Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Living History: Natalie Morrill and Alix Hawley

Last Sunday night, in a warm conversation led by Peter Robb of Artsfile, Alix Hawley and Natalie Morrill shared wisdom that their writing has helped them to uncover. (Wayne Grady was unfortunately unable to share the stage and to discuss his most recent novel Up from Freedom because of a family bout of flu).


Both Morrill and Hawley traced their novel’s conception to images from their own childhoods. Morrill remembered being lifted by her parents to see overtop a glass shard lined cement wall in Vienna. Suspended and held there for a few moments, she saw the neglected and overgrown Wahring Cemetery, an eighteenth-century Jewish burial ground. That memory stayed with her as she grew up and came to understand why descendents were not caring for their ancestors’ graves, ultimately laying the groundwork for her first novel, The Ghost Keeper.  After completing her short story collection, The Old Familiar (2008), Alix Hawley found herself remembering a pen-and-ink drawing of a man carrying his son’s bleeding body. The desire to identify that image, as well as help from a librarian, brought Hawley to the drawing she remembered in a National Geographic article about Daniel Boone. The image of Boone with his son inspired both Hawley’s first novel, All True Not a Lie in It (2015) and this year's sequel, My Name is a Knife.


The mysterious pull of those remembered images fueled the creative process for both authors. As they heard and answered the image’s questions through both research and imagination, their narratives unfolded. Both authors read aloud from their works during the evening’s presentation. Morrill had a selected a passage where her protagonist Josef watches and cares for a stealthy fox which moves about the graveyard. Hawley read a section from All True Not a Lie in It which describes Daniel Boone coming home to his wife in the dark. In each of the readings, it was easy to sense the authors’ search for the humanity that lives inside their stories, perhaps inside every story, including those unfolding in our present world. In Morrill’s selection from The Ghost Keeper, a man tries to make sense of himself and of his and his people’s past. Morrill’s character Josef stands transfixed by the complexity of the story he wishes to tell, knowing there is not one single path or person to follow in telling it with justice. According to Morrill, Josef is presented in keeping with Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth/ but tell it slant.” Morrill gives Josef a second voice, a third-person narrator, to help him tell his story. Hawley too explores truth in complexity “from the side” by giving both Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca a voice to tell the story of their lives together. In Hawley’s selected passage, the audience heard a woman trying to make sense of both her husband and of herself.


Both Morrill and Hawley spoke of knowing instinctively that stories and characters have something to teach us as readers when we enter fictional worlds to seek truth. Hawley suggested that the novelist’s job is to take what can be known through research and to fill in the holes, or to “imagine ourselves in the gaps.” Morrill spoke of a “huge responsibility to be faithful to the facts,” as well as of the need to imagine oneself in the world of a real person. For both writers, thoughtful historical research always guides the creation of a character’s experience. Hawley discussed her need to “confront the ugliness” in her novel’s time period, while Morrill stressed her desire to shine light on both humanity and tragedy during the 1930s and 40s. In their readings and in discussion, both Natalie Morrill and Alix Hawley illustrated the importance of reading with empathy, understanding complexity, as well as the duty of combining imagination with truth, fairness and respect.