Michelle Butler Hallett is a history nerd and disabled person who writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. She is the author of the novels Constant Nobody, This Marlowe, deluded your sailors, Sky Waves, and Double-blind, and the story collection The shadow side of grace. Her short stories are widely anthologized: The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, Hard Ol’ Spot, Running the Whale’s Back, Everything Is So Political, and Best American Mystery Stories 2014. Her essay ‘You’re Not “Disabled” Disabled’ appears on the anthology Land of Many Shores.
The surname is Butler Hallett (unhyphenated), not Hallett.
Butler Hallett lives with ankylosing spondylitis.
Butler Hallett’s work, at once striking, memorable and difficult to categorize, was praised by Books in Canada for “economy and power,” while The Globe and Mail noted that “demons are at work.” Of Butler Hallett’s first novel, Double-blind, the 2008 Sunburst Award Jury said: “Sanity, madness, torture in the name of science — Double-blind is wonderfully original while chillingly based in history. … The writing is incredibly layered, with metaphor and symbol perfectly balanced against the hard neutrality of scientific language.”
Yet Butler Hallett’s fiction is not without hope. Love often motivates her characters.
For her 2008 novel, Sky Waves, Butler Hallett drew on her radio background and love of history. Sky Waves explores the often funny and often sad human need for – and fear of – meaningful communication. Described by the author as “a demented ‘aural’ culture novel,” Sky Waves is told as a drew, that is, as the ninety-eight meshes in a row of a fishing net. Throughout ninety-eight non-linear but interconnected chapters, several different narrators, characters and storylines are networked together ultimately to work as a story-mural against a timeline of 1901 to 2005. Sky Waves has been called “a dynamic and shape-shifting work that redefines the project of storytelling.” (Maple Tree Literary Supplement)
Butler Hallett’s 2011 novel, deluded your sailors, unfolds in two distinct and interwoven timelines: the early eighteenth-century New World and ten months of 2009 in a Republic of Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2009, battered but perceptive Nichole Wright, a beginning novelist, scores a commission to write a play for a heavily-funded tourism project — and discovers documents that will derail the whole project. Nichole pursues the research with a vicious dedication that hides how fast she’s running, and what she’s running from. The narrative Nichole unearths is the story of an early eighteenth-century girl, daughter of an unnamed prostitute, who reinvents herself as circumstances require, in turns victim, spy, and captain of a Salem trading vessel. Her threadbare disguise is ripped apart when her unacknowledged past meets her tenuous present. Finally forced to reveal many things kept hidden, she refuses to be exploited any further, but such defiance comes at great cost. This parallel storytelling echoes Nichole Wright’s fight to save herself from folly as she dares to open her eyes to the suffering, and the meaning, of others. Tackling, evil, mercy and the weights of both the past and the present, deluded your sailors is a startling story of violence, loss and love.
2016’s This Marlowe examines the agonies of faith, duty, love, and politics as Butler Hallett measures the weight of the body politic, the torment of the flesh, and the state of the soul. In 1593 England, Queen Elizabeth reigns while two rival spymasters — Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex — plot from the shadows to control succession. The man whose loyalty they both want: one Kit Marlowe, a cobbler’s son from Canterbury who has defied expectations and become an accomplished poet and playwright. When plague closes the theatres, Kit resumes intelligence and espionage work. As he fights to understand and survive a dark game that threatens his family and his beloved Tom Kyd, Kit begins to question nearly everything he once believed. Public and private tensions mount; accusations of treason and heresy fly; and Kit must make an impossible choice. The Miramichi Reader calls This Marlowe “a masterful work of historical fiction,” adding the story has “all the intrigue of a modern spy thriller.” The Winnipeg Review describes the novel as a “dense, daring genre hybrid [which] explores the dark realities of Elizabethan England, while throwing some refracted light onto our own turbulent time.” The Toronto Star consider Butler Hallett’s prose as “canny and tender” and concludes “Perfectly paced and gracefully wrought, This Marlowe is superior historical fare,” while Quill & Quire says “Complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed and humanity’s eternal motivations, This Marlowe holds up extremely well next to the most lauded recent historical fiction.” This Marlowe was nominated for the 2018 Dublin International Literary Award and he 2018 ReLit Award.
Constant Nobody, listed for the 2021 Miramichi Reader Very Best Award, follows British SIS agent Temerity West as she encounters Soviet NKVD agent Kostya Nikto in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Despite being political enemies, they experience a mutual attraction, and Kostya spares her when he should execute her. Several weeks later, assigned to Moscow, Temerity encounters Kostya again. This time he extracts her from a potentially fatal situation and hides her in his flat — without really considering the consequences. Kostya and Temerity both must decide where their loyalties lie. Reviewer Kerry Clare says that to read Constant Nobody “is to just be so engrossed by the language, atmosphere, and plot,” and concludes “What a mash-up—Constant Nobody is a spy novel, a romance of sorts, historical fiction, a literary feat. It’s gripping, gorgeous, and unforgettable.” Bonnie Lendrum notes “until Michelle Butler Hallett’s Constant Nobody, I have never reread the same book within a month. It was even better the second time around. … it is historical fiction that deftly depicts another time and place by attention to detail. And Constant Nobody is a love story that captures the depth of feeling between men, physician and patient, a man and a woman. But Constant Nobody is also an exploration of humanity. Throughout this novel, there’s an underlying question: How does one navigate a life that seems destined by chance?” Christy-Ann Conlin writes “[Butler Hallett is] wholly original in story, style and form. My snappy one liner to capture her work: an extraordinary blend of Hillary Mantel and Ursula K. Le Guin. I also perceive Michelle as an “elemental” writer, working with power house classical themes.” And Ian Colford, writing for The Miramichi Reader, calls Constant Nobody “a moving tale of love in a dangerous time” and adds “its power is undeniable. It represents a clear triumph of the imagination. The sheer artistry that has gone into shaping and writing this story is nothing short of spectacular.”
Michelle Butler Hallett lives in St John’s.