TORONTO - Author Michael Winter — who writes each morning on a computer that's not hooked up to the Internet — uses a rather vivid image to describe how web-surfing can pose a potential distraction for writers.
"Would I rather be in a room with a little puppy dog just coming in and jumping on me? Or would I rather go into a room with a dead dog putrefying?" says the author, whose new novel "Minister Without Portfolio" was longlisted earlier this week for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
"And that's the novel. The novel is the dead dog, stinking up the room. The puppy is the Internet. I don't need that. I have to resuscitate this dog. Nine to 12, I just write in the study."
The Newfoundland-set "Minister Without Portfolio" tells the story of Henry Hayward, who takes work as a contractor in Afghanistan to mend his heart after a broken relationship. But after a routine patrol turns fatal, a grief-stricken Henry returns home to care for the people and places around him.
Winter — whose previous novels include 2007's Giller shortlisted "The Architects are Here" — explores themes of origin and place through the characters and a house that is central to the plot.
Henry vows to fix up the house south of St. John's that his friend, Tender Morris, had hopes of restoring. It's eventually moved to a new location.
Winter admits he drew on several events from his own life for the novel, including watching a friend's house get moved because it turned out she didn't own the land it was on.
Two characters in the novel also accidentally set a forest fire, which happened to Winter and his brother.
But perhaps the most dramatic real-life parallel is Henry's fall into an incinerator at the dump while disposing material from the house he's working on.
"That's a true story. I fell into an incinerator," recalls Winter, who divides his time between Toronto and Conception Bay, N.L., with his partner, novelist Christine Pountney ("Sweet Jesus"), and their five-year-old son Leo.
"We bought an old house in Newfoundland and we were fixing it up and pretty much what happens in the novel happened to me. I was bringing old roofing materials to the dump, but you don't just dump it at the dump. Things that can burn go in this incinerator. There's a ramp that goes up to the third storey of this teepee of a belching incinerator and you fire things into the chute.
"I was throwing things in and I was watching them descend and halfway down they were exploding in flame and lifting up again and landing in the truck. I realized the truck was going to catch on fire if I didn't do something about this. I thought I could slide it all in at once."
But in the attempt, his momentum propelled him down the chute.
"I was terrified as I was falling in because I thought my life was over. But then I landed and fell down to the bottom and I was alive and so I thought it was quite hilarious that I was inside an incinerator that was burning madly and I was alive. I looked for the way out and then I realized there was no way out except the way I came in.
"And after a couple of minutes I could feel my inner body temperature rising. And then I realized I was going to cook to death. I was going to boil. And that saddened me."
Winter was rescued by two people who forced open a door he hadn't noticed at the rear of the inferno. There were nightmares after the incident.
"Occasionally I'm still ambushed by that feeling," he says.
Winter and Joseph Boyden, longlisted for the Giller for "The Orenda," will tour together this fall with their publisher Hamish Hamilton Canada.
He loves meeting readers.
"It's such a boring thing to write a book. Being alone in a room writing books, it's terrible. So I'm itching for this part to happen," says Winter, who is working on a non-fiction book about the domestic activities that occupied the families of soldiers in the Newfoundland regiment during the First World War.
Winter says watching his older sister Kathleen, author of the Giller-nominated "Annabel" and numerous short stories, write as a teenager drew him to the craft.
Said the author: "I don't think it would have ever occurred to me to write without seeing my sister write."
This year's Giller short list will be announced Oct. 8.
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