I had a most unusual experience the last time I was in Winnipeg.
It started with a wonderful event arranged by the Armstrong’s Point Residents Association, where I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in September talking about the early history of the neighbourhood with residents, history enthusiasts, and readers.
A couple of days later I wound up in the hospital with an emergency appendectomy. A little scary, and very disappointing as it interrupted my planned meetings and visits in Winnipeg, but it wasn’t all bad. I was in and out in less than 48 hours and all went well. I also had the pleasure of extending my visit and recuperating in my mother’s house, while she baked pies with apples harvested from her backyard. How wonderful is that?
While I thoroughly enjoyed the time with my mother, and the rest of the family, it was disappointing that I had to miss a book club event at home in Florida that had been in the works for some months. Jane, who had invited me to speak to the club, sent on some questions and promised to read the answers in her “best Canadian accent” to her book club members. Following are the questions and my answers. By the way, if there is anything you would like to know about the story in Ravenscraig, please email me at Sandi.Altner@gmail.com.
Thank you, Jane.
Why did you decide to title your novel Ravenscraig? What other options did you consider?
Finding the title was challenging. My first working title was Willows on the Crescent. After that there were a number of titles that related to the Titanic. Finally I settled on Ravenscraig because it was the name of Rupert’s home (Rupert Willows is the lead character) and because it just seemed to work better than any of the other titles I had on my list.
Ravenscraig Hall (a fictional home) is located in the real neighbourhood of Armstrong’s Point which has a charming history and truly was a sought after residential neighbourhood. On the location that I placed Ravenscraig Hall there originally sat a mammoth home known as Bannatyne’s Castle. How unfortunate that only the gates of that home are still in existence today. I took the name Ravenscraig from Ravenscraig Castle in Scotland, which is big, ugly and was among the first built to withstand cannon fire. Once I tripped across that, I knew it was perfect for the mansion. Coming to the conclusion that it was the right name for the book took much longer.
Naming characters was a similar problem. I know all of the baby name sites on the net. I also did extensive searching through archival materials from Ellis Island, the Canadian Census reports of 1901 and 1911, the Jewish Genealogy website and City of Winnipeg archives.
What is your greatest pleasure – researching the historical underpinnings of the plot or creating the characters and dialog to communicate the historical elements?
I love the research. The idea of writing a novel first came from stumbling across a great story about the scandals involved in building the Manitoba Legislative building a century ago. Great story. The more I learned the further back I needed to go. What I learned about the conflicts between rich and poor, and English and everyone foreign during the height of the immigration boom (1896-1914) became so interesting that the focus of my story naturally shifted to the stories of that time.
There was such extreme poverty and so little political will to do anything about it that it just seemed unbelievable. I read stories of 40 or more people living in boarding houses of 800 sq ft or less and thought it impossible that this had happened. Moreover it made me wonder that if it indeed had happened, how had I never heard of that before? The 1911 census is an amazing document that lays out the truth. Then, knowing the extent the overcrowding existed set a different colour to the many essays and memoires that I had read and new materials that I sought out. What I had seen as perhaps exaggerated through a nostalgic memory suddenly came into focus as an undertold story of suffering. I wanted to bring that story to life.
This led to learning about the Typhoid epidemic in 1904-1905 when Winnipeg had the highest rate of typhoid per capita in the western world. I first learned of it in a book by Dr. Alan Artibise, titled: A Social History of Winnipeg, 1874-1914. There truly was a Dr. Jordan called in from Chicago to investigate the health crisis. I ordered a full copy of his report from the Manitoba Archives and was shocked to learn that he did not condemn the use of dirty river water being brought into the water mains for use in fire control. He did say the water should be used “as little as possible”. Equally interesting was that the Winnipeg newspapers produced no screaming headlines demanding to know the source of the typhoid. It appears the city leaders just didn’t want the shame on a national scale.
Which is easier for you, description or dialog?
