GG Literary Awards: Q&A with Linda Spalding


linda-spalding.jpgIn The Purchase, Linda Spalding's Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction-winning novel, she takes readers back to pioneer-era America. Daniel Dickinson, a young Quaker, finds himself exiled from his devout community in Pennsylvania. With his family in tow, Daniel vows to start a new life in the Virginia frontier. But he quickly finds the wildly different environment and slave-owning culture tests his sense of morality, his character, and his religious conviction.

Linda, who was originally born in Topeka, Kansas, sat down with CBC Books to explain the inspiration for her award-winning novel, which draws deeply from her own family history.

How is The Purchase inspired by stories of your own ancestors?

I had some records -- pages typed up by my paternal aunt by marriage, who had gone to Virginia with her husband and looked at the territory and figured out some genealogy ... I found out that [we were Quakers] in 1725. I got kind of interested in the story because I had become very interested in Quakerism when I was a teen. I started going to Quaker meetings when I was about 16 because my brother was involved. I just thought it was fascinating and I loved it.

So you gravitated towards Quakerism without knowing your ancestors were Quakers?

It wasn't a family secret but I think that either no one cared or they were slightly sheepish about it. As a teenager it had more to do with pacifism I think. This was in the 1950s and we were very aware of the atom bomb. It was kind of the beginning of the ban the bomb thing. I knew the Quakers were pacifist and they were arguing against the U.S. having nuclear weapons, so I was very interested in all that. And then I was also very interested in the way they worshipped, because it was at that age when I felt very spiritual. I had been brought up in the Episcopal Church, which sort of had lost its allure, so it was all that...

Do you still have a connection to Quakerism?

I have no connection except a great and abiding respect because I got immersed enough in it that I will certainly never lose that respect. I went on a Quaker pilgrimage to England with a bunch of kids from all over the world, and I was the only non-birthright Quaker in the group. They're just the best, the best people, I think, in the world.

Besides your aunt's papers, what kind of research did you have to do to write this novel?

I did massive research. In fact, I was just looking at my bookshelf. I have a habit of buying used books or finding weird things and I have this amazing collection of books about that time: books about medicine, I read all the slave narratives I could get my hands on, and there are actually quite a few. I read the diaries of planters and farmers and slave owners and a book by a woman who was a midwife. She was actually a New England midwife but I don't think things were that different.

How do you think a novel set largely in 18th century Virginia can resonate with modern Canadians?

I'm actually kind of interested that it seems to. I wasn't sure that was going to happen. I think, for one thing, although the context of our lives is very different now, I don't think that people are very different. I think the main thing that has changed is, in 1798, probably everyone believed in God, or 99 out of 100 people. They had different ways of believing, and they got very angry and protective about their ways of believing. They had huge arguments about it, which most of us don't do anymore, but I think it was kind of a universally accepted idea. Other than that I'm not sure we're very different.

And then there's this whole matter of migration -- moving to a new place, and not knowing what the signals are, which I think was Daniel's problem. As soon as you've kind of left your nest, whether it's in Syria or Ireland or Africa, wherever it is, you've ended up in a place where you don't have your community anymore, and suddenly you have lost your ability to discern what might be right or wrong. You become self-serving in a way that you might not have been if you were back where you began, so I think all that stuff is still the same. I think we're all flawed.

We intend to do well and be good and we fail a lot of the time. And we all worry about that in ourselves. I think we all come up a bit short. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect that we all have ideals about ourselves that we don't quite fulfill. And I'm guess that's what the connection is now with people.

What does winning the GG Literary Award mean to you?

It means a lot! I almost guess that it means more to me than other people because I wasn't born here, and I've wanted so desperately to be Canadian, to kind of earn my stripes. When I first came I took over this magazine called Brick, because I thought that would sort of make me Canadian: "Now I get to know all the Canadian writers, I get to know the issues and I somehow become instantly Canadian."

It didn't happen. It took a long time for me to get it. I'm not sure I still totally get it, but it just means I feel like I belong, and also, of course, I feel somewhat acknowledged as a writer, which is huge because I've spent my whole life writing, and there hasn't been a lot of that really. I've been really lucky to have been published but there haven't been many big prizes, so it's absolutely enormous for me.