Samantha Rideout is an author from Newfoundland and Labrador whose latest book is The People Who Stay (2016, Flanker Press), a novel about a young woman, Sylvia, who returns after ten years to the outport community she left to attend university in the U.S. and pursue a career. She and her American husband come back to attend her cousin Mary’s wedding. While they are there, they find that while things have changed, much has stayed the same, and Sylvia, ten years older and wanting to start a family, comes to understand that life in this outport community can be enriching in various ways.
Ms. Rideout lives in New York with her husband. She was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about herself and her book, The People Who Stay.
Miramichi Reader: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
Samantha Rideout: That’s a big question! Let me try my best to “Cole’s Notes” my life for you. I will warn you, I’m not known for being short on words!
I grew up in a little Newfoundland outport, Cottlesville situated in Notre Dame Bay—the inspiration for Cuddlesville in The People Who Stay. I graduated first from New World Island Academy, then Memorial University (twice), and most recently Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia with its million dollar view of the Bedford Basin. You pay for the view bit by bit every time you have to hike up that hill to communications classes in the Seton Annex!
Between MUN and MSVU, I worked for an art gallery and my life was temporarily based out of Miami, Florida while I travelled all around the Caribbean and Southern US. It was fun but also nice to return to the quiet stability of a stationary life in Canada, well, in the summer anyway… When I moved back to Canada I worked in audience development for a newspaper in Halifax.
It’s hard to study public relations (at MSVU) while also working in an audience-focused field without it affecting your writing. When you’re thinking about the public in work and school it’s a natural extension to think about it while writing. For me, readers became a greater part of my writing process. It’s not just a solitary experience or something I’m doing solely for myself because that audience frame of mind is always there (whether I want it to be or not). My narrative voice usually asks the reader questions and seeks to incorporate them into the story. I write like I’m talking to a friend or sometimes a stranger, but there’s always that Charlotte Brontë wannabe element. “Dear Reader, I married him” may be more subtle than what I do in her sparing use of such insertions but there’s always an implied reader-writer relationship in any book so I don’t mind embracing it.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that influenced you to become a writer.
SR: My first grade teacher, Mrs. Barnes, told me I was going to be an author someday and if you’ve ever witnessed the madness inside an elementary school classroom it’s pretty amazing that she could identify any latent talents or interests. I always held on to that because I think deep down all we ever really want is to be the type of person we thought we could be in first grade.
As far as books and writers go, I already knew I wanted to be a writer when I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath but man! That book made me want to capture anything the way Sylvia Plath spelled out the universal struggle of being a young woman and figuring out your life. The fig tree she wrote about in that book is still my favourite passage in the history of books! To write something that people could connect with at any point in time, yet only decades later, would be my bell jar dream come true!
Then there are books like The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde that make me want to just give up writing because I know I’ll never scratch the surface of prose that operates on that level. It’s safe to say there are writers that have created both an encouraging and discouraging impact!
I also love Meg Wolitzer, David Nicholls, Galt Niederhoffer, Margaret Atwood, Richard Teleky, Anita Shreve, Jane Urquhart, and about a million other writers including all the ones that it’s too pretentious to mention: Harper Lee, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, you know, all the roll-your-eyes names that you don’t want to say but are always right there on the tip of your tongue! (Sidebar: I attended a reading Jane Urquhart did in Moncton, New Brunswick years ago and it was the highlight of my summer. I love her!)
MR: Let’s talk about your latest novel, The People Who Stay. In my review I alluded to the fact that Sylvia Pride (the female antagonist) had some similarities to you: from an outport community, married to an American. Are there any other parallels between you and Sylvia, or any of the other characters in Cuddlesville?
SR: I was worried when I wrote it that people who know me would read it with me in mind so I tried to make Sylvia very different from me. I think that’s a common cause for concern when writing a book based in a thinly veiled version of your hometown. So I situated Sylvia’s profession in the sciences and made her personality very unsentimental and distant to make her my perfect opposite, and that ended up dictating an interesting arc for her story, but in order to make her that type of procedural, unfeeling, logical character that I had to do some research because it’s so different from my experience. I’m a little hotheaded and routinely impassioned, as my red hair forewarns.
Yet despite my best efforts to make sure no one read this as autobiographical, some eerily self-prophesying parallels have developed post-script.