Dialogue is much easier for me. There comes a point where you spend enough time with your characters that you understand their morals, failings, strengths and misery. I don’t mean to sound nutty, but I got to like a lot of them, especially the ones I spent a lot of time with. So then, with the kind of research I did in Ravenscraig, you have a real story that you need them to react to. You create a circumstance, place the people in it and then listen…and type. There was one night I remember where I had had a particularly productive day. I work outside on the patio most of the time when the weather allows. I was working away and was quite overcome by what unfolded. It was dark. The pool light was on, as was a lamp on the patio table. Katiana, my daughter, came out to ask a question and caught me as I wiped the tears from my eyes. “ARE YOU OKAY, MUM?”
I think that when we think that these are not just stories, but that each of us has someone in our own ancestry who suffered, who fled, who persevered so that future generations would have a good life, it becomes something worth learning. Each of us has a history worth knowing. Sacrifice is a big word and it counts for a lot. It enriches your life when you contemplate the suffering that was done on your behalf.
Who do you imagine as your ideal readers?
Wow. To be totally honest, this was a selfish pursuit. I wrote something I had searched out to read and couldn’t find. I thought if my mom read the book I wrote I would be happy. It pleases me to no end that the story has touched others and that it has sparked interest among some readers to learn more about their own histories. Historical fiction is not one of those BIG genres publishers are clamouring to publish.
As an author are you more interested in portraying the history of a period/place or in drawing “life lessons” from historical events and suggesting parallels to present issues?
I think there are life lessons in every circumstance and I wanted to tell a story that was historically correct. I was very concerned about reflecting the attitudes of the day, particularly in the impact on women and the underclass. I like the idea that readers might learn something new that makes them think about the immigrant experience, whether it be a hundred years ago or in 2012.
Even in the most seemingly objective narrations of history, the historian has a point of view, a bias, a cautionary message. As an author working in the genre of historical fiction, how would you characterize your moral slant or philosophical position.
I think it is very humbling to look at all of the difficulties that were borne by our ancestors. I have little interest in anyone who might whine about not having the latest Smart Phone. Freedoms are too easily characterize as entitlements. I look back at that time a century ago, and imagine who or what I might have done or been. My heart goes out to the unfed children, the women who gave birth with their hair frozen to a wall in an unheated shack, and to all of the men that drove themselves to find any way possible to provide for their families. All of those who faced the tremendous challenge of putting down roots in a country where so many people were against them, simple because of your name, your religion, or your ethnic background. I think if I were to have lived in that time I would have thrown all my might behind Nellie McLung and the group of women who saw to it that Manitoba would be the first province in Canada to gain the right of women to vote in 1916. Can you imagine we haven’t had the right to vote for a hundred years yet?
Why did you choose to conclude the book the way you did? Did you consider other options?
The ending came at the very end. I had an earlier version that I was not happy with. I have a deep affection for certain characters and it was very troublesome to learn what happened. I was quite shocked, I must say, when I finally learned.
How does the ending reflect on or influence the themes of your novel.Family, Loyalty, Education, Integrity, Politics, Gender Issues (changing role of women, suffrage, etc.), Responsibility, Community, Work Ethic, Luck, Chance, Identity… personal versus social, ethnic, religious, economic, gender, family connections and expectations.-
Because the ending was the last of the book to be written, I cannot say it influenced the themes. It does influence thoughts of a sequel. I am interested in the Great War and its impact on the city. I am greatly interested in the work and strength of the women particularly through the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, and the suffrage movement. Sam Bronfman became Canada’s best known Jewish leader after he became known for Seagram. He and his family started out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a variety of jobs which ultimately led to the the hotel business. He became the owner of the Bell Hotel in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties and ultimately became Canada’s most famous bootlegger. Lots to research in this area. And then there is the matter of the 1915 scandal of the building of the Legislative Building.
Who are your favorite authors, particularly in the historical fiction genre?
Most of what I read is non-fiction, but I very much admire and enjoy: Chaim Potok, Ken Follett, James Michener, Allan Levine, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Carol Shields, Irwin Shaw, Alice Munro among others I have forgotten to mention.