Books

Why it took Gil Adamson 10 years to write a swashbuckling follow-up to her bestselling novel The Outlander

How the Toronto author wrote the historical novel Ridgerunner.

'It was a surprise to me that I felt a certain amount of pressure to write Ridgerunner'

Ridgerunner is a novel by Canadian author Gil Adamson. (Jean-Luc Bertini, House of Anansi)

Gil Adamson is a Toronto-based writer and poet. Her first novel, The Outlander was a bestseller about Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old widow on the run from the law.

The Outlander won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and was a Canada Reads finalist in 2009, when it was championed by Nicholas Campbell. 

Her latest novel is Ridgerunner, a follow-up to The OutlanderRidgerunner is a historical novel set in Alberta as it follows Mary's partner William Moreland, the notorious First World War–era thief known as Ridgerunner, as he moves through the Rocky Mountains, determined to secure financial stability for his semi-orphaned son named Jack. 

Ridgerunner is on the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The winner will be announced on Nov. 9, 2020.

Gil Adamson spoke to CBC Books about writing Ridgerunner.

Life after The Outlander

"I remember being done with The Outlander and realizing to myself that I wasn't done with that whole world. I had enjoyed writing and being in that world so much, it seemed sort of sad to just leave it behind forever.

"The idea for Ridgerunner came from an offhand comment by a book clubber. I had done a talk for a book club in Alberta. After it was over, and everybody was leaving, there was this woman sitting next to me. She quietly mumbled to herself, 'I wonder what Mary and William will be like as parents.'

For me, it was more about wondering what Mary and William's kid was going to be like. That was exciting for me to think about.

"She did what readers do — imagining what happens after the book. But as the writer, I can do something about that. For me, it was more about wondering what Mary and William's kid was going to be like. That was exciting for me to think about. I wanted to write that person, even if I changed his name or it morphed into something else entirely. But it didn't. It morphed into a follow up to The Outlander. That's the way it worked out."

A time to write

"Much like The Outlander, this book took a long time to write. Which was a bit of a surprise to me. I'd only ever written one novel and I didn't know whether my experience writing The Outlander was the way I write novels — or, having now written a novel and learned how to do so, would I be any faster?

"As it turns out, for realistic literary fiction like this, where language is important, I am a very slow and careful writer. But I didn't really get started on this book until about maybe three or four years after The Outlander came out. So maybe I am a little faster.

Much like The Outlander, this book took a long time to write.

"It was a surprise to me that I felt a certain amount of pressure to write Ridgerunner. I didn't know if I could write a first novel — and then I did. But I didn't know if that was an anomaly. So the pressure for me to at least not disappoint people was pretty intense for me. 

"But self-consciousness when you're writing is quite bad for you. Writing to expectations is going to backfire on you. So I had to keep putting any of those kinds of considerations out of my head and just simply write. So I disappeared into my quiet office and just wrote as if I was writing it for myself."

The beauty of Banff

"I used to live in Banff, where the book is set. My mother, when she was a child, used to go to Banff every summer. They had a little house along the Bow River. 

"Because I was setting the story in 1917, I had to do quite a bit of research to understand how this constantly changing and evolving town would have looked back then. Because the photographic record of Banff is just so off the charts, you can find a photograph of anything.

I don't know if there is such a thing as doing too much research. There is definitely such a thing as doing too little.

"I don't know if there is such a thing as doing too much research. There is definitely such a thing doing as too little. I went to the Library and Archives Canada a number of times and spent hours and hours  reading about internment operations in Canada and the Castle Mountain Internment Camp in particular.

"I researched what was happening on a certain day and what the weather was like. It is a rabbit hole and can be very hard to get out of."

Father-son reunion

"I proceeded with some worry and some concern for writing characters that are not like me. The main character is Jack and I've never been a teenage boy. It's a really pretty intense time to be that age. 

It was interesting writing the father-son thing because I had such a good dad.

"I approached writing the character by first asking all the men I knew to talk about their childhood and what it was like. I don't know how much good I got out of that — but it was worth asking the questions.

"It was interesting writing the father-son thing because I had such a good dad. I was probably in my 20s before I realized that not everyone had a loving father. I wanted to talk about what that relationship is like. Hopefully I did it in a way that is believable. Again, it goes back to the question of what kind of parent would Moreland be."

The son of Mary and William

I hope readers understand that the title doesn't have the definite article: It's not THE Ridgerunner. It's not specifically about Moreland. It is about how similar Jack and his father are — even if that notion upsets Jack.

"What I hoped people would see in The Outlander was a young person whose life has changed completely and the skills that she's been brought up with have no use at all. So it was a story about a person, Mary, going from vulnerable and helpless to independent and probably going to survive.

It is about how similar Jack and his father are — even if that notion upsets Jack.

"This book is about somebody who starts off not fully understanding themselves because he's a kid. By the end of the book, I hope people see that he too has become so much like his father — and that's a good thing."

Gil Adamson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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