Writer in Residence

The Art of the Novel: Interview with Daniel Marchildon

By Bianca Lakoseljac

By Bianca Lakoseljac: OB Writer in Residence 

At Read Local in Midland, back in September, Daniel Marchildon, the winner of the Trillium Award for children’s literature, and I were among the local authors who were invited to read from our works, with Kevin Hardcastle as special guest. Organized by the Written Word Committee, in collaboration with the Midland Cultural Centre and the Midland Public Library, the readings were held at different businesses in downtown Midland, including stores, restaurants, bars, and even the bank. The event was truly a community celebration to remember. Before my reading, I attended Daniels’. He read two excerpts, one in English and the other in French from his novel The Water of Life (Uisge beatha), a family saga about the history of Scotch whisky and Georgian Bay—and the audience was delighted.

Daniel Marchildon is a Franco-Ontarian author born and raised in Penetanguishene, who lives in Lafontaine, about 160 km north of Toronto. In his thirty years as a freelance writer, he has published thirteen novels for young adults and the general public, in French, as well as short stories and historical works.  He wrote a screenplay for a feature film, La Sacrée (Holy Brew in the English subtitled version) produced in 2011.  He has also written for both television and radio.  He has received several literary prizes, including The Trillium Award for children’s literature in 2011.  The Water of Life (Uisge beatha), a family saga set on Georgian Bay and in Scotland, is the first of his novels to be translated into English and is published by the Australian press, Odyssey Books.

For more information see his web sites:

https://thewateroflifebydanielmarchildon.wordpress.com/

https://danielmarchildonauteur.wordpress.com/  (en français)

I am pleased to welcome Daniel Marchildon to my Art of the Novel interview series. I am certain you will find his discussion informative and inspirational.  

1.       Bianca Lakoseljac: As a writer who goes from young adult novels to general public historical novels and even science fiction, how do you decide on a setting for your novel?

Daniel Marchildon: I get inspired to write when something, like an historical event or a current issue grabs my attention.  For me, storytelling is a type of philosophical exercise (and therapy).  By creating various worlds and characters you can work things out on paper and hopefully engage the reader to think about these issues. A good starting point for a story is always what bugs you.  By creating a story around that you may not solve the problem, but at least you get it off your chest and maybe get others to think and act. 

I’ve always been passionate about history.  Born, raised, and still living in Huronia, a part of Ontario that is very rich in First Nations and early French-Canadian history, is quite inspiring.  I’m also somewhat lazy. So, although the historical novel demands a ton of research, it often allows you to dig up many fantastic true stories that are even better than anything you could bust your brains to make-up. 

There are some stories of the past that are just crying out to be told.  That’s what inspired me to write La première guerre de Toronto (Toronto’s First War), a YA novel about a Franco-Ontarian boxer who returns to Toronto after surviving the horrors of the First World War and ends up fighting the “invisible enemy” of the time, the Spanish flu.  This epidemic of 1918 is one of the most murderous events in the entire history of the world, with at least 20 million victims and possibly many more.   Yet, it isn’t discussed much.  I was fascinated by this.  And, as I often do, I start from my own personal perspective to approach a universal subject.  I knew about the real story of a Franco-Ontarian boxer in Toronto who enjoyed considerable success in the 1920s.  So I took a part of his story and moved it to the last years of the First World War.  During my research, I discovered some amazing events and facts about French-Canadians living in Toronto at that time, as well as how the city was devastated by the Spanish flu in October 1918.  So, I was able to tie everything together in this story that talks about the other war, the one against the Spanish Flu, which killed almost as many Canadian civilians as the number of Canadian soldiers that died in the trenches.  The book won the Ontario Trillium book award in the French-language young adult category in 2011.

The other thing that pushes me towards the historical novel is that it’s reassuring for the writer to already know who dies at the end even before you start writing.  Perhaps what I enjoy most about writing this genre is that you get to solve some intriguing historical mysteries by offering answers (that you create) to unsolved puzzles.  In The Water of Life you find out how scotch distillers came upon the trick of improving whisky by allowing it to age in wooden barrels.   But, in fact, nobody knows who was the first person to come up with the idea.

 

2.      BL: Of the novels you wrote (or are working on), do you have a favourite—one you consider your most important work?

DM: The Water of Life (Uisge beatha) partly because it is the one that has garnered the most attention both in the original French and the translated to English version.  It won the Émile-Ollivier literary prize, awarded by the Québec government for a novel written and published in French in another Canadian province.   

