Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why historical novelist Genevieve Graham grieves when she's done writing a book

The author of Promises to Keep answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Genevieve Graham is the author of the historical novel Promises to Keep. (Janice Bray)

Promises to Keep, a historical romance set in Acadia circa 1755, is the latest book from bestselling Tides of Honour writer Genevieve Graham. Graham is known for re-imagining Canadian history in her fiction.

Below, Genevieve Graham answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Jordan Tannahill asks, "What is the most ridiculous thing you found yourself doing out of distraction/procrastination instead of writing?"

Why is it the thing I love the best can so easily be set aside in favour of ridiculous things? Because that's most assuredly true. I love to write. Love, love, love to write and create. But then there's Facebook. And Twitter (which I still can't quite figure out). I've learned to create interesting sculptures out of the candles I burn on my desk. I had no idea there were so many shopping outlets online until I started to write. And this year? I decided that since our province had a teacher's strike that I would organize a prom (along with a couple of fabulous new friends I've made along the way). I can probably find dozens of things to do when I'm supposed to be writing. But I guess what most people might consider to be the most ridiculous (but to me seems reasonable, if not entirely necessary) is to hang out in the yard with our chickens. On a perfect day during the summer, I will set everything aside so we can have our annual "Bathe the Chickens" day. Everyone should bathe a chicken at least once in their life.

2. Bill Richardson asks, "If you were to see someone reading your book in a public place — a plane, a café — would you introduce yourself?"

Um, yes. It's a fine line, though. I wouldn't want to distract the reader from whatever compelling passage might be consuming them at that moment, but I'd want to know exactly where they were in the book. Did they already read THIS part? What did they think of THIS section? And what about the chapter with... To be honest, in the past I might possibly have sidled up to a reader in Starbucks, then started up a conversation (which is odd for me since I'm an accredited hermit most of the time) and during the conversation I might have turned their book around and shown them my photo on the back cover...

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3. Alisa Smith asks, "What is your favourite character you ever wrote and why?"

I have a deep connection to every one of my characters, male and female. Many authors celebrate the moment they finish their final edit, but every time I finish writing a book, I grieve. It's not like I'll lose that character in my heart — they are a part of me — but I'll miss the day-to-day conversations we had, the privilege I enjoyed at being able to see inside their heads and hearts. Interestingly, I feel most connected to my male protagonists. Of all my characters, the one I miss the most is Danny Baker from Tides of Honour. I suppose that's why I've been hard at work on the companion novel, which should be out next spring. It's been wonderful interacting with Danny again. He is honourable, he is genuine and he is unexpectedly vulnerable. He has rough edges but deep inside he is still a little boy, abused by a world which considered him to be nothing better than cannon fodder. Some readers have called him cold, have said he lacks emotion, but I know better. Danny comes from a time when men hid their emotions while continuously striving to be the stone pillar to whom the rest of the family looked for answers, even for survival. He is a flawed hero, a man who never dreamed his ordinary life might evolve into a nightmare that would take years to fade.

4. Anthony Bidulka asks, "Have there been moments in your career, early or late, when you doubted yourself as a writer?"

How about every day? Every hour? Every paragraph? I never wrote a word until I was in my early 40s. After that, I taught myself everything. I was terrified when, back in 2009 or so, I started posting my first attempts online, but I had to do it. I had to know if my writing was even remotely good. There I received criticism and advice from other novice writers, but to my amazement most of the feedback was encouraging. Even better was the insight I gained from the other writers. I soaked it all up. Since then I have published five books. Every single release day, I wait on the edge of my seat for the first reviews.

5. Alissa York asks, "Have you ever strengthened a bond with a loved one through something you've written?"

Yes. With my husband of 25 or so years. We have always had a very loving partnership, but it wasn't until I first bullied him into reading, then critiquing, my books that I found out how much better I could be with his help. He's never been a "Oh, this is really good" kind of person. He's more of a "I like this, but what if..." person. At certain points in every book, plot becomes a challenge and we usually solve those over lunch at our favourite café (though even he will admit that after a glass and a half of wine his suggestions get ridiculous) or an hour in the hot tub, which we have now dubbed the "Plot Tub." He is a very smart, very pragmatic man and he often sees holes in my stories before I do. He pushes me to fix things that I'd rather ignore. But he's also very sensitive. One of my favourite memories of our working together on a book is with Promises to Keep. When the first draft was done I gave it to him and after a few hours he handed it back. "You didn't make me cry until after page 100," he said, obviously disappointed. "Fix that, would you?" All my books are better because of him. And learning that he has this specific kind of skill and insight that neither of us suspected before has brought us much closer.

6. Vivek Shraya asks, "What is your favourite writing snack?"

Does coffee and Baileys count? I have a very hungry sweet tooth, unfortunately. A good quality slab of milk chocolate is my weakness, though I have occasionally forced myself to limit snacks to carrots or something healthy. My problem is that I get so caught up in whatever I'm writing that I often forget to eat for hours, then suddenly I realize I've missed breakfast and lunch and had little more than water all day. Fortunately, my husband works seasonally, so he can keep an eye on me during the winter. I'll look up and he'll have made me a perfect lunch, complete with tea.

7. Jean McNeil asks, "Do you wish you could write in another language and, if so, which one?"

I'm quite satisfied with writing English, though I do love the sound and feel of so many other languages. I would choose French if I had to pick one. My trouble is that in every book I've written I've included various languages among the characters, from Scottish and Irish Gaelic to French and German. I wish my knowledge of those languages was sufficient that I could write their thoughts without having to ask a translator for help.

8. Jowita Bydlowska asks, "What does it mean to take a risk as a writer, and how do you feel about it?"

Taking a risk as a writer means I step beyond what the average reader might be comfortable with. I do it all the time because I write historical fiction. I feel strongly that telling it like it really was is necessary to that genre. To me, if I do not ask the tough questions then respond with the often ugly truths, I am doing a disservice to history, to my readers and to myself. In earlier books I included violence against women in the 18th century and some of my more tender-hearted readers objected. I didn't apologize, but when the question was asked directly, I explained why I had included that important section of the book. I proceeded to write the next book and include more (but different) violence against women — as well as any number of unpleasant facts from history. I will not avoid subjects that were a part of our past. I will not whitewash history. I believe anyone who does is afraid of the truth. And on that subject, when it comes to those who champion the removal of statues and street names recognizing figures in history who did terrible things, I strongly disagree. What will future generations see when they look back at the centuries past? Will they see nothing but goodness? That would simply be a lie.