That Was Historical Fiction?

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Sometimes when I visit schools students ask me whether I ever read my own books. The thought horrifies me, actually – by the time a book has gone from idea to draft to draft to draft to draft #72 over the course of months or years,  after it has been hacked apart by members of my writing group, helpful friends and family members, an editor (sometimes more than one) and then picked apart and dissected by a copy editor and a proof reader (each iteration requiring me to re-read and sign off – or, rewrite as the case may be) trust me, the LAST thing I would consider reading for entertainment would be something I had written myself. This aversion to reading my own stuff is so deep I rarely read from my books even when I’m supposed to be at a book event where this sort of activity is expected. I’ve found all kinds of creative ways to get around actually reading much during a presentation and much prefer to switch into storytelling mode, which seems to me to be way more fun for everyone involved (who wouldn’t want to hear about that time with the mother bear on the side of a mountain when I was ten?) Needless to say, recently it has been strange having to read (meticulously, some sections over and over and over) Tarragon Island, a novel originally published somewhere around 1998 and which is soon to come out as an audiobook.

I realize the book came out before the turn of the century which does make it seem old, but reading it now it is astonishing how EVERYTHING has changed since I wrote it! That wasn’t even 20 years ago and it feels like a work of ancient historical fiction! The main character, Heather, moves from Toronto to a fictional Gulf Island in BC. So far so good, except when she gets desperately homesick for friends and family left behind she WRITES THEM LETTERS!! With pen and paper. These relics she slips into envelopes that need licking and stamps and a trip to the post office to send them on their way. There follows a lengthy period of waiting and wondering and speculation while she waits for a reply. The only computer in the household belongs to her mother’s business and even if Heather were allowed to be on it, the Internet hasn’t really been invented yet. At some point Heather, her brother Matt and their father take their little sailboat on an expedition and they get stranded because they run out of gas. They refer to a paper chart spread out on the top of the cabin to figure out where they are  – no GPS, handy iPod navigation apps, no watches that sound an alarm when the anchor drags… none of that! They decide to row their dinghy to the closest island (uninhabited) to hike to the other side where they see on the chart there is some sort of radio tower and where, they vaguely hope, they might find a PAYPHONE! A what?

This book is so completely set on another planet that I couldn’t even update it for a future edition – the plot wouldn’t work as these days when you run out of gas in the Gulf Islands you call someone on your cell phone. Kids who move from one place to another text each other on their smart phones or hang out online snap chatting or face booking or instagramming or whatever (note to self, this blog post will be out of date this time next week and will be considered a historical document, too) so they are able to stay in touch in a way that was never possible in the not-so-distant past.

I was considering pulling the plug on the project entirely, but then I reconsidered. The basic ideas (I hope) of missing people who are not with you, the trauma of moving, the challenges of finding your way in a new/very different community, and the struggles of finding your way as a writer are still the same. Despite the fact that Heather is stuck back there in the Dark Ages, I still kind of like her.

What this does create is a new dilemma. What am I to do with the next book in the series? My publisher and I would both like to do another one – we never felt that we were finished with Heather and her stories. But how on earth am I going to reconcile the leaps forward in technology we have experienced and which continue to come at us at an unprecedented rate? I can’t un-know what I know and these books are theoretically works of ‘contemporary fiction.’ Except, they aren’t any more. Maybe Heather (who would be about the right age, had she continued to grow up) might return to her island as a teacher at the local school and I could write the next book or two in a sort of familiar/sort of new setting with a new cast of kid characters who would, for at least a few minutes, be considered contemporary.

Hm. I’ve discovered another reason why I should never read my own books. What a can of worms lurks between those innocent-looking covers!

[Curious and want to buy a copy? Tarragon Island  is still in print and available from Sono Nis Press.]

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