Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Gisela Sherman

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Gisela Sherman

When millions of Canadian and American men shipped out to the Second World War, their wives, sisters and daughters stepped up to take on jobs that had previously been unthinkable occupations for women. It's in this tense time, full of unprecedented change, that Gisela Sherman sets the events of The Farmerettes (Second Story Press), based on the real women who took over the work of domestic farming during WWII.

In the summer of 1943, a group of girls with little in common other than their anxiety for family members fighting abroad take on running a farm with virtually no experience of the tough labour involved. Each young woman, from wealthy Binxie to the mysterious X, brings something different and valuable to the operation. Secrets and heartbreak shape the summer amidst the tough farm work, and like the world itself, none of the girls emerge unchanged.

Today we speak to Gisela about The Farmerettes, as part of our Lucky Seven series, which allows writers to speak in depth about their latest books.

Gisela tells us about the real life farmerette who inspired her research, the importance of X in the story and how she grew from a few paragraphs to a main character, and the importance of giving yourself permission to write badly sometimes.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Gisela Sherman:

Like most people, I’d never heard of farmerettes until some writer friends came to my house for lunch. One of them (Sonja Dunn) mentioned how she had been a farmerette in my area. She explained that farmerettes were teenage girls who worked on farms during WWII to replace the men fighting overseas, and told us some of her adventures. Each time she said farmerette, it was with such joy and enthusiasm, I knew I had to write about them. The topic appealed to three of my interests — WWII, farming and the story of ordinary people caught up in big events. So I ended up researching and writing a story about six girls who work on a farm in Winona over the summer of 1943.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

GS:

I started just wanting to write a story about farmerettes. First I checked reasons why teenage girls would want to sign up for the Land Service Forces. Then I heard a poignant story about a friend’s grandmother during the war. That story and the list of reasons to enlist, gave me the girls in my story. Their motives propelled them through the summer and the book.

I soon realized that these mostly middle-class, sheltered girls who had expected to spend their lives getting married and raising a family at home, were changing their views and their hopes, as were many women around them. The war first made women realize what else they were capable of, and that idea would continue to grow over the next few decades.

I included X in the story because I’ve been bothered by how terribly lonely a gay person must have felt in those days, when people just did not talk about anything personal, especially that. I didn’t name her because I wanted readers to realize she could have been anyone. She was only supposed to have a paragraph here and there, but her role grew bigger than I had intended.

And of course I ended up showing how war affects not only those involved in the fighting, but those at home, and the generations after them.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

GS:

The story grew longer than I expected. Six characters and their events all needed to come to a satisfying conclusion. I spent about two years on research and procrastination, I studied the war, farming, the music, fashions, movies, mindsets, aviation and many details. Then I wrote for almost two more years — writing more eagerly and steadily as I got caught up in my girls and their stories.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

GS:

I like an organized room and desk. Sometimes tidying it puts me in the right frame of mind, sometimes it’s a delaying tactic. Generally I need quiet, and yet I have written on scraps of paper on set as I’m working on background acting, on planes, poolsides, or in busy waiting rooms.

The first draft is always in longhand. That makes it easier to cross out words, maybe write two or three alternatives above it, to doodle maps or ideas in margins, to circle paragraphs to be moved, etc. The mechanics of a computer would distract me at that stage. There seems to be a connection from my brain, through my left arm, through my round blue pen, onto the page. Typing the manuscript onto the computer is a great way to edit and cut. After that some parts of the book are retyped many many times, and a few seem to be right very quickly.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

GS:

When the going gets tough, I may take a break, do more research, or remind myself what made me passionate about this story in the first place. I give myself permission to write badly, sometimes even in point form. If I at least have something on the page, I know I can build on it, improve it, the next day. I spent a writing holiday week writing and rewriting the same scene with different characters, about the house where the letters were found. I knew that was pivotal to the rest of the story, but couldn’t get it right. The last night of the holiday I figured it out. I wrote the scene in a frenzy on the flight home. Sometimes you have to write several bad versions to make the right one evolve.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

GS:

A great book makes me want to keep reading it every minute, then slow down as I near the end because I don’t want it to end. I often follow up such a book by checking out the characters or events on the web or in other books, just so I don’t have to let go. A great book has interesting, sympathetic characters overcoming great odds, is beautifully written, broadens my perspective, and makes me laugh and cry. That would be almost any of Anne Tyler’s earlier books, Isabel Allende or Barbara Kingsolver’s novels. I loved Wuthering Heights, Dr, Zhivago, Of Human Bondage, Prodigal Summer, The Cider House Rules, Pillars of the Earth, Fall On Your Knees, and more.

OB:

What are you working on now?

GS:

I’m finishing a comedy about a boy whose next door neighbour is a witch who needs his help after she puts all her spells and incantations onto her computer and someone hacks them. I’ve begun the research for a sequel to The Farmerettes, about Binxie and her journey as she becomes a doctor.

Gisela Sherman has won the Hamilton and Region Arts Council Best Children’s Book of the Year Award, and been shortlisted for a Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice. She has taught writing courses at Mohawk College and McMaster University, and enjoys giving book talks and writing workshops. She’s a current member and past-president of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers,) and ACTRA. Her fascination with story and character has also led her to acting in small roles and background in television and movies. She lives in Dundas, Ontario.

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