Novelist Howard Norman is in his element as he hikes down a winding trail to McClure’s Beach in Pt. Reyes, Calif. Removing a pair of binoculars from his coat pocket, Norman scans the rocky beach for Western Oystercatchers, the birds that play a special part in his new memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, out in July from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Norman’s memoir recalls places where he’s lived and worked since leaving home in Grand Rapids, Mich., to move to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where nearly all of his novels are set. As a tenured professor at the University of Maryland, Norman lives in Washington, D.C., and owns a farmhouse in Vermont where he summers. He spent several years in an Inuit village in the Arctic, and visits Pt. Reyes, 30 miles north of San Francisco, for at least a month each year. Here, in a house in the woods, he talks about his new book, ever mindful of the bird calls emanating from beyond the living room window overlooking Tomales Bay.

“What’s sustaining to me about these places is also what’s vexing,” he says. “I’m sustained by the fact that the weather where I go to is phenomenally moody, but that also gives the sense that life is very provisional, and that things are shifting all the time.” The nine years that Norman, 64, spent in Canada seem to have left the deepest impression on him in terms of landscape and imagination, fueling his work.

“I realize it’s peculiar,” says Norman. “I try to start novels and set them in other places, and two minutes into it somebody’s flying to Halifax. So I just give in to it. I wish I weren’t so limited, but it’s not the fault of the place itself—it’s a limitation as a gift. I’m loathe to sentimentalize these things, but on occasion I subscribe to a Buddhist sense of predestination.”

Unlike his first memoir, In Fond Remembrance of Me (North Point, 2005), which focuses on one significant experience in 1977, Norman’s new book spans five places and 40 years of his life. I Hate to Leave is elegantly written; each chapter is specific to a place where Norman lived between the ages of 15 and 55. “I essentially wanted to write five chapters. I didn’t care about a convenient notion of what a memoir should be, but to write about things that kept coming back in memory,” Norman says. “I’ve always been astonished by how certain memories impose themselves on you. They have a persistence, and a kind of mercilessness. And even if you organize and articulate them, they still travel with you. The notions of writing as healing, or as closure, are fraudulent concepts.”

In the first chapter of I Hate to Leave, Norman is 15 and takes a summer job at the Bookmobile—an old school bus converted into a library—in Grand Rapids. There he found a kind of hideout at Reed’s Lake, where swans quietly converged and floated by as Norman sat on the shore. After studying a book about waterfowl traps, he built a crude one and set it up there. The experiment went terribly wrong, and Norman ended up killing one of the swans: it drowned inside the trap. “I’d never told anyone about the swan—not even my wife,” he says. “There are lots of things in the book that I’ve never told anyone. The thing about the swan was that I realized your fantasy life could actually be fatal. Not to me, but this was just a beautiful bird. I’ve never, ever forgiven myself for causing its death.”

Like Norman’s novels, which are pervaded by a haunting atmosphere, the memoir embraces themes of unrequited love and death. But there is humor as well, as when Norman and a junior high school friend come upon their teacher having sex at Reed’s Lake. His friend, panicking, said, “We can stay and watch, or we can get out of here fast.” Norman wanted to stay. “But what if I see something I can’t forget?” asked his friend, to which Norman replied, “Just remember as much as you can for the rest of your life.”

When Norman was a boy, his mother suggested that he write letters to the people who annoyed or offended him, but that he keep the letters rather than mailing them. He wrote letters to the fathers of all his friends in Grand Rapids, and hid them in an envelope in his bedroom. “I’m very concerned about the difference between how you saw yourself, if you did at all, and looking back as an adult,” says Norman, who has been married to poet Jane Shore since 1984. “This experience [of writing the letters} exemplifies a passive-aggressive way of approaching life. You get to spill out and organize your emotions in a creative, formal way, but... you don’t get to tell the person you’re writing about. It left me feeling that I had a secret life.”

One of the striking things about this memoir is Norman’s candor in admitting his inadequacies as a writer. On observing an owl in the woods tucking its head into its breast and closing its eyes while rock guitar music blares out of a nearby amplifier, Norman writes, “This struck me as sad and comical and another of those things I cannot put words to.” He says that his acknowledgments of his limitations as a writer could be perceived as self-deprecation. “A writer should be conscious of direct address. No matter where I am in my thinking, I know I’m writing this to be read, and aware of my own limits of articulation. Why not say it when that awareness comes along? It’s more about the transparency of the writing process. You’ve approached a thing from many angles, and you actually don’t know the English language well enough to find what you want to say.”

While writing I Hate to Leave, Norman came to recognize the sources of the preoccupations in his fiction and the weight carried in his novels by the characters. In the memoir, he describes a painful but transformative encounter in Grand Rapids with his absentee, alcoholic father. In Nova Scotia he meets an artistic, self-absorbed older woman who becomes his lover and antagonist. While working in Eskimo Point, in the Canadian Arctic, a violently angry angakok (shaman) who wears a necklace made of transistor radios threatens Norman at every turn. In 1990 he is engrossed in Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War to the point of distraction, wondering if the Confederate-hat-wearing resident of his town could actually have emerged directly from the film.

Death appears regularly in Norman’s novels. Murders are committed in The Bird Artist (FSG,1994) and What Is Left the Daughter (HMH, 2010), both of which were National Book Award finalists, and there is also a great deal of death in I Hate to Leave. Norman’s Halifax lover dies in a plane crash over Saskatchewan in 1970. Most devastating, however, is what happened in 2003 when Norman and Shore asked poet Reetika Vazirani to housesit for the summer at their Washington, D.C., residence with her four-year old son. A few weeks laterVazirani murdered the boy and committed suicide in the dining room.

The final chapter of I Hate to Leave is about the murder-suicide and its repercussions for Norman’s family. It took him 10 years to write about the tragedy, and it was only in the beauty of Pt. Reyes that he was able to do so. “There was this untoward event,” Norman says. “It had its resonances and consequences. But over the years, a place like [this] just gives you a different perspective. It serves to make you feel that there’s a kind of grace in the world. Demons aren’t allowed here.”

The sun sets in Pt. Reyes and a spotted owl calls out. “Feelings evolve well past your writing about them. I hope this book is a memoir, not just of human experience, but of landscape experience—the Arctic, Vermont, Nova Scotia, Pt. Reyes. These are the places of eternal return.”