Michael Crummy, Canadian writer, during the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival at Blenheim Palace, Sept. 24, 2015, Woodstock, England. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images
With ‘The Adversary,’ Michael Crummey Writes a Dark, Cain-and-Abel Story
In a Q&A about the Newfoundland writer's latest book, he talks about creating an evil twin to 'The Innocents' / BY Tara Losinski / October 5th, 2023
Newfoundland and Labrador writer Michael Crummey is in familiar territory with his new book, The Adversary, since the novel is a companion — and takes place in parallel — to his 2019 novel, The Innocents, which was nominated for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. It also features elements common to Crummey’s storytelling: complex characters, a remote setting and themes of love and loss, resilience and ruin, but reading The Innocents is not requisite to understanding The Adversary.
The Adversary, like The Innocents, is set in mid-18th century coastal Newfoundland, and reacquaints the reader with some of the characters who sailed in and out of the lives of orphaned siblings Ava and Evered Best, including the minister and the midwife. It introduces Abe Strapp, the merchant to whom the Bests are indebted in The Innocents, as well his sister, the Widow Caines, who owns a competing trading company and has no love lost for her brother. The story follows their vendetta, with no one in the fictional outport of Mockbeggar entirely safe from their scheming and sabotage, and the way they use and abuse people. It’s hardly a cheery tale — Crummey admits that it’s “pretty dark” — but it is a compelling one.
In a Q&A, the author talks about how The Adversary is the mirror image of The Innocents, why, after decades, his home province remains his setting of choice and how little control we have over our lives.
Tara Losinski: With The Adversary you’ve widened the lens from Orphan Cove — and its two inhabitants, siblings Ava and Evered — down the coast to Mockbeggar, a comparatively bustling, but still remote, outport. Did you know while writing The Innocents that there would be a follow-up?
Michael Crummey: I didn’t know while writing the book. I’m not one of those people who has a lineup of ideas waiting on the other side of a novel. I usually have quite a lag, actually, where I just don’t have a clue what to do next.
When I was doing the research for The Innocents I came across a character from around that time who I thought I would try to work into it somehow, until I realized he just didn’t fit. But this was a guy who was a merchant and a complete reprobate. He shot and killed an Irish servant in an argument. After that, he became a justice of the peace. It seemed to me to be the complete opposite of the world of those children. The Innocents was about a brother and sister who who survived because they love each other, so I thought I could write a book that would be like a mirror image of that world. But I could not get started. I just thought, ‘Okay, here’s this guy. He’s a complete asshole. But what’s the story?’ And I was stuck for a long time. It was almost like I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Well, if it’s a mirror image of The Innocents, then there has to be a sister.’ And as soon as I thought of that, I had a story. The Innocents was kind of an Adam and Eve story – a very twisted Adam and Eve story. And I thought that this would be a Cain and Abel story.
TL: Your Cain in the book is the ambitious Widow Caines, and she’s treated with suspicion and scorn by nearly everyone for wanting more than a woman should want in those days. It’s not an unfamiliar tale, but why did you write her that way?
MC: Partly it was just a reflection of the times, but there are some interesting examples in Newfoundland history of women who, by virtue of being widowed. have become quite successful business people. They took over their husband’s business and ran it for the rest of their lives, and were quite good at it. I was really interested in that quirk as a way to provide power to a woman in this circumstance. I wanted the brother and sister to have a way to be the other’s adversary.
There were a number of things that happened in The Adversary simply because I was trying to mirror what happened in The Innocents. One of the things is that Ada starts wearing men’s clothes — purely a practical thing in her head. The clothes fit better for the work she’s doing. And so I knew when I started [The Adversary] that the widow would be dressed as a man. Then I had to think, ‘Well, how would that play out? How would people react to it? And what would that say about the place she was living in? What does it say about her that she insists on it in that place?’ So, for me, I think it is a sense that the only thing she’s interested in, really, is power. And that women’s clothes are an outward signifier of a lack of power.
