For my second stop on the Simon & Schuster Canada Timeless Tour, I'm so excited to share a Q&A with Genevieve Graham. She's the author of Promises to Keep which I'll be reviewing next Friday. The book is a great one and focuses on Amélie in 1755 when the British have invaded Acadia. Enjoy!
Amélie’s world is torn apart by war and infiltrating forces, a reality that unfortunately persists in present day. Did you find any parallels between Amélie’s world and your own while writing Promises to Keep?
War and disagreements will always exist—as will love and understanding, though the latter do not often make the headlines. The interesting thing to me is how both sides to every battle believe absolutely they are in the right, whereas those who seek love so often feel themselves to be undeserving. Parallels? No. Wars over this land were fought centuries ago, and I feel confident I will never leave my home unless I choose to do so. My family, my home, my beliefs, and my life are safe.
Why is the Acadian Expulsion an important part of Canadian history? What about the expulsion inspired you to write about it?
I grew up in Toronto then spent almost twenty years in Calgary before I moved to Nova Scotia, and when I arrived here I had no idea what an Acadian was. Many people around here have Acadian ancestry, and it seemed like something I should have just known. So my husband and I took a weekend drive out to the Grand Pré area, hoping to gain a true understanding of the Acadian culture. After sampling some of the fine wines bottled along that lovely shore, we toured the Grand Pré Historical Site. I cannot tell you how much that visit touched us both. The exhibit leads the visitor through the day to day lives of these “neutral French”, teaches us about dykes and aboiteaux, then draws back the curtain to reveal the brutal, unconscionable crime committed by the British. In my mind I could hear them singing and playing music, see them bringing in the harvest or tending the fish weirs, and when I visited an actual Acadian house I could practically feel the family inside. How could I not follow Amélie’s story? How could I not be inspired?
There are a lot of books written about the Expulsion, but I had not read any. That actually works out well for my writing technique. As a writer, I use historical facts as a framework to my stories and do not allow myself to be swayed by anyone else’s interpretation.
In your research for Promises to Keep, what information was the most surprising to you? Are Amélie and Connor based on real people?
When I began my research I learned over 10,000 Acadians were forcibly taken from their homes and shipped to points basically unknown, but I did not know they travelled in the hulls of rickety, rented ships. I did not know families were torn apart, though I suppose I cannot say I was surprised by that; war is not kind or humane. I was happily surprised when I came across the story of one actual ship, the Pembroke, on which 232 Acadians freed themselves from the eight sailors taking them across the sea—and the greatest surprise was finding the actual Charles Belliveau, mast maker, who piloted the Pembroke after their liberation. What luck! I even found his exact dialogue with the defeated British captain!
I suppose my biggest surprise was the reception I got when I told people the theme of this book. Their anticipation was stronger than for any book I’ve written before.
Regarding my characters, unless I am referring to actual people (like Colonel Winslow, who is a known figure whose 1755 journal is published on the internet), I do not base them on real people. I imagine a people or a place in time, land in their lives like a fly on the wall, and the individual characters appear in my imagination, complete with personalities and mannerisms.
Amélie is quite headstrong and outspoken in contrast to other women in the novel. Were you able to find examples of feisty women in eighteenth century history? Did you feel you needed to give them a voice?
I didn’t base Amélie on anyone in particular, but in every group of people we are bound to find varied personalities. Amélie was a loving, dutiful daughter, but she was also intelligent and curious. 18th century etiquette generally required women to be quiet and modest, but the Acadians were sheltered from the outside world, oblivious for the most part to those expectations. In addition, the Acadians lived alongside the Mi’kmaq, and the Mi’kmaq are a matriarchal society. Amélie learned to speak both Míkmawísimk and French, and knowing those languages gave her deeper insight into her changing surroundings. She felt protective of her family and their way of life. Once her world began to turn upside down and the British appeared to cast aside the rules of decency, she broke out of her shell to meet the challenge.
Your writing transports readers to a different time and place. If you could live in any time period anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I think I would have to choose a time period that had at least some modern conveniences. While I love the glory of centuries ago, when we envision the hero on horseback streaming through the battlefield with sword held high, I do not envy the women of that time. I think I’d prefer the 1920s-1940s. We were not yet as strong as our male counterparts, but we were well on our way, thanks to the suffragettes’ hard won victories. And yet it was still an era when ladies were ladies and gentlemen treated them as such. Doors were opened, and kisses were by invitation only. I am a romantic, but I’m a realist as well. And because I’m a romantic, if I were to choose a location, I think it’d be Paris.
Did you always want to be a writer? If so, did you always want to write historical fiction?
I had never even considered being a writer until I was in my forties. Until then I was a reader, a musician, a promoter, a piano teacher, and above all, a wife and mother. When I was in school, I did not enjoy history at all. To me, history was merely dates, names, and places to memorize for exams. Maybe it was the fault of my short memory span. Or perhaps I simply needed to mature so I could understand that none of today’s stories would exist without stories from yesterday. Then I began to read good historical fiction, and I was smitten. History fascinates me now that I can envision characters within the stories. I have tried to write other genres, but I always return to historical fiction. I love breathing life back into history one story at a time.
As a reader, who are some of the storytellers you find most inspiring, and why?
Diana Gabaldon is the one who inspired me to write. I read her “Outlander” series seven times before finally sitting down and trying something myself. I love the writing of Susanna Kearsley, Penelope Williamson, Sara Donati, Ami McKay, and Jennifer Roberson. And since I love epic, sweeping historicals, I savour Wilbur Smith’s books and the beautiful prose of Khaled Hosseini. On the mystery/suspense side I enjoy authors Harlan Coben and my friend, Pamela Callow.
What can readers expect from you in the future? What are you currently working on, if anything?I’m always working on something! At present I have four books underway, which seems crazy—probably is—but I find when I run into some kind of writing block I simply need to refocus on something else for a bit and that gets me back on track. It can get confusing at times, though. The novel after Promises to Keep will be the companion to Tides of Honour, returning twenty years later to the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. I have also been researching the British Home Children in Canada and the beginnings of the RCMP (NWMP) including the Klondike Gold Rush. And the fourth, well, I think I’ll keep that as a surprise for now!