Above all an author. I’ve dabbled in several different types of writing both out of interest and necessity. I’ve been writing for over 30 years and my 13 novels cover a lot of territory from young adult novels, to historical novels and even a science-fiction novel. Although some of my books have sold well for a Franco-Ontarian writer, I’ve always had to write for others to makes ends meet. I’ve also published a number of short stories for kids.
see also : ews.nationalpost.com/arts/books/the-trillium-conversations-daniel-marchildon-and-sandy-pool
You came from the Canadian province of Ontario, the largest French-speaking community in Canada outside of Quebec. Is it a language minority community? Tell us something about your background, your studies, your childhood.
I grew up in a small town, Penetanguishene, Ontario, about 160 km north of Toronto. I still live in the area of my home town, in a village called Lafontaine. This area, known as Huronia, has had a French presence dating back to New France and the early 1600’s. The present day French community is very small and surrounded by English speakers. So it is very challenging for French-speakers is such a minority context living far from other Francophones to retain their language and culture. As an artist coming from this minority it’s part of my mission and motivation.
As a kid in Penetanguishene, I grew up very bilingual: French at home and at school but mostly English elsewhere. I made a conscious choice to develop and hold on to my language and culture while absorbing the influences of the majority to become somewhat of a cultural hybrid. A lot of people from my generation and the following ones haven’t done so and have lost the language.
What prompted you to become a writer? What made you decide to start writing historical fiction?
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 get the reader to think about these questions. I 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. Coming from an area that is very rich in Aboriginal and early French-Canadian history is quite inspiring. I’m also somewhat lazy. So, although the historical novel demands a ton of research, you often uncover many fantastic real stories that are even better than anything you could bust your brains to make-up. Also, in the historical novel it’s reassuring for the writer to already know who dies at the end even before you start writing. Perhaps what enjoy most about writing this genre is that you get to solve some intriguing historical mysteries by offering explanations (that you create) to things that remain unknown. 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 to come up with the idea.
You are also the author of a successful YA novel “La première guerre de Toronto“, about a Franco-Ontarian boxer who returns to Toronto after surviving the horrors of the First World War. Please tell us a little about this book.
The Spanish flu 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 really interesting 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. My character, Napoléon, who returns wounded and traumatized by the war, his boxing career in shambles, gets enlisted to fight this second war against an invisible enemy. The book won the Ontario Trillium book award in the French-language young adult category in 2011.
Is The Water of Life (Uisge beatha) based on a true story? What was the starting point in the writing process?
The novel is based on many true stories. I was in Scotland for a visit in 1995 and was fascinated by the water… of life, the whisky, but also the water flowing in the burns (streams). As a Georgian Bay boy, the water of the Great Lakes flows in my veins. Something really resonated with me when I was there: the connection between all these waters. I then undertook a lot of research on the history of Scotch whisky. Parts of the novel are loosely based on the exploits of William Grant, the founder of the famous Glen Fiddich distillery (which I visited). But a lot of the fact is blended into fiction. So there are real stories that happen to fictional characters. A number of the events that take place on Georgian Bay are also based on real events, for instance the wreck of the Alice Hackett involving Métis people in 1828.
Name some of the sources you uncovered while writing The Water of Life.
There were many books. These were particularly fascinating.
Tales of Whisky and Smuggling, by Stuart McHardy, House of Lochar, 1991 (a much appreciated gift I received from whisky expert, Martine Nouet, who helped me with my research);
Scotch, Its History and Romance, by Ross Wilson, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1973; and Scotch, The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story, by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, Putnam, London, 1967 (a reprint of the original edition from 1951).
Could you tell us something about the plot of this book?
The novel is constructed in 66 short chapters bearing titles made up of dates and/or place names as well as character names. Most of the chapters set in the past, though they remain intricately linked, can almost be read as independent tableaux. Narrated in the third person, the story shifts rapidly between historical Scotland and the New World, and present-day Georgian Bay. The saga follows the successive generations of three bloodlines: the Scottish Fearmòrs and the French-Canadian Roys and Legrands, who are among the founding families of Lighthouse Point.
This turbulent family saga spans several generations, three lineages, and two continents.
Driven by a mysterious voice, Elizabeth Legrand reveals an outrageous plan that has members of her small isolated community questioning her sanity. She is determined to open a distillery in Lighthouse Point and create a single-malt whisky better than anything distilled in Scotland. Elizabeth knows the whereabouts of ancient reserves of Glen Dubh, an extraordinary Scotch that was lost to the world in tragic circumstances in 1913. But when Robert Fearmòr, a descendant of the creators of the Glen Duhb, suddenly and mysteriously shows up in Lighthouse Point, Elizabeth wonders if he’s come to help or hinder the New Glen Dubh. It begins to seem like the only thing that might prove more dangerous to Elizabeth than failure to revive the Glen Dubh spirit is if she were to succeed.
