Set in Marathon, a small mining town in Northwestern Ontario, Maud and Me (Crossfield Publishing) tells the story of Nicole LeClair, a middle-aged minister’s wife has a secret: she receives visits from Lucy Maud Montgomery, also a minister’s wife and famed author of Anne of Green Gables. Since Maud has been dead for four decades, Nicole is unsure if this apparition is a vision, a ghost, or a hallucination brought on by her own growing malaise. But one thing that she is sure of is that neither her husband Adam, nor the people in their church would approve.
In the early 1980s, the women’s movement hasn’t yet reached conservative Northwestern Ontario. Nicole deals with her frustrations through her painting and subversive sense of humour, even as she tries outwardly to please everyone: her well-meaning husband Adam, her angry, distant mother, and the congregation of Marathon Community Fellowship. When she becomes desperate for someone who understands, Maud shows up in her garden.
Over cups of tea and long drives along the north shore of Lake Superior, they compare notes and hilarious observations about congregational life. But then news of her father’s death and the discovery of her mother’s betrayal drive Nicole to question everything about her family, her life, and even Maud.
Marianne Jones was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she lives with her husband Reg. Her work has appeared in Room, Wascana Review, Canadian Living and Reader’s Digest, and won awards from the Canadian Authors Association, Writer’s Digest, and others. Her as-told-to memoir, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, won the 2015 Word Alive Press publishing contest. Much of her writing celebrates the unique beauty of Northwestern Ontario. She and her husband love music, live theatre and ballroom dancing. Together they have two daughters and two granddaughters. Marianne is currently at work on a mystery set in Thunder Bay
When was the first time you remember feeling like you had a creative impulse?
As a young child I was aware of a strong desire to “find the right words” to describe things that moved me. I would look up at the treetops against the sky and wish I knew how to describe them in such a way that others would see and feel what I did. When I was 11 I wrote a poem about a picture of a horse in my school reader. After looking at the finished product I knew, deep in my soul, that I wanted to be a writer.
When was the first time you remember reading Lucy Maud Montgomery?
I’m not sure exactly, but my mother gave me books by Lucy Maud Montgomery when I was a child, probably around age 10, and I devoured Anne, Emily of New Moon, The Story Girl, Kilmeny of the Orchard. That aroused my curiosity about Lucy Maud Montgomery, and I read biographies about her.
Have you spent any time in PEI? If so explain things so that we can make the most of possible east coast media.
When I was 13, my parents took us to PEI. My mother and I went to see the iconic Green Gables home and to the Charlottetown Festival. Naturally, we hoped to see a production of Anne, but what was playing was Johnny Belinda. It was a little over my head (innocent times!), but I remember some things clearly. A ballet sequence where she is carried offstage, and a scene of the church women singing, “It’s better to marry than burn.” I also remember seeing the ocean for the first time, and swimming in it. My Dad was so impressed with the peaceful, uncommercial vibe of the Island.
How does religion play a role in your novel?
Religion plays a part in the protagonist Nicole’s, struggles as well as in Maud’s as well. As minister’s wives, they have to present a united front with their husbands. But only in their private thoughts can they be truthful about their real feelings. I was helped with this by reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals. In my story, Nicole and Maud are able to talk freely with one another. The book is not against Christianity, but against the constricted, narrow form of it that they have both experienced.
Can you explain some of the research that went into your novel?
I read all 5 volumes of The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston and Rubio’s biography of Montgomery, The Gift of Wings. Maud and Me percolated and developed over a period of decades. The journals helped me to understand Maud and her struggles, and to (hopefully) capture her authentic voice.
What were some of the influences for creating your protagonist Nicole? What are her key ingredients that make her who she is?
Nicole is an artist who has experienced subtly repressive elements much of her life. Her father’s abandonment left her with an insecurity and fear that if she displeases the important people in her life, they might leave her as well. Her mother’s rigidity has been a controlling influence for Nicole, who has learned to keep her rebellious thoughts hidden. Social influences in the 1970s discouraged women from speaking and living their own truths.
