1. Harry Boyd, an admitted romantic, tries to make an impression
on Dido Paris by setting her news script on fire while she is on
the air. Fire is an ancient metaphor for passion, and Late
Nights on Air could be described as an anthology of
romantic love. Mrs. Dargabble's first husband had urged her to
"jump," and many of the characters do, with differing results -
from the sexually charged union of Eddy and Dido to more gradual
entanglements. Discuss the varieties of love present in this small,
isolated community. Which ones strike you as the most
2. One of Elizabeth Hay''s great novelistic strengths is her
sense of place and the ways she knits her characters into their
settings. In her first novel, A Student of
Weather, the places included Saskatchewan, New York City,
and Ottawa; her second novel, Garbo Laughs, is set
in Ottawa, most memorably during the ice storm of 1998. In
Late Nights on Air, set in Yellowknife and the
North, the sense of place and her characters'' relationship to it
is particularly intense. Sometimes readers talk about a novel''s
setting as if it were a character in itself. Do you think that is
the case in Late Nights on Air? What descriptions
of place, in Yellowknife or on the canoe trip into the Arctic
wilderness, have stayed with you most? How does the sense of place
work to underscore and echo the characters and their situations or
to contrast with them?
3. In Late Nights on Air, fictional characters
interact with a real, contemporary person, Judge Thomas Berger.
Although they only interact with him minimally and formally, Berger
and his commission are important components in the novel. Discuss
Berger's approach and personality, the ways in which it informs the
Inquiry, and the place of the man and the Inquiry in Late
Nights on Air.
4. Late Nights on Air begins with Harry falling
in love with the sound of Dido''s voice. In the novel, Gwen finds
her radio voice - both in the sense of finding an attractive
physical voice and in the sense of expressing her own personality.
Voice and sound in general are natural preoccupations for people
who work in radio, and the novel pays consistent attention to them,
from Gwen''s fascination with sound effects to the voices of the
announcers (in English and Dogrib), and the many descriptions of
natural sounds and music. Discuss some of the ways Elizabeth Hay
uses voice to characterize her men and women, and to highlight her
5. Elizabeth Hay says in her acknowledgements that the story of
the adventurer John Hornby was always at the back of this book. A
fascination with Hornby and Edgar Christian is one of the things
Gwen and Harry have in common, and the explorers'' cabin is the
destination of the canoe trip that takes Harry and Gwen, Eleanor
and Ralph into the wilderness, where their lives will change
forever. Does Hornby's story of a quixotic and doomed exploration
connect with, and perhaps comment on, the story of the modern
characters - and if so, in what ways?
6. One of the most sophisticated elements in an Elizabeth Hay
novel is the fact that her flawed characters don't find any
conversion or easy resolution: Dido, for example, cannot bear
criticism, and Harry, a veteran radio man, can't separate his
personal failure in television from the medium in general. Problems
don't get neatly wrapped up in Late Nights on Air,
and the characters, though changed, in many ways end as imperfect
as they began. Discuss some of the things that the characters have
learned in the end - about each other and about themselves. Discuss
some of the situations or personalities that never get "fixed," and
the particular flavour this gives the book.
7. Harry''s relationship with Dido is never really fulfilled,
but Harry's yearning remains largely undiminished. What do you
think the author is saying about human beings in general?
8. Just before he died, Eleanor''s father was reading her the
French story of "la fille qui était laide" - a girl so
ugly that she hid herself in the forest where the fresh air, sun,
and wind made her beautiful. The narrator tells us that, in the
summer of 1975, a version of that story would unfold. The theme of
this kind of transformation has been seen before in an Elizabeth
Hay novel (A Student of Weather). Who is the
transformed woman in Late Nights on Air - or
should it be "women"? How does it happen?
9. Discuss Dido and her personality, and how she powerfully
affects each of the characters - Harry, Gwen, Eleanor, Eddy. To
what extent is she affected by her past? Where does her power
really lie? Is she, in fact, as confident and strong as she
10. There are frequent instances of foreshadowing in
Late Nights on Air. The narrator writes, for
example, about three unfortunate things that would happen to Harry
in the coming winter, and in another place that "the events of the
following summer would make these pictures of Ralph''s almost
unbearably moving." The reader is regularly pulled into the
characters'' futures, but without knowing the details. In what way
does foreshadowing function in the novel? How does it affect your
11. Eleanor, who is reading William James''s Varieties
of Religious Experience, has a religious awakening in the
course of the book. Most of the other characters don't share her
connection with institutionalized religion, but there is a strong
undercurrent of spirituality in the book, felt differently by
different characters. Discuss the varieties of religious or
spiritual experience you find in the book.
12. There is an elegiac tone in Late Nights on
Air, and a sense that an older, more human way of life is
disappearing, as radio gives way to television and as the
traditional ways of the North are threatened by the pipeline and,
more generally, by the South. Where are the shades of grey in the
conflict between old ways and "progress"? Does the novel give you a
sense of where the novelist stands on this?
13. John Hornby's biographer, George Whalley, tells Gwen that
both he and his subject approach life "''crabwise,'' meaning
sideways and backwards rather than head-on." Harry likes this idea
of "a wandering route notable for its ''digressions and
divagations''.... A route of the soul, perhaps." Does "crabwise,"
in the sense Hay is using the term, suggest something of the
structure chosen for Late Nights on Air? In what
way does this approach reflect the characters' yearnings and the
way they are able to express themselves? Is this true of human
beings in general?
14. "Gwen found herself thinking about the vulnerable rivers and
birds and plants and animals and old ways of life." She learns, for
example, that an oil spill, in turning the ice black, ruins its
reflective power so that it absorbs light and melts, thus changing
the environment. At one of its deepest levels, this is a book about
ecology, about the fragile interdependence of people, animals and
their environment. Discuss the ways this plays out in Late
Nights on Air.
15. In addition to its rewards, the canoe trip taken by Harry,
Eleanor, Gwen, and Ralph has its share of ordeals, including Harry
and Eleanor getting lost, Gwen's encounter with a bear, and Ralph's
fate. Discuss the various ways in which the characters are
de-stabilized and reoriented in the course of the trip, and how the
trip impacts upon their lives later.
16. Dido is so different in her relationship with Harry than she
is with Eddy. What is it about the two men - and what is it about
Dido - that cause such different responses?
17. This is a book where couples are often frustrated and love
is not reciprocated or is cut off too soon - Harry and Dido, Dido
and Eddy (a relationship that endures but on unknown terms),
Eleanor and Ralph. Perhaps unexpectedly, an unconventional couple
comes together at the end of the book. Were you surprised? Are
there hints throughout the book? Does it work for you?