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Des Walsh

Interviewed and with an introduction by Philip Moscovitch

It's mid-afternoon, the day of Des Walsh's 47th birthday, and he's pouring himself a celebratory glass of black rum. Tomorrow, the mini-series Random Passage has its Canadian premiere at the St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival, where two-and-a-half episodes will screen to a sold-out audience. The eight-hour mini-series, which Walsh wrote, airs on CBC-TV beginning January 27th. Based on Bernice Morgan's books Random Passage and Waiting for Time, it is the story of the first settlers of the fictional Cape Random in Newfoundland. A small group of outcasts, they cling to life on the Cape, supplied only by a schooner that sails into their harbour twice a year.

Random Passage is Walsh's second mini-series, but the first he's written solo. He co-wrote screenplays for the two-part The Boys of St. Vincent inspired by the true story of abuse at Catholic orphanages like Mount Cashel in Newfoundland - has three longform projects in development, and eight produced plays to his credit. But Walsh seems himself primarily as a poet. And he's a Newfoundlander with no interest in seeking his screenwriting fortune elsewhere.

You consider yourself a poet first and foremost?

Poetry is my first love as a writer. I've made a snide comment to people that I'm a poet who writes screenplays to make a living. I love the whole process of poetry. I love the final product when it works. Your poetry stays your own. Screenwriting possibly becomes the producer's or the director's - and sometimes it even becomes the actor's.

I get more excited over poetry when it works than anything else. I'm 47 now, and I've been writing poems all my life - but I still feel that enthusiasm when the thing works. I love it, I really do. Unfortunately it's not something you can do to feed yourself.

Did you hesitate when producer Barb Doran approached you about writing Random Passage?
When I was first approached, I was quite hesitant. I wasn't sure I was the right one to do it. It's a woman's story, and it's Newfoundland through women's eyes - and I thought, 'Shit, how do I get into these characters?' But Barbara had faith in me from the early days.

Then I reread the books as a screenwriter, and thought I could do it justice. What helped me the most was my own background as a Newfoundlander and my family background. It wasn't hard to write the characters, because I started basing some of them on my own family. There were so many similarities. It wasn't anything really alien to me in that sense but it was just such a daunting task.

Did you try to follow the books as much as possible?

Bernice has created great characters memorable characters and story. But a book is a book and a screenplay is a screenplay. After awhile, there was no dealing with the book anymore. Then I was working off the screenplay. I was almost ready to shout, 'Don't mention the fucking book to me anymore!'

When you're adapting, you've got to decide what to use and what to create. And once you start working off the screenplay itself, you have to write so many new scenes that weren't in the book in order to bridge things you've created. It's like a puzzle. It's enough of a puzzle when you're writing a two-hour show. With eight hours, it's even more of a puzzle.

You say your strength is dialogue. Is it more important to you than structure?

Newfoundland is such an oral-based culture. Sometimes when I write a scene, I read it into a tape recorder with no one around and then I play it back to see how real it sounds. I just think dialogue is so important. I know story and structure are too, but if you don't believe what people are saying you don't pay much attention to the structure. You've got to believe what they're saying.

I think publishing and reading poetry for 25 years has given me an appreciation for the sound of the language - and it excites me. I love it when I get to the point of actually writing dialogue writing the scenes. Once I open a scene and have the first line come out of someone's mouth I write it. I bang it out and let the people talk.

I've heard that when you want to write you head for a small house in Trinity, where you lead a fairly monastic life.

I go to Trinity the first of May and come back at the end of October. It's great.There's a bar there and the people that own it are friends of mine. I go to the bar in the evenings and work in the day. I own a boat with the fellow who owns the bar, and I poke around a bit. My house is not a big social centre. When I'm working I'm working, and when I'm not I'm at the bar. I don't know if you'd call that monastic. I'd probably spend all my time out in Trinity, but my kids (they're 18 and 20) are in St. John's and I like to be near them.

Do you ever worry about being pigeon-holed as a Newfoundland writer?

I am a Newfoundland writer. I'm a writer from Newfoundland. I have no interest in writing anything else you know, like that old line, write what you know. I'm quite comfortable. After The Boys I was contacted by a company in Quebec to do something on Duplessis, and I said, 'You're fucking crazy. There are lots of good writers in Quebec.'

Obviously I'm very much a part of this place. I'm not going anywhere. I don't like travelling, and I don't like flying. I like it even less now, after September 11th. I really feel like a stranger when I'm away. When I go to Toronto or Montreal for work that's fine - we get work done - but there's no feeling of country there for me.

There are a lot of good things happening here. Jesus, we've been kicked around a lot. But it's a glorious day today, so there's hope.

The complete interview is available in the printed version of Canadian Screenwriter, Winter 2001.