What advice would you wish you would have received earlier in life?
I wish I had been told that anything is possible. It took me many years to acquire the courage to answer the creative urges within.
Do you consider your novel to be partially fan fiction to the memory of your family and Lucy Maud Montgomery?
I think that fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery will find a lot to enjoy in this novel. As will women old enough to remember the “good old days” when women were taught to subordinate their dreams to their husbands. And anyone who has been damaged by legalistic churches.
Was there really a ripped wedding photograph in your family’s history? Is the painting Nicole attempts a way to repair the broken memory her mother had on her husband?
Good question! Yes, actually, there was. I never saw it, but my older sister told me about it. While my father never abandoned us, he did struggle with alcoholism, and my mother had a temper. Apparently, during one of his drinking spells, she destroyed some irreplaceable family photos. When I was writing the scene about Nicole discovering the torn photo, I started to weep and couldn’t continue writing for awhile. That was a clue to me that this was important material that should be in the novel. I think that Nicole painted it because she was beginning to acknowledge and express the pain and loss she had not been permitted to talk about growing up.
If you could ask Lucy Maud Montgomery five questions what would they be?
I would ask her if she regretted marrying her husband, if she regretted not leaving PEI and moving to Boston when she had the opportunity to enjoy the freedom and culture available to her as a literary celebrity. I wonder if she regretted not standing up to her grandmother. She complains in her journal about not being allowed to heat their home properly, even though she had the funds as a famous writer. That strikes me as absurd, but it does say something about how powerful people in our lives can control us. I would ask her if she still idealizes her father, who basically abandoned her early in her life. I would ask her why she tolerated and placated her obsessed fan Isobel for so long.
What age do you think best suits your novel?
Middle-aged and older people will be able to relate to the social attitudes of the last century. Some will remember that there really was a popular book called The Total Woman, which taught women to live to serve their husbands’ every desire. The 1970s to the 1990s was a time of great social changes.
Who are your favourite Canadian artists? (Music, books, painting, film). Music: Joni Mitchell, Diana Krall, Bruce Cockburn, Alan Doyle. Writers: Alistair MacLeod, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Joseph Boyden, Thomas King, Hugh McLellan. Artists: Emily Carr, William Kurelek. Filmmakers: Deepa Mehta, Don McKellar, Kelly Saxberg.
If you could have a big party in Anne’s house in PEI to celebrate the launch of your novel, what would you serve, who would play music and who would host?
The menu would include lobster rolls, Diana’s raspberry cordial with Maud’s “at least you can make lemon pie” for dessert. I would have Lennie Gallant perform and Matt Rainnie host.
Literary hauntings are in a sense, the essence of being a writer. We love our heroes, we love our writers and we love them just as much if not more when they are dead. How would you guide a new writer into following a similar path, let’s say they were really obsessed with TImothy Findley and inspired to write a story about getting letters in the mail from TImothy Findley for example. What advice would you give them about working with their heroes?
Read everything you can about your hero: not just their work, but articles, biographies, and in Maud’s case, her journals. Her journals were weighty, but they gave me the advantage of seeing a side to her she did not reveal to the public. Understand the times they lived in, and how that shaped them. For example, in my novel, Maud says things like, “One must attend to the man of the house.” Modern-day readers might take issues with that, but Lucy Maud Montgomery was a product of her times. Try not to idealize your hero, but rather to represent them with accuracy. It is similar to the preparation that an actor gives to “become” the character they play. In Maud and Me, I had to imagine how Maud might behave if she had a conflict with a friend. Soaking myself in her journals helped. In her life, she was too conscious of her dignity to quarrel outright. Rather, on the occasions where she was challenged by someone, she responded in true Victorian fashion, with an icy hauteur. I used that when I pictured her and Nicole having a sharp difference of opinion.