An in-person interview with Michelle Wamboldt on May 18, 2022 at the Lahave Bakery, recorded by Wanda Baxter for The Miramichi Reader.
An excerpt from the Prologue of Birth Road (as was first written on an envelope next to the author’s bed):
“That road holds all the ghosts of my life. On every corner, in every building, under every tree, and down every lane. I see them watching me and judging the past. All those I loved and all those I did not. They want to relive it. Stir it up again and see how it will all settle back down, like a child’s snow globe.”
Michelle Wamboldt is the first-time author of Birth Road, a historical novel set primarily in Truro, Nova Scotia in the 1920s to 1940s. She lives near Crescent Beach on the south shore of Nova Scotia, and is married with 2 children.
I met with Michelle on May 18, 2022 at the Lahave Bakery, a well-loved bakery/café and community hub. The bakery and café are housed in a beautiful old building on the Lahave River. In the same building is the Craft Co-op in the basement, Lahave River Books is on the second floor (where Michelle’s first book launch was held), and Homegrown Skateboards, a skateboard-making shop complete with its own skateboarding “bowl”, is on the top floor.
Based in Truro, Birth Road is a story inspired by the life and era of Michelle’s grandmother Helen (though the story is imagined), and it is a finely-crafted, historical fiction that is both heartbreaking and empowering. Michelle was inspired by her grandmother’s life to write stories from her point of view; imagining the life she might have led. As the stories piled up, she realized she was writing a novel based on her grandmother’s (imagined) life.
What follows is part of my conversation with Michelle Wamboldt, author of Birth Road – a captivating, woman-centred, gritty Nova Scotian story that will grab you from the opening pages and not let you go until the last one. It is available from Nimbus Publishing or wherever you purchase books.
The quote from Donna Morrisey on the cover of the book reads: “CanLit has found its latest shining star,” and she may very well be right.
Wanda Baxter (WB): First, it’s so nice to meet you, Michelle. Congratulations on finishing your first novel. It must feel amazing to have it finished.
Michelle Wamboldt (MW): Thank you! Yes, it feels amazing to have it out in the world, and the whole process of making the book has been great. I’ve had two book launches already, one was at Lahave River Books, upstairs, and it was a packed house. So many good friends and family were there, and I was happy to get through the readings without crying. There was also a launch in Truro and everyone was wonderful. All my old friends from Willow Street School were there, and all my family. It’s been fantastic so far.
It takes a lot to promote a book, though. You think it’s done when you finish the writing, but there’s a lot to do to get it out there so people know about it. It’s a lot of work. What’s overwhelming – in a good way – is how much positive feedback I’m getting. Every night I hear from someone who has read it, or heard about it, and is excited to read it. When I started the book, I just wanted to give it to my mother as a gift. It was something I wanted to do for her. I didn’t start writing it, originally, to get it published.
The best thing about getting the book published was sharing it with my mother. It was the summer of 2020 when I signed my book contract with Nimbus Publishing – in July. My mother’s birthday is on July 18th, and just the two of us went up to the house in Truro where she was born, and we walked the “Birth Road” of the title together. I did a little video of that day. It was really special for us.
WB: That sounds like an incredible experience for both of you. You seem really close to your mother.
MW: I talk to her every day. My mother was also very close with her mother, and I was very close to my grandmother.
WB: The female characters are so strong and central in the novel, it isn’t surprising you have close relationships with them.
Being that you’re a first-time novelist, Michelle, can you tell people reading this interview a bit about where you grew up and your background, and what brought you to writing Birth Road?
MW: Well, I grew up in Truro (Nova Scotia). My mother is from Truro, and my grandmother and great grandmother are from Truro. There are generations of us there, and it is a tight-knit community. I am a Campbell on my mother’s side, and a Wamboldt on my father’s side. There aren’t many Wamboldt’s in Truro, but when I moved to the south shore, there were lots of Wamboldts. I would start spelling out my name for someone, because I usually have to, and they would say “yeah, no, I know how to spell Wamboldt”.
I studied and worked briefly in journalism after I graduated from Humber University, but then I got a job and worked for 13 years in communications for the federal government. In the back of my mind, though, I always kind of knew I would write a book.
In 2016, I had a great set-up; I was working out of Ottawa but I was able to live in Nova Scotia at Crescent Beach. But then came the federal job cuts under the Harper government. I had seniority by then, so I was offered a choice: I could either move to Ottawa to keep my job, or take a severance package. I didn’t want to move from Nova Scotia, so I took the package. I looked at it as my opportunity to focus on writing.
WB: It takes a lot of effort and belief in your project and self-discipline to finish a novel. How did you get it done? Did it take you a long time, or did you hammer it out in a continuous, focussed effort?
MW: The writing itself isn’t what is hard for me, it’s getting my butt in the chair and making myself do it that’s hard. Self-doubt is so hard, and I had a lot of self-doubt. All told, from start to finish, it took me probably ten years or so to finally finish the book. I talked to a lot of people and did research in between periods of writing. I talked to people who work at Stanfields in Truro (which is featured in the book). I visited the train museum in Lunenburg to learn what it would have been like to travel back then by train. I learned about logging camps, and what life in Boston would have been like at that time. I learned about my grandmother’s life, and the era she lived in, and things she liked. It all helped me get the book written.
For a while, after I left my job, my good friend and I shared chapters back and forth to keep ourselves on track and keep writing. It was helpful, but it wasn’t enough of a commitment to get me to finish the writing. I needed a focus and a deadline.
