“Return to Solitude”- In Conversation with author Grant Lawrence

"Return to Solitude" by Grant Lawrence, out now from Harbour Publishing.
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When I first learned that there would be a sequel to Grant Lawrence’s 2010 debut novel, Adventures in Solitude, I was immediately intrigued. His latest novel, Return to Solitude (out now from Harbour Publishing) also centers around tales of Desolation Sound (a very remote area in British Columbia), including some of the people who have been drawn to it, as well as the history of his family’s trips to their cabin in the Canadian wilderness, and how his relationship to the area has changed over the years. Read on to see what he had to say about how this sequel came about, the way his relationship to Desolation Sound has evolved, some of the ways in which climate change has manifested itself in the area and more.

Grant Lawrence (Photo: Antonia Allan)

Andrew DeCanniere: Personally, I always find it interesting to learn more about the story behind the story. So, to begin at the beginning, how did this book come about?

Grant Lawrence: Well, this is a sequel to my first book, Adventures in Solitude, which came out over a decade ago. I wasn’t sure that I was going to ever write a sequel, but the first book became very popular — especially in Canada. People always wanted more and more of these stories from Desolation Sound. I kind of had to wait, because all of these stories are true and are about real people. So, I had to wait for more things to happen. I couldn’t really write a sequel after only a year or two. After about a decade or so had passed, and enough had happened to the core characters, I felt it was time to write a second volume and that I could do it justice — closing out a few stories and adding a few new ones as well.

DeCanniere: And, though I don’t want to give too much away — particularly as this sequel focuses on a number of the individuals who have populated Desolation Sound — it is safe to say that there are quite a few interesting characters who call (or who have called) Desolation Sound their home.

Lawrence: Yeah. It’s an area that is beyond the end of the road, which definitely sets it apart. It’s a wilderness area and it attracts a certain type of people. It tends to attract fairly eccentric people — people who want to live beyond the margins of society and beyond the arm of the law. So, over the years, it has attracted all sorts of people — from American outlaws way back in the 1800s to pioneers to hippies to draft dodgers. More recently, there have been people who are just kind of looking to escape the rat race. I’m really attracted to those types of characters and want to learn more about why they made the choices they made. I like to write about them and ask them lots of questions, because they’re doing things differently. It’s like that Kinks song, “I’m not like everybody else.” Why do they choose to do things differently? That’s what I’m curious about.

DeCanniere: Even now, it’s safe to say that Desolation Sound is an extremely remote place, which certainly is part of the attraction. However, in your book, you also get this sense of what it was like back in the early days. For instance, you talk about the Cougar Lady and what it was like back when she and her family moved to the area.

Lawrence: Yeah. Pioneers were basically given free land — or very cheap land — that originally was First Nations land. The First Nations inhabitants were driven off of their land or manipulated into leaving. It’s a dirty and complicated history. The Crowther family ended up going on to live a really colorful life in Desolation Sound. Even though they were among the original pioneers that dated back to the 1920s, when the movement was still on, I actually was able to meet the “Cougar Lady” when I was a kid in the 1970s.

DeCanniere: It certainly seems as though it was a challenge for them to adapt as well, but that they ultimately were able to do so.

Lawrence: At first there was a little bit of difficulty in that the Crowther family was British and the majority of those living in the area were Scandinavian. They were from a very developed country — an urbanized country — and the Scandinavians were seen as being much more outdoorsy and able to live off the land.

DeCanniere: Switching gears a bit, it does seem that your own relationship to Desolation Sound has changed over the years — particularly today, as a parent taking your own young children to the area on a regular basis.

Lawrence: Yeah. When I wrote the first book, I was single. I didn’t have kids. Over the last 12 years, I’ve gotten married and I now have two young children who are very much a part of the Desolation Sound experience, and who have gone there every single year. It’s not as quiet, and there’s a lot more puke in the car again — as there was when I was a little kid. So, there’s a bit of history repeating itself, but I like being able to continue our family traditions, and I like being able to teach them to my children. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it a lot.

DeCanniere: In a way, I also feel as though it is quite timely, as you touch on climate change as well.

