Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Sylvia Maultash Warsh

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Ten Questions with Sylvia Maultash Warsh

Sylvia Maultash Warsh talks to Open Book about her latest book, The Queen of Unforgetting (Cormorant Books), her ideal writing environment, Canadian books and Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Read a preview from The Queen of Unforgetting at the Cormorant Books website.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book.

Sylvia Maultash Warsh:

In my new book, The Queen of Unforgetting, my protagonist, a beautiful, ambitious grad student, persuades Northrop Frye to supervise her thesis. The year is 1973. Mel’s motives are selfish and sometimes ruthless, but she’s also vulnerable and scared; she acutely feels the need to survive. It turns out she’s an unreliable narrator and the reader will discover partway through the book that she isn’t who she appears to be. Two historical themes run through the book: the story of the 17th century Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf who tries to convert the Hurons, but instead helps bring the disease that kills them; and the Holocaust of the 20th century.

OBT:

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

SMW:

I think this book will have broad appeal. People familiar with Canadian literature will enjoy seeing Northrop Frye as a character, but I feel the general reader will be interested in the story of a complex protagonist who tries to keep her secrets buried, in vain. I hope her wry sense of humour will keep the reader from hating her. I did a lot of research on the historical aspect — the French Jesuits who came to the New World as missionaries, and the strife between the Hurons and their cousins, the Iroquois. In a violent upheaval, the Iroquois finally destroyed the remnant of Hurons who had survived the European disease. The Huron nation was annihilated, hence the parallel with the Holocaust.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

SMW:

I enjoy writing in bed, spreading all my material around me. It’s a nice large surface. I thought I was odd, but I read that Mark Twain also wrote in bed.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

SMW:

My first publication was some poetry in a literary journal many years ago. My first book was To Die in Spring, the first in an historical mystery series starring Dr. Rebecca Temple.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

SMW:

About a year ago, I revisited Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the reconstructed mission/fort near Midland, Ontario where a large part of my book is set. I went there to interview the curator, Rosemary Vyvyan, about what it was like to work there in the 1970s, when my novel takes place. I had already visited Ste.-Marie years ago to take in the 17th century history. This time I was interested in more recent history, what it took to be a tour guide and historical interpreter. Rosemary was extremely helpful at the time and has, since, responded to many emailed questions. When I was at Ste.-Marie, I happened to see a dress on display that was worn by tour guides in the 1970s, and I visualized my character wearing it, helping me make those passages real in the story.

OBT:

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

SMW:

Black Robe by Brian Moore, set in 17th century New France (Ontario), illustrates the culture clash between French priests and the Indian characters who bring them on the arduous journey to their homeland. Survival, by Margaret Atwood, answers the question: what is Canadian about Canadian literature? It’s a thematic guide that shows our preoccupation with survival and victims. A Wild Peculiar Joy, a collection of poems by Montrealer Irving Layton, who delivered passion in his writing over several decades.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

SMW:

Famous Last Words, by Timothy Findley, an amazing book.

OBT:

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

SMW:

Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

SMW:

Make your manuscript the best it can be before sending it out. Belong to a writing group that will give you feedback. Don’t take criticism personally.

OBT:

What is your next project?

SMW:

I’m working on a book about a man who senses disastrous events just before they happen, so he can’t stop them. It might stretch over 150 years — haven’t decided if it’s going to be an epic yet. It starts in the US before the Civil War, then hops overseas to the Franco-Prussian War. In the planning stages.


Sylvia Maultash Warsh was born in Stuttgart, Germany and emigrated to Canada as a child. She is the author of three previous novels, has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award and has been shortlisted for the ReLit Award and the Arthur Ellis Award. She lives in Toronto and teaches creative writing.

For more information about The Queen of Unforgetting please visit the Cormorant Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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