Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Ann Birch

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Ten Questions, with Ann Birch

Ann Birch talks to Open Book about the allure of history, her ideal writing environment and her first novel, Settlement, released this fall with RendezVous press.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Settlement.

Ann Birch:

It's a story of romance and adventure set in Upper Canada in 1836-37. Though it's fiction, it often draws on real figures and events. There's the love affair between an erudite English writer named Anna Jameson and a Canadian rebel named Sam Jarvis. There's the comfortable brick-house smugness of the Toronto upper classes set against the struggles of the First Nations in their wigwams. There's the contrast of Toronto locked in snow and ice, and Lake Huron, wild and expansive in summer sunshine.

OB:

What was your first publication?

AB:

I've been writing all my life. I started with plays for my Girl Guide troupe. I wrote stories, poems and essays for school publications. I even entered a national short story contest when I was ten. But my first publication, in the sense of writing for well-known periodicals, was probably a review for Books in Canada or a travel piece for The Globe and Mail.

OB:

Tell us about your research process.

AB:

I've had ten years' experience working in two of Toronto's finest old homes: the Grange, built in 1818, and Campbell House, built in 1822. These places have given me first-hand insight into the lifestyle of Toronto's upper classes. I also delved into archival letters and newspapers from the 1830s. Then, of course, there was Anna Jameson's wonderful memoir of her brief time in Upper Canada. It's called Winter Studies and Summer Rambles and it's still in print after all these years. In it she tells us that "dear Mr. Jarvis" brought some hot Madeira to her tent on their canoe voyage down Lake Huron. Oh boy, what a novelist can do with hints like that! Sam Jarvis's life and times are well documented in books like Austin Seton Thompson's Jarvis Street and Chris Raible's Muddy York Mud: Scandal & Scurrility in Upper Canada. And in the Canoe Museum in Peterborough I came across Grace Lee Nute's The Voyageur. That was a find! It gives a vivid account of the day-to-day life of voyageurs in their birch bark canoes. It even has the words and music for the songs they sang. I played these songs on the piano and my small granddaughters sang along.

OB:

What inspired you to write this story?

AB:

My husband was always telling me about Anna Jameson. Then one day I was dusting the books in my bookcases—a rare event, I assure you—and a copy of the Coles facsimile edition of Anna's memoir fell, just missing my toe. I opened it up to the narrative of her canoe trip down Lake Huron with twenty-one men, and I was immediately interested. And when I read her reference to "dear Mr. Jarvis"—well, I took it from there!

OB:

When did you first become interested in history?

AB:

As a child in a small Ontario town, it was the historical fiction in the local library that turned me on to history. No one could tear me away from books like The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Three Musketeers, and A Tale of Two Cities. These books introduced me to exotic worlds, to far-off times filled with glory and courage, bloodshed and horror. People sometimes dismiss historical fiction, but what is history really but someone's narrative of an important event? The facts are there, and when someone tells the story behind them, these events take on new life. For someone like me shut within the narrow boundaries of a quiet countryside, it was historical fiction that offered a look at the wonder of a larger world.

OB:

What Canadian historical figure most inspires you? Why?

AB:

I'm intrigued by Sam Jarvis. He's a man of contrasts. History books write him off as a scoundrel. He murdered John Ridout in a duel. He and a gang of thugs tore apart William Lyon Mackenzie's print shop. As Superintendent of Indian Affairs, he pocketed government money intended for the First Nations. Yet my research reveals admirable things about him. He fought bravely in the War of 1812; he undertook the repayment of his father's immense debts; he was a loving and generous father who saw the need to educate his daughters at a time when female education was considered a waste of time. It's his complexity that's intriguing.

But if we're talking inspiration, I'd have to say it's Northrop Frye I'm indebted to. His writing on archetypes has made me incapable of seeing any major event as just an event. In her memoir, Anna Jameson writes about a Toronto fire in midwinter, and I've made that event a separate chapter in my novel. As Anna lines up with the bucket brigade, or warms a freezing baby in her fur muff, or serves soup to a crowd of dispossessed poor, she throws off the strictures of Toronto's upper classes and like the phoenix rises from the ashes as a new woman. It's Northrop Frye's insights on archetypes that make me understand what really happened here with Anna.

OB:

This is your first novel. Did you spend a lot of time revising?

AB:

My first draft was long long long. I rewrote it completely, threw out 60,000 words and made a better, tighter story. The process took five years.

OB:

Describe your ideal working environment.

AB:

It's the room I work in now. There's a bed behind my desk chair on which I spread out all my research notes, outlines, drafts and my OED. In front of my desk is a window from which I look out on big trees and pleasant old houses. A cup of coffee on one side of my computer and a glass of limoncello on the other complete this perfect work space.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

AB:

Lose any ego you may have. Even if your work is excellent, it'll probably be a long time before it finds its place in a bookstore. Don't take rejection personally. Remember, too, that writing is a craft like carpentry. Take writing courses and listen to what your experienced mentors tell you. Since you won't make much money from writing, find another job that pays the rent. But if you're really a writer, you'll soon discover that you're not happy unless you're writing something, however long it takes to get published and however little you're paid for your hard work.

OB:

Do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

AB:

I'm working on a novel. It's about a highly respected university professor who leads a double life.


A member of several historical societies, Ann Birch has worked for a decade in Toronto’s finest old houses as an interpreter. These places have given her a wide knowledge of 19th century domestic, social and political life. She can tell you why table knives had rounded edges, why candles had to be stored in metal safes at night and why even the best people seldom bathed. She particularly enjoys researching the journals and letters of early immigrants to Upper Canada. She gives frequent lectures on historical people.

Ann is an award-winning educator. She was Head of English at several Toronto high schools and an associate professor in the teacher-training programs at York University and the University of Toronto. She holds a post-graduate degree in Canadian literature and writes essays and reviews for magazines and newspapers. She also teaches writing and does freelance editing. Settlement is her debut novel.



For more information about Settlement please visit the RendezVous Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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