I know that I am due for an update and I promise to provide you all with some of the details of the various trips I’ve been on recently soon (including some very poorly shot video by yours truly) but today’s post is devoted to one of my favourite YA historical fiction novels I’ve read this year, Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat. This was one of the books I was most excited about for 2014 because I had loved her other novel, Wild Geese, which I had reviewed for the CCBC a number of years ago.
Unspeakable was an immense pleasure to read. I brought it with me on my trip to Prince Albert and read practically the whole thing on the flight over. Those first few days, driving north on a Saskatchewan highway pondering Maud’s travels, I found myself thinking about Ellie’s–a stewardess– harrowing experience aboard the Empress of Ireland, Canada’s worst maritime disaster. This past May 29th marked the 100th anniversary when, on a very foggy night, the Empress collided with the SS Storstad on the St. Lawrence River and sank in less than 15 minutes. It is estimated that 1,032 passengers and crew died.
Floating between Ellie’s past and present, Pignat sensitively explores grief and survivor guilt, as Ellie tries to cope with the loss of her friends and her boyfriend, Jim. When a journalist from The New York Times, Wyatt Steele, offers her pieces of Jim’s journal in exchange for her story, she complies. Immersing us in Edwardian gender codes and the struggles of class, with a love story you hope has a happy ending, Pignat places this story right on the brink of the First World War as Ellie becomes a symbol of a society in transition.
I am thrilled that Caroline Pignat agreed to do a Q&A on this blog. Selfishly I hoped to soak up some of her historical fiction writing wisdom and share it with you. A bit about her:
She is the Governor General’s Award winning author of the highly acclaimed novels Greener Grass, Wild Geese, Timber Wolf and Egghead. Winner of the Red Maple Honour Award and short-listed for the CLA Book of the Year, Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction, and the IODE Violet Downey Book Award, among others, Pignat’s historical fiction is a HistoryCanada.ca recommended resource enjoyed by readers of all ages. Pignat lives, writes, and teaches high school in Kanata, Ontario.
Mel: Name three things that gave you inspiration while writing this novel?
1. The heart wrenching facts.
2. This illustration (I kept it on my wall as I wrote and it’s on my website.
- The passing of my Granny.
Mel: You’ve noted some of the research you did for this novel in your Author’s note, archives, secondary sources, talking to experts, etc. How did you approach compiling this research to create your story? Did you know what it was before you went in, or did you allow it to unfold as your research did?
Caroline: I use binders to keep my research organized. But for my last three novels were written on the Scrivener program. It really helped me stay organized and made retrieval of research so much easier. Check it out: www.literatureandlatte.com
The research shaped the story as it usually does when I write historical fiction. The more I learn about the event, the time period, or the people living through it, the more the plot develops.
Mel: What were some of the pieces of research that didn’t end up in the novel and why?
Caroline: I tried not to sensationalize the violence of the sinking. I’d read reports of vicious attacks as people tried to escape, of women getting their hair pulled right out of their heads in the scramble in the water. Descriptions of child corpses recovered were especially upsetting to me as I researched. It must have been a horrific scene.
I tried to show a few key images that captured that drama without overwhelming the reader or desensitizing them to it. For example when Wyatt describes the rows of coffins, I focus on one powerful image:
“corpses still clutching their babies even in death.” He closed his eyes. “I saw what no one should ever see.”
Another fascinating fact about the Empress of Ireland is the “Crippen Curse.” Apparently, on a previous voyage aboard the Montrose, Captain Kendall recognized Dr. Crippen, a wanted murderer, among the passengers. Disguised as Mr Robinson and son, Dr. Crippen and his mistress were fleeing London after the murder of his wife, whose dismembered body was discovered in the cellar. Captain Kendall sent a message to Scotland Yard and Dr. Crippin and his accomplice were arrested when the Montrose docked. Crippen reportedly threatened and cursed Captain Kendall as they dragged him away. It would make a fascinating CSI episode — but it didn’t belong in this story.
Mel: One of the big questions historical fiction writers have to deal with is how to provide an authentic story of the past without being overly didactic or heavy handed in explaining the values of the day. Ellie has to contend with the strict morals and class system of Edwardian Society, particularly its attitudes towards gender. How did you find your way in telling this story authentically while also keeping in mind the modern teen reader?
Caroline: I tried to focus on the feelings — they are timeless and universal. Ellie feels judged and burdened by terrible guilt. Readers today may not relate to her circumstances, but they would certainly empathize with the injustice of her experiences.
Mel: What was the biggest question you encountered while writing this novel and how did you resolve it?
Caroline: My biggest question was: how the hell does it end??
I didn’t know if Jim would survive. His story and voice came through a journal — (although I didn’t know that until I held an actual journal recovered from the wreckage while researching at the museum) but did he actually need to be alive, too? And if Jim did survive — how could I have a happy ending that did not involve Ellie losing her newfound independence? It had to have a romance element in the novel, but I did not want her “rescued” by any man, be it Wyatt or Jim.
It was resolved in the writing — as I let Ellie’s personality take over the story. In the end, I felt like each character matured because of their journey and got what they most needed.
Mel: I often talk about on this blog about the process of writing something that comes from an emotional space and how difficult it can be to get there. You wrote a beautiful phrase in your author’s note about what writing about Ellie taught you about yourself. I wonder if you might give us a sense of how you went about exploring that with your character.
Caroline: I like to be in control, especially with my writing. I like to know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. I didn’t have that with this novel — and it was unnerving. How could I possibly take a 14 minute sinking and turn it into 65,000 words? Write romance? Me? Does Jim survive? Will she fall in love with Wyatt? I don’t even know how it’s going to end!
But I trusted that Ellie had some inner strength that would reveal itself as the story progressed and, terrifying as it was, I let her take the lead.
I had done a year of research to get the facts straight, but much of the heart of this novel came from my own loss and struggles. The month I started to write it, my grandmother passed away and I also suffered a huge personal loss. Those combined feelings of anger, grief, and helplessness left me feeling like a victim. Some days I worried I would never write again. Sometimes I felt like that empty house at Strandview, or like a disoriented survivor, or even that recluse writer locked in her turret. Most of the time, I wondered why no one ever wanted to talk about what hurts. Why can’t we speak about the unspeakable — especially when that is what heals us? All of those experiences that year gave me deep and, at times overwhelming emotions to draw upon and I put it all in Ellie — hoping, for both our sakes, that she had some insight to see us through.
I teach the Hero’s Journey to my grade 12 Writer’s Craft class and I realized during that year that Ellie and I were on a Hero’s Journey of our own. Finding mentors. Facing dragons and discovering inner strengths. We are all on that journey, really, though our dragons are different. Perhaps that was why at Ellie’s turning point, she realizes: I can be the victim of someone else’s story, but I choose to be the hero of my own.
Either way, she said exactly what we both needed to hear — and even now, as I think about that whole discerning and dawning process, it amazes me.
Dare to dive into what scares you, even if you can’t see a way out, just yet. Take risks, be raw, be real in your writing. Your readers will thank you. And even if they don’t… your soul will.
Seriously, she is totally speaking my language. Maybe this will mean that one day we can have tea and talk history. *Crosses fingers.* Thanks to Caroline for being awesome and agreeing to this Q&A. I hope that it will inspire you go to your local library or bookstore and read it.