Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Mary Rose Donnelly

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Mary Rose Donnelly

Mary Rose Donnelly talks to Open Book about how geography influences her writing, how living abroad made her a better observer and how she approached the challenge of writing and publishing her first novel, Great Village, just released with Cormorant Books.

Great Village launches on Tuesday, June 21 at 6 p.m. at Toronto's Ben McNally Books. Visit our Events page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Great Village.

Mary Rose Donnelly:

A friend had been researching the families that settled Colchester County in Nova Scotia following the Acadian expulsion. In the mid-1800s, the story emerged about this young man who came in from the fields and went to bed for the remainder of his life. I was struck by this case of untreated depression, where a young man gives up on life, and this became the kernel of the story.

Though Great Village could be the story of any rural community in a pre-psychology era, I chose to set it in the actual Great Village, Nova Scotia, in order to intersect the drama of the fictional O’Reilly family with the life of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who spent some of her early childhood in the village with her maternal grandparents as her mother had been permanently committed to Mount Hope in Dartmouth, then called an insane asylum.

Ultimately, the book is about art, about seeing, the healing quality of literature and its endurance.

OB:

Great Village is your first novel. How did you face the challenge of getting started?

MRD:

I chewed on the kernel of the story for a year or two, beginning by writing the book from Thomas’s perspective, the young man who took to his bed, but I’ve found myself reading books over the years that take you so far into a character’s neurosis that they begin to feel oppressive. I had to find a way to allow some humour to open up the story.

Eventually I realized the more compelling tack might be to explore how the family coped with his absence, and so I then migrated to the perspective of a younger sister, Flossy O’Reilly, who needed to cultivate some compassion for her brother and come to terms with what his illness might mean for the rest of the family and the community.

OB:

…And what strategies did you use to see the novel through to the end?

MRD:

There isn’t a lot of mystery to my strategy to see a novel through to the end: write, rewrite, read, re-read, rewrite. I needed to understand and appreciate the geography of Colchester County and the amazing Fundy tides so I took tons of photos each time I travelled there, and these were always posted around my writing corner. I asked friends in Nova Scotia and here to read various drafts, and their comments were always helpful. Beyond that, I’d say: peace, quiet and a few kind words got me through.

OB:

Flossy O’Reilly, your main character, is a retired schoolteacher who feels courted by death. Tell us about developing the character of Flossy. How did she change as you worked on the novel?

MRD:

When I initially began writing about Flossy, she was considerably more eccentric and clumsy. She just had her collection of books to keep her company, like some people collect stamps or cats. At that point the book was written from the perspective of three or four of its characters. My editor, Marc Côté, suggested I rewrite from Flossy’s perspective alone. It was the right thing to do because it moved my writer’s eye more completely into her field of vision and made for a more rounded character, as well as enlarging the canvas with a foil or two in Mealie and Jimmy.

OB:

Are you a part of a writing group or other editorial group?

MRD:

No, I belong to no writing or editorial groups. I prefer my own cave and fire.

OB:

You have lived in France and Peru. How did your experience living abroad influence you as a writer?

MRD:

The experience of living abroad, I think, served two important areas of development for me. Because both experiences meant a struggle with a language (and it’s a long time before you have enough capacity to articulate feeling), you are forced to live and cultivate your interior world, your imagination. As well, you learn to listen hard and observe because that’s all you have for the first six months.

The second thing was a greater appreciation of geography. My time in France was brief but I adored the French village I lived in, ambled all the roads and the region in perfect safety. Every season held immense charm for me. In Peru, by contrast, I felt no affection whatsoever toward the landscape. It was desert. We lived under martial law and curfew in a difficult time and it was unsafe to be anywhere alone. I knew I could never live there for a long time because I have a strong need to be connected to the landscape and to nature. It gives me much pleasure. My best writing seems to also require a strong connection to the geography of the setting. Great Village is set on the edge of Cobequid Bay. It is a compelling landscape of tides and disappearing lakes and natural beauty.

OB:

If you had to choose three books to offer as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

MRD:

Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell; Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MRD:

A serious library. Not noisy but not too quiet either. Enough isolation to protect the mulling process: I need to be sufficiently immersed in the book to be thinking about it even when I’m not sitting in front of my laptop.

OB:

What books are on your bedside table?

MRD:

Rilke’s Selected Poems. Ten Selected Poems by E.J. Pratt; Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MRD:

I’m close to a first draft of Dead Dog Quiet. It’s a novel set in a monastery of cloistered nuns who have become too old to care for themselves. They hire Kathleen Burke, a sad, unemployed and burnt-out chef, to come and cook for them. Displaced from a frantic high-end restaurant kitchen, Kathleen finds herself in the complete silence of the nuns’ world. And if we know anything, where there’s silence, there are secrets.


Mary Rose Donnelly is a journalist, editor and gardener. Like Flossy O’Reilly, she counts Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Shakespeare among her favourite authors. She has lived in France and Peru, but calls Canada home. In 1992 she published Katharine: A Biography of Dr. Katharine Boehner Hockin. Great Village is her first novel.

For more information about Great Village please visit the Cormorant Books website.

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

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