Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Share |

September 29, 2011 - Dorothy Ellen Palmer is Open Book's October 2011 writer in residence.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, When Fenelon Falls.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer:

When Fenelon Falls is the very Canadian story of a hurricane, a bastard and a bear. In the summer of 1969, the summer of Chappaquiddick, the moon landing, Helter Skelter and Woodstock, 14-year-old disabled bastard and genius Jordan May March is trapped at her family cottage just outside Fenelon Falls. She spends that summer memorizing CHUM Charts, plotting to free Yogi, a black bear tourist attraction caged at the top of March Road, and seeking revenge on her bulling cousin Derwood. In secret in her diary, using the scant details of her adoption from her Non-Identifying Information from Toronto Children’s Aid, she has written her own creation stories: “100 Hazels,” all interwoven versions of her illicit conception on the night in 1954 when Hurricane Hazel tore Toronto to shreds. A “Hazel” forms every third chapter in the novel, as Jordan fantasizes about her conception at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, or the CNE Horse Palace, and imagines such parents as an unstable farm girl, JFK, Louisa May Alcott, Perry Mason and the Queen of England. When bear-baiting cousin Derwood finds her diary, he shifts his tortures from Yogi to Jordan. As caged as Yogi, Jordan is drawn to desperate measures.


When Fenelon Falls is set in the summer of 1969. Can you tell us about the research you did so you were able to represent that period accurately?


As someone with a BA in history I should never admit this: I did very little primary research. I expected to do more but discovered to my amazement that whenever I looked at a CHUM chart from the summer of '69, when Jordan and I were both fourteen, whenever I started singing the songs in my head, it was as if I’d jumped into the WAYBAC machine with Sherman and Dr. Peabody. I was instantly returned to all the news, sights, sounds, colours, fashions, celebrities, controversies, triumphs and tragedies of the day. I did research the Fenelon brothers, one being the Fenelon Falls namesake, a French explorer who in 1769 canoed through the Kawarthas, and his younger brother who was a religious revisionist centuries ahead of his time, arguing for the right to a personal god. Their split between lives of the mind or the body, or between brains and brawn, is duplicated many times in my novel in Bullwinkle and Rocky, Sherman and Peabody, Watson and Holmes and the un-named narrator brother and Jordan.

For the secondary plotline, the “Hazels” set in the havoc of Hurricane Hazel in October 1954, I did quite a bit of “lazy research.” I browsed. I thumbed through old magazines, especially women’s magazines, looked at '50’s photos of fashions, cars, and nostalgic photos of the CNE. I went and sat on my rock in Marie Curtis Park in Alderwood, the spot where Hazel destroyed a trailer park and imagined living through such devastation. Two books I read carefully were Betty Kennedy’s 1979 journalistic Hurricane Hazel and Jim Gifford’s anecdotal Hurricane Hazel: Storm of the Century. The boat on the cover of his book inspired the boat in WFF that gets rowed down Lake Shore Blvd. to rescue two of Jordan’s imagined parents, Hazel and Angus.


You and the protagonist of When Fenelon Falls share a couple of autobiographical details. You were both conceived during Hurricane Hazel, and you were both adopted. How much of your own life experience did you draw on for the book?


The skeleton of the novel is overtly autobiographical. There is a real life extended family cottage compound on Balsam Lake. There was a real bear in a real cage. The details of Jordan’s adoption and disability are mine. The town of Fenelon and the Toronto suburb of Alderwood are as I lived them. The Hazel stories are a kind of “found fiction,” based on the only birth document I own — my own Non-Identifying Information (NII) as released by Toronto Children’s Aid. To flesh out that NII skeleton, to imagine a birth mother for both myself and Jordan, I needed to create an unstable 1950’s farm girl who comes to work in the big city of Toronto. I used memories of visiting farms around London. I went back to the CNE and wandered the Horse Palace. As in my NII, she is given electroshock, so I drove my car down Lake Shore where I used to drive my bike, to what was then called the Mimico Insane Asylum and is now Humber College. Like many first novels, WFF uses my life experience as a jumping off point, but then takes far too many fictional leaps to be considered memoir or autobiography.


What was the biggest challenge that you faced in the writing of this book?


The challenges were interlinked. I wanted to come out of three closets: the adopted closet, the disabled closet and the closet of infant sexual abuse. I wanted to write the book I’d never read, one that would honour adopted experience and address what it was like to be a disabled teenager with a disability so slight it mimicked adoption: both left me almost able to pass for “normal.” And I really wanted to take all these very complex and serious topics and put them in the mouth of a very witty and sarcastic little girl. I wanted to write a seriously funny book about topics one does not usually see as funny, but the humour is what makes it bearable and authentically human.


What's your next project?


My novel in progress, Kerfuffle, is the story of a culturally diverse, five-member improv troupe trying to make sense and nonsense of last summer’s G20 when Toronto was literally burning down around their heads. It’s inspired by the now iconic photo of a boy leaping atop a flaming police car and the story of a disabled protestor relaxing on the grass at Queen’s Park who was ordered to remove his prosthetic leg. Kerfuffle blends both moments to explore a question that has haunted me all my life, asked in the 1960s by Carl Oglesby, leader of the SDS: Students for a Democratic Society, “When the house is burning down around the poet’s head, on grounds of what if any dispensation can the poet continue the poem?”

Combining improv comedy with the seriously complex politics of Canadian rights and freedoms is the exactly kind of forced fit improvisers love. While Kerfuffle does not shirk either the Black Bloc or kettling, it has also been enormous fun to bring many of my favourite things to its pages: The Sound of Music, Sherlock Holmes, George Bernard Shaw, the Arthurian Legend, the courage of ordinary people and the sweet revenge of women wronged. I’ll be posting sections of Kerfuffle as WIR on Open Book and really look forward to getting feedback from your readers.

Related item from our archives