I'm in Victoria, listening to seagulls and sirens wailing alternately. It's a rainy spring equinox. The clouds are spread high above the soaked pavements.
Last night, I read at Russell Books on Fort Street. I walked there through puddles and headlights, and went down a set of stairs to find book heaven. Complete collections of original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys hardbacks, signed first editions, leather-bound compilations of Edwardian children's magazines, gorgeous glossy cookbooks, the deep smell of old paper. And us, four contemporary writers, reading for the damp crowd among the stacks. Lucky to go first, I then got to sit back and listen to Matt Rader read from his quietly menacing island story "The Laurel Whalen," from his collection What I Want To Tell Goes Like This. Chelsea Rooney followed with a searing excerpt from her novel Pedal, describing a woman at Vancouver's Wreck Beach observing a pedophile trying to control himself, and Lee Henderson finished with a piece of The Road Narrows as You Go, about a young 1980s cartoonist desperate to know whether she's Ronald Reagan's illegitimate child. All gripping.
So: very different subjects. But we all seemed to be talking about the past and its influence on the present. The way people from our pasts control us still. I thought about how Dan's older brother Israel, who dies young, affects him throughout my book--that idea was a huge part of my understanding of Dan's character.
I also thought about ghosts quite a lot last night here at the Empress Hotel. Lovely, old, slightly creepy, with miles of corridors, arched and barrel-vaulted ceilings, and imposing carved cabinets at random intervals. Tonight I'm leaving the bedside light on.
I'm pretty excited about All True being mentioned in the venerable Garden and Gun magazine of South Carolina. Wasn't expecting that, I must say!
A friend asked me what it was like to write about Daniel's interactions with the Native American and black characters in my book. It was, in a word, hard. The difficulty came in the book's perspective, which is Daniel's--the son of British Quaker settlers. Everything comes through his eyes, and has to be painted as would have seemed natural to him, which is not always natural to a contemporary audience. So there are certainly racist moments in the story (I'm thinking of an incident when Dan and his brother laugh about the white names some of the Cherokees call themselves, for instance).
However, the historical Boone seems to have been more sympathetic than many whites were towards the native woodland people. He grew up with Delaware and Catawba people nearby, and was very familiar with their way of life. As an adult, he was sometimes called a "white Indian" for his loose hunting clothing and moccasins, and his enjoyment of nomadic long hunts. There are quite a few accounts, such as those of Simon Girty, another "white Indian," of Europeans abandoning their lives and joining tribes. Girty and Dan crossed paths, and I was sorry to have to leave him on the cutting-room floor in the end.
Daniel was captured and adopted by Shawnee people, and seems to have found much to prefer about life in their winter town, as my story depicts. His relationship with Black Fish, his adoptive father, became for me a symbol of the power struggles, tensions, and attempts at connection between the two civilizations.
My book also includes several black characters who are slaves (yes, some Quakers owned them). The party that sets out to settle Kentucky includes quite a few of them. Pompey, an escaped Virginia man who is also adopted by the Shawnee, drew me the most sharply. He was an actual interpreter and apparently a powerful, disturbing personality, sometimes referred to as "the black Shawnee." For my book, he serves as a shock wave, always reminding Dan that life will never be neat and easy for everyone. I'm looking forward to having him back for the sequel.
A few photos by Wayne Emde from a reading before a lovely crowd at Gallery Vertigo in Vernon last week.
That title is from Raziel Reid's recent uproar of a young adult book, which is in turn a line from the Goo Goo Dolls' 1998 song, "Iris" (remember that, fellow 1990s kids?). I'm not a constant reader of YA fiction, though I often like what I do read, and I sometimes teach a Children's Literature class, which I love. Last year, I defended Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower on the local CBC after a parent demanded it be removed from the high-school curriculum. Confession time: I read it in a galloping hurry the morning of the interview. But it stayed with me.
Why? It wasn't the teenage sex or mental health breakdowns or relationship anguish. (Another confession: I haven't seen the film version . . . I haven't seen much beyond Planes II since my children were born, alas.) I think it was the voice--and that's what seems to be getting Reid's When Everything Feels Like the Movies a lot of critical attention, beyond the scandal. The sense that an actual person is speaking the story. It really isn't easy to pull off, even if a writer is in or just beyond the teenage years himself or herself. We all end up ventriloquists, even if the story is basically our own.
I struggled a lot with voice when I was writing All True Not a Lie In It, as I've said before, because it isn't my own story. It isn't even my gender. It ended up being a first-person account in Daniel's own words, which was a pretty daunting act to take on. What compounded the problem was Dan's age; he goes from seven to forty-four over the novel, and his voice has to change with him. So like one of the YA authors listed, I had to conjure up a believable young speaker growing up into adult life.
I also didn't want it to feel like the movies--any writer now can't help but be influenced by film, whether it's Planes II or Cronenburg. Movie structure is in the genes of so many books, and so is movie voice, I think--it's easy to hear a narrator as a voice-over act sometimes. I tried hard to make Dan speak like a human, not just spooling off the events of his life, but feeling them as they go.
Who would be Dan in my fantasy movie version of the story? I have a few actors in mind. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jon Hamm are certainly on the try-out list. But if I had any say, the casting decision would have to be made on voice. On who could sound as if the story were happening to him alone, for the first time.
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.