Dan Newman spent most of his life traveling and writing. Now, fortunately for us, some of those travels have made it to the page in Dan's first novel, The Clearing.
Read about how Dan began writing, what books and authors inspired him, and how some of his travels made it into the book in this exclusive Q&A!
How did you get your start as a writer?
I guess the answer to this one depends on what you consider your start, and I think there are three typical scenarios that would fit the “start” bill.
First, it would be when I began writing with a real sense of doing something with it. For me, writing had always been a kind of constant. We travelled a lot as a family, moving from country to country along the path of my father’s career in International Development. So, that meant a lot of new schools and new friends. Writing was something that was always there, always a good handle to grab onto.
The second potential starting point would be completing that first novel—and, in particular, that first novel you felt was worth sending out. I screwed up on that one, let me tell you. I wrote my first novel, which I still love, and immediately began to query with it.
Now, it was a great story, and one I will one day go back and revisit, but it was riddled with issues. Of course, I couldn’t see them, being blinded as I was by the thrill of having an honest-to-goodness novel to send out into the world. So out it went, and in came the rejections. The lesson there was as simple as it was bitter: be harder on yourself when you evaluate your work.
The third “start” would be landing that first sale. It’s a big deal for you as a writer, a watershed moment for sure, but it also wakes you up to the work that’s waiting for you post-publication. You quickly realize that writing the book was the easy part. Getting the word out is where the real work is waiting.
What kind of media (books, TV, movies) had the biggest effect on your writing career?
I’m a huge movie buff, and I love the immediacy of that medium. You get the whole story in 2 hours—it’s like fast food. But books are a full meal. You get to interpret more, and I think the story you read is different to the story the next guys reads—all shaped by the experience you bring to the reading of the book.
There are three books that I can point to that had a huge impact on me wanting to write: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Hungry as the Sea by Wilbur Smith. The first two are examples of writers that can conjure up so much with so few words, and the third one is there because of his ability to tell a story that just tears along at a breakneck pace. All brilliant.
Tell us a bit about world-traveling experiences—what's the wildest story, or most memorable experience you've had in your travels?
As the son of a globe-trotting international development worker, I’ve been very fortunate where travel is concerned. And, once I’d left home and built my own life, it seemed the travel bug stayed with me.
One of the more exciting incidents I can recount—and there’s been a fair few—was being circled by a ten-foot tiger shark while diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. When this happened, it was just myself and the dive master left in the water, waiting for the dingy to come get us from the boat moored a good ten minutes away in the deep water.
I remember thinking that if the shark decided to come on in for a snack, there was not a damn thing we could do about it. But it never did, and once we were safely back on the boat, we had a very cool and manly sounding story to tell…despite the requirement for a new set of swimming shorts.
Were there any real-life events that inspired The Clearing?
Virtually every scene in The Clearing takes place in a real location, although the names of a few of them have been changed. I think that helps bring a sense of authenticity to the book, which I hope makes the story move through all the locations more seamlessly.
Obviously, St. Lucia is the setting for The Clearing, and much of the novel actually recounts a series of bizarre experiences I had as a boy there—staying at an old plantation house set way out in the rainforest. There is something said to exist in St. Lucia, called a bolom—a kind of supernatural being that exists to serve the old plantations—and everyone in that part of the world is quite accepting of that existence, despite the alleged invisibility of the creature.
I remember coming home after the encounter I had (that subsequently became a focal element of The Clearing), and excitedly telling the gardener, a local man who tended to all the gardens on the point, all about it. He listened to my outrageous story and simply said, “Oh yes, de bolom,” as if I’d said nothing more controversial than, “Hey, did you know they sell fish at the fish market?” It was just part of the culture.
Now—what exactly is the bolom? You’ll need to read the book for answers to that one.
Did any other books inspire or influence this book?
For the most part, I wrote the book the way I wanted to read it, and as a result, it has a hard time fitting cleanly into a genre. And, not surprisingly, it doesn’t really reflect any other book that closely. That said, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that Wade Davis’s The Serpent and The Rainbow wasn’t buried somewhere in the back of my head during the writing.
Tell us about your main character. Where did he come from, as a character?
Nate Mason is a man whose world is falling unstoppably apart. He’s built a life among a rather messy set of circumstances, both now and in his past, and he sees a chance at deliverance by going back to the start of things. I think he represents that overwhelmed person we all sometimes encounter inside ourselves, but without the reprieve that most of us find in some healthy way. He has no clean exits, so he’s forced back to that first bad move.
Tell us about the writing process of this book. How did the story develop or unfold in your head?
The Clearing has been bouncing around inside my head for years, with parts of the story blurting out and showing up in other bits of writing I was doing from time to time. But it never seemed to fit.
I really liked the feel of what I was doing, but it never worked in a contextual sense, until I gave up trying to weave the events into some other scenario, and let them exist where they actually happened—in a wet, green rainforest in St. Lucia. Once I did that, the whole thing just clicked.
There are liberal doses of my own experience in St. Lucia in the novel, and I suspect there are composites of some of the people I knew back then, along with some I have met since. But, once I let the story happen on the island, it all came out quite easily.
What makes the setting special, in your mind? What's your favorite part of St. Lucia?
I don’t think the story, as I wrote it, could exist anywhere else. In particular, the old estate in the book—Ti Fenwe—and the slowly decomposing plantation house are as much characters in the story as the people that move among them. That place, which is real and whose name I had changed for the novel, had such an aura of malice about it that it stayed with me for decades. It had that feel of being a living thing, and really helped create the sense of place in the novel—which I’ve been told is one of its strengths.
Without spoiling anything, what's your favorite part of this book?
There’s a scene where Nate goes back to the Clearing, and for a few moments, he takes in this place where he played as a kid, this place where his life was forever shaped. But, instead of experiencing just the dread you might expect (and that comes), he is instead wrapped in this warm remembrance of childhood.
It’s a scene that I really think works, and picks up on a sensation we all get to feel in those moments, when we unexpectedly connect with something significant from our childhood. It’s a small pause in the action of the novel, just enough to set you up for a swift punch in the gut.
Any tips for aspiring writers trying to capture suspense in their writing?
I’m not nearly qualified enough to be dispensing advice to other writers, but if you push me, I‘ll go with this: I’ve learned that there is an art to telling less of the story. There are few things that can create suspense as effectively as a reader’s own mind, so if you get the chance, I’d say let them build it themselves. Give them only the faintest outline, just a hint of what lies beyond the glow of the lantern. And then let them fill it in themselves.
See also: The Clearing: New Excerpt
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Dan Newman counts his having been raised “in-transit” around the globe as his most valuable education – despite a Master’s degree in Journalism. The son of a globe-trotting international development worker, Dan grew up in St. Lucia, Lesotho, Swaziland, England, Canada, and Australia. Ask him where he comes from and you'll get a puzzled look, but it's left a love of travel, writing and far-flung places. He now lives with his wife and son just outside of Toronto, Canada.