I live in the Northeast US now, which was something I never anticipated when I wrote The People Who Stay. I’m also married now and in my mid-twenties (edging toward thirty, like the protagonist) I still haven’t had any children. But all this is incidental because when I wrote it I was single and hadn’t even met my husband yet.
In fact, what’s really ironic about it, is that I wanted to write Sylvia as a single professional woman because that’s what I most love to read, and that’s what I knew best at the time but I made her a wife to make sure no one thought I was writing about myself but alas, here we are!
And let’s just hope no more parallels pop up because I don’t want my marriage to slowly fall apart or any of the other issues that she has to face as this book progresses!
MR: One thing I particularly liked about the story was that it really “changed gears”; once the slapstick bachelor/bachelorette parties and the wedding was over. In fact, you called it “the halftime show”. Was this the type of segue you had originally planned, or did it just develop as the story progressed and you felt you needed to make a quantum leap forward in the context? Why not end Part I right there?
SR: The conclusion of Part I was originally intended to be the end of the story. I love a bittersweet ending, as a reader and a writer, so to me the end of Part I was perfect—some things had been resolved, some things were left open-ended or at a slightly sad conclusion, and there was an ambiguous sense of wonder that left the door open for the reader to imagine how their lives would continue after this debacle in Newfoundland.
However, my mother is always my first reader for anything I write and because she is a ferociously avid reader I have complete faith in her opinion. She’s not like a normal mom, who skims through and pours on congratulations because I’m her daughter and that’s what mothers are supposed to do. Oh no. My mom is probably my most critical reader. When she first read The People Who Stay years ago she had a bunch of suggestions but the biggest one was about the ending. I believe the words she used were: terrible and depressing. I didn’t really know what to do with that because I loved that bittersweet finish. (Needless to say, I favour chocolate that’s 90% cocoa while my mom prefers milk chocolate.) I spent some time considering a more appropriate ending but I didn’t want to sacrifice that first stopping point because I think there’s no other way to end that wild wedding trip than how it’s currently constructed at the end of Part I.
Part II came later and even though it wasn’t my first choice for an ending, I’m really glad I added Part II. I came to love those fictional characters more and more as I reworked and edited the manuscript. They deserved an ending like the one you’ll read in the version of the book that eventually made it to bookshelves.
It’s also funny because my husband, Rob, knowing me and how I love a bittersweet ending kept warning me as he was nearing the end of The People Who Stay that “nothing bad better happen to them now” and “is there going to be a sick twist like a car accident or something?” He knows me pretty well!
MR: Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
SR: My favourite book changes over time. For a long time it was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, which I know is kind of cliché but still the most masterful conclusion in the history of literature! And I also called Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë my favourite for years. I have to say Heathcliff was a much more appealing love interest when I was sixteen. As an adult I re-read it and think, geez, I was such a stereotypical teenage girl. Also, poor teenage girls.
My book club just did Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote in July and that’s a book I could never get to read too many times. I love it as a character study of this mysterious Upper East Side woman from nowhere. That being said, it’s never as good as it is that first time you read it, trying to uncover the mystery of who this Holly Gollightly really is.
There are so many favourites and re-readable books that it’s impossible to pick just one!
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be?
SR: That’s a good question! I would love to delve into the life and times of Harper Lee. She was such an iconic writer and fascinating person. Even her lesser known works, like Christmas to Me published in McCall’s in the sixties, are excellent. Everything I’ve read by her has been great. Obviously, I’m one of the people who loved Go Set A Watchman. I know some critics had a lot of unsavoury things to say about it, which I suppose is expected after writing a book as big and bold as To Kill a Mockingbird. Her story of southern girl in Alabama moving to New York City and her friendship with Truman Capote—gosh, there’s just so much to dig into that would be fascinating! As a female icon, brilliant writer, literary human rights activist, and still behind all that an interesting person with interesting acquaintances in an interesting city, Harper Lee would make for a very fun biography subject.
