You were born in Ireland and lived there during part of your childhood, so your family did not participate directly in the migration you describe in Kit's story. Very briefly, what was it that made you want to tell this story?
I read the historical fiction The Silent People by Walter Macken when I was sixteen and visiting Ireland. It tells the story of a famine in the 1700s. Having grown up in Canada, I did not know much about Irish history and I was amazed by the facts: families (indeed whole villages) starving to death, evictions, mass emigration, all because of a failed crop. They called it a “famine”, but there was still plenty of food in Ireland – just not for the poor.
The Irish culture is known for its strong faith, quick humour, and generous hospitality and I wondered how such people endured the reality of those harsh facts. I wondered, after all they’d endured in Ireland, how these people could find the strength and will to leave with nothing and start a new life in Canada.
Even though our immigration was nothing like theirs, I know what it is like to miss your homeland and your extended family. I know how it feels to be divided. My mother never settled here, so I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for those early immigrants who knew they’d never be returning to Ireland.
I wrote an assignment in grade 11 Writers Craft class over 20 years ago that was inspired by that summer’s holiday in Ireland and reading of The Silent People. It is the seed of Greener Grass.
Research is a very important part of writing historical fiction. What was involved in doing the research necessary to write this book?
I read a lot of non fiction about Irish history, the Great Famine, and the Irish culture. Thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, I had the opportunity to tour many museums, famine exhibits, cemeteries and historical and heritage centers in Ireland during 2006. I visited places such as: Muckross Farms, Skibbereen Famine Museum, Abbestrewery Cemetery, Cobh Museum, National Museum of Farm Life, Wicklow Gaol, I took a day sail on the replica famine ship Jeanie Johnston and toured the Dunbrody.
Much of the story evolved as I researched. For example, it wasn’t until I was touring Wicklow Gaol and saw the registry for “Child Inmates” from 1846-1850 that I realized children were stealing food and getting arrested for it. I knew then Kit had to commit a similar crime and meets many of these real life children.
I use binders to help me keep all my research organized. Okay, I obsess about them.
In telling your story, you have brought to life a number of real historical figures. What is the challenge to a writer in using real people in a work of fiction? Why did you choose to make use of them, rather than creating fictional characters in similar roles?
The challenge in using real people is to represent them as accurately as I can. Again, research is key. Sometimes, they are just the right name – for example, the captains of the ships. For more developed characters like Mother Bruyere, I had primary sources like her letters to give me a sense of her personality. I also had the Archivist of the order read everything I wrote about Mother Bruyere. That was a condition of the Archivist’s assistance but it reassured me that I had caught the spirit of Mother Bruyere.
I chose to make my antagonists Lynch and Lord Fraser fictional but based them on my research of many other landlords and middlemen of the time. That gave me the freedom to change their actions/personalities to suit my plot.
A few background characters (the Hyland family from Carrighill) were my mother’s people whose names I discovered on a census from that period. Because I had nothing but their names to go on, I decided not to impose a personality and left them in the background.
In your story, while Kit wants to keep what remains of her family together, she fails; Jack sets off for the farms and lumbering operations of the Ottawa River, and Annie is adopted by a family who can give her a decent home. In your research, did you come across accounts of similar family breakups that occurred during this period?
Yes. The number of orphaned children really surprised me. Mother Bruyere runs an orphanage for young Irish children as well as St. Raphael’s House for Irish teenage girls. Even at Grosse Isle, many children arrived as orphans. In one letter from Lord Elgin he writes “…nearly 1000 immigrant orphans have been left during the season at Montreal and a proportionate number at Grosse Ile, at Quebec, at Kingston, Toronto and other towns.” Father Cazeau himself found homes for 453 orphans. They often kept their Irish surnames, however many carried the typhus into their new families.
There are also advertisements in the local papers of the time of people trying to locate family members. The tragedy is that most of the poor Irish were illiterate.
One of the strengths of your story is the voice of Kit - the "lilt" of her telling, as Brian Doyle has called it. If you could name one person whose voice inspired this distinctive style, who would it be?
According to your story, the Irish who came to Canada as a result of the potato famine and the disruption of their lives in the 1840s were treated badly when they arrived in Canada. Do you think this is also the way other immigrant groups have been regarded when they arrived here?
Yes. Though not all arrive in Canada with dire circumstances as those immigrants escaping wars, disasters, or exiles, I think people see immigrants as someone arriving with “needs.” Perhaps they need education, or health care, or employment, either way, the general public tends to react with stereotypes and prejudice, particularly if the group sticks to itself (Little Italy, Chinatown, etc.) If you add something like a contagious disease (typhus) or a job shortage, people are even more hostile to the newcomers. As people gain an understanding of the newcomers and their culture, they feel less threatened about what it’s costing and more likely to see what that culture brings to the community. Ironically, it seems that the last culture that experienced racism is okay with doing it to the newcomers. It reminds me grade 10s making life hell for those minor-niners.
In the fall of 2009, the first novel in which you tell the story of Kit and her family won a Governor General's Literary Award, the most prestigious prize for children's literature in Canada. How has that affected your life as a writer?
The award, like the Canada Council Grants, is a great affirmation of my writing. To be so supported and recognized for literary excellence, particularly so early on in my career, makes me feel both honored and challenged.
What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
I give them the same advice I continue to give myself: read lots and write lots. Keep learning the craft. Persevere and, most importantly, enjoy the ride.