CALAIS, VT. -- From 1979 into 1980, Howard Norman spent 13 months alone in an Inuit whale-hunting community in Greenland. The winter stretched from late September through May. Few people in the tiny coastal village spoke English.
Norman, a young folklorist, writer and researcher who specialized in Canada and Alaska, wasn't new to isolation or to temperatures of 45 degrees below zero. But getting through the long arctic winter in a prefabricated hut with a hot plate, battery electricity and an outhouse began to wear away at him. He'd been by himself too long. He worried his life was emotionally centerless. He questioned the clarity of his thinking.
"What was I doing there?" he asked himself.
To see him now, at 45, engrossed in family life in the hills of central Vermont, his second book, "The Bird Artist," nominated (as was his first) for the National Book Award that will be announced tomorrow, it is hard to picture Norman's days of emotional and geographic isolation.
He's been writing steadily for some 15 years now, most recently getting rave reviews. "One of the most perfect and original American novels I have read in years," said Los Angeles Times book critic Richard Eder about "The Bird Artist." Norman and his wife, poet Jane Shore, balance a life between Washington -- where he teaches at the University of Maryland and she teaches at George Washington University -- and Vermont. (This year they're on sabbatical 1751478885 Yet even as he trolls the country roads to check in with his large circle of friends or picks up their 6-year-old daughter, Emma, from school, Norman maintains a writer's obsession with isolation. "The Bird Artist," for example, is a tale of promiscuity, murder and daily life in a remote cod-fishing village in Newfoundland. But what particularly interests the author about the situation is the way the characters' extreme behavior truly isolates them.
Norman's literary concerns are rooted in what he describes as the strangeness and secrecy of his early life -- a world he speaks of haltingly, not wishing to hurt his mother. His parents met in a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland and, as Norman sees it, were never able to create a functioning family. "I felt disconnected from the world other children seemed to inhabit," he says.
Packed into a small house in Grand Rapids, Mich., the four sons rarely saw their unpredictable, "purposely elusive" father, and often didn't know what his job was. (Norman hasn't seen his father in 19 years but can describe in detail the last time he did; he is also estranged from two of his three brothers.)
Money was elusive too, and at times they were so strapped for funds, his mother secretly turned to caring for other people's children while her own were in school -- a fact Norman learned years later when he saw a picture of his mother pushing a baby carriage in someone else's family photo album.
For comfort, the boy turned inward: to library books (there were none at home) and to the secret thoughts a child puts to paper -- little stories, early journals, even radio plays.
The incident that unmoored him -- but may have redirected his life -- was the out-of-the-blue death of his closest friend, Paul, when they were in high school. It was an experience Norman drew on for his first novel, "The Northern Lights."
Paul's house had been a refuge, a source of pleasure and comfort where family members conversed easily with one another -- usually in Norwegian. And then he was gone.
"On Monday he got sick," says Norman. "On Tuesday he went to the hospital. And by Wednesday, he was dead. ... I was totally angry. Why did this happen? The adult world was entirely suspect."
Unhinged, Norman left school. He was 15. A year later, with his mother's reluctant help, he climbed on a bus, left Grand Rapids and headed for relatives outside Toronto. For three months he worked with a brush-fire crew, and in the process fell in love with the expansive Canadian outdoors -- a total contrast to the stifled world he went back to at summer's end.
From then on, Norman was determined to return. With no sense of how he might make his way in the world, he came up with an unlikely plan for an urban, working-class Jewish boy: He loved learning about the outdoors, and he'd always enjoyed writing. Why not direct his studies to make a living as a researcher and writer about Canada, its flora and fauna, and the Indian tribes whose exotic languages reminded him of the Norwegian that was spoken in Paul's home?
Suddenly motivated, he passed a test to get his high school degree and enrolled at Western Michigan University, where he studied zoology and English. "I saw my undergraduate education as steeped in practicality," he says. He earned his living in a bookstore that offered much that he craved: an elderly couple who befriended him and rows and rows of books. Says Norman, "It was the center of my life."
Early on during his years there, Norman got his first glimpse of the nature writings and illustrations of Edward Lear -- "the bird artist of his time." And Lear became a kind of distant role model.
Once he got back to Canada, Norman supported himself exactly the way he'd planned -- writing and researching, moving from contract to contract -- and even managed to save some money. "I felt very fortunate to have an income," he says.
As he made his way, he picked up smatterings of various indigenous Indian languages -- especially Inuit and Cree -- and soon started collecting local lore and ancient tales. Translating them became a particular specialty of Norman's and gave him access to a narrative tradition worlds apart from the curricula he might have encountered in high-toned graduate writing programs.
He felt no connection to the past or future, no security, no boundaries. "I said yes to anything offered to me," he says simply.
But he finally had room to breathe.
Says Norman: "It took over a decade of work in open spaces to counteract the claustrophobia of my life at home."
The Painting on the Wall
In 1977 Norman was hired by Films Canada to research a riddle inherent in the peculiar way the grave of a child had been isolated from a family plot in a graveyard in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, the place that would become the locus of "The Bird Artist." Norman was housed in the storage annex of an Anglican church, his monasterial room equipped only with a bed, dresser and a watercolor painting of an ibis.
