In one interview, Beth Powning commented that in order to write fiction, “You have to be living it; it’s almost happening to you as much as you’re making it.” Powning’s newest novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife, begins in a shipbuilding town on the Bay of Fundy, in the 1800’s. “I have always been fascinated by the emptiness of the Bay of Fundy, its ghostly sense of desolation,” says Powning. The past is palpably present in rural New Brunswick; in the curving maple of the stair bannister in Powning’s 1870’s farmhouse, in the ancient slipways rotting in sea grass on the nearby beaches. While researching an earlier draft of what became The Sea Captain’s Wife, Powning discovered a book called “Women at Sea in the Age of Sail.” The protagonist of that early draft was a contemporary women renting an old house on the Fundy coast. “Who lived there once?” Powning wondered. “What was her story? Was her husband a sea captain?”
Beth Powning has always been obsessed with the past. “Perhaps it is what has made me a writer,” she comments. “I have an impulse to save, to render what might be forgotten into a story that will live forever.” For her previous novel, The Hatbox Letters, Powning read letters and papers found in her family’s historical home in Connecticut, and even discovered an old box of papers that included everything from piano lesson receipts to the death certificate of her grandfather’s little sister. Poring over these letters, like the protaganist, Kate, of The Hatbox Letters, Powning uncovered the truth of her own past, and wove it into a fictional story. Just as discovering her family’s past had an element of healing for her, so she understood how it would help her protaganist move forward from grief.
Maclean’s reveiwer Brian Bethune wrote, “Few Canadian writers so stress the ties that bind a life lived to the place where it’s lived: Powning’s central arrtistic concern, both as photographer and writer, has always been to locate herself – and her characters – along the great chain of being.” In her new novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife, the captain of a square-rigged ship and his wife, Azuba, are dwarfed by the wild and uncaring sea. A way of life, in the 1860’s, was profoundly tied to nature, and where and how to live – at the mercy of the cold, empty waters, or surrounded by fields, cows and fruit trees – is a central concern for Azuba and her husband.
Powning approaches her fiction the same way that she approaches her nature writing and nature photography, with the knowledge that our lives and our emotions are not separate from the world around us. “When I write, I close my eyes and wait until I can visualize the scene with all its details. Which direction is the wind coming from? How cold is it? Is the ground frozen, and if so, how far down? I need to know these things.” Although she has never sailed on a square-rigged ship, she went to sea at a very young age, sailing every summer on the “Queen Elizabeth” to visit her grandparents in Bermuda. She and her best friend also sailed a small sailboat in Buzzard’s Bay, Cape Cod. She remembers the sea’s vastness from a child’s perspective, and recalled these memories when writing The Sea Captain’s Wife.
Beth Powning has been a writer for many years. Her previous books include Seeds of Another Summer; Finding the Spirit of Home in Nature (published as Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life in the U.S.), a collection of lyrical prose and photographs that celebrates the natural beauty of her New Brunswick home. Shadow Child, short-listed for the Edna Staebler Award for Literary Non-Fiction, is a memoir of coming to terms with the stillbirth of her first son. Edge Seasons, a Globe and Mail Best Book, is a personal memoir about transformation – about seasonal change within the natural world around her and in her life.
Beth Powning was awarded New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for High Achievement in English-Language Literary Arts in November 2010.
Visit the author at www.powning.com/beth