Interview by Karen Palmer
Ann Towell was a co-finalist for the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Award for work on the Mennonites, a segment that appeared in the 1994 summer edition of Descant magazine. Her first children’s novel, The Hollow Locust Trees was published by Black Moss Press in 1998. Her second novel, Grease Town was published by Tundra in 2010. She lives near Shetland, Ontario, on a 75-acre farm.
Your last book, Grease Town, was about a race riot that occurred in an oil boomtown in rural southwestern Ontario, told from the perspective of Titus, a young white child. How did you find this story?
There’s a Lambton Reading Room up in Wyoming, Ontario, and I was just going through some old archives and microfilm—just seeing if there was anything that would jump out at me. I came across this newspaper article from 1863 on the race riot and I knew right away, as soon as I saw it, I wanted to write about it. I was only there a couple mornings when I discovered it.
What made you think it would make a good children’s novel?
It was an issue that needed to be addressed. I live in the middle of where The Underground Railroad occurred and we have this misconception that we are an amazing nation, but it wasn’t so great for the blacks. I remember reading George Elliott Clark’s “George and Rue”, about two men who ended up murdering a cabbie. I remember reading it and thinking, this is like the Deep South except it’s bloody cold. They’re living in these tarpaper shacks and it’s cold—it’s New Brunswick.
I’m proud that I wrote it, but I would write it differently now. And I don’t think that’s unusual unless it’s a gem of a book. I could have taken a few more risks with my book, which I didn’t. I think it was sort of the whole concept of political correctness. I was afraid to represent the young black boy. And now I think I could do it. I’ve even debated doing Grease Town Revisited. I don’t know if I’ll do that, but I think I would have more courage now. I was afraid that I might meet the attitude of, what does a privileged white woman know about the life of a young black boy in the 1800s?
When you’re an adult, you look back and you think, why weren’t we told these things? I think of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. It came out in 1975 when I was in high school and it had all these atrocities in it that I’d never heard of. My idea of how the West was won was the Hollywood John Wayne version. We’re always taught history from the white perspective, the powerful perspective.
What draws you to historical fiction?
I grew up reading all the old English classics, and the old Russian classics. That’s the stuff I liked. So in a way, I’m trying to recreate the feeling I got reading those books. But that’s as far as the comparison goes… I would never liken my work to Dostoyevsky’s.
When I got older and I’d read historical things, I’d think, why weren’t we told this? It’s not because of the violence, gore and stuff. There are enough movies out there that kids are watching at a very young age, that are intense and violent and gory. And video games— though some parents protect their children from that. But it’s not that. That isn’t what’s stopping people from wanting to know what the history of an area is.
How do you get at that story? How do you find that missing voice when you’re doing your research?
I imagined what it would be like because there was so little information out there on the race riot. With the famine ship I had more reference material to work with. I guess being human means being able to try imagining what it is like in someone else’s life. Reading fiction helps a person do that. I’ve read so much fiction about so many things I feel I understand humanity much better than if I had never read at all.
Your books are a little different than the vampire or dystopian stories that make up much of what’s currently on Young Adult (YA) bookshelves.
I think there’s something to be said for the period of time that we’re in, or the period of time that we’re raised in. When I look at YA right now, it’s way more edgy than anything I would have seen 10 or 15 years ago. And I’m not sure I could write edgy stuff like that. I’m not sure I have even enough interest to write about it. I prefer historical work. I like being lost in a different period of time when I read.
Tell us about your latest work.
A couple years ago, Larry (Ann’s husband, photographer Larry Towell) and I were in Dublin and we stumbled on this ship called the Jeanie Johnston. It was the only famine ship that never lost a life in all their trips. That was amazing because all the ships were called “coffin ships.” It was built in Montreal, Canada, by John Munn, and I just thought, well, maybe that’s a story I could write from a kid’s perspective; coming over on a famine ship, enduring the potato famine and all the heartbreak that entailed. I remembered there was a Robert Whyte, who was a Scottish man aboard one of these ships, and his diary was online. I didn’t really utilize that for my book, I just looked at it, but it gave me a sense of what it was like on the ship. There was a book called “All Standing”, by Kathryn Miles that was about the Jeanie Johnston and very informative. Another book called “Black Potatoes”, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti was also very helpful.
Once you read what the atmosphere was like, you start imagining what it might have been like for the different people involved.
Why focus on telling these stories to children?
Probably because as a child I read a lot. I was a happy child and I guess maybe I’m trying to recapture that. And also, raising four children and reading the books that they were reading. I think after raising kids you’re used to 20-minute attention spans because you’re always interrupted with children and sometimes that’s all (the writing) I can do and then I have to get up and do something else. That’s been a pattern in my life for over 30 years! That’s a long time.
It’s not easy, is it?
No, it’s not, but I’m lucky I don’t have to make a living at it. Thanks to my husband, Larry, I am able to work part-time with him. Then I have time to write in my free time.
Everybody thinks the arts is a dream job, but they don’t understand the work that goes into it. And the self-doubt. I find that happens more in the art. When you talk to other writers or artists you hear about them facing of a lot of rejection, far more than acceptance. And so you’ve got to just develop a really thick skin.
I remember watching an interview with Timothy Findley years ago and they asked him about his day of writing and he said, I try to avoid it for as long as I can. I putter around in the garden. He was very honest about that. You think, oh writing, that would be great, stream of consciousness and all that, but it’s work. It’s really hard work.
Writing is all about self-discipline and when a person is young, if you develop those self-discipline habits as a writer, then you’ve got it conquered and it becomes part of your life. I’m still trying to figure that one out!
Karen Palmer is the author of Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps (2013) and has written for the Toronto Star, Sydney Morning Herald, South China Morning Post and Washington Times.