A few weeks ago, I read This Godforsaken Place by Cinda Gault. (My review.) I was on a short vacation at the time, and it was the perfect read for it; part adventure, part history, and lots of fun.
Happily, Cinda Gault agreed to an interview with me via e-mail. Also, if you are in the Vancouver area on August 13th, Cinda Gault will be doing a reading at Book Warehouse at 7pm. Aaron Cully Drake, author of Do You Think This Is Strange? will also be there. (My review of his book.) If at all possible, please go on my behalf, and then tell me about it!
Q: What I always want to know the most, and is usually the first question I ask, is what was the inspiration behind your book? What made you choose to write about the late 19th century, Annie Oakley, and the Metis Rebellion? Were there other events going on in that time that you would have liked to include, but chose to leave out?
A: I wish I had a lightning bolt inspiration to convey, but this story was built on bits of research. I read Ruby Wiebe’s The Scorched-Wood People years ago in a graduate course, and so knew about the Métis Rebellion. That novel focused more on Riel, the religious zealot who took it upon himself to articulate God’s opinions about military strategy. I was more interested in Dumont, his military general, who was obviously a gifted strategist but allowed himself to be hobbled by mysticism. I had nothing new to add to the story of the rebellion itself that he was destined to lose. I only knew that I wanted to include him, and so my dates in the late nineteenth century were set.
My first real bout of research was centred on the Jesse James Gang. I was surprised how close their shenanigans came to the Canadian border, and how much of their story overlapped with the Riel rebellions. We tend to restrict our understandings of history to discreet national boundaries, but much in the way of history and boundaries at this time in North America was still fluid. The James brothers eventually participated in a wild west show. This information led to another wild west performer, Annie Oakley, who spent her career proving that she could outdo anyone with a rifle.
The lightning bolt I did have occurred on the day I discovered that Dumont and Oakley both worked in Bill Cody’s Wild West show at the same time. I was high for days! That information handed me the structure of the book as a journey.
Q: Tell us about your writing process; how does writing fit into your schedule, and where do you most often go to write?
A: I published a Harlequin Superromance in 1988 (Past Convictions) and had two kids, one in 1987 and the other in 1989. I started researching for this story shortly after defending my Ph.D thesis in 2003. With new teaching responsibilities and children who still required a lot of my time, I researched in fits and starts. My writing has only recently fit into any kind of schedule, now that my children are young men and on their own. I can write hanging upside down if I have to, since writing fiction constitutes my happiest mental time. I am always dying to get back jumping on my horse and going anywhere I want! As my research reached a critical mass, I was teaching a prose narrative course at the University of Guelph. I drove there two hours early each day before my class and sat in a lounge chair in the Crop Science building, where my classroom was, and typed away furiously for the precious minutes I had.
Q: Did any books/authors/people influence you while researching and working on your book?
A: In my Acknowledgements, I mention three books that were especially helpful. The first was Gabriel Dumont’s memoir, his own words translated by Michael Barnholden. Because this was Dumont telling his own stories, I could hear how he sounded, his cadence, the words he chose, the details he clearly enjoyed relating. This voice brought his character to life for me.
The second book was Tom Flannagan’s Riel and the Rebellion 1885 Reconsidered. Most of my reading on the Riel rebellions to that point gave the impression that white people were simply mean-spirited and ignored the Métis petitions for help with land claims. Flannagan’s book is the only one that actually made the complicated issue of claims at all understandable. While that doesn’t change the course of history, it gave me a depth of understanding that makes more of what is happening today a bit less obscure.
The third influential book was Glenda Riley’s The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley. Much of Annie’s youth is recounted in this book, which I used to show how deep her connection went with Shea Wyatt. As abused indentured children, they stormed into adulthood as heroes who transcended their victimhood. I love strong people, and Annie Oakley was an inspiration of independence and excellence. Riley gave important insight around Annie’s wish to be seen as a lady, despite her dominance in a man’s world. I found that tension interesting because it gestured to contemporary debates within feminism about what an independent woman looks like.
Q: What writers and books have you loved or have had an impact in your life?