Then around 2016, I saw there was a mentorship program at the Humber School of Writing. And when I saw they had Donna Morrisey on board to mentor, I jumped at applying. I’m a big fan of Donna Morrisey, I love her novels like Kit’s Law, and Downhill Chance, and I thought if I was matched with her, I would do the program. I got accepted and she was my mentor. It was my foot in the door.
Writing was still very new to me, and it made a huge difference to have someone to be accountable to – to get the writing done. It was the encouragement that mattered so much. From the get-go of sharing my work with her Donna said “You’re good” … and I had thought I wasn’t good, so it really mattered. “Just keep writing”, she kept saying. I had wondered if anyone would want to read it, and now Donna Morrisey was telling me it was good! I got so much done during that mentorship, but when it was over, I lost momentum.
My husband had started a new business and needed a manager, so I starting working for our family business. We were also busy raising our kids and driving them all over the place. I was busy and didn’t have time or discipline to write, really, but the book continued to haunt me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was like I couldn’t get on with life until I wrote it. I’d be going to sleep and think of something and I’d have to jot it down in my book. We’d be driving along and I’d say to my husband “pull over” because I had to write something down before I forgot it, and he would pull over.
I wrote the prologue almost word for word as it exists in the novel on a tax envelope next to my bed one night. I found myself writing it in my head as I fell asleep one night, and I woke myself up and wrote it down before I forgot.
Another three years went by after the Donna Morrisey mentorship before I got back to the book with real intent. First, I went with a friend to a 4-week, focused writing workshop with Reneé Harlieb, but then when it was over the same thing happened: I lost momentum and focus.
Finally, around 2019, my neighbour (writer Sylvia Gunnery) told me about a writer-in-residence (W-I-R) program coming up at the Lunenburg Academy. Chris Benjamin was the W-I-R, and part of his residency role was to meet with local writers and give them feedback on their writing. It was perfect for me. I shared writing back and forth with Chris once a week, and in six months I was finished my novel! The deadlines and the structure of that really helped me finally get it finished.
WB: I need to say how much I like the illustrated map included in the book. I love how it sets the tone of the novel, and helps to visualize Truro as it was. Who is the illustrator?
MW: My good friend Kim Danio did it for me. I told her what I was hoping for and what I wanted the map to include, and she made this wonderful map. I just love it.
WB: I love it too. A map always helps me into a story. I am also interested in the episodic style of the book. Did this writing style come naturally as you wrote it, or were the vignettes sparked by photographs or memories, or how did you develop this format?
MW: When I decided I wanted to write the novel – I knew I wanted it to be different. I envisioned Helen (the main character, who is loosely based on Michelle’s real grandmother Helen) being sparked by small memories as she’s walking. The chapters, which can be read as stand-alone vignettes, are evoked by images or sounds or thoughts she has as she walks. Each chapter is a memory evoked by something in particular. A thunderstorm evokes a memory for Helen, so the title of that chapter is Thunderstorms; the white school house she walks by evokes a specific memory, so that’s the title of that chapter, and so on.
WB: How did you balance the book being based loosely on your grandmother’s life and writing the story as fiction?
MW: I didn’t have to balance those things. Most of the people who are characters in the book are dead, and it’s fiction. I use some people’s real names for characters, including my grandmother’s name, and the places in the book are really places my grandmother lived. She really worked at Stanfields, and she lived for a time in Boston. But it’s fiction. It’s fiction inspired by the timeline and some facts of my grandmother’s life.
WB: Birth Road includes a fair amount of domestic and sexual abuse. Did you find these scenes hard to write?
MW: I found it very hard to write about a woman who would stay with a man who abused her. I find it hard to read those scenes without crying. I wrote those scenes from imagining. When I write, I see what’s happening to the characters and I just write what I see. But yes, those scenes were emotionally hard to write.
WB: Did you have any mentors or teachers who encouraged you to write growing up?
MW: Helen’s favourite teacher in the book is based on a real teacher I had – Mrs. McMillan (Ms. McMillan in the book). I went to find her in Truro after the book came out. I wanted to tell her that I’d written a book, and that she was the inspiration for the teacher.
WB: You talk about love and power in relationships at the very end of the book. What did you want to say about the interplay of love and power in Birth Road?
MW: I wrote the section about love and power later – after most of the book was written. I was uncertain about it. I took it out, put it back in, took it out, put it back in. I didn’t know if I needed to be as definitive about it. But by the end of the book, Helen is looking back and seeing things differently. She looks back at what she’s learned from her memories, and what love looks like after everything. The only thing that could break her free of Edgar was the love for her unborn child. That love was enough to get her away, and she would do anything to protect her baby. Otherwise, she might not have found the strength to leave. Guilt is a powerful, powerful thing – as is hate.
WB: Finally, what’s next for you? Will you write more historical fiction, or do something different?
MW: The next book will be historical fiction set on the south shore. I have a lot of promotion to do for Birth Road over the next while, though.
WB: I look forward to your next book as well. Thanks so much for talking with me, Michelle, and congratulations, again. Birth Road is a remarkable novel.
MW: Thanks so much for your interest, Wanda. I enjoyed talking with you. It is such a strange and wonderful feeling to know my story is resonating with readers – it will take time to get used to it, but I know it is something that I will never take lightly – it truly is so special and humbling.