Ottawa Citizen, August 2003

The Citizen’s Weekly:

Reading Between the Lines Forest fires, fighting and fiction: Andrew Pyper’s northern adventures ‘great stuff’ to write about

James Macgowan The Ottawa Citizen 10 August 2003 Copyright © 2003 Ottawa Citizen

‘It was really strange,” Andrew Pyper said. Well sure. Who expects to get into a fight in a roughneck frontier town like Ross River (pop. 300), way up there in the Yukon, especially when you’re in something called the Welcome Inn lounge, the topic is hockey and you clearly look like a fancy boy from a big city? Not Pyper, even though the town’s motto is, “Ross River: Where the road ends. And your adventure begins.”

It was an adventure, all right.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he continued, over the phone from Whitehorse, where he and his girlfriend Heidi are staying while he spends three months researching his next novel, The Wildfire Season, due to be published in 2005. The pair had left Toronto in a car back in May and we thought it prudent to see how things were going. The life of a big-time novelist and all that.

“There was a guy who joined me,” he said, getting back to the fight, “who had obviously been there a while longer than me and was well on his way. He introduced himself, but was clearly hostile to an obvious outsider. We were getting along pretty well, though he was trying to goad me. I was being polite but wary. We ended up having a series of beers together and things were going well until we started talking about hockey.”

Apparently, the gentlemen in question doesn’t care for Toronto Maple Leafs fans. As the discussion got around to noted Leafs pugilist Tie Domi the man lunged across the table and got Pyper in a headlock. “I had to throw him back on to the table to get him off me. It got a little messy,” he said, with a laugh.

Punches thrown? “More of a wrestle,” said Pyper. “We both ended up on the table. Now he was smaller than me and drunker, but he had a good, low centre of gravity. He was kind of hard to uproot and throw off. I was sort of expecting — you know, coming from what they call here The Outside — people to intervene.You don’t see this kind of thing all the time and usually people will come to your aid. But it was obviously such a regular occurrence here, it was clear I was on my own.”

It ended well, nonetheless. They both shook hands and became better friends than they were at the beginning, though that’s clearly not saying much.

Anyway, it gives him something to write about, though it’s unlikely to make it into his book. “Who knows how it will end up,” he said, “but for now in the novel there will be a Ross River and there will be a Welcome Inn lounge, modified to one degree or another. The novel is set in the real Ross River and also a 40-kilometre radius around it, where forest fires converge on the town.” It has not escaped his attention that while he is in the Yukon researching how forest fires are fought — among other things — an inferno is roasting acres upon acres of trees in B.C. Might he be in the wrong spot?

Hardly.

“It’s not in the national news as much, obviously, but the Yukon’s had a big wildfire season too, in terms of the number of fires. Up here, because the population is more sparsely distributed they don’t usually fight them. They only fight them if they’re threatening a community or property. And up here, most of the fires aren’t.”

Pyper said that the fires eventually put themselves out, and have been doing so for millennia. Still, people are encouraged to listen to the radio for the fire report before they embark on any trip.

“Driving around up here, we’ve gone through forest fires — it’s kind of a regular event. Driving along the Alaskan Highway, you’ll see an orange blanket cover the entire sky, and then the smoke gets denser and denser and you see little orange licks along the side of the road, which is the fire sort of finishing off the last of the grass.”

All of this, of course, goes in the novel. “Are you kidding?” he said. “This is great stuff!”

The Wildfire Season will be the 35-year-old Pyper’s third novel, after the highly successful (not to mention profitable) Lost Girls and last year’s compulsively readable The Trade Mission. It is also proving to be a much easier write than he had expected, much easier than his previous two books anyway. He discusses this warily, as if trying not to jinx himself.

“In terms of a word count, I’m about two-thirds of the way through a first draft. Obviously it’s a bit premature to reflect on how it’s all going to turn out, but in terms of the writing, this has easily been the happiest writing experience of the three novels. It’s been really — I hesitate to use a word like ‘easy’ — but I’m the most eager to get back to it when I haven’t been at the laptop for a day or two.”

He’s done all this writing without the benefit of actually seeing any firefighters in action, though he has visited a couple of firefighter camps and watched them train.

“Right now — this morning, actually — it was announced that 60 Yukon firefighters are going to B.C. to help out, so it’s a lousy time to observe a fire in the Yukon — they’re simply letting them burn.”

He could always kill some time at the Welcome Inn lounge.

Copyright © 2003 Ottawa Citizen

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