Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Mark Blagrave

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Ten Questions with Mark Blagrave

Mark Blagrave is the author of Silver Salts (Cormorant Books), a novel set in Saint John, New Brunswick during the early years of the twentieth century. Mark's short stories have been published regularly in leading Canadian literary journals, including The New Quarterly and Fiddlehead, and his plays have been produced professionally and in university theatres. He lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he is a Professor of English at Mount Allison University. Available in bookstores across the country on May 17.

OB:

Tell us about your latest book, Silver Salts.

MB:

Silver Salts is the story of a young New Brunswick woman’s struggles to establish an identity for herself in an age when mass destruction, mass production, and especially the mechanical reproduction of image and sound all threaten to make that impossible. Having lost her brothers to the Great War and her parents to the Spanish Flu, Lillie Dempster’s luck appears about to change when a film company arrives in Saint John in the early 1920s. Because of a striking resemblance, Lillie is given the opportunity to work as a stand-in double for the silent movie’s leading lady, Norma Shearer. What she can’t foresee is that the movie will be pulled from circulation and its very existence denied, all on the orders of another one-time resident of Saint John, Louis B. Mayer. The novel is told in part as the movie of her life, following the young Lillie from Saint John to New York and Hollywood and back again as she wrestles with the new technologies of recording and searches for ways to belong and for people to belong to. In the end, she finds a way to recapture and control her own image and her own voice.

OB:

How did you research your book?

MB:

The research for the book began by accident. I was working on a proposal for a “biography” of a grand old theatre in Saint John when I came upon a newspaper article about a silent film that was made in the city in the 1920s. That in itself was surprising, but even more so was the fact that it featured film great Norma Shearer. When I discovered that this movie wasn’t part of the standard biographical record for Shearer, I began to imagine why that might have been. The silencing of the (already silent!) film led me to create a silenced character, and so Lillie was born. To understand her, then, I had to try to find out as much as I could about Saint John and Hollywood at the period. This involved my reading reams of old newspapers on microfilm, and everything from gushy fan books to dry academic studies, as well as consulting collections of old photographs, street atlases, and so forth. Books on pre-code Hollywood and on Ernie and Nell Shipman were joined by one on the Saint John Street Railway and dozens of silent films to try to recapture what might have been Lillie’s world (if she had existed). In the end, though, I think you have to get some distance from all of those research notes, and allow the imagination to rewrite the record where it needs to, so I have.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

MB:

Although the novel is set in Saint John, a city that I believe deserves a lot more play in our literary fiction than it has had to date, I always thought of Silver Salts as a book with something to say to all Canadians. Lillie’s relationship with Norma Shearer as the Hollywood star’s much less powerful double, and the fact that Norma has the power because Lillie gives it to her, seems to me to resonate with our experiences as a nation. In the novel, Hollywood is more powerful than the fledgling Canadian film industry, and yet it's Canadians who make that early Hollywood so powerful and effective.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MB:

Parts of Silver Salts were written in waiting rooms while my car was serviced, and in coffee shops, and other parts were written on planes and on beaches, and in my office when I should have been doing something else. If I can get the right environment in my head, then I can write almost anywhere. Sometimes, the more I want to shut out the physical environment around me, the better the writing goes. My ideal place, though, remains the table that I have in the window in our house overlooking the lake.

OB:

What was your first publication?

MB:

I think that my first creative publication would have been a short story, entitled “The Anatomy Lesson,” in the Dalhousie Review in the late 1990s. Before that, the academic publications go back to the mid-eighties.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

MB:

Apart from rereading texts I am teaching right now (Findley, Winterson, Chaucer, Shakespeare…), I am reading Don Hannah’s Ragged Islands.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

MB:

There are so many wonderful possibilities, and too much variety to capture in three books, so I would have to go with three personal favourites that are moving stories brilliantly told: Timothy Findley’s The Wars, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, and Michael Redhill’s Martin Sloane.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

MB:

Apart from the standard “write what you know” (once I figured out that there could be a an enormous amount of latitude in the definition of “know”), perhaps the most valuable advice has come from Cormorant publisher Marc Côté, who kept insisting that I remember I was telling a story first and foremost.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

MB:

An editor once reported to me that a prolific writer and editor, who was guest editing a literary journal I had submitted to, said it had been a long time since he had been as surprised by a story as he was by mine. Whether the illustrious person actually said it or not, it has stuck with me.

OB:

What is your next project?

MB:

I am working on a couple of play scripts, and pulling together a collection of short stories, tentatively titled Salt in the Wounds and Other Stories, all of which are linked through some common characters and locales, but most importantly by a connection to salt. Their settings range from Austria and Bavaria to the Maritimes. Farther in the future are: an idea for a novel in which a man camps out in the winter in a deserted Maritime seaside resort, and one for a novel set in Bermuda during the Second World War when the Canadian navy had a significant presence there.

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