[dropcap]Genevieve[/dropcap] Graham is the best-selling author of such books as Tides of Honour, Come From Away, At the Mountain’s Edge and Promises to Keep. The good news is that Ms. Graham has a new novel that is set for release in March 2020. It is entitled The Forgotten Home Child and it is a historical fiction novel based on the British Home Child program that was in effect from 1869 until 1948. I was able to get an Advance Reading Copy and after reading it, I personally believe it is her best work yet. (I’ll be publishing the review sometime in February 2020.) In the meantime, I was able to get a few moments of Ms. Graham’s time to find out more about her and her new novel.
Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
Well, I can tell you right off that I never planned to be doing what I do now! I grew up in Toronto and got a Bachelor of Performance (in oboe) degree at the University of Toronto, and though I attended Juilliard for a couple of months for my Master’s degree, I didn’t stick it out. Instead, I went back home and freelanced until other opportunities caught my eye. I taught myself to type over a rather intense weekend, and from there I entered the wild world of advertising, marketing, fundraising, and special events.
In February 1992 I travelled from Toronto to Calgary to visit a friend who had been transferred there for work, and though I was disappointed she couldn’t go skiing with me, I went just the same. While there, I heard a man in the chairlift line-up call, “single!” (meaning he was looking for a partner to ride up with) … and ten months later we were married. Living in Calgary, I worked in radio stations, ad agencies, a humane society, and even the #1 Western Wear retailer in Canada! I stopped playing oboe when an unexpected autoimmune disorder made that necessary, but I never completely lost that musical connection, because I spent years after that as a piano teacher for dozens of children. Somewhere in there, I became a mom to two wonderful, busy little girls, and my husband and I made the decision that I would stay at home with them.
When the girls were about 5 and 7, my mother decided it was time for me to grab a little “me time”, and she handed me a book. It was the first time I’d read for pleasure in forever, and it was the best thing I could have done. After that it was like I needed to catch up – I read everything I could get my hands on, but my genre of preference was always Historical Fiction. With stories thundering through my brain, I decided to sit down and try to write one of my own, and that’s when this whole incredible world of writing opened up to me.
Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
The book my mother handed me was “Outlander”. I lived and breathed the entire series (still waiting for the next instalment!), reading it multiple times and learning something new every time. Hungering for more, I read historical fiction by Penelope Williamson, Sara Donati, Susanna Kearsley, Marsha Canham, and others. But Diana Gabaldon was always and continues to be, my biggest influence. I love her hard-hitting, no-nonsense approach, her incredibly detailed research, and the emotional, intellectual, and physical depths of all her characters. It was because of her books that I began to write. I still dream of her one day reading one of mine.
Do you have a favourite book (not one of your own!), one that you like to revisit from time to time?
Other than the “Outlander” series, there aren’t many. My tbr pile is constantly beckoning. I have read Susanna Kearsley’s “The Winter Garden” a few times — she captures the writers’ world/trance so perfectly, as she does with everything else she writes. I have read Tolkien’s work a few times, as well a few Wilbur Smith books. I can’t get enough of the adventures.
Let’s discuss your forthcoming book, The Forgotten Home Child. I read an Advance Reading Copy and I was very impressed not only because I enjoy your books, but I really learned quite a bit about British Home Children. Actually, a lot because I wasn’t familiar with the program at all. How did you come across the subject?
This question gives me the opportunity to tell you more about me than you asked because your admission to knowing nothing about the British Home Children is the reason I do what I do. You see, I used to be embarrassed, having to admit that I had slept through most of my history classes and knew next to nothing about Canadian History as a result. But since my books have come out, countless people have told me they were the same way as I was. They are now learning more about our history than they ever knew before. So bringing Canadian History to life through historical fiction has become my mission. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#23465D” class=”” size=””]”Bringing Canadian History to life through historical fiction has become my mission.”[/perfectpullquote] It goes back to when my family and I first moved to Nova Scotia in 2008 and I learned for the first time about the Halifax Explosion. I was stunned by the story, and incredulous that I’d never heard of it before. I immediately began researching the Explosion, as well as the area in which I lived and the world during that time. Everything I learned eventually took shape in Tides of Honour, and just like that, I was hooked on Canadian history. What an amazing way for me to learn our history: research every little detail inside and out, then put it all together through the experiences of a fictional cast of characters. When Tides of Honour was complete, I reached out for more Canadian history, including the devastating Acadian Expulsion (Promises to Keep), German U-Boats skulking around Nova Scotia in WW2 (Come From Away), and the Klondike Gold Rush, along with the early Mounties (At the Mountain’s Edge).
