Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and recently moved back there after living all over Canada and the US. Her latest book, April on Paris Street, is a bittersweet literary mystery that has garnered early praise. Here’s my flash review:
“Dowdall’s main character, Ashley Smeeton, is a street smart PI who finds herself in a completely different situation from her normal sleuthing. Her client sends her off to Paris to convince his wife to return to Montreal but all is not what it seems. Dowdall deftly pulls the reader in with all the right ingredients for an entertaining and mysterious read. Her prose is worth the read alone, she has a terrific way with details and descriptions. There is a clever twist to the end of the story and it is not what you will expect. Well done Anna Dowdall.”
(Note: The following interview originally appeared at The South Branch Scribbler – Ed)
Allan: Thank you for taking the time to be our guest, Anna. Before we discuss your novels and writing, can you please share some personal details with our readers? Where you reside, family & friends or pets.
Anna: Hi Allan! Just as Ashley Smeeton must travel to the mysterious east end of Montreal, there to make all manner of discoveries, I’ve chosen to live a fully francophone life in east-end Montreal. I share a 115-year-old renovated coach house on one of the city’s picturesque green lanes with my part-time editor and full-time cat, Charlie.
Allan: Your website has a neat review – “A Lush, Gripping and Satisfying read” – Iona Whishaw. It doesn’t get much better than that. Tell our readers what to expect when they pick up their copy of April on Paris Street.
Anna: I wanted April on Paris Street to be a suspenseful detective story, first of all, with a relatable PI, but it’s also a mystery that operates on other levels. It’s a sometimes humorous Thelma and Louise “romp,” a sensory experience involving two cities I love, a narrative that invites the reader to contemplate sturdily alternate forms of family, and a revenge fable. But wait, there’s more. It’s a compendium of every form of doubling, fracturing, splitting and replication I was able to think of, suitably encompassed within labyrinthine twin cities. This dédoublement is intended to be decorative, and also intersects with the themes of social fractures, social disguise and competing truths. In a playful but slightly uneasy way, it invites the reader to consider Mirabel’s question, the snowy night when Mireille shows up at their door: how many Miras (or Belles) would in fact be too many?
Allan: When was the defining moment you decided to write stories and seek to be a published author?
Anna: When my mother read me all of Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. The Pink Fairy Book, unless it was The Violet Fairy Book, was like a two-by-four on the side of my little head.
Allan: The Au Pair is your second novel but the first in which we meet your MC Ashley Smeeton as an adult and a private investigator. It has garnered many positive reviews. What can our readers expect?
Anna: The Au Pair was my effort to write a Canadian “classic mystery,” with a mixture of cozy and noir elements and strong female characters. It has my signature obsession with setting and atmosphere. The reader will find in it elements of the Gothic but without the claustrophobia and fainting heroines. Gothic conventions are subsumed into a parable of a dysfunctional family’s multi-generational suffering, but the book offers a sense of resolution. All three of my books, in fact, bring the reader to the sunny side of the street. Female victimhood is a chimera, a misdirection of the mystery plot: the resolution reveals underestimated and misunderstood women playing a long game.
Allan: Where did the inspiration come from for your series and your MC?
Anna: My first book, After the Winter, is vintage-flavoured romantic suspense with that subtle feminist twist I like. It’s a tribute to a midcentury genre not much read anymore but with some fabulous neglected books. The Au Pair, with its Laurentian version of an English country house filled with privileged people, probably owes quite a bit to what is called Golden Age fiction, e.g., Agatha Christie. April on Paris Street has those influences, but also others: in my piling on of meaning around the doubles, there’s a playful invocation of high literature, everything from A Tale of Two Cities to Two Solitudes.
Ashley has been dear to my heart, as she evolves throughout. She is a pigtailed nine-year-old in After the Winter, a secondary character who somehow insinuates her way into the protagonist role in books 2 and 3. For my PI I wanted a working-class heroine, a young woman of the people, quintessentially Canadian in her multiple identities, and with an oddness about her that sets her apart. My background is neither middle class nor unicultural, and I’m sure there is something of me in her.
Allan: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
Anna: One summer I wrote a “book” on some waste paper my dad brought home from the paper mill where he worked. The heroines were called Gwendolyn and Marigold. They had eyes like twin sapphire pools and, like Thelma and Louise, they were preoccupied with breaking free. Their exotic adventures came to an abrupt conclusion when I went back to school in September.
Allan: From reading your bio – Bio – Anna Dowdall – you’ve lived an interesting life (even as a Maritimer while teaching at Dalhousie University) and have returned to Montreal to write full time. How much of your past adventures find their way into your stories? How many of Anna’s personality is evidenced in your characters?
Anna: I am in all of my characters, I swear! Even, really, the awful ones. As for the first part of your question—yes, adventure is the keyword. Why shouldn’t women have adventures? Unlike Ashley, however, I’ve avoided tripping over dead bodies—or so I will maintain.
Living in and travelling to different parts of this beautiful country of ours should be more common. It’s been my privilege to visit many different parts of Canada. I’ll never forget driving across the country, from Halifax to the Yukon. Among many captivating places, for some reason, the Qu’Appelle River Valley and the Saint John River Valley stick in my mind.
In New Brunswick, we were driving along some narrow road at dusk and began to follow this river. I wasn’t sure where we were, and then I saw the sign, St. John River. It had been pouring all day but now there was a yellow light in the west, lighting up the surface of the water. It was one of those moments in time. I’ll save emoting about the Qu’Appelle Valley for another Q&A. I grew up on the shores of the mighty Saint Lawrence and clearly, I have a thing for rivers.
Allan: Favorite authors? Books? Movie? Dessert?
Anna: Writers: Constance Beresford-Howe, Rebecca West, Mervyn Peake, Ursula Curtiss, Lucy Maud Montgomery. But I love many more.
Movie: Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears
Dessert: homemade apple pie, made from scratch with Canadian fall apples
Allan: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
Anna: Your questions are an ingenious mix of friendly and probing. I think I’ve said more than enough.