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In Conversation With: Suzanne Desrochers (Bride of New France, @penguincanada)

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I met Suzanne Desrochers (Bride of New France, Penguin Group Canada) in a carpool en route to an event in Uxbridge hosted by Blue Heron Books. Suzanne sat in the front. I sat in the back. Over the sweet music remix provided by publicist Barbara Bower, we shouted back and forth about a variety of topics: England. Agents. Babies. On the return trip, we sat together in back, talk turning to, well, England. Agents. Babies. Back in our usual corners, I asked Suzanne if she'd like to expand a bit on some of the comments from the evening's panel: traversing the divide between academic writing and fiction, unveiling previously hidden historical figures, and a day in the life of one writer with kid and another on the way. Hurrah for us, she agreed, and I think you'll enjoy the chat.

Julie Wilson: I recall reading somewhere something to the fact that the longer a scientist works in the field the more likely he or she is to ascribe to one faith or another because there comes a time when one simply cannot reason away every discovery. I recently had the pleasure of seeing you speak on a panel about memoir and family history and this sprang to mind again. All three authors on the panel—you, Camilla Gibb and Susanna Kearsley—come either out of an academic background, in which you happen still to be immersed, or, in the case of Susanna, a museum background. It seemed during the panel that all three of you experienced some sort of awakening that lead you to want to insert a fictional voice into what I suppose we could call previously non-fictionalized voices. In your case, in Bride of New France, it's the Filles du roi. Tell us a bit about your studies and why you think this story was delivered to you as fiction?

Suzanne Desrochers: I actually came at academe through writing which is perhaps the opposite of the other two panelists. I began writing Bride of New France as an MA thesis at York University that combined Creative Writing and History, mainly because there was a significant research component to what I wanted to write. Being part of the History Department, if only in a de facto way, gave me access to professors, courses and archival resources that I otherwise would not have encountered. It was through the department that I participated on a five-month research exchange at the Sorbonne in Paris which provided me with the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the Salpetriere, a location that figures prominently in my novel. I must also mention that academic funding greatly assisted the publication of the novel. For a writer who hasn't yet published a book-length work, it is difficult to fund the years it takes to produce a novel. In my case, I was able to receive Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding for the research component of my novel in addition to academic funding from the Government of Ontario and from York University. The arts councils generally require that a writer already have a book published before they will fund a project.

The result of my two-year MA at York was a thesis that included a historical introduction (academic) and the beginning of what would become my first novel. I really did feel like I was between the two worlds and for a period, like I didn't belong to either, since I had neither a PhD—the cornerstone of academic credentials—nor a published novel. Fortunately for me, over the course of the following year, I received a PhD acceptance in the UK, with a generous funding package mostly from Canadian sources, and my novel was sold to Penguin Canada by my agent, Samantha Haywood.

Something I definitely felt when I got to the UK, at least at King's College London, was that the academic and creative worlds seemed far more separate. My supervisor has been supportive of my novel, permitting a leave for book promotions in Canada, but I haven't met anybody else combining the two. So I feel like perhaps I will either have to do two jobs and have two writing styles, or hope that someday I will be able to coalesce academic research and resources with the world of fiction writing.

JW: Tell us about the Filles du roi. What was it about them that struck a chord in you as both a writer and historian?

SD: My interest in the first French women to settle in Canada grew largely out of my own family tree. My aunt did our family genealogy while I was at university and traced our first ancestors from France to the early seventeenth century. Most of the information and the family line itself focused on the men, but a few interesting tidbits emerged about the women as well. For instance, one young mother coming across the Atlantic with her husband and children gave birth on board ship. Another ended up becoming Mother Superior at the Notre-Dame Congregation in Montreal.

As for the Filles du roi, they seemed like the most natural starting point for my research. In French Canada, these women are legendary and yet very little was known about their actual origins in France. I was hooked on writing about them when I came across a Clio Collective history of women in Quebec that mentioned that many of the Filles du roi had come from a Parisian poorhouse called the Salpetriere. To me this flew in the face of the notion that these women had been tough country girls. There was something so mysterious about this and I set out to learn more. In the end, I think the Filles du roi connect Canadian history quite directly to that of Ancien Regime France, not in a military way, but in the treatment of the poor, particularly poor women. Here is a clear example of people escaping the rigid class constraints of European society and beginning to form a society based on more egalitarian principles. The shame of this epoch lies in the history of these brutal institutions and oppressive royal policies and so there is no reason to try in our own national history to hide or deny that we received the "detritus" of Europe in those early centuries.

JW: This reminds me of Susanna Kearsley's comment that there are a lot of wedding dresses in museums, but not a lot of underwear.

SD: I definitely agree that there is a tendency when creating national and even family history to want to hide or ignore the "blemishes" of the past. In the case of the Filles du roi, several Quebec historians went to great lengths in decades past to establish the women as virtuous and not the prostitutes many had felt they had been.

Suzanne Desrochers (col)

JW: Do you consider yourself to be a writer of historical fiction or a writer of contemporary fiction that features historical characters?

SD: People often ask me if I like historical fiction as a genre. I have to say that if the story is a simplified and romantic version of the "official history"—usually dealing with royalty as the subject—then generally no. However I love novels that revise history such as Douglas Glover's Elle and Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, those that question the presentation of fact such as Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, or those that present a new story to the historical record like Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road.

I think novelists who engage with the past and with the historical record, are working to shape "history" just as much as historians and sometimes the "truth" that emerges from fiction narratives is even more striking.

As a writer, these are the philosophical questions that engage me. I don't think the past gets enough attention in our future-obsessed world and yet when you study history you really do see the foundations of our social structures.

I don't cringe at being called a historical novelist but I do want to be clear on what I seek to do when engaging with narratives from the past.

JW: Tell us a bit about your writing life. What is a typical writing day for you?

SD: I'm very much a morning person so when I was writing Bride of New France, I made sure to use my freshest energy on writing the story and I kept the afternoon for research, academic obligations and running errands. I wrote a little each day for several years to complete the manuscript.

At the moment, though, I'm seven months pregnant and home all day with my two-year old son, so besides Bride of New France promotions and writing in my pregnancy journal, I don't have much of a writing life. I'm not complaining though; I feel very fortunate that I realize how quickly the first years of children's lives pass and that I have deliberately "cleared my schedule" to be with them. I know that it won't take long before I am sneaking words onto the page and soon enough another big project will come along. When I did the summer workshop at Humber a few years back, Antanas Sileika told us that the writing life is a marathon not a race. I think it's very sad when people give up life goals for some artistic ideal. My husband is an artist and we both agreed a long time ago to reject the notion that creatives have to be poor, starving, alone and die young. Writing is in my life to facilitate my happiness not to hinder it.

Suzanne Desrochers grew up in the French-Canadian village of Lafontaine on the shores of Georgian Bay, Ontario. Now based in Toronto, she is currently writing a Ph.D. thesis at King's College, London, comparing the migration of French and British women to North America in the early modern period. She has lived in Paris and Tokyo and travelled extensively throughout Asia. Her travel writing has appeared in Toronto's Now Magazine, and she has presented her history papers at academic conferences and seminars. Bride of New France is her first novel.

June 22, 2011
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