My Interview with Charlotte Gray

“But I do not fabricate. I imagine, but I do not invent. I do not make up characters, events or dialogue – anything in quotation marks comes from a written source.”

– Charlotte Gray

Last week, I was lucky enough to get to sit down with my favourite creative non-fiction author. Too specific? Let me explain.

Those of you who know me well are aware that in recent years, I haven’t been able to get enough of Canada’s history. When the CBC Books team asked me to create a list of my top five “True Stories” for their Canada Reads 2012, one of my recommended reads was Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray.

When I saw that Charlotte was the Canadian celebrity chosen to champion one of the top five books at this year’s Canada Reads: Turf Wars, I knew I had to interview her. I introduced myself briefly after the Canada Reads press conference and she was kind enough to give me her business card. We got to emailing a few weeks later, and I sent her some interview questions. Not only did she send me back some very thoughtful answers, but she also agreed to meet me for coffee the next time she was in Toronto!

I suggested we meet at Bannock on Queen West for a coffee as I’ve heard such good things about it. (Plus, I couldn’t resist the fact that it’s described as “Canadian comfort food” – too fitting!). We chatted for close to two hours about her writing, her process, her plans for the Canada Reads debates, and books in general. It’s so wonderful when you can drop the names of different Canadian books multiple times in a conversation and have someone say they’ve read them each time.

First, let me share the written questions and answers and I’ll share some of our conversation over coffee at the end of the post.

Born in England, what drew you to write about the history of Canada?

I was a magazine journalist in London before I arrived in Canada in 1979, so I quickly began writing for magazines here after my arrival. I was living in Ottawa, and the only articles that any Toronto editor wanted from an Ottawa-based writer were on political issues. So I was on a steep learning curve, as I knew nothing about Canadian politics when I arrived! It was a great way to learn about my new country, and I flourished. But I became increasingly unsatisfied with my shallow understanding of the country as a whole, and how the Canada of the late twentieth century had evolved. I looked around for books to inform me, particularly biographies and social histories, and there were so few. There was almost nothing about the roles that women had played in our pasty. So I decided to write one…

Why Creative Non-Fiction?

Because that is what I love to read. My role model was Sandra Gwyn, who was my predecessor as Ottawa editor of Saturday Night magazine, and who then wrote a marvellous book about the early days of Ottawa called Private Capital. I love it when my readers say to me, “I just read one of your books and I enjoyed it because it read like a novel but I learned so much.” I’ve thought a lot about Creative Non-Fiction, and how to engage readers in Canadian history, and I work hard always to stick to the facts, but to make them throb with life. There is an essay on my website, entitled What I Write about this.

Tell me about receiving the Pierre Berton Award for distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian history. What did it mean to you?

It meant a huge amount to me, as did the awards of the Order of Canada and five honorary degrees. I see them all as recognition of the importance of Canadian history, and a popular understanding of its importance — and of my small role in enlarging that understanding. When Canadians realise that many of the issues that we face today have characterised Canada from the start, and that the (largely peaceful) political and social evolution of our country is an extraordinary achievement, we can see that there is a sturdy resilience to this country that we can rely on, even if we cannot take it for granted.

I’m currently reading Canada: A portrait in letters (and adoring it). What led you to the format of a collection of letters? Can you speak to the process of researching for this collection?

That book was fun to jigsaw together! I read literally thousands of letters, then linked them with a narrative that placed individual experiences within the larger context of national development. It is the only book for which I used a research assistant, a really smart historian called Deborah Van Seters. We decided which regions/events/individuals we should try and include, and then she went out and scoured library stacks for published collections. In addition, I put out the word within the history and archive communities, and wrote articles in local and national newspapers, appealing for contributions. It was frustrating that we didn’t find enough contributions from First Nations, new immigrants, marginalized peoples, survivors of cataclysmic events like the Newfoundland resettlement project — but I still think we disinterred many voices from the past that would have otherwise gone unheard.

You’ve chose to champion Away by Jane Urquhart for the Canada Reads debates. Why do you think it’s so important for Canadians to read this book?

Away is an extraordinary novel, that recreates within lyrical fictional form one of the great experiences of Canadian peoples — immigration. Urquhart writes about one Irish family forced out of its beloved homeland by colonialism and famine, and its traumatic arrival in the bleak but beautiful wilderness of Upper Canada in the 1840s. Overlaid on this timeless story of land, loss and survival is the intriguing tale of Mary/Moira, who carries within her the mythology of her homeland. Away is not a character-driven novel, like 3 of the other 4 novels we’ll discuss, so much as a plot-driven poetic exploration of how immigrants adapt to a New World. You can tell how much this theme resonates with readers by the fact that Away stayed so long on bestseller lists when it was published 20 years ago, that it remains in print in Canada and more than a dozen other countries, and that individuals from so many different countries (India, Bulgaria, China) have embraced it.

