Deborah Carr has been a freelance writer for over a decade, with articles published in newspapers, magazines and other special publications. Her genre is creative non-fiction, her passion is Atlantic Canada, and her specialties lie in nature, conservation and people profiles. Often, her own photography accompanies her articles. Her freelance website is www.deborahcarr.ca; her writing workshops and blog can be found at www.natureofwords.com.
Sanctuary was released in October 2010 by Goose Lane Editions. It’s a story about Mary Majka, one of Canada’s great pioneering environmentalists. In this amazing story of determination and foresight, Deborah Carr reveals a complex, indomitable, thoroughly human being — flawed yet feisty, inspiring and inspired. Sanctuary is now entering its second printing. The book has been shortlisted for the Atlantic Independent Bookseller’s Award, along with Sheree Fitch’s Pluto’s Ghost and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, this year’s Giller Prize winner.
Clearly you spent hours and weeks interviewing Mary (and others) in order to flesh out her story and build her character. Tell us about the process.
Yes, it was seven years from the time I started. Mary and I set aside Thursday afternoons for the interviews. On some days, it was a cozy talk with a wise old friend. On other days, it was frustrating, as Mary has a dominant character and is used to assuming control of any given situation. As a freelancer on a deadline, I’m used to managing the flow of an interview, so this was a difficult adjustment for me. However, once I dispensed with my own agenda and timetable, then made myself ready to receive and accept whatever the day brought, I received remarkable stories and insights. Sometimes, I came home after four hours with a half page of typed notes. Other days, I came home with 16 or more.
As well, interviews might be interrupted by a phone call, a flock of cave swallows, or visits from some of her many friends. When these interruptions came, I spent that time logging details about the day: what she was wearing, the room, the weather, my thoughts and opinions, etc. At the time, I didn’t realize how valuable this information would become in helping recreate the short vignettes from our interviews at the beginning of each chapter. With her permission, I also took photographs of the house and surroundings, to help call back necessary details that I might otherwise overlook.
People often ask about my methods of note-taking. I’m a very fast typist and this has been a tremendous asset as an interviewer. I was able to transcribe most of my interviews with Mary as she spoke, with a digital recorder for backup. I didn’t have to spend time later transcribing and also, reading them over (and over and over), I was able to pull Mary’s speech patterns into my head, which allowed me to recreate dialogue in her authentic voice.
I love the way your book is structured. Starting each chapter with first person account as you are interviewing her then sliding into her past is seamless. It’s downright brilliant. How (and why) did you decide to structure the book this way?
Much of Mary’s early life in Europe could not be corroborated; she lived her teen years separated from her family and most people from that time in her life are dead now. So, I needed the reader to be clear that these were Mary’s memories. I also wanted to reveal the Mary who I witnessed during our interviews, who ran the gamut from gracious to pugnacious within minutes. How could I bring these differing points of view together seamlessly? The vignettes also allowed me to pull the reader into her story, so they could experience something of what I experienced being there with her, and also to fill in valuable details that couldn’t be shuffled into the main narrative flow.
What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
Maintaining my perspective. I struggled for a long time because I just couldn’t seem to ‘get her’. There just seemed to be parts of her character that didn’t make sense to me. In the end, I realized that it wasn’t my responsibility to figure her out and tie her all up into a nice clean package. I just had to tell her story with all its complexities and contrasts, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Once I stopped trying to be a psychologist and concentrated on being a storyteller, many of the pieces did fall into place for me and I ended up with a remarkably rich story that had much wider universal appeal that I originally imagined.
Mary’s life is a tremendous example of how, by following her heart and using her own unique gifts and acquired skills, she was able to lead a satisfying, purposeful life. And it was particularly meaningful for me, as she was 38 years old when she started her new life on Caledonia Mountain…when she first began following her desires of her heart and crafting a life for herself on her terms, without succumbing to what society expected of her. I was 38 when I resigned from a career with the federal government and started pursing a writing career. There were actually a number of remarkable parallels between Mary’s life and mine and when I consider all the life lessons I have gained from entering Mary’s story and writing the book, I am awed and humbled.
I think the most important lesson was to simply write. Regardless of whether you think your words are good or not, just write. Second, make time to dream. We are raised to believe that dreaming is frivolous, a waste of time, but writers and artists need to make time to dream and not feel guilty doing it. My best lines, most profound thoughts and my most ambitious ideas come to me when I’m in the bathtub, eyes closed, toes relaxed, mind drifting. Or on a stroll through the woods. And my greatest breakthrough in how to structure the book came on a ferry ride across the Bay of Fundy (on my way to visit Sandra Phinney!), when I had nothing else to do, but let my mind drift over the story.
Deborah, Sanctuary is one amazing read. I’m sure readers will have questions and comments for you so I’m going to step aside and encourage them to have their turn! It’s simple folks. Simply click on comment and let your fingers fly.