She's since taken on fiction, and is now working on a novel about a child of the sixties, an idealistic young white woman married to an Indian. They live a subsistence lifestyle by choice, on a farm with no plumbing, no electricity, no phone. Inevitably, these back-to-the-landers come face-to-face with the circumscribed worldview of rural communities everywhere. As soon as Francie finalizes the title, I'll pass it on.
Her first novel, Shelter, about two sisters growing up in the 1970s in BC's Chilcotin, was Knopf Canada's New Face of Fiction pick for 2012. It was published in various countries and received outstanding reviews--Bobbie Ann Mason says, "The longing for a lost mother has rarely been expressed so soulfully." It's a broad, beautiful book (I've been wanting to go and see Potato Mountain since I read it), and I'm glad to have had the chance to ask Francie more about its underpinnings.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the book? What made you pick Shelter? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
When I wrote the first draft of the novel not long after my mother died, I was calling it Hard Rain. I wasn't happy with it, but it was a phrase from a Bob Dylan song I liked, so I used it as a working title. Strangely, the German edition of Shelter came out with the title Der Dufts Des Regens, which I had not chosen myself, but I discovered to my surprise means The Scent of Rain. Some sense of that original title must have seeped into the story. Shelter began to seem like the only choice for the title. The themes so obviously revolve around various types of shelters, both physical and spiritual. But the main idea came to me because it's supposed to be the first priority in a survival situation.
2. How did you start this novel--an image, a word, a general idea?
It's hard to sort out exactly where the novel began, but I'd say it began with the place, the Chilcotin in the interior of British Columbia, where my husband, David, spent some time living in a cabin as a child. When we first met, we took a road trip up there to see the places he remembered. The land up there is wild and beautiful, and can also be dangerous. The people who live there seem to me to have a fierce attachment to the place. The small talk I heard was about animals they'd seen or things that had happened in the bush. It made sense to me. I felt grounded, in a very real sense. We camped out of the back of David's Volkswagen Scirocco, since we didn't have money for things like a tent or sleeping bags. That wasn't strange there. People would go out to the bush with a tarp and axe in the back of a truck, sleep in a make-shift lean-to in the trees. The places we camped are in the book.
The Chilcotin, and the comfort it gave me, became intertwined with David's stories about his single mother, and with the grief I was still reeling from over the death of my own mother. When the two sisters, Maggie and Jenny, began to visit my imagination, the story took shape: the physical loss of a mother, the refuge of the land.
3. How did you find the sense of an ending--did you know when to finish? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
I knew from the beginning what had happened to Maggie and Jenny's mother, but I didn't know how it would end for them. The characters themselves led me there. Vern, Uncle Leslie, Rita, Jenny, and Maggie herself -- they surprised me with their resilience. They really did become more than what I imagined for them. I remember Eden Robinson describing her characters walking around doing things that she didn't expect. I found that was the case with these characters. I sometimes catch myself wondering what they're doing now.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with the book?
Well it seems incongruous in a way, but I listened to a Mozart piano concerto over and over when I was writing Shelter. It's Piano Concerto #17, with Alfred Brendel playing (*this linked YouTube version is played by Bernstein). It's the most heartbreakingly beautiful thing I've ever heard. I was interested, and still am, in the intertwining of pain and beauty.
5. Did anything in the story grow out of autobiographical experience? Did writing it change your view of the past?
I think that everything in my writing comes down to an autobiographical experience in one way or another. I have an obsession with making sense of things. That's probably a prerequisite for being a writer. In the case of Shelter, I was wrestling with the realization, after my mother died, that I had a very narrow and self-centred view of her. I saw her only as my mother, not as a woman. I wasn't old enough when she died to have made that leap that I think is probably central to becoming an adult. Maggie also comes to realize, in a painful way, that she didn't really know who her mother was.
6. The book is permeated with a sense of paradise lost. Can you talk about that?
That's an interesting observation. When I visited Random House, my Canadian publisher, as the book was coming out, I noticed that people were referring to it as a coming-of-age story. It may be strange that I hadn't thought of it that way. I think that for Maggie, her happy childhood is the paradise that she's lost. The land, though, is the constant for her and it's a kind of paradise found. She comes to recognize what it gives her and how it important it is to hang on to.
7. The main narrative is Maggie's, but Jenny's story of teenage motherhood, though shorter, stands out very strongly. What made you decide to write this part in the form of letters?
It's always difficult to introduce someone else's story when you're writing a first person narrative. But when I was a teenager, letters were the way that I communicated deeply with many of my friends. I even remember the strawberry notepaper I had (scented!). I covered pages and pages and mailed off these thick pink letters to my friends who lived 40 miles away from me (in Winnipeg; I'd moved to a farm). I wanted the intimacy that letters have, the way we (or at least I) write things we might not say in person. Like many sisters, Jenny and Maggie define themselves partly by the way they are different from each other. But the letters bridge that in some way, I think.