I don’t recall where I first read about the British Home Children, but I do remember being struck dumb by the information. By then I was used to coming across events in Canadian history of which I knew little or nothing, but this seemed too big to be possible. Over 100,000 destitute British children aged three to eighteen had been taken from England’s streets, orphanages, and Homes, then shipped across the ocean to work as indentured servants, many without their parents’ knowledge. The majority of those were sent to Canada, though a small percentage went to Australia, New Zealand, and Rhodesia. The more I read, the more intrigued I became. When I asked around, hardly anyone knew anything about these children. How could something so significant have happened here without it becoming general knowledge? How could I not write about them?
In what way is The Forgotten Home Child different than your previous books?
As with my other books, I alternate chapters between the lead female and male protagonists, but this was the first time I also included a dual timeline. It was so important for me to do that because when I was researching the British Home Children, the greatest source of information came from the Facebook groups run by BHC descendants. They are an amazing army of volunteers keen to bring the story to light. One of their main goals is to make the BHC a part of Canada’s school curriculum, and they are tireless in that endeavour. To me, their goal makes perfect sense. It has now been ascertained that approximately 12% of Canada’s population (over four and a half million people) are descended from these children. So I wanted to pay tribute to these dedicated volunteers by including them in “The Forgotten Home Child”. After all, it is because of their efforts that the children are not forgotten any longer.
At any point did you ever think about writing a non-fictional account of the BHC instead of a historical-fiction one?
No. I’m not a historian. There are plenty of qualified non-fiction authors out there, and there are some excellent books on the subject already published.
In researching and writing your novels, you likely have had a few outstanding experiences, either with people or places. Anything stands out for you? Something especially memorable?
Do I have to pick just one? I guess there is a sort of three “layers” of experiences I can share.
The first is during the research when I come across an unexpected fact that is so perfectly aligned with my story that it feels like I am actually a part of the history for a moment. It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck when that happens. An example of that was during Promises to Keep when I was looking up Acadian history and came across Charles Belliveau. Every time I found his name he was doing something that I had just written or was about to write. It was almost eerie. So, of course, he became a major character in the story.
The second would be the people I meet during research. During At the Mountain’s Edge I was tremendously honoured to work closely with RCMP Assistant Commissioner Brian Brennan, who was just as excited about the history as I was. My most exciting moment with that book came when I was invited to speak/read at the Annual General Meeting for Retired RCMP. Just as I was about to read aloud, three 80-something-year-old retired officers called out that they’d already read my book and loved it. There is nothing like receiving respect from someone I respect so much.
The third example was a very emotional, thoroughly personal experience I had of connecting with the past. I recall it very clearly. It happened when I was in the midst of writing Tides of Honour, and some of my characters had just survived – or not – the Battle of the Somme. I was wandering in downtown Halifax one grey day, and I decided to walk through the Grand Parade, where there stands a large monument to our military heritage. I’ve passed by it a thousand times. This time, since I’d done so much research on the war, I paused and took the time to read the inscribed battles on the stone. As I stood there, I felt suddenly dizzy, and I sank to the ground, my eyes still on the words. I was there. I was right there, helplessly watching “my boys” fight for their lives, and the reality of that connection had me weeping.
If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?
It would be someone from Canadian history, but there are too many to mention. But I don’t want to write a biography. Whenever possible, I include actual characters in my books, but only in passing. The way I see and experience history is through the characters I create. And, as I said before, there are many, many more qualified non-fiction authors out there. Might I suggest Charlotte Grey? She’s fantastic.
What are you working on now?
The next book is set mostly in Toronto around the late 1930s/early 1940s, and one of the main themes is anti-semitism, which was rampant at that time in “Toronto the Good”. It culminated in the largest ethnic riot in Canadian History: the Christie Pits Riot.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Not writing? Is that a thing? I am an entertainment junkie, so I am usually either curled up with a book or watching movies. I’m rather lazy, but I do grudgingly love it when my husband takes me for walks (as long as he avoids the term “hike”, which makes it seem like far too much exertion). I also truly enjoy getting in the car with him and driving around the province. I’m game to stop just about anywhere and check out the local points of interest. One never knows where one might find the next great story idea …
James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.