A: I have been asked this before, and am afraid I don’t have a very good answer in terms of individual books. I go through eras of books. When I was in high school, I became interested in D.H. Lawrence, and scoured our library for everything he wrote. I read and reread his books, underlining what I thought were profundities that I wanted to process. When I had babies, I read scores of baby books. When I did degrees in Psychology and Criminology, I read social science books. When I went back to school in English, I read from Chaucer to the present, fascinated by the ways storytelling developed in Britain, America, and Canada.
By the time I started my Ph.D, I was invested in fiction written by Canadian women, specifically Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Marian Engel during the Trudeau years, when Canadians were so interested in their national identity. I read everything these women wrote from 1965-1980, and pretty much everything that was written about them. In preparation for my comprehensive exams, I went off to the library at York University and filled up bundle buggies of books, read them, and came back for more. So, hundreds of books have had an impact on my life. People bring me books and recommend stories in different media. My older son brought me the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is wonderful storytelling.
If I had to pick out highlights of Canadian novels I have read, I would cite Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for voice. A treat that I didn’t get around to reading until a couple of years ago was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I love his ability to build tension into his characters’ actions.
Q: Do you consider yourself a writer or a reader? At what point in your life did you know you wanted to write a book?
A: I don’t really think you can be a writer without being a reader, so I’m both. But I am a writer most enthusiastically. I take in information, and then I need to act on it. I do this in other ways in my life, too. I watched so many renovation shows that I had to go out and buy rental properties to renovate.
Q: Do you have a favourite quote/line/passage/poem?
A: Nothing jumps out at me because so many wonderful turns of phrase have been written. But it’s funny you should ask that because as a teacher I assign a group seminar presentation that requires students to choose a passage from a book they liked as a reader at some point in their lives. Now they are to come back to it as a student of narrative to unpack how the writer achieved whatever effect was so captivating the first time around. It is a narrator’s voice that excites me. I appreciate a clear world view, and the ability to tell a story that elucidates it.
Q: In your book, Abigail Peacock has a life-changing decision that she has to make that involves a long journey and a lot of money. If you were Abigail, would you stay put and settle down, would you have chosen the path she chose in the book, or would you have taken the loot and run?
A: In Abigail’s situation, I would have done exactly what she did. More than the money, she wanted a plan. She wanted an adventure. A pioneer life would have meant a lot of drudgery. Even with a good man like Lars, she would have had to settle for a less exciting life than she wanted. If she just took the money and ran, what would she do? The mission Shep January gave her also gave her purpose, and life is sweetest if you can get up each morning bursting to do something you believe is important. To Abigail, it was important to tell the Pinkertons what she had done, and January’s plan made that possible. What would you do?
Me: I would have wanted to make the journey, but I probably would have been too chicken to do it and would have settled. Anyone else?
Q: Any interest in shooting?
A: Before writing this book, I had never held a gun. But, since I had set myself the task of describing the experience of shooting one for the first time, I needed some first-hand experience. I called a shooting range north of Toronto and asked the proprietor if he would let me shoot a gun. He invited me up to his property that included a gun shop with a wide range of rifles. I shot at a target out back and completely missed the huge board that the target was mounted on. Like Abigail, the shoulder kickback I had heard so much about was nothing compared to the explosion of the sound. The proprietor took me back into his shop and showed me the exact kind of rifle Annie Oakley would have used. It was lighter and smaller than I expected.
The gun in this story is, of course, metaphoric. It stands in for the power to act. Many times in one’s life power can come from things like speaking out, or affecting a social practice, or changing a law. However, the ability to do right has at several points in history come down to the ability to protect oneself with a gun. If there is a choice between bad being done because you don’t have a gun and good being done because you do, I pick the latter.
Q: Are you working on anything new you want to tell us about?
A: I am working on another historical fiction story with two female protagonists who were real people in the early nineteenth century. The first, Isobel Gunn, was one of several daughters of a farmer in the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland. In 1806 she cut her hair and dressed like a man to get herself hired on to the Hudson’s Bay Company ship as a labourer. She worked in Canada for eighteen months before being outed as a woman, when she had a baby on the hearth of a Northwest outpost in Pembina. Not much is known about her, which gives me the opportunity to make it up. Her story intertwines with another woman who was drawn to the same territory by her coureur de bois husband. I don’t want to say too much more than that, except that in my current fantasy world I’m doing a lot of canoeing. 🙂
Thank you to Cinda Gault for agreeing to be interviewed! I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking the book she’s working on sounds fantastic. I’ll be waiting impatiently… 🙂