An interview with Margot Griffiths

Gull Island


APB: I am familiar with your nonfiction writing for the All Point Bulletin, but you have also written two novels, your most recent being Gull Island. What do you most enjoy about writing fiction?

MG: Developing characters. This is the heart of storytelling for me. If the players are fully drawn, hopefully they will elicit empathy from the reader. Even the villains must be three-dimensional. That’s a particular challenge … to make your villain human. In some way sympathetic.

APB: Creating empathy for a character; that’s key for you.

MG: It is – feeling empathy for another is what creates relationship. Without it there’s no emotional intimacy. I hope my readers will feel that depth with the characters.

APB: How do you create empathy in your novel?

MG: I think empathy grows from understanding a character’s internal tensions. Internal conflict to me is as critical if not more so as external conflict, and so I create a lot of both. Empathy at root is simply being able to understand – and care about – another person’s struggle. This doesn’t happen all at once; it evolves over the arc of the story. You gradually enter into the characters’ worlds.

APB: And there needs to be both internal tension and external tension?

MG: Yes. Internal tension drives the character development. External tension drives the plot.

APB: Tell me about your characters.

MG: There are two main characters – Mari and Charlie – and their stories are told in alternating narratives. We hear both their points of view. We are inside both their heads. Weaving their narratives together is the third central character, Gull Island itself. And of course, there is a lovely dog.

APB: Of course. So, the island itself is a character.

MG: Yes, I enjoy creating an atmosphere, a sense of place. Gull Island is a fictitous island, off Vancouver, B.C. An idyllic place, even after you meet its quirky inhabitants. The island people are in sharp contrast to Vancouverites. Island life is in sharp contrast to Vancouver life, the life Mari is trying to escape. Basically, she wakes up one day to the realization she’s living the wrong life. And that’s where the novel begins.

APB: And Charlie?

MG: Another refugee from Vancouver, he’s moved back to Gull Island after tragedy devastates his family, seeking the halcyon life of his childhood. But of course, nothing is the same.

APB: You can’t go home again. And Mari is living the wrong life? What would constitute a right life?

MG: Well, identifying that is, of course, the challenge. A right life is certainly not a perfect life. If there was such a thing, who would want to live it? It’s not a quest for perfection, as much as for authenticity. But can we trust our instincts on that? How far removed have we become from the inner knowledge of what makes us happy? And when Mari can’t have the one thing she’s sure will make her happy, can she still live a right life? This is the dilemma for both these characters.

APB: So, not a happily-ever-after story?

MG: Well, I’ve always been grateful to Guy de Maupassant, who maintained that happiness isn’t cheerful. I think happiness for these characters comes from their growing self-knowledge. When we know ourselves, we’re closer to knowing what the right life is. What we seek is of our own choosing. Not a societal push, a rush to conformity. Is saying, “I think I should want this in life” the same as wanting it? I think happiness is having the autonomy to make decisions that suit your values.

APB: Is it ever that simple?

MG: Ha! Well, novelists can have things their way. But you’re right, it’s not. There are multiple versions of the self. Multiple things we seek. A writer’s work is to balance those versions, and hopefully something coherent emerges out of the conflict.

APB: And conflict is essential to a story.

MG: Yes. The navigating of motivations and desires – the various versions of the self, the inevitable conflict with others – that’s essential. These characters aren’t living in a bubble. They suffer disappointments, conflict. Loss. The urgency to preserve our environment isn’t everyone’s priority.

What we want for ourselves isn’t what our families want for us. We fall in love with the wrong people.

APB: There’s family conflict.

MG: What would a story be without it?

APB: And it’s a love story.

MG: Yes, the universal theme. Oh, and of course, the dog steals it.

APB: Of course. The dog plays an important role in your story?

MG: Well, humans need something to aspire to. Dogs are so much better than we are.

APB: Final thoughts on writing this novel?

MG: I enjoy exploring the shaping of a life. Not a traditionally successful life or a perfect one, but an authentic one. Well, given the inevitability of human conflict, as authentic a life as is humanly possible. That’s my happily-ever-after. That’s contentment.

To purchase a copy of Gull Island, contact the author at


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