Describe one of your favourite trips/places you have been in Canada.

Too hard to pick one! I loved spending time in Cape Breton, where I researched my biography of Alexander Graham Bell, Reluctant Genius. And my three months in Dawson City, Yukon, where I researched Gold Diggers, Striking it Rich in the Klondike, were heaven — I made great friends, and had life-changing experiences in a menacingly beautiful landscape. And then of course there is our family cottage on an island in an Ontario Lake. Tranquillity and privacy…

Where do you like to write?

I’m pretty structured about the writing process when I’m working on a book, because I always need a ton of research materials around me. I have two writing places. The first is my third floor study in our house in Ottawa. It is usually a mess of research piles strategically ringing my chair, plus a pile of practical stuff (bills, letters) carefully out of reach where I can ignore it. In the summer, my husband and I have a sleeping cabin away from the main cottage where I have a dedicated writing space, with a wonderful view of water, white pines and chipmunks.

Any upcoming projects you’re able to tell me about?

This year is so busy! In late March, Scott Free Productions starts filming a television mini-series, based on Gold Diggers. I am hoping to visit the set in Northern Manitoba. In September, my next book is published by Harper Collins. The working title at the moment is The Massey Murder: The Shocking Case of Carrie Davies. I have various magazine commissions I’m working on, including a profile of Tom Mulcair for Walrus. And I have several ideas for what my next — and tenth — book will be…

There were many things that Charlotte and I talked about, but there are two particular quotes I wrote down that I’d like to share with you.

We were talking about the end of “Away” and Charlotte said, “…it’s the idea of being in history but not realizing it.” This really got me thinking about how we rarely appreciate the present, but constantly look backwards and nostalgically think about “the good old days.” In “Away,” Eileen hears Thomas D’Arcy McGee speak and though at the time she knows he’s an important man, and was to her father, it’s clear to the reader that she’s part of a history that we will remember for generations to come, and she cannot possibly see this.

We also talked about Canada Reads, and how she’s preparing to discuss the different books. I promised I wouldn’t give anything away, but I will say that we spent some time talking about February and how much we both enjoyed it. One of the things Charlotte said she loved about that book was that she rarely knew how a sentence was going to end. It’s such a valid point, because when I started thinking about why I didn’t connect with another of the Canada Reads books, I realized that it was because I felt that I always knew how a sentence would end. Not only that, but when reading “February”, I trusted Lisa Moore, and even though I didn’t know where she was taking me, I knew that I would enjoy myself. It’s how I felt when I read Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. I would start a story and feel unsure; who were these new characters? Where were my old friends from the last story? How could Munro possibly end this story as well as she did the last one? With each story my trust grew. Quickly I grew to understand that when I started a new story, I was in for a treat and I put myself in Munro’s hands, sure that I would enjoy the story she would tell. And I did.

Having met Charlotte, I have a lot of respect for her as a writer. She came to Canada, couldn’t find the material she was looking for, so took on the genre herself. Now, as she reiterated, she was already a professional writer coming from England, but nonetheless, it’s a daunting task to write creative non-fiction. I imagine you must be extremely passionate and interested in your subject and the research process in general. There’s something that I read in her Why I Write essay I mentioned above that totally stunned me. Charlotte writes:

“But I do not fabricate. I imagine, but I do not invent. I do not make up characters, events or dialogue – anything in quotation marks comes from a written source.”

The most extraordinary thing for me about this sentence was that when reading her work, I didn’t even notice! For her to seamlessly write a compelling story about Canadian history of all things (my grade 10 self would be astounded) without fabricating any dialogue is no easy task. This, among many reasons, is why I look up to her so much as a writer.

As she mentioned, her upcoming book about the murder of Charles “Bert” Massey will be coming out with Harper Collins in the near future. We talked a fair bit about that as my grandmother grew up in Dentonia Park House where the brother of Bert Massey lived, my grandmother’s grandfather! (Confusing, I know.) Really looking forward to reading this book!

It was, clearly, such a treat to chat with Charlotte and I have total faith in her for the Canada Reads debates. I think that there are other books and people who will steal the spotlight for the first couple of debates (Indian Horse, Ron MacLean) and she’ll be able to fly under the radar until she has the space to clearly, strongly make her case for “Away.” I’ll be attending on the first and last days. Should be a fabulous time, and I wish her luck!

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