Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

How I Discovered Prince Edward County Literature

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How I Discovered Prince Edward County Literature

When I was growing up in Prince Edward County, the literary landscape consisted almost entirely of works of non-fiction. There was The Regiment by Farley Mowat, about The Hasty P’s (The Hastings Prince Edward Regiment) and their exploits in World War II — and then there were books written by local residents who preserved the record of our rather unique past in the form of memoirs, family histories, commemorative community publications and collections of stories culled from newspaper accounts.

Fiction was a different matter. The only novel I knew of that was set in The County was Carrying Place by Angus Mowat (Farley’s dad) and it turned out not to be Carrying Place he was writing about, but Waupoos Island. I guess Angus liked the name Carrying Place better so that’s what he used. It was my first brush with creative license.

Later on, Janet Lunn set her Young Adult classics The Root Cellar and Shadow at Hawthorn Bay in The County, and we were all really proud that a nationally-recognized author lived here. Still later, we heard rumours that poet Al Purdy was living in the north end of The County, but we didn’t hear much about him, other than the time he was invited to address local high school students and decided to lie down on the teacher’s desk while he talked. And that was about it.

I didn’t start off with the intention of writing Prince Edward County fiction. I started where almost everybody else started — with the history of the place. When you grow up here, history sort of slaps you in the face. It’s hard to ignore.

I also didn’t start with the written word. I started on stage, as a storyteller. I took a bunch of wonderful Prince Edward County stories, fashioned them into performance pieces, shanghaied my musical buddies to provide live-version soundtracks for them, and had a wonderful time acquainting and reacquainting County folks with the stories that were, essentially, about them.

But sometimes that didn’t work. There were some stories that just didn’t want to fit onto a stage. They were too complicated. Or they were too simple. Sometimes they were both.

One of these was the story of The Palace of the Moon, a 1930s and 1940s dancehall at what is now Sandbanks Provincial Park. A lot of local folks would get dreamy-eyed whenever they talked about The Palace of the Moon. Others would sniff and claim that it “wasn’t the sort of place I would ever go.” Either way it was notorious, with a fabulous dance floor, live music and one-armed bandits, but no liquor license. The drinking was done on the dunes outside.

After a couple of abortive attempts to capture the flavour of these memories on stage, I sat down to write a backstory, in the hope that I could somehow get a handle on how to approach the material. A hundred pages later, I realized that I had a novel on my hands. Okay, so a story has to be what it wants to be, so I forged ahead.

When it came out, people seemed to really like it. But in spite of the fact that it had the words “A Novel” on the front cover, and maybe because up until then I had always dealt with material that wasn’t necessarily “true” but was at least rooted in some sort of historical fact, everybody assumed that the book was a thinly-disguised version of something that had really happened. And because everybody knows me (I’m either related to them or they’ve seen me on a stage somewhere), no one hesitated to share theories about who or what I was “really” writing about.

There I’d be in the grocery store or at the post office, and people would come up to me.

“I loved your book,” they’d say. “But tell me, the house you wrote about — that’s your mother’s house, right?” Or, “That’s the old Jones/Smith/Kadiddlehopper house that they tore down a few years ago, right?” (It’s a peculiar aspect of living in The County that locations are frequently described as being where something else used to be.)

People would declare with certainty that the heroine was somebody in particular, that the store was the old one on the corner, or that the fishing boat was the one their uncle used to have.

But the topic that was the subject of the most speculation was the identity of the hero, Len Collins, a handsome ne’er-do-well teenager who grew up to be a shady businessman.

“That’s really so-and-so,” they’d say. But every time someone floated out a conjecture, it would be a different name that was offered.

“No, it isn’t,” I’d say. “It’s not anybody. I made him up. It’s called fiction.”

“Sometime, we’ll hafta sit down for a coffee and then we’ll talk,” they’d say with a knowing look.

For months, apparently, dinner party conversation in The County revolved around who Len Collins “really” was.

Eventually, I realized that far from being an aspersion on the scope of my imagination, the interest in Len’s identity was really the community hooking in to what I had written, in the same way that they’d always connected with the “real” stories that have been told. It’s all a reflection of who they are and where they’ve been and they like to be reminded of the things that shaped this community over the years.

Now that The County is no longer “Ontario’s Best-Kept Secret,” there has been an explosion of County-based adult fiction. We’ve been “discovered.” And that’s okay, because many of the writers who have found their way to The County, whether as visitors or as permanent residents, use the spectacular scenery of The County as a backdrop for their stories, or the people of The County as characters in their books. They capture the flavour of the community and draw from its sense of place. In many respects, they’re saving our history in a new and different form.

And it really doesn’t matter if it’s “true” or not.



Janet Kellough is a storyteller and author whose family has been a fixture in Prince Edward County for well over 200 years. She is the author of The Thaddeus Lewis Mysteries On the Head of a Pin, Sowing Poison and the soon-to-be-released 47 Sorrows (Dundurn Press), as well as the novels The Palace of the Moon and The Pear Shaped Woman. She has also published the semi-non-fictional collection of stories The Legendary Guide to Prince Edward County. She lives in The County’s North Marysburgh township, near where the dump used to be.

For more information about 47 Sorrows and the other Thaddeus Lewis Mysteries, please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy these books at your local independent bookstore or online from the publisher or at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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