Why this best-selling author used fantasy to tell the story of sexual assault

The idea for B.C.-based author Rachel Hartman's latest fantasy novel, which looks at consent and rape, was initiated by a community choir practice.

Tess of the Road explores consent through medieval fiction

Rachel Hartman made a name for herself with her young adult novel, Seraphina. (Liz Edgar)

She was at a community choir practice when it struck her: the song they were gleefully singing was about date-rape.

Vancouver-based author Rachel Hartman said it was jarring, hearing and singing the lyrics of Henry Purcell's 1690 folk song Cakes and Ales, a tale of getting a woman drunk in order to have sexual relations with her. But, she worried she was overreacting.

After consulting with a friend, she decided to bring it up with the choir director, who ultimately decided to pull the song, because he didn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

"I felt terrible," Hartman told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

"There were people who were mad at me. There were women who came up to me quietly later and said thank you."

That incident is what inspired her to write her latest novel, Tess of the Road, a fantasy story about a young troublemaking girl who bares a dark secret. 

Rachel Hartman says her latest book is a bit autobiographical but takes place in a fantasy setting, which allowed her to reach a wider audience. (Random House)

The author describes the book a bit of an autobiography, because it draws from her own personal experiences and those of her sister. But because of the fantasy setting, she said she's able to make it more relatable to a wider range of readers.

"The readers can say to themselves I know what this means to me, so it doesn't have to be literal," she said.

Hartman wanted to tell a story about rape culture and consent, but in a way she hadn't seen before; she didn't want the narrative to be about the act of sexual assault itself, nor did she want it to be a revenge fantasy against a man.

"You get women in these stories that can either be the victim … or you've got the opposite, the avenging fury, who goes out and kills the men," she said.

"Then, it is still all about him, and it's not about the practical things that I think most people that go through this have to grapple with."

Though this book seems more relevant than ever, thanks to movements like #MeToo and #IBelieveHer, Hartman had finished writing Tess of the Road long before the #MeToo movement gained traction in October 2017.

Though she says her agent was glad to see the topic becoming more relevant, in hopes her book would be even more successful, Hartman said she wasn't as cheerful about the whole thing.

"I long for a world where my book is looked at as quaint and out-of-date."

With files from CBC's North by Northwest