TL: What the widow and her brother, Abe – your Abel in the book, and perhaps even the Beadle, Mockbeggar’s minister, brought up for me was how dangerous narcissists can be.
MC: In many ways I do feel like this book is my attempt to write through my experience of what some of the larger forces that work in our lives are. I could maybe create this tiny microcosm in Newfoundland, 250 years ago, as a way of looking at what happens when the people in power are narcissists who have no interior life and are only capable of judging themselves by how much of the world they see as their own. I just want it to take that scenario to its logical conclusion. And with a story like this, it’s pretty dark.
It’s interesting that you brought up the Beadle, because in The Innocents he’s pretty cut and dried about things, but he does, in certain instances, bend over backwards to try and keep Ada and Evered alive. He does make sure they have at least enough to have a fighting chance — even though he doesn’t like their chances. In this book, I think he comes off less well. I don’t think of him as a narcissist. I think of him as somebody who has a very particular, strict sense of what the rules of life are, and part of that is his religious beliefs. But he’s also somebody who is sucked into the orbit of the black hole that is Abe Strapp, with the notion that he can somehow control this guy.
I remember when Trump was elected, a lot of people talked about how there will be lots of adults in the room, and they will blunt the worst of Trump’s desires, that they would keep him from going off the rails. And I think what we saw was all of those people either abandoned any principle they had or else they were kicked to the curb, or quit. I think the Beadle is like an enabler. He’s somebody who, because he saw Abe as a lesser of two evils, at the same time he was trying to talk the guy out of his worst instincts, he was keeping him in power.
And his dislike of the widow is basically the story of Cain. It’s really interesting to me, because [that story] is about two brothers who offer up their sacrifices. One is accepted and one is not, but there’s no explanation as to why. There’s no logical [reason that] the widow’s sacrifice or offering is rejected. It’s because she’s a woman. So for the Beadle, in that instance particularly, he’s an ideologue. He believes what the widow wants out of life is anathema, and therefore he’s going to tie himself to this completely inexcusable disaster of a human being, Abe. In doing that, sets up this inevitable disaster the community finds itself falling into.
TL: Something else that came up for me while reading the book was the theme of isolation. It’s particularly acute in these last two books, set in places essentially accessible only by sea.
MC: Someone asked me recently why I keep returning to that world, because most of my books have been set not just in isolated parts of Newfoundland, but also in the past. I think part of what appeals to me — and I think I got this from growing up here, myself — is that, up until very recently, the modern world has given people a false sense of how much control we have over it, and of how safe we are.
I think it’s an illusion in our lives, and COVID was one example of how brittle, how frail that illusion is. I think the reason I go back to those places, in that time, is because it allows me to deal with characters who have that shoved into their face constantly, and who have to try and make a life for themselves with that as one of the undeniable, most essential facts of their existence.
TL: Is it possible that there’ll be a third book? A widening of the lens even farther?
MC:, I have no idea. [Laughs] I had no notion that there was gonna be another novel after The Innocents, and partly, I wrote The Adversary as a response to my fear of repeating myself. It’s a pretty small garden that I’m tending here. I’ve been writing about Newfoundland pretty steadily for 40 years, so I’m always afraid of writing the same book over and over. In this case, I thought, ‘Well, if I’m really worried about repeating myself, how about I just repeat myself deliberately.’
TL: You write about Newfoundland and, it feels to me as a live-away Newfoundlander, also for Newfoundlanders. Do you worry about excluding other readers?
MC: It’s not that I just think, ‘Oh, be damned and don’t care.’ I feel like the closer I can get to the truth of this place, the more grounded and authentic I can make the world of those books, the more there will be in them that people who have never heard of the place can access.
I don’t know who it is I’m misquoting here, but the quote that I often bring up is something along the lines of, all good writing is regional. That by grounding your work in a real world that is very specific to a particular time and place, you’re making it possible to write something that may have universal appeal. And that to start writing a story that you want to be universal is a mistake, because you lose the truth of the place that you’re writing about.
This interview has been edited for lengthy and clarity.