It gets pretty crowded in the swallows’ nest. Peering up into the shadowy peak of the barn, you notice a wing extended, or a leg, and you know that any day the young will be fluttering about. Landing with relief on the cable that holds the building together in the middle. Lined up, all six, beaks gaping as a parent swoops in through the window opening. A day later they are hurtling through the sky themselves. Landing on the washing line, still with obvious relief. Retiring to the barn at nightfall. But oh the joy it must be to gain the freedom of the air. To soar and bank and dip.

There are moments, writing, that feel like flying. Like being a swallow, in particular. Not a crow rowing alone across the sky, or geese in their galley ships, but an aerial acrobat. Diving for the fun of it. Catching your dinner on the wing.

But equally there are the spans cramped in a nest, waiting. The sense of constriction. The uncertainty. This is the thing it is hard to remember later, that you don’t know. You don’t know if anything will hatch or fledge or fly. I heard a writer on CBC radio the other day describe ‘the terrible ignorance’ of childhood. I felt it in my gut right then, the roiling confusion, trying to find sense in the discrepant realities of my family.

With each book one returns to that condition of not knowing. Though I gather there are authors who grasp the whole plot ahead of time. They have maps and flow charts and biographical notes for each character. I don’t envy them because I suspect, if I knew where it was all going, I wouldn’t bother to write it. For all its terrors, it is the unknown that draws me on.

This is an essential rhythm of life: after constriction, emergence. An ecstatic expansion of all horizons. Moments when I am not making, I am receiving. Or both: the dreamer and the dream; dreaming and being dreamed.


That’s how the story of Cardinal Divide came to me, in one of the most ecstatic moments of my life. I was living in Edmonton at the time. My wife and I had immigrated to Canada five months earlier. It wasn’t an easy move, but that’s another story.I was angry and depressed. Instead of celebrating the publication of my first novel, Where Bone’s Dance, with friends in a place I’d lived for decades, it was launched in Vancouver, a city where I knew exactly no-one. My wife and I drove across the Rockies together then she flew back to work. Driving home alone down the Coquihalla highway, a story began to unspool in my mind. I pulled into Kamloops, bought a notebook in the pharmacy and scribbled until there was nothing left.

They would live in me, these characters, for years perhaps. But one day, with luck, they would emerge, blinking and stretching and being themselves. Free of me at last.

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