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Not-so-instant star

Stephens Gerard Malone’s novel was pulled out of a trunk, to great acclaim. Stephanie Domet gets to know Miss Elva.

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Stephens Gerard Malone’s first novel, Miss Elva, sat in a trunk for 10 years after he wrote it, before it was published this year by Random House. Actually, that’s not strictly true. His first first novel was called Endless Bay. He wrote it in 1994 and published it under a pseudonym. It’s not what you’re thinking, no cheap romance novel. It was written from the perspective of a woman, and Malone, who lives in Dartmouth, had a time getting anyone to even look at it, let alone publish it.

“So I came up with a pseudonym, Laura Fairburn, and it got published like that,” he says, snapping his fingers, “by Mercury Press. And then it promptly went off the radar.”

Malone had one review, a scathing one, written by George Elliot Clark in the Chronicle-Herald. “But he did say I should try again,” Malone says, “so he damned me with very faint praise.”

And Malone did try again. And again, and again. “I thought for sure my next novel, Miss Elva, Mercury would snap it up. But they didn’t even want to read it.”It became a familiar pattern.

“I kept writing and writing and writing. I have a trunk in the basement, full of manuscripts. My mother bought me this cedar-lined trunk when I moved out here. I never used it for clothes, just for manuscripts.”

Malone, born in Montreal, moved here in 1986, and has worked mainly as a technical writer. And of course, evenings, weekends and holidays, he wrote. He spent four years working on a book about a Canadian who gets trapped in Berlin as World War Two breaks out. When the time came to send it to publishers and agents, he decided against the usual query letter—it hadn’t been getting him very far, after all.

“Instead, I put together a sheet with a little graphic on it, a synopsis of the story, some biographical information, and a list of all the other things I’d done.”

All the stuff in the trunk, that is. Including Miss Elva, a book based loosely on Maud Lewis. “I sent it to about a zillion agents,” he says. “And then I got an email from Don Sedgewick at Transatlantic. He wanted to read Miss Elva, and I was like, ‘For heaven’s sake.’ I had one copy in the trunk, and it literally smelled of mothballs. I put a new title page on it, updated the copyright and sent it off.”

A few weeks later, the day before Malone turned 46, his self-imposed deadline for throwing in the towel, Sedgewick called. “He said, ‘I gotta have this.’” He grins. “I’m an overnight sensation, and it only took 20 years.”

Miss Elva is a bleak tale of a deformed girl scorned by the fictional town of Demerett Bridge. Her father, a white man, is a mean drunk who plucks her Mi’kmaq mother out of the local whorehouse. Her front yard is given over to a tar pond. Among Elva’s few friends are twins Gil and Dom—and in fact it was with them (one blamed for his father’s suicide, one destined to be a priest) that the story started.

“I was actually working on a story about twin brothers, and a dog,” Malone says. “I loved the idea of having a dog being able to tell something about identity,” he says, “but it just wasn’t working. Then, I stumbled across them restoring Maud Lewis house in Sunnyside Mall. And her paintings on the wall looked like hieroglyphics, and I thought, that’s a good way to tell a story—on the walls of a folk artist’s house.”

Malone says his third book—third book published under his own name, that is—will be about Africville, as woeful a Nova Scotian story as exists. Meanwhile, outside his fictional world, the sun does shine, and Malone is wasting no time in making hay.

He’s in the editing process now with his untitled second book, about a teacher who goes missing from an island community. Although Malone expects it to be “in the can by Christmas,” he won’t be taking any time off. “The Africville book is due to my agent in January. You get your opportunity,” he says, “you just go with it.”

Even if—maybe especially if—it takes 20 years.

Stephens Gerard Malone reads w/Joan Clark and Beth Powning, October 12 at the Lord Nelson, south park at spring garden, Tickets at Frog Hollow Books, 429-3318.

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