And we go back five centuries to find out how the Glen Dubh ended up in Georgian Bay. In Scotland, through the Fearmòr family, the reader relives the great moments of the history of single malt whisky and the mythical Glen Dubh. We go from its creation by monks through a distillation process that is part science and part intuition, to struggles of the clandestine 18th and 19th century Highland distillers fighting the British excisemen (duties enforcement officers) to the death, to the rise and fall of Scotch ‘whisky empires’ in the late 1800’s. The Fearmòrs live through it all as major players yielding the secret of their fabulous whisky like a weapon that, however, can turn against them. The water of life sometimes incarnated in the whisky, sometimes in the waves of Georgian Bay, called the sixth Great Lake, bends the will of those it touches, guiding them or condemning to their fate.
Could you tell us a little about your main protagonists?
Elizabeth, the main character of the present day story in the novel is a crazy woman. At least it seems that way. She is driven by the love of the Bay, of her community that she can’t stand to see die. She’s somewhat of a sorceress, possessed by the power of whisky that courses in her blood line. Trapped by her genes, she has to see her mission of founding a distillery with the mythical Glen Dubh whisky as a base to the end, or perish.
The other main character is the Fearmòr line in Scotland. Although there are many Fearmòr men throughout the book, they are really one person. From Iain Fearmòr the 15th century monk, to Robert Fearmòr, the 21st century Scotch distiller, they are the same man, determined and fighting a difficult battle against ferocious opponents, the worst being themselves.
Uisge beatha, Scottish Gaelic for ‘whisky’, ‘the water of life’ is itself a character in the story: a restless ghost coursing through the veins of anyone who drinks it, forging life itself. However, it also frequently kills.
What impact did the production of whisky in Georgian Bay coastal life (in the novel and in reality)?
This dimension is one that I invented for the novel. Although there are tales of whisky being drunk and transported on and along Georgian Bay (there is a real place called Pointe-au-Baril for instance) there have never been any distilleries here. Although, recently a place in Collingwood has started making a grain whisky (not single malt).
Can you describe the Georgian Bay scenario?
Driven by a mysterious voice that only she can hear, Elizabeth Legrand reveals an outrageous plan that has members of her small isolated community questioning her sanity. She is determined to open a distillery in Lighthouse Point and create a single-malt whisky better than anything distilled in Scotland. Elizabeth knows the whereabouts of ancient reserves of Glen Dubh, an extraordinary Scotch that was lost to the world in tragic circumstances in 1913. The novel retraces the history (and the stories) of how the people and the whisky ended up at Lighthouse point.
Now in her 40s, Elizabeth enlists the aid of John MacPhearson, the owner of Toronto’s finest Scotch bar, with shady ulterior motives. But when Robert Fearmòr, a descendant of the creators of the Glen Duhb, suddenly and mysteriously shows up in Lighthouse Point, Elizabeth wonders if he’s come to help or hinder the New Glen Dubh. It begins to seem like the only thing that might prove more dangerous to Elizabeth than failure to revive the Glen Dubh spirit is if she were to succeed.
What is/are your favourite scene(s) in The Water of Life ?
The 1913 Georgian Bay storm of the century (a real event) scene was one of the hardest passages to write because it was so moving for me. It’s both horrific and captivating. The battle and tragic love story of Lossiemouth (based on a true story that happened elsewhere in Scotland) stir me every time I read it. A good sign.
How long did the process of writing The Water of Life take?
From the initial spark of the idea to the research, the writing, and the publication of the original French edition in 2008, this book was a ten year odyssey. And it took another three years for the English version to become a reality, from the time Marta Ziemelis, the translator, approached me to translate the novel into English, her initiative, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
Any movie projects from your book?
I would so love to write the screenplay for this novel. If a producer asked me to, I’d do it at the drop of a hat. So far, no offers.
Projects for translations? Has your agent contacts with Italian publishers?
Not at the moment. No contacts with Italian publishers yet, although it would be great to see the novel in Italian. French authors in Canada rarely have an agent. I don’t.
What are you working on at the moment?
There a couple of ideas I’m hoping to pursue. The next project maybe another kid’s book about the first cow to arrive in New France in the early 1600s. At the end of October 2015, I’m participating in a writer’s collective of 24 authors that will write a novel in 24 hours while traveling aboard a train from Halifax to Toronto. It should be quite the creative experience — if I survive it.