Lawrence: There are a few examples of climate change that we’re seeing in the area. One is that forest fires are a lot worse, to the point where people have almost started to avoid spending the month of August up there. Luckily, we’re having a pretty good year this year, even though it has been sunny and hot. August can be very smoky and very bizarre — apocalyptic — due to forest fires occurring almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Even forest fire smoke from Russia will drift over on the wrong wind. Then, another aspect of climate change that has been an issue has been the starfish die-off. What ended up happening is that there are several species of starfish in that area, and one of them is the sunstar. It’s this big, beautiful starfish with many legs, and they come in very bright colors. One summer, they all just got this wasting disease and they all died. They all disappeared, all in the intertidal zone. Whether they are extinct or not is not confirmed. They could’ve gone to a deeper level, where the water is colder. We don’t know for sure, but they haven’t been found yet. The domino effect that caused is that then, all of a sudden, a lot of the food that they eat — the spiny sea urchins — saw a population explosion. They, in turn, eat the kelp, and the kelp forests are very important to the ecosystem of the West Coast. The kelp forests have completely disappeared for the most part. In certain areas, they are coming back a little bit, but in most areas they have disappeared. It’s very disturbing. And these all are examples of climate change, because they think that these starfish died off because of the warming oceans.

DeCanniere: And I think that really just illustrates how interconnected everything is, and how fragile our ecosystem is. More than we can even begin to comprehend.

Lawrence: I think so, too. I agree.

DeCanniere: Another story that I found to be of interest, which you recount in this new book, is the story of the so-called “Spaghetti Bandit.”

Lawrence: That’s something that occurred after the publication of the first book. It was a little bit eerie and a little bit scary. Nobody likes their home to be invaded or anything like that. The “Spaghetti Bandit” was a guy who decided to squat in various places throughout Desolation Sound during the summer, including within First Nations Heritage Sites — places like burial caves and things like that. As the weather turned colder, he began to squat in peoples’ cabins. It was very unnerving for a lot of us. It led to a big manhunt and quite the saga, involving a lot of people. I don’t want to give too much away, but it eventually came to a kind of semi-conclusion.

DeCanniere: Right. I can imagine. It definitely seems like such a serene, tranquil place — and it normally is. So, I don’t think it’s the sort of place where you’d expect something of that sort to happen.

Lawrence: Well, yes and no. I mean, having people show up as squatters in the wilderness is not unprecedented. There was another guy, also in British Columbia — in the interior of B.C. — called the “Bushman of the Shuswap.” He was doing the same thing but, unlike the “Spaghetti Bandit,” he had a real ego and liked taunting cabin owners and the police. It was a sort of cat-and-mouse type situation. The “Spaghetti Bandit” honestly did not want to get caught. He was hiding out from everybody. He was very introverted and shy. So, it’s not unprecedented. It has happened before.

Grant Lawrence is a CBC broadcaster and award-winning author. His previous bestselling books for adults are Adventures in Solitude (Harbour, 2010), The Lonely End of the Rink (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013) and Dirty Windshields (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017). Bailey the Bat and the Tangled Moose, his first children’s picture book, was released in 2021 (Orca). He is also the host of CBC Music Top 20, lead singer of The Smugglers and a goalie for the Vancouver Flying Vees beer league hockey team. Grant is a Canadian Screen Award winner and the first author in the history of the BC Book Prizes to win the Bill Duthie Book Sellers’ Choice Award twice. He is married to musician Jill Barber and they live in Vancouver with their children, Joshua and Grace.

Return to Solitude is out now from Harbour Publishing. For more information, please click here or visit Grant’s website.

You can also find my previous interviews with Grant, here:
Grant Lawrence Interview – CBC Radio 3’s Grant Lawrence on “Playlist for the Planet”& “Adventures in Solitude” (Published: April 28, 2011)

“The Lonely End of the Rink” – In Conversation with CBC Radio host and author Grant Lawrence (Published: October 23, 2013)

“Dirty Windshields: The Best and Worst of the Smugglers Tour Diaries” – In Conversation with author Grant Lawrence (Published: May 18, 2017)


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