Photo: Maureen Ennis
‘Closer by Sea’: Perry Chafe’s Debut Novel Is a Coming-of-Age Tale With a Canadian Twist
In a Q&A, the screenwriter-turned-novelist talks about Irish folklore, creating a fictional island and what it's like to work with Jason Momoa / BY Rosemary Counter / May 24th, 2023
Known as a television writer and producer — with impressive credits on Canadian favourites like Republic of Doyle and Son of a Critch — Newfoundlander Perry Chafe is now stepping out of his creative comfort zone, but staying firm in his geographic roots. Set on the fictional East Coast island of Perigo (we’ll get to the origin of that name a little later), Closer by Sea has been giving reviewers (this one included) all the feels with its bittersweet story about newly fatherless 12-year-old Pierce and his tweenage friends as they investigate the disappearance of Anna, an introspective local girl who’s gone missing. Did she run away and escape to the mainland? Or, does mysterious newcomer Solomon Vickers have something to do with it? Closer by Sea is part coming-of-age and part mystery — a little bit Stand by Me meets The Goonies — with a healthy dose of magical Newfoundland lore sprinkled atop. Zoomer called Chafe in St. John’s to congratulate him on a debut novel done right.
Rosemary Counter: I thought I was so clever with the Stand by Me connection, but after I finished your book, I Googled and realized this was a very unoriginal thought.
Perry Chafe: Hah! You’re right, I get that a lot, and because it’s accurate. I’m a child of the ’80s, so of course I read Stephen King’s The Body — which became the movie — and clearly the story stayed with me. My story’s set during the 1992 moratorium, when the cod fishery industry was shut down. It was devastating, and it created that kind of environment of transition, that fear and angst about the future.
RC: You’re usually a television writer. How does writing a novel compare?
PC: Yes, I’ve been writing for television since Republic of Doyle back in 2009. I did Frontier, with Jason Momoa, and Lisa Moore’s book-turned-miniseries called Caught. Now I’m writing and producing Son of a Critch. I’ve been working on this novel for a year and a half, which is the first big difference, I think. In the film and TV world, you don’t have the luxury of taking your time. The script is due when it’s due as everyone’s waiting for you. That’s the next difference, the collaboration. Working with a writing team lets you bounce endless ideas around and then someone goes off and writes it down. A novel is like being on an island of your own. It’s frightening, because you’re driving the bus on your own. Then there’s the amount of description. In a script, I’m used to writing “Exterior: Fish Plant” and that’s all you need. In a book, I need to describe the plant. What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like?
RC: That sounds more difficult and entirely different, and I don’t think it’s fair that you’re good at both. I’m embarrassed to ask this question, but what does your title “Closer by Sea” mean? Is that Newfoundland lingo I don’t know?
PC: Oh, you’re too sweet, and that’s a great question. I thought everyone would be asking me about that but you’re the first. In Newfoundland, “closer by sea” is how I’d describe a distance that takes longer if you were to drive, winding through town after town, whereas the ocean would take you right there. But it’s not a phrase you hear all over the place. Maybe after the book comes out, it will catch on.
RC: I did have a lot of fun Googling the slang as I went. I learned that I’m what you’d call a “Come From Away.”
PC: And it’s a compliment!
RC: What about all the old lore, the sea monster stuff? I’m specifically talking about — and fascinated by — the fairies.
PC: I grew up with all that. My mother would always say, “Make sure you have some bread in your pocket to ward off the fairies.” Or you could turn your pockets inside out, that works too. Newfoundland is of course very influenced by the Irish, and fairies are very real in Irish folklore. A bust of wind around here is the fairy blast, and you need to be careful in the woods or the fairies could lead you astray.
RC: I always thought fairies were nice; little pink things with wings that clean your house.
PC: That sounds so nice, whereas ours are scary and sneaky. They can come at night and change your baby with another baby, a changeling. As for the sea monsters, in another life I was an interpreter at the Newfoundland Museum. We had a natural history collection with literally every creature mentioned in the book — even a giant squid. The book is actually launching there next week, so that’ll be a nice moment.
RC: For a book about a group of boys, I really like your girl characters. Even Anna, the missing girl who’s hardly even in the book, looms large.
PC: I just love the character of Anna. She represents Pierce’s journey of healing. And even though they only met three times, those three conversations are so profound that he starts to see things differently. But it’s not romantic, it’s almost a sisterly relationship, so when she goes missing just like his father did, he just can’t take it. This is what propels his journey, and the book. The book’s actually dedicated to my own sister, who passed away from cancer years ago. We were very close and she was amazing and I wanted to do justice to her through Anna.
RC: That’s beautiful, and it really shows. You do such a good job capturing Newfoundland. How did “Perigo Island” come about?
PC: Another great question and you’re the first to ask that too! The island is kind of a mix of Petty Harbour, my home, which is a town of about a thousand people. But it’s not an island, and I wanted an island for that extra sense of isolation. So I imagined Petty Harbour as an island and plopped it into the North Atlantic so you needed a ferry to get there. Not a fairy like we were talking before, a ferry like a big boat. In my head, it took the shape of Fogo Island, with the famous hotel now, and somehow Fogo and Petty Harbour came together to become Perigo. That wasn’t my intention, it just happened. I since looked up Perigo and learned it translates to “danger.” So, Danger Island.
RC: Okay, that’s just awesome. I saved my last and most important question for last: What’s Khal Drogo like in real life?
PC: Hah! You mean Jason Momoa and he’s a sweetheart. He’s wonderful to work with and brought all kinds of attention and enthusiasm to the island. And he absolutely fell in love with Newfoundland, that’s how you know he’s the real deal.