Laura Churchill Duke is the author of Two Crows Sorrow (2019, Moose House Publications) the true story of a grisly murder that took place in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley in 1904. It is currently on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Non-Fiction. I wanted to know more about Ms. Churchill Duke and the research that went into telling Theresa McAuley Robinson’s story.
Miramichi Reader: Laura, tell us a bit about your background, education, employment, etc.
I grew up in the Annapolis Valley, attended Acadia University studying organizational psychology. It was while writing my honours thesis that my supervisor picked up on my love of writing and worked a lot with me to further develop my skills – and worked hard to get me to stop using the passive voice!
After graduation, I lived in Japan for three years, teaching English at the base of Mt. Fuji. I travelled the world, and eventually returned to the Valley where I took an advanced diploma in public relations from the community college, and then returned to Acadia, working for my previous honours thesis supervisor, as project manager for his psychology research centre.
When my son was born 13 years ago, I decided not to return to the traditional workforce, and instead carved a niche market for myself. I created the website and blog, Valley Family Fun (www.valleyfamilyfun.ca) as a way of sharing ideas and information with families so they can spend more time having fun together. Our family documents our travels and local adventures, encouraging others to do the same. I have grown to have tens of thousands of followers, all looking for more family fun.
I currently work as a freelance journalist for Saltwire Network with my stories reaching across Atlantic Canada. I am the CBC radio Information Morning community contact for the town of Kentville. I work as the communications coordinator for Campaign for Kids, raising funds for kids in financial need in the local area. As part of this, I organize and run a yearly Burger Wars campaign for the month of April with over 40 participating restaurants in the Valley. We run a strong social media campaign for this and people love to go online to watch me eat burgers on Facebook live!
I am president of my sons’ school PTA and spend as much time volunteering at the school as possible. I know this period of time is so short, so I try to pack as much as possible in with them!
I also run a home organization business on the side with two friends called Your Last Resort (www.YourLastResort.ca) and we have seen first-hand the powerful impact that cleaning one’s home has on one’s life.
I have two sons: Daniel – 13, Thomas 11. My husband is a history prof at Acadia, and we have 5 pets, which are rescue animals (a Shepsky dog and 4 degus).
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
I have always loved writing. In grade 2, I was awarded a writing prize, and in Grade 6, my teacher, Mr. Pulsifer wrote on one of my detective stories “keep writing, because you might make money at this someday!” Then, my thesis supervisor, Dr. Michael Leiter, really took me under his wing, giving me lots of writing opportunities, both academic and media-related.
I have always been obsessed with true crime shows and books. Before writing Two Crows Sorrow, I read a lot of local historical murder books. I really love the books by Debra Komar and devoured as many of her books as possible.
MR: Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
Horn of the Lamb by Robert Sedlack is probably one of my favourite books. It’s by a Canadian author and is about a simple man who has an extraordinary impact on the people around him.
I also love books by Liane Moriarty, an Australian writer, who I think is definitely writing to my age cohort! What Alice Forgot is a powerful book, that makes us look at our lives and think about how we got where we are today, and to appreciate that journey and our beginnings.
MR: Let’s discuss your fascinating creative non-fiction book, Two Crows Sorrow, which I believe is your first book. How did it come about? Where did the idea of telling Theresa McAuley Robinson’s story start?
In 2012, I was commissioned to write the scripts for Valley Ghost Walks (www.valleyghostwalks.com). We were starting a new walk series in Kentville and needed the scripts. I researched Kentville’s history to write these dramatic historical monologues, and in the process, came across the story of the murder of Theresa McAuley Robinson. Because the trial for this murder took place in Kentville, it came across my radar. I began researching her story, and it stuck with me.
I kept thinking that this would make a great novel…. If I wrote fiction. However, I am a journalist and a reporter. I don’t write creative stories!
Then, a few years later, I went to a conference where the keynote speaker asked, “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The answer came to me immediately. I would write this book. So, I decided to step outside my comfort box and try to put her story to paper.It was hard flipping between writing an article and writing a story and had lots of friends who helped read earlier drafts, indicating where it read like an article, where I had included too much research, and where I needed to work further.
MR: How has the book been received?
I am overwhelmed at how well this novel has been received. I have asked people from afar who have read the book if it matters that they are not from the Valley. They say the story translates across borders and is not limited to Nova Scotia. This is evident in the wide-spread reception of the book.
I have had readers write to me from across Canada – in Edmonton, Vancouver and Ontario.
Because I have lived abroad and have friends overseas, the book has gone to England, Ireland, Japan and Australia – that I know of!
Recently, I received a phone call from a woman in Cleveland Ohio, who told me how much she loved the book and how well it was selling in Barnes & Noble, Walmart there. It’s also being placed in all branches of the Cleveland Public Libraries!
MR: In researching and writing your novel, you likely have had a few outstanding experiences, either with people or places. Anything stands out for you? Something especially memorable?
Before writing, I did so much research – months and months of it. I spent so much time in the archives reading trial transcripts, newspaper articles, the victim’s personal letters, etc. I interviewed so many people to find the ins and outs of the time period and to know what everything meant. Luckily, one of my best friend’s friend was living with her at the time, and she was a former forensic crime scene investigator from the UK. We would go for lunch and talk about dead bodies, pugilistic poses, murder scenes and the likes over dinner. I can just imagine what people overhearing our conversations, thought!
Theresa was also a community columnist in the local paper, bringing the local news from Burlington, NS, much like I do today. It was wonderful to read her words in the paper, and she had a gift for description.
I went down so many rabbit holes in my research, wanting to know everything about everyone – I researched every jury member, every family member, wanting to know everything about everything.
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?
I really believe I already have. Theresa’s story stuck with me until I wrote it. To me, this was not about writing a book, but telling her story. I would write something again if it equally compelled me. I’m sure it would have an element of crime in it, too, though!
MR: What are you working on now?
I am poking into a few other local crime stories to see if there is enough of a story there. The hard part is finding time to do this, as I have to fit this in around everything else that I actually get paid to write!
So, mostly, I am writing Christmas lists, newspaper articles 😊
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Our family loves to travel. Two years ago our family lived in Wales for 6 months. We are planning to go away in 2020 for a month to revisit Japan, so I can show my family where I used to live, and why I love the country.
I love to hike and explore new trails – and then blog about them; I love to bake, read, have a glass of Moscato with my friends, and spend time with my immediate and extended family, all of whom live within 20 minutes!