Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Carol McDougall

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Carol McDougall

Carol McDougall's Wake the Stone Man (Fernwood Publishing) had a long (and somewhat complicated) journey from genesis to publication, but it's been well worth it.

The novel tells the story of the complex friendship between two girls growing up in the 1960s in Northern Ontario. Molly is a white girl, while Nakina is Ojibwe and a survivor of the horrific residential school system. As Nakina continues to experience racism and discrimination, her friendship with Molly is challenged as the two try to relate across a seemingly impossible divide. A difficult, powerful story of friendship and hard truths, Wake the Stone Man is a raw and important Canadian story.

We talk to Carol as part of our Lucky Seven series today, and she tells us her own childhood in the shadow of The Sleeping Giant, the roadblocks her project hit along the way and why every café needs a writer-in-residence.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Wake the Stone Man.

Carol McDougall:

Wake the Stone Man, winner of the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature, uses the power of fiction to introduce readers to the dark legacy of the residential school system. As the novel opens Molly stands on the outside of the fence of a residential school looking in — looking into the eyes of Nakina, a young Ojibwe girl trying to escape. They meet again in high school and a strong friendship is born, but over time Molly, who is non-native, bears a growing guilt at being silent witness to the racism and abuse her friend must endure each day. Wake the Stone Man is fiction, but is woven from my own life. I grew up in the shadow of the Stone Man, the Sleeping Giant, a rock formation in the form of a man lying across the harbour of Thunder Bay. Like Molly I was a young girl who stood outside the fence of a residential school looking in and over time I began to ask questions. I came to learn that what I had witnessed represented one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history. Wake the Stone Man is a story about the enduring power of friendship, and a love letter to the staggering beauty of the Canadian north.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


Looking back at my childhood, growing up just blocks away from the abuse that took place inside the residential school, the question that haunted me was one of culpability. I was just a kid, not fully fledged, and just beginning to form my beliefs about the world, but I knew at some gut level that what I was witnessing was wrong. I was witness to it, but stayed silent. The community I lived in also stayed silent as they saw native children taken from their families and held captive in those institutions. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so many of the heartbreaking stories of abuse have been collected and made public. There is a growing awareness in Canada of that shameful chapter in our history. But the truth is that what happened in those schools was known then, so many in the non-native community turned their back and pretended not to see. Why? I believe it’s a question that goes beyond the legacy of the residential schools. It is a universal question; what is our responsibility to act and intervene when we witness injustice?


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The story of how Wake the Stone Man came to be, in many ways, parallels the difficult journey within the novel. I wrote Wake the Stone Man in the 1980’s as a Young Adult novel. I completed a draft of the novel and sent it off to a Toronto publisher. They were interested but wanted some significant revisions, so I got to work on the edits. At that time I met a Canadian film producer who was doing work in the north creating films in First Nations communities. He asked to see my novel, and being young and naïve I handed him my manuscript, excited about the possibility of it being made into a film. I never saw him again, but a year later learned through the literary grapevine that my novel had been made into a film by this man. Made into a film without my knowledge and with no credit or compensation given to me. I was young mother supporting a child and putting my husband through university and didn’t have two pennies to rub together, so I had no financial resources to wage a David and Goliath fight against this producer. I felt betrayed and angry and stopped writing completely. I walked away from Wake the Stone Man, but the novel would not leave me. It haunted me and the characters continued to whisper to me until years later, on a silent retreat at a Trappistine Abbey I picked up a pen and the first lines of Wake the Stone Man flowed as if I had always known them. The novel had changed completely since its early iteration, and was now an adult novel written in a spare, direct style that reflected the honesty of the place and the people. I was now a single mom raising two sons, so I had to work on the novel in the margins of my life between working and parenting. A few years ago, as I finished the final draft of Wake the Stone Man, fate or the gods intervened again. Walking across an intersection I was hit by a one-ton truck. I suffered a severe brain injury, which impacted my ability to read, write, and speak. I am still in recovery, but slowly the ability to write returned and I was able to finish the novel, and see it safety to publication. I learned some important lessons from this journey. What I had seen as a personal tragedy — the film producer stealing my novel — turned out to be something positive. It made me put the novel away until I had the writing skills and life experience to write it as it was meant to be. And the lesson I learned from the accident and my struggle back to speaking and writing…patience. In the immortal words of A.A. Milne “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We will get there some day.”


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I am the unofficial writer-in-residence at my local café, Two if By Sea in Dartmouth. On weekend mornings I head down to TIBS, grab a latte and sit at my table by the window to write. TIBS is the heart of Dartmouth, always busy, loud and bustling. I have to work hard to block out the distractions in order to focus on the writing, and I think having to work that hard to push out the noise is what pulls me into that magical creative space where I can hear the voices of the characters speaking to me. Often I’ll be writing for hours and look up in shock and realize I’m in a café surrounded by people.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


If I’m struggling and the writing and the dialogue feel forced and artificial, I walk. Walking for me is a meditation. I head out my door and go for a walk by the ocean, and as I relax and let go of the nattering voices in my head I’m able to just be in the moment — completely in sync with the rhythm of my footsteps and the sound of the sea. When I get to that Zen, living-in-the-moment place I can hear the characters speaking to me again.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I think honesty defines a truly great book — when an author has the courage and respect for their readers to write with absolute honesty. I think that’s what makes To Kill A Mockingbird so brilliant — the absolute honesty of Scout’s voice. One of my favorite authors, Alistair McLeod, wrote with great honesty, even when he took his readers to very hard places. I love those brilliant last lines of his novel No Great Mischief, “we are all better when we are loved.” Simple, perfect, truth.


What are you working on now?


There is a strange silence when you finish a novel and walk away from characters you’ve lived with for years. I am anxious to jump into my next novel, but for now I am sitting in that space of silence, listening for the voices to begin to speak.

Carol McDougall is a writer and advocate for early literacy. She was born in Northern Ontario and has been active in the Nova Scotia writing community for many years. She has received the Mayor’s Award for her contribution to literature and literacy and the Progress Woman of Excellence Award for the Arts. In 2012 Carol received the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature for the manuscript of her novel Wake the Stone Man. Carol's work includes writing for children, non-fiction, fiction, essays, book reviews and video scripts and her short fiction has been published in Room and presented on CBC radio.

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