It was ten years in the making, lots of research on Scotch whisky, its five-century history and mythology.   As well, I managed to blending (like distillers do with whiskies) this Scottish story with my own Franco-Ontarian history along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, combining the flavours of these two unique realities.  Strangely enough there are very few works of fiction based on Scotch stories.  During my research I uncovered so many fascinating anecdotes and facts.  It turned out to be an incredibly rich history to mine.    The novel is comprised of nearly fifty tableaux of sorts that are almost stand-alone stories, while remaining intricately linked in an increasingly suspenseful and rapid flow. I think I managed to achieve my goal with this book since readers comment that I deftly spliced together fact and fiction in such a way that they can’t distinguish one from the other.

 

3.       BL: Which of your novels was the most challenging to write?

DM: The Water of Life (Uisge beatha) again, in part because it required so much research.  But the particular challenge of this novel was sifting through all the material and distilling it down to the most interesting stories.  After that, an even bigger challenge was finding the way to weave it all together into an entertaining and eventful novel.  I ended up using the time-shift formula and family saga approach.  But this involved following three lineages over several centuries and jumping from one story to the other and then back, from the present to different periods in the past.  At times, I almost felt like I was editing an Atom Egoyan film.  I played with arranging the scenes in a number of ways until the story flowed like a fine single malt whisky.  At the end, even I was surprised by the result.  When I started writing I had no idea what the book would like at the end.  During the writing process I ended up having to create a genealogical tool (similar to the family tree included at the beginning of the book) so I wouldn’t get lost.  It proved to be essential.  I think my greatest achievement with this novel is combining elements, both stories and characters, that seem totally unrelated and gradually mixing them to a point where they become increasingly interwoven to the point where, on the last page the tight bond between them that is revealed makes perfect sense while being quite unexpected.

 

4.   BL: What do you consider the most difficult aspect of novel writing?

DM: For me there are two aspects that are closely related.  The first being getting started and, the other, writing until you find the real story.  In the research phase, it’s so easy to get caught up in it and keep researching; there’s always more to uncover.  And it’s a great way to put off actually writing by fooling yourself into thinking you’re working and moving your novel along (which is of course false if you’re not writing yet).  So, at one point, I have to pinch myself and say enough!  Stop avoiding the real work, stop researching, and start writing the story.  Start anywhere, but just get started.

Then comes the second challenge: finding the real story.  So I start with a scene and then maybe a second or a third and maybe 23 pages later I finally get in the zone where the real story begins to appear and I get a sense of what the book is going to be about.  I start hearing the characters’ voices.  So, knowing from the outset that the first pages (and probably a lot of others later on) will end up in the recycling bin sometimes gives me the impression of working for nothing, although it isn’t true. 

 

5.      BL: What do you consider the most rewarding aspect of novel writing?

DM: Writing that last line and hearing the character’s voice say, “Yeah, that’s it, you got my story right.”  Writing a book is setting out on a journey where you often have no idea of the final destination.  So when I at last get there, after many trials and tribulations, I’m so happy to have brought my journey to a successful end. 

 

6.      BL: What advice would you offer to an aspiring writer?

DM: I believe you have to write first and foremost for yourself, for your own sense of satisfaction, because being published and read is never a given.  So you have to draw your contentment from accomplishing this very personal project.  Keeping this is mind avoids a lot of disappointment.  I know somebody (a lot more prolific than I’ll ever be) who writes every day, both novels and short stories, but as yet to be published despite trying hard.  Quite admirable.

  

7.     BL: What are you working on now?

DM: I’m finishing up a series of radio scripts, 2-minute historical chronicles for kids, in which objects and animals recount different stories about Confederation and Canada’s 150th anniversary.   I’m also on the last lap of a kid’s book (for 7 year-olds and up) about Kana, the Canadian cow, in French.  It recounts the 400 year history of the Canadienne cow breed which has nearly been lost.  The narrator is present day Kana the 40th, the fortieth generation of her family line of Canadienne cows stretching back to the arrival of Champlain in 1608.  I’m also getting started on a young adult novel, a mother and son story centered on a hostage taking staged to save a forest containing some sand dunes considered sacred by First Nations people, from a logging company.

 

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Bianca Lakoseljac second novel, Stone Woman, which relives Toronto’s 1967 “summer of love”, has just been released by Guernica Editions. Bianca is the author of a novel, Summer of the Dancing Bear; a collection of stories, Bridge in the Rain (Guernica, 2012, 2010); and a book of poetry, Memoirs of a Praying Mantis (Turtle Moons Press, 2009). She is TWUC liaison for the National Reading Campaign, past president of the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto, has judged various national literary competitions, and has served on a number of literary contest panels. Bianca taught at Ryerson University and Humber College.

You can write to Bianca throughout the month of November at writer@open-book.ca