What’s in a name, a particular person’s name?

November 2012

The central character of Thomas, A Secret Life carries the same name and some of the life details of an actual historical personage, one Thomas Pichon (1700-1781). Contrary to a couple of Atlantic Canada reviews of the book, however, my intention was not exactly to bring that personage to life. Well, maybe it was in the beginning. But it ceased to be as the character came to his own life on page after page. I now see my Thomas Pichon as a quite independent character all on his own. He stands apart from the literal historical figure, and does so more and more as the page count grows. With hindsight, I see this was inevitable because I began my story when Thomas was age twelve. That was long before the historical Thomas Pichon really offered much evidence at all. My guess is that my Thomas has more than a little in common with Annabel Lyons’ Aristotle in her novel, The Golden Mean. Or how about I think back to high school English courses I once took.  I guess I aspire to do with Thomas what I was told Shakespeare did with Hamlet, Macbeath and many other historical figures. He made them his own. I figure if I’m going to aspire with my central character, I might as well aspire big. So, if there are readers out there who have no idea (and what’s more don’t care) who Thomas Pichon really was, don’t give it a thought. My Thomas is for you. If someday you want to check out the other guy, that’s what history books are for. Thomas, A Secret Life is not of that genre; it’s a novel.

What exactly is historical fiction?

October 2012

I’m a little puzzled by what is and is not considered historical fiction. I certainly understand why people consider Thomas, A Secret Life as historical fiction. It’s fiction and it’s set in an imagined 18th-century world. Yet many other novels similarly set in the past do not seem to be so labelled. Are not Leo MacKay Jr.’s Twenty Six and Donna Morrisey’s novels set in Newfoundland out-ports a generation or two ago — or for that matter any story set in London, California or anywhere else in the 1930s or 1960s — not historical fictions as well? Who makes the call and where is the line? Does the historical fiction label mean a novel is set a couple of centuries ago and not in the more recent past?

My opinion is that historical fiction is not a genre at all. It’s just a detail of when and where the story is set. It’s not — or should not be — the defining characteristic of the work. My aim with Thomas is to explore the many shifting moral compasses people have as they go through life. I try to make the historical period come alive as authentically as I can, but ultimately those details are incidental to the story I’m seeking to tell.

History versus Fiction

October 2012

Since I now write both, I’ve had people ask me about the difference between the two. The shortest answer I can think of is: History tells the story from the outside, while Fiction shows it from the inside. One is not better than the other. It depends on what you want.

On writing

October 2012

I used to think everyone wanted to write books. The naïvété of youth, I suppose. To think that everyone thinks along the same lines as you.

For me, writing is the best way I know to organize my thoughts. I don’t even know what I really think about something until I begin to write. The very act of putting down (then re-arranging and altering) words on a page (or more often on a screen) is how I think best. The opaque becomes clear, or at least it sometimes does. That was how it was when I sought to write history — trying to weigh the evidence and give it a narrative thrust — and it’s how it is with fiction, though with novels it’s trying to see and hear characters in different scenes and bring them to life.

Un petit mot aux Francophones

October 2012

Même si mon site est essentiellement en anglais, n’hésitez pas à me contacter en français si vous voulez (en utilisant Reader’s Turn).

By the way

October 2012

On 20 October 2012, the “Voice of the People” section of the Halifax Chronicle Herald published this letter from me.

I am intrigued by the federal government’s intention to re-cast the Canadian Museum of Civilization and give it a focus on Canadian history. That could be welcome news. Canadian history deserves to be better known by Canadians, no argument here. Yet at the same time as the CMC is being touted as a showcase for our collective national history, we are seeing the same federal government drastically limiting the public’s access to its system of national historic sites at the local level. I hope no one seriously thinks they can tell the story of Fort Anne, Grand Pré or Louisbourg better from a museum in Gatineau than at those places themselves. Those particular Parks Canada sites, and many more across the country, are to my way of thinking where such stories are best told. Then again, it’s not just government officials behind this trend to centralize the complex, rich history of this land. The general public, with its declining visitation to national historic sites, set the stage. Revenue generation is the new master, in history as in everything else. So here’s hoping that the emerging trend can be reversed. Along with eating local, maybe people will start visiting the nearby places that shaped this land. History is like democracy; its foundation is at the grassroots.