When Sara Tilley was 11, her family moved from St. John’s (NL) to Sanikiluaq (then-NWT, now NU) for a year. Years later, Tilley wanted to write down sense memories of the remote Hudson Bay island – the endless wind; the way light travels forever in winter when the frozen landscape and sky are the same white; how the taste of expensive, airplane-imported real milk after months of powdered milk is shockingly delicious.
The sense memories became the centre of the characters in Tilley’s Skin Room, a gripping novel which has won several awards.
Skin Room tells a poetic, difficult, broken-child story of Teresa Norman as told by her 12-almost-13 self in Sanikiluaq and her worldly 24-year-old self in St. John’s.
Each of Teresa’s voices is tough, vulnerable, curious and stubbornly reaching toward healing on their own terms.
Tilley has been the writer in resident at the Berton House Artist Residency since early January. One of the strong sense memories she worked with to create Teresa’s character, she says, comes from Sanikiluaq memories of watching seals get skinned.
Hunting classes for the older boys in the school meant they would bring the carcasses into the skin room, which is where the novel gets its name. The other classes would join in by watching, scraping the blubber from the skin, or eating bits of fresh seal flank, depending on their age and skills.
Tilley’s current novel-in-progress, the one consuming her hours in Dawson, is a fictionalized account of her great-grandfather’s life.
Part of Duke Tilley’s time was spent working on the steamers in the Yukon River, and part of his time was spent, too late, chasing the gold rushes of the Klondike and Alaska.
So how does the novelist, who is also a playwright and a trained red-nose clown, keep biography and fiction from bleeding into each other too much? Or, does she?
“I think for me as a writer the body knows more than the brain does, so I tend to write, my first impulse to write something has to do with the senses – a physical sensation or a smell or a taste,” she says. “The stories are always in my body first. It doesn’t start with a thought, or a plot.
“I’m interested in the spirit and the emotional quality of the writing, not telling the bare facts.”
Much of Tilley’s thinking about her great-grandfather happened before she flew North. In 2004, Tilley and her father took a trip to their old family home in Elliston – the Root Cellar Capital of the World – near Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.
“There was this cupboard that was stuck, so no one had ever opened it in many years,” Tilley recalls. “My dad decided he wanted to pry it open it, just for fun. And out comes stacks and stacks of Saturday Evening Posts and Ladies Home Journals from like 1888 to the 1940s … and then all these stacks of letters and journals.”
It took a year to transcribe Duke’s letters, putting them in order. Some were just bits of paper, all thrown together, and Tilley says she had a lot of fun comparing ink types or pen widths, to put the chronology together.
Then, with 200 pages transcribed, the fiction began.
Some of the sensory details Tilley has gathered in her Yukon time include the textures of the ice fog in January, and the peacefulness of the “steamship graveyard” on the west side of Yukon River.
One afternoon she was walking along Front Street and noticed the Flora Dora Hotel.
“Duke wrote about 75 dancing girls inside the Flora Dora,” Tilley laughs, “and I couldn’t believe how tiny it was! Seeing it gave me a completely different sense of how close people would have been to each other inside.”
This ties back with Tilley’s comments about writing from sense memory.
“I’m finding my own story in the gaps of what I already know, rather than trying to recreate this person,” she relates. “But I’m using his voice, his flavour, for sure.”
But then the lived source of Teresa Norman’s punk-rock attitude shines through.
“I enjoy the fact that people reading it are going to think that the characters are me or my family, and I play with that a lot, I like to push it,” she grins. Like a film director, she wrote three cameos of herself into Skin Room, minor characters whose names she won’t divulge.
In a way it’s a challenge she throws down for readers, asking them to be open to her characters, wherever their stories originate. Tilley herself is one who looks for challenges. In a recent play for her theatre company She Said Yes!she wrote a scene in for herself that forced her to learn to walk on stilts.
“It was ridiculously hard, and it was torture the whole time, but I made myself do it, and it was worth it!”
Tilley reads from her new 1905 fiction and from Skin Room at the Whitehorse Library on March 30.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.