Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

An Interview with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

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In The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy’s first novel, WW1 is a map to explore ruin, redemption, and the strength of human connections. I am pleased to welcome her to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.    

Why did you write The Cartographer of No Man’s Land?

P.S. Duffy: For me, the creative process isn’t really a calculus. It’s an act of faith. What happens is that scenes, bits of dialogue, a shape of a character begin to form, unannounced. The origin of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land was an image of a boy standing on a rocky beach. I could see the grains of wet sand on his high black fishing boots, the dried seaweed above the tide line, the blond lashes on his squinting eyes. In the shallows, drifting like a log, he sees what appears to be his father. He’s torn apart, fears the worst, but before racing from rock to rock to save him, he hesitates. Why? I had a sense that the father had changed, had perhaps experienced a great loss. Maybe at sea, with downstream ripple effects on all his relationships. I didn’t use that scene, and nothing of the kind happens in the novel. But it propelled the idea of how a deep and tender relationship can be broken by the response to external forces and had me ask the question that forms the basis of the novel—can we come back from such wounds, and if so, how?    

I pictured that scene occurring in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, whose islands I’d sailed around for over 35 years. And I began to imagine the tragedy at sea taking place during the schooner-fishing era in the 1920s, when fishing for cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland was still done by sailing vessels. It’s an era and a type of boat I’d long been drawn to. (To know the grace of a schooner, one has only to look on the back of every Canadian dime, with its image of the schooner “Bluenose.”) Why a father and son? I do not know.

But context is everything, and I knew that in the early 1920s, every character would have been affected by the Great War, so I began to research it as well. And that changed everything, except the boy, Simon Peter, and his father, Angus. They remained the characters that came to me unbidden, their delicate relationship hanging by a thin thread.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing the book?

PSD: As I said earlier, the most surprising thing was that I set the book during the Great War.

Every war is senseless and tragic, but the Great War particularly so. I spent years researching primary and secondary sources, visiting war memorials, archives, military libraries and finally, the Western Front itself. The deeper the research, the more consuming and alive the dark, futile absurdity that defined World War I became. One day, in a small cemetery, roses, poppies and iris fronting the rows of white headstones, alone with my husband and on my knees in sorrow, I felt the maimed and upended landscape rise up from the freshly mowed grass beneath me, and I knew I had to set the book during the war—Angus in the thick of combat and Simon Peter at home navigating war fever with the villagers of Snag Harbor, my fictional town in Mahone Bay.

Certainly, I wanted to honor all those who lay beneath those rows of white headstones, but equally, I knew I needed to walk with my characters to see if and how they could come out on the other side. I needed to witness those small and heroic acts of kindness, the balm of camaraderie among the soldiers, the sacrifice of a German commander, the bond between Simon Peter and his gentle school teacher, Mr. Heist—their mutual love of the phosphorous glowing in the night sea and the habits of butterflies. I needed Angus, the main character, home at last, unable to tell others what really happened to his brother-in-law, lost in combat, to find that only in reaching beyond himself could he find himself—for in those connections, those small acts of grace, lie our hope and redemption.

The second surprise was how, as I wrote, secondary characters demanded more space on the page—including George, the traumatized veteran, Mr. Heist, Juliette and her son, Paul. Then, too, some characters refused to come to life. Simon Peter once had a younger sister. But whenever she showed up, she sounded false, served no purpose and basically ruined every scene she was in. When I noted she’d been eliminated in a revised version, my agent said, “Never missed her.” As for me, I can barely remember her name.

What do you hope people will take away from the book?

PSD: I hoped to give readers enough scope and imaginative space to bring their own experience to bear on the story and thus find their own meaning in it. I have been elevated by the eloquence with which reviewers like you have captured its effect on them. Frances Itani put it this way in her review, Ultimately it is Angus who has the weightiest of morals to measure. He is the one forced by family and circumstance to tread the minefields of truth. He must learn to live with himself and his decisions, knowing that some of the men and women closest to him are not capable of doing the same.”  I once received a note from a veteran who said he was 74 years old and that the novel made him think differently about the world and about himself; and for that, he was grateful. The bond between reader and writer doesn’t get more holy than that.

What is your most interesting writing quirk?

PSD: I write when inspired and don’t when I’m not. When I am inspired, time has no meaning and I write for hours without looking up. Thankfully, I enjoy revision and trust my first readers—my husband, Joe, and my great friend and brilliant editor here in town, Barbara Toman—to tell me when a scene or dialogue sings or falls flat, propels the story forward or is a distraction.

I’m sensitive to the rhythm of words and how it can itself be transporting and expanding. I don’t set out to write “beautiful” prose, but I do hear the beat of the words as I write them. So while I love content editing, I do the actual rewriting. I believe it’s the duty of the narrative voice (the voice telling the story) to be consistent in a way that resonates beyond the words themselves. The narrative voice in Cartographer is straightforward and understated. It’s just how I “heard” this story as I wrote it, and it was easy because I heard it with every word I typed.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?

PSD: Why do you write? Answer: For the love of it.

Where will your next novel take us?

PSD: I’m not sure, but I’ve had a few scenes come to me. Oddly for me, I seem to have an intuitive sense of the next novel’s shape (quite short) and time frame (brief—a few days or months), its content (coming to terms with betrayal, the inexplicability of time), its form (nonlinear) and a sense that there will be humor in it. I have all these things and even a main character—and yet I resist. As I write other things, I know that I need to dip into the well of my soul to discover the source of my resistance. When I do, the writing will come and the novel will begin.


Another book to await in anticipation! I look forward to reading it. Thank you so much, Penelope, for sharing these insights and for writing such a sensitive portrayal of the sacrifice of war. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.

Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

One thought on “An Interview with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

  1. Pingback: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land | Great War 100 Reads

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