Taking Shape

I had already decided that the women’s stories would be biographic, in the third person, because that way I could add information and details that could provide context. The daughters’ stories I wanted to be different though. These were not really biographies, but impressions of life growing up in Telegraph Cove, and lessons learned from their mothers’ examples. These I decided I would write in 1st person, not quoting them exactly but using their words as much as possible and making a bit of a narrative that was more conversational – a bit like verbal snapshots.

However, some daughters had more to say than their sisters did, and so many of the daughters’ memories were the same. This was both amusing and incredible, because their lives covered the 1930s right up to the 1990s! So I thought maybe I could write them as a sort of conversation among sisters (if there were more than two). I wouldn’t attribute one memory to a specific person. For one thing, it didn’t really matter who said what. For another thing, it would open up what they actually said, so that it wasn’t tied to that particular person in that particular era but perhaps could represent what other daughters thought and remembered in their respective eras. And that way I wouldn’t duplicate experiences but hopefully indicate their universality. I would have to make it clear, though, that the daughters’ memories were different than the mother’s biographies so the reader didn’t get confused changing between 1st and 3rd person.

Perhaps if the daughters’ sections were in italics, with each memory separated? One of my favourite writers, Svetlana Alexievich, has used something like this in her book about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the one about women in the USSR army. Many of her subjects were putting themselves at risk by talking to her about what happened at the time and since, as the authorities in that part of the world are still very tight lipped about how the Chernobyl disaster was handled, and how women are “meant” to be portrayed and treated. By providing the interviewees’ names and personal relationship with Chernobyl or role in war at the top of the chapter, grouped according to relationship/role, she then related their stories, without quotes, and without names attributed to each story, in a series of little monologues, later described as polyphonic writings.  In this way, the reader got a sense of what happened but no one person was attached to a specific memory or event. I found this hugely effective. So did other people. She is the only non-fiction writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

After putting together the basic outline, I had my husband take a look. He is a brilliant strategic writer and I know would be insightful and honest. It immediately became clear to him (and to me) that writing an entire biography from birth onwards meant that the Telegraph Cove years either became buried or quite late in the chapter. Okay, so let’s rework this. By leading with each woman’s time in Telegraph Cove, and then adding a second chapter about their journey to Telegraph Cove, this issue could be solved. For some of them it was the journey to Telegraph Cove that was particularly interesting, especially for those women who had grown up in Europe during the Second World War, in northern Italy and in Berlin, Germany. For some others it was what happened to them after they left the Cove that was compelling, such as the Japanese women and families that were forced to leave the west coast during the Second World War. For some others their background was quite prosaic and, if limited in detail or drama, could be incorporated into their Cove years’ chapter.

I thought I would include a photo of each woman to start their chapter, and then insert a map showing their trajectory from birthplace to Telegraph Cove at the start of their journey, or at the end of their chapter if there was no separate journey to Telegraph Cove chapter. I love maps, and was excited to include as many as I could. And with women that came from Japan, Europe and across Canada, all to find their way to tiny Telegraph Cove, the best possible way to show this would be a map.

At the beginning of the book I now had a rather enormous history, outlining how the area near the Cove was geologically formed, through the millennia of First Nations life to first contact with a foreign party. I outlined how Alert Bay came to be, who drove the earliest development of settlers and industry throughout the area and when, what the culture was like for the Kwakwaka-wakw First Nations, the Finns who came to set up a socialist Utopia on Malcolm Island, the individuals that tried to (and sometimes did) farm, log, fish, can, preach, teach, and settle in this raw area full of islands and rough currents, high tides and frigid waters, rocky landscapes and incessant rain. I wanted it to be an all-inclusive history and to research everything as well as possible. The manuscript ended up being a whopping 200,000 words. A little overkill.

I edited it again and again, always finding out some new fact to add or taking out something that didn’t work. “My ladies” sometimes sent along new material or memories that I worked in as much as possible. My day-to-day work (partnering with my husband to help the academic research community across Canada develop their research plans and goals, and then compete for funding, something we have done since the late 1990s and have found hugely satisfying) would swoop in and I’d have to let the book project sit for sometimes months. Then I’d work like a mad woman on it before the next interruption.

In late 2017 I received a gift. My mother and I went on a trip together. For 6 weeks! While she napped I could work on the book, but the best part was that I was travelling with an expert, who could advise on this fact or that anecdote. My mom grew up in Telegraph Cove in the 1930s, and I bless her genetic makeup for her sharp memory and analytical brain. She was honest and clear, and told me everything she knew, or where and how to find out whatever I needed to know. She is a bridge between the early days (her parents were the first business operators in the Cove, and her grandparents were the ones who bought and named the place), right through the war and on until the sawmill years ended and the whale watching years began. Her older sister, my aunt, is also still alive, although her memory has recently faded, so my mother’s brain was of vital importance to this project.

After our fantastic mother-daughter trip, I continued to write and revise and edit and add, until I got to the point when I felt it needed to get it in front of someone who could determine if it was publishable or not. I had already decided that I would self-publish it if I could not find a traditional publisher. Thankfully, we are now in a golden era of publishing. Although electronic versions (e.g., kindle) are still popular, especially for travel, people have also gone back to traditional books printed on paper. Also, self-publishing has become relatively easy via various internet-enabled programs so that is relatively easy to develop and craft a book, and then promote it and sell it by way of Amazon or other avenues. But it would be so much better to have someone else help with it all! By the spring of 2018 I was ready to let it out to be critiqued by a professional.