Jon Lien, who has, for 20 years, managed to combine environmental heroism and support for the hardworking fishermen in Newfoundland.
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He does so by working to free humpback whales caught in fishing gear, saving the whales and returning the valuable gear to its owners. After a lifetime of hard, physical work, he finds himself facing aging, paralysis, and dementia in a body that once served him unquestioningly. We're pleased to welcome Robert to Open Book today to talk about the play as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we ask seven questions to discover as much as we can about a writer's newest work.
My new book is my play Between Breaths. I guess I started writing it about six years ago. I had gone through a pretty tumultuous yet revitalizing process while working on my previous play, Oil and Water. As I describe in the introduction to Between Breaths , I was on a new-found track of deep engagement with a kind of emotional muse, consciously forcing myself to seek out narratives and ideas that elicited an inexplicable emotional reaction, and then setting the goal of the writing process as an attempt to explain or make sense of that gut reaction. The story of Jon Lien was one such story.
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I had known of him and his work for a long time, but one day when I encountered his name again, I felt a punch to the gut and a swell of tears. I knew that there was something there to be unearthed. Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process? Jon was an animal behaviourist who moved to Newfoundland to specialize in seabirds. He eventually became a noted whale research and rescuer, freeing over animals from fishing net entanglements.
I originally thought the play would be about his great skills of meditation and compromise between conservation and industry. But as I dug into his story it was actually his illness and death that guided the telling of the story of his life. The last eight years of his life were defined by a slowly progressing paralysis and dementia.
It became apparent pretty early in the process that I was writing a play about a man who spent his life freeing things, only to become trapped himself. Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish? All the big changes happened up front with approach.
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Once I was set on what kind of story I was telling it flowed pretty much unabated in that direction. Not to make it sound easy. I had set out to tell the story backwards, and the intricacies of that were hard on my head. All told I went through about 8 drafts over three years before I wrestled it into submission. Time, time, time, and more time. View eBook.
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