The Sheila Murray Interview

In her new and debut novel, Finding Edward, (Cormorant Books)*, Hamilton author Sheila
Murray presents to readers Cyril Rowntree, who arrived in Toronto from Jamaica in 2012.
Managing a precarious balance of work and university he begins to navigate his way through the
implications of being racialized in his challenging new land. A chance encounter with a
panhandler named Patricia leads Cyril to a suitcase full of photographs and letters dating back to
the early 1920s. Cyril is drawn into the letters and their story of a white mother’s struggle with
the need to give up her mixed-race baby, Edward. Abandoned by his own white father as a small
child, Cyril’s keen intuition triggers a strong connection and he begins to look for the rest of
Edward’s story. Before the book was even a twinkle in the printer’s eye, Donna Bailey Nurse,
author of What’s A Black Critic to Do? declared the novel “one of the most penetrating dramas of
Black experience in all of Canadian literature. This tale of a lonely Jamaican student enrolled at
Ryerson University follows his obsession with the life of a struggling Black boy in
Depression-era Toronto. A parallel portrait of two Black bi-racial men, Finding Edward expands
to enfold a sweeping history of Blacks in Canada. This beautiful, necessary novel will become a
touchstone.”

No pressure, right?

Sheila Murray’s short fiction has been published in many literary journals including Descant,
The Dalhousie Review, and The New Quarterly. Finding Edward is her first novel. Murray is an
advocate for social justice and currently leads a grassroots, volunteer-driven initiative that
engages urban residents in adapting to local climate change impacts. She was born and raised in
St. Albans, England, and now lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

How have literary magazines helped inspire you to complete your first novel? (I’m
assuming they may have).

I’ve been writing for many years. I began with no thought of being published, but that changed
as I learned more about writing which is work that must be shaped to communicate. A story
should urge a reader from start to finish. The ending may not satisfy, but getting there should be
engaging and entertaining. Once I understood that was the job of writing fiction, or my job
anyway, then I needed to see the work published because that would mean that someone other
than myself had read the story. Editors of literary magazines read a lot of submissions. Having
mine accepted meant that I’d done a good job. The novel is the next, logical, step. Take what you
know and discover that you need to learn a whole lot more. It’s a welcome challenge.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in completing Finding Edward?

I didn’t have too much trouble completing the book although I began it without knowing what
would happen, only that my central character was going to learn a whole lot about being mixed
race, Black in Toronto. But I did have a final scene in mind: a diverse group of people around a
dining table in the storefront window of an antique shop. That scene was deleted, along with the
cast of characters who were eating that meal. Only Cyril and Edward remained in the rewrite.
What did take a long time was getting the book published. I wrote the second draft a number of
years ago, and it was only an accidental meeting between a friend who knew my writing and my
editor, who said, after seeing the manuscript, that he wanted to publish it.

As your book is set in the past and reflects historical truths, what sort of research was
involved for you?

See also  The Sarah Ens Interview 

The research on the book was fairly extensive. My secondary character, Edward, was born in
Toronto in the 1920s and I wanted to know what sorts of experiences a mixed-race man, who’d
be living life in the margins, might have in Canada. The research also needed to reflect the sorts
of things that Cyril would find as he searched. Neither Cyril nor I are historians. There is a rich
history of Toronto through the decades, but much less has been written about Black histories, but
what does exist describes populations that were, at times thriving and flourishing. What Cyril
and I found were bits and pieces. A tantalizing picture of Black experience, mostly in Toronto,
but with glimpses across Canada. I have Black historians to thank for revealing these too often
hidden histories.

What are you most looking forward to about the release of Finding Edward?

I imagine that most writers would say the same. It’s the response from readers. Only a few
people had read the manuscript before my editor saw it for the first time. His first editorial
request was that I add more scenes with some of the minor characters and more history. Those
were easy to do, and a real pleasure. It was going deeper, developing characters, and of course, in
doing that told so more about Cyril and Edward. I got to know them better. The response so far
has been overwhelmingly positive, more than I’d ever anticipated. My hope, of course, is that
other readers will take as much pleasure from reading Finding Edward.


You paint a perilous image of depression-era Toronto, the struggle to find ends meet – the
growing seas of men looking for work. Was it at all frustrating, to have to write of an era so
devoid of equality for women’s rights?

The struggle was enormous for just about everyone, a desperate daily grind to get the necessities
of life. In an effort to shore up the tide of unemployed men, one of the few government responses
to the depression was to establish relief camps. My character, Edward, goes to one of those,
where he gets room and board in return for manual labour and twenty cents a day. It seems that
many women were rather better off than single, unskilled men and many ended up as
breadwinners for their families.

It’s a violent world. It always has been. What positive message do you hope your book will
deliver?

In a world that sees so much violence, the aggressions that Edward and Cyril endure seem small.
Edward is a scrapper. Fighting is his way of dealing with disappointment, but only with
others who use the same strategy to manage their own frustrations. Cyril has only one experience
with direct, personal violence, and it undermines his confidence, causing him to withdraw rather
than fight. The greater violence that Cyril must learn to fight against is inherent in a culture that
would happily exclude him: a systemic violence. I hope that Finding Edward can show how men
and women thrive, despite that violence, and that the system can be challenged and sometimes
overcome.

*An excerpt from Finding Edward can be read here.


Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments