good ghost story in this life. One where there’s a ghost, for sure.