In a completely different and “unliterary” vein, if I was going to write an authorized biography of someone who is still alive it was have to be NHL All-Star and LA King, Anze Kopitar. Not only do I proudly wear a Number 11 Kings jersey (even when we go to see the Kings play the New Jersey Devils and my husband begs me not to wear it), I also love an immigrant story. There’s something inspiring about coming to a foreign country with a dream and just trying to make it. My book club read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín a few months ago and it was a riveting story in its simplicity. That narrative of the immigrant doesn’t need a lot of invented drama or plot twists because, on its own, it’s a story worth telling that resonates with so many people. It would be pretty enticing to write the story of how the only Slovenian in the NHL became the captain of a team that calls downtown LA home. It would be fascinating to chronicle that transition and story in a biography, but alas I don’t know how I’d stack up against Jon Rosen in vying for a job like that!
MR: What are you working on now?
SR: I should be editing the manuscript I recently finished, but editing can’t compete with writing. So the quasi-thriller I recently finished about a missing flight attendant is on hold at present while I am currently head over heels in a new novel about an East Coast Christmas. I got the idea for the story while I was home in Newfoundland doing events and interviews for The People Who Stay. Since I started writing this new novel in early July I just can’t stop! I hit 30,000 words over the weekend and though I’m sure many of those words will have to be edited to within an inch of their life, it’s been so fun to write it!
The positive reception and feedback of The People Who Stay thus far is giving me the confidence to write more about Newfoundland. I used to worry that it was too much of a niche environment and that most readers of Newfoundland fiction were more interesting in fishing and seal hunting stories than what I would call “my Newfoundland” – the vegetarian version, if you will.
MR: Speaking of Newfoundland, I recently asked this question of Trudi Johnson (author of From a Good Home), and I would like to get your thoughts: There seems to be a plethora of new titles constantly streaming out of Newfoundland & Labrador. Why do you think NL is such a hotbed of writers? What is special about NL for you?
SR: Life in Newfoundland can be stranger than fiction. Some things in Newfoundland are so funny that it needs to be written about more! For example, there are characters in The People Who Stay and in other Newfoundland books, who simply couldn’t exist in other works. Newfoundland is a strange and wonderful ecosystem for breeding unconventional characters, in fiction and in real life! There are very unique personalities that thrive in Newfoundland but if you put them anywhere else in the world people would think they were being Punk’d or something.
I can only speak for myself, but I think the fact that Newfoundland is so different is one of the reasons I wanted to write a story set there. It’s like the best kept secret of the East Coast, and if we’ve learned anything from the popularity of Alex MacLean’s East Coast Lifestyle brand, people love the East Coast! When I told my friends in New York about the concept of mummers they thought I was lying. If a band of masked strangers is pounding on your door yelling in falsetto in New York, you call the cops, you don’t invite them in for drinks. I think, and I’m certainly not an authority on the subject, [the reason] there seems to be a hotbed of writers in Newfoundland is because of all the weird and wonderful aspects of Newfoundland. It’s something you want to capture and share!
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
SR: I am an avid reader! I’m always “almost finished” a book. I also love running, which is in my opinion the best way to start a productive day. If I can start the day with a run, I know I’m going to get a lot done!
Nothing is better than a Saturday at MoMA or The Guggenheim (or The Whitney or The Met… you get the picture). I think I would love art even if I wasn’t a writer but it’s definitely an inspiring thing to do for any writer who is coming up against writer’s block or feeling a little stuck. The last time I went to The Whitney Museum of Modern Art, I saw an exhibit featuring an artist about my age named Win McCarthy. I had never even heard of McCarthy before, but the display was remarkable. I was so fired up and moved by it that it made me fall in love with art galleries and the chance to “discover” new artists all over again!
For anyone planning a trip, if there’s one tourist experience to have in New York—skip Times Square and One World Observatory, no one needs a bus tour, even the Seinfeld Restaurant is just a restaurant when it comes down to it—the experience every visitor needs to take in are the ridiculous art museums here! My unsolicited advice is rarely taken seriously, but art museums are one of my favourite pastimes and like anyone who is passionate about anything, I’m always trying to push it on other people, and even more so if you’re a writer! Art galleries are a hub of creativity and perspective.
And of course, during the regular NHL season and post-season, especially post-season, I love to cheer on the LA Kings!
Samantha’s first novel, Pieces, was released in 2013 and she has also been published by PR News, The Hockey Writers, and, like any aspiring writer growing up in Notre Dame Bay, the Lewisporte Pilot. She has been a conference speaker on the topics of reader habits and shaping of reader identity. Samantha enjoys travelling, cheering on the LA Kings, and dragging her “long-suffering husband” to art galleries and bookstores.