The people Carol Bruneau met in New York associated Nova Scotia with lobster and fishing villages.
But the book the Nova Scotia writer was signing is not rooted in Nova Scotia's past or its tourism image.
Bruneau's new collection of terse, unforgettable and multi-layered short stories, A Bird on Every Tree (Vagrant Press, $18.95), is about contemporary, urban lives in Nova Scotia.
“As Maritimers, we get so fixated on the past and we lean on it. I'm not interested in doing that anymore. I'm interested in writing about people's present experience,” says Bruneau, an award-winning author of novels and short fiction who's written about the Halifax Explosion and French sculptor Camille Claudel.
These 12 stories in a Nimbus edition coming to bookstores in mid-September are “more contemporary, which is what I've been trying,” says Bruneau. “I hope they are more truthful and reflect more what our lives are really like here.”
Bruneau writes in a sunlit studio in her home between the pastoral Fleming Park, with the Dingle Tower, and the grittier social realities of Spryfield.
In these stories, a Nigerian nun works in the Greystone public housing project in Spryfield, a homeless teen lives in a van at the Frog Pond and a worried Nova Scotia mother goes to Berlin to visit her musician son.
“I'm more interested in social justice in the stories I'm writing now. Having grown up in the area and living on the fringes of Spryfield and knowing the poverty a lot of people experience there, it's important for me to write about it.”
There's an uneasiness in Bruneau's stories as people try to navigate morality and meaning in their lives.
Her characters are on the move psychologically and physically.
“As Nova Scotians, we're so rooted and yet we're so restless,” she says.
She is interested in the evolving Nova Scotian identity as people move away from the history that has connected them to this place.
“Nova Scotians have always been really migratory, even though we have this representation of being quite staid. That idea of being a staid place really isn't true anymore.”
When Bruneau starts a story, it's triggered by a character or an incident and her creative mind is always looking for patterns to make these characters or incidents deeply meaningful.
Polio Beach is about the death of an aunt and a look back in time to cousins playing on the beach with one nearly drowning.
“I had the incident with the kids near drowning. I wrote it in 2010 but I didn't know how to frame that or why it mattered.
“It takes years to say, 'Oh I know how to frame that.' If anything I'm getting slower with these stories,” she says with a smile..
She holds out a red, cloth-bound book of poems by Bliss Carmen.
The book belonged to the award-winning novelist's aunt Bessie Williams, who died in 2013 at the age of 102. A graduate of the Victoria School of Art and Design, Williams was an art teacher and a role model to Bruneau and her sister, Lunenburg ceramic artist Joan Bruneau.
As her unmarried aunt was dying, Bruneau wrote a story inspired by the book and its inscription from a man in which she imagines a tragic Cape Breton love story.
In her story, If My Feet Don't Touch the Ground, the mother visiting her son in Berlin is struck by Kathe Kollwitz's art depicting the effects of poverty, hunger and war on the working class.
Bruneau, a mother of three sons, writes: “The sketches and prints on the walls are one long tortured cry against violence and hate, the poverties of spirit that sever all physical bonds — yet the pictures whisper a hard, stoic love that outlives time, place, and gunfire.”
In most of these stories, from a swimmer racing in the Northwest Arm to a working-class, small-town man wrongly excited to see a returning girlfriend, that “hard, stoic love” hovers in the background as this writer is deeply connected to humanity in all its flaws and uncertainties.
A Bird on Every Tree is available for pre-order through Amazon and Chapters Indigo.