Every night he would return from his research in the local archives and cemeteries and look at the painting. "It wasn't an Audubon," he recalls, "but it was unmistakably an ibis, and it was idiosyncratic enough to make you think you were looking at a work of art." The painting was dated 1911, but it wasn't signed.
One morning, Norman was shocked to discover that the cove behind the bird in the painting and the cove outside his window were one and the same. Suddenly, he knew he wanted to write about the person who could manage to be an artist in such an unnurturing place.
Research revealed that the painter was a man who had murdered the local lighthouse keeper who'd been having an affair with the man's half sister. As the facts of the story took hold on Norman's imagination, the impetus to put it on paper as a novel possessed him. But he still did not think of himself as a writer; he put his hopes aside.
It was Jane Shore who helped him find them again. He met her in Cambridge, Mass., where he'd moved the year after his Greenland stint in search of contact with people -- and bookstores and coffeehouses and movies. They were the only guests at mutual friends' Thanksgiving dinner.
"Howard seemed to have been traveling for so long," says Shore. "He was itinerant, peripatetic -- solid, but scattered over many landscapes. He seemed to be the kind of person who, if he could just be in one place long enough, was capable of doing incredible things."
Shore, who'd been steeped in literary academe, had never met anyone like him. Because he would read anything and everything that interested him, his literary references were often original -- he read Japanese literature, Eastern European literature, very different things than most of the people she knew. And his attitudes were original too. "When I was with him, I felt my brain popping."
As they spent more time together, she realized that he wanted to write fiction and encouraged him to try.
He'd heard the exhortation before. From pretty powerful voices too -- such people as writer Peter Matthiessen and poet W.S. Merwin, whom he'd encountered in his travels. And from a young Sam Shepard, who'd met Norman at a joint reading in San Francisco in 1976 (Norman was reading one of his translations), and said to him pointedly over a pool table afterward, "Howard, why don't you write your own stuff?"
This time the spark came from Shore's self-disciplined example of writing every day, Norman's increasing confidence -- and a chance invitation. A friend of Shore's who edited a literary journal asked if Norman had anything to submit. He admitted he had an idea, and when Shore urged him to start and see where it went, he did. "I knew it was a fragment," he says, "but it was my own work, and it got me going."
Although success wasn't immediate, encouragement was -- from an editor at the Boston Globe magazine, from a book editor he met at Merwin's wedding and eventually from a $25,000 award for beginning writers from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.
A Home in New England
By the time "The Northern Lights" was published in 1987, Shore and Norman were married and had established Vermont as their emotional and writerly home. Their community, about 20 minutes from the capital of Montpelier, has plenty of genuine Vermonters, but it also has room for notables such as playwright David Mamet and cartoonist Edward Koren (both friends of Norman), for a local hangout that stocks homemade broccoli quiche and empanadas, and for out-of-time activities like a recent Bob Dylan concert and an Allen Ginsberg reading.
Their updated 1848 farmhouse is a cheerful, toy-filled place. Shore's study is there, but Norman labors in a book-lined shed up the hill, where he is always working on several projects at a time.
The voice he has developed is direct, emphasizing action and dialogue -- but always with wit, passion and an economy of means. As subject matter, Norman refers to "an interest in the origin of things, particularly behavior, domestic disrepair, superstition, fear and joy -- sort of the basic stuff."
For sustenance and inspiration, he still reads fairly un-basic stuff -- what he describes as "a personal and shifting pantheon" that includes Isaac Babel, a Russian Jewish writer whom Norman admires for the economy of his language and the passion. Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech who wrote "Closely Watched Trains." Italian novelist Elsa Morante. Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. "There's no common thread," says Norman. "What I like is that their work just seems inimitable, not like anyone else's."
Shore points out that the fables and myths Norman translates must have been influential too, though her husband isn't comfortable with the connections some critics have found to those myths. "I never set out to write stories of epic dimensions," he says. But he likes their spare quality. And he's intrigued with the forcefulness of a shared cultural imagination where people agree on the meaning of things -- like why wolverines hold grudges, or the origins of the moon and the constellations.
His own voice is hard at work on numerous projects: on his next novel, "The Museum Guard"; the first draft of a book for young adults; a three-book contract of fablelike children's books; more folk-tale translations; and two movie scripts of his novels (one complete, the other on the way) written with art dealer-movie producer Arne Glimcher.
And although its author self-consciously admits he has only been to Europe once -- "I wasn't raised in an environment intellectually or socially that went to college or to Europe as an entitlement" -- and then only to Dubrovnik, where he was tracking down a family connection, he is thrilled that "The Bird Artist" has been translated into Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Portuguese, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Czech, Hebrew. "It's a mitzvah," he says. "A lovely feeling."
The Road Ahead
Norman is reluctant to address the fallout that could come from the films of his novels, or the validation and fame that could come if he wins the National Book Award. For him the success of "The Bird Artist" comes down to this: "I'm very, very proud of this book. I have not been able to say that about some things I've written in the past."
As Norman urgently embraces the community and family life he didn't have as a child ("It's central to every day of my life"), that past seems long ago. Though he still ruminates about his father and two estranged brothers, he has almost managed to obliterate that early fear and loneliness.
Besides, those feelings are now useful to the writer he has become. "I try to tap into those emotions," he says cheerfully. "I'm kind of vigilant about that."