Why I Wrote This Book: Issue #4

Featuring Julie (J. Ivanel) Johnson, Ariela Freedman, Leona Theis, Mark Abley, Gina Buonaguro, and Tommy Schnurmacher

Why do your favourite Canadian authors write the books they write? Let’s find out in this exclusive feature here at The Miramichi Reader.


Julie (J. Ivanel) Johnson: Some books take many years, many decades, to come to fruition. Just A STILL LIFE has taken exactly 75.  My grandmother, a ‘closet’ fiction author who left behind seven manuscripts, plus notes and plot/character charts ( in a trunk that’s crossed the ocean twice with me, as well as the continent three times)  started what is now destined to become the  JUST (e)STATE  cozy-mystery series way back in 1947. I took her notes and some of her first draft and promised her 30 years ago on her deathbed that I would rewrite it, modernize it  (to 1971!) and get it published someday, somehow.  I not only changed the time period from her original but moved the setting from her Ontario village to one in the mountains of New Brunswick, where I now reside.  It’s taken so many more decades to work on this piece, and then the usual amount of requisite rejections.  But this past September, it was finally published by Black Rose (Castroville, TX).  And on my grandmother’s birthday! 

   In contrast, other books take very little time to come to the public eye. I was asked to write the novel’s sequel  (a prequel set in 1969) and did so, quickly, in the spring of 2022. It took five weeks of steady work for nine hours a day, but knowing that I had a busy year ahead, I wanted to get it done. I feel like it almost ‘wrote itself’.  Yet, Beta –readers have said this second book has many more twists and turns, and even more literary and word-playing clues than the first.  The publishers are releasing  Just A STALE MATE on June 8, 2023. I know Grandma, the original “Ivanel Johnson”, would be so proud to think that a few of the characters she thought up just after WWII have not only come to many readers’ cozy corners today but that they will live on in an entire series of mystery books, her very favourite genre.   

There’s more about my inspirational grandmother at the bottom of this web page: https://mckencroftproducti.wixsite.com/jivanelauthor/still-life

Or an entire interview about the death-bed promise I made to her, at Marty Tousley’s Grief Healing blog: https://www.griefhealingblog.com/2022/05/voices-of-experience-promise-at-passing.html


Ariela Freedman: I first learned about Léa Roback on a walking tour focused on the history of union activism in Montreal. Léa was a feminist, a socialist, and a labour activist. She was extraordinary, a polyglot and a traveller, with a hundred causes and a thousand friends. She knew all kinds of surprising people: Bertolt Brecht, Käthe Kollwitz, Norman Bethune. But she wasn’t a Zelig, someone who blended in, and chameleon-like, took on the texture of the celebrity of others. On the contrary: everywhere she went, she seemed defiantly herself.

I wanted to know more about Léa and other people to learn about her. Her archives are at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. They contain letters, clipped articles, pamphlets, and diaries. There are cancelled passports and ticket stubs, a cancer diagnosis, and two locks of hair twisted together in a blue silk box shaped like a butterfly. She was a writer–she wrote case studies about working women for the radio in the 1940s, using scripts which I think are at least lightly fictionalized, because even though she worked from interviews it is clear she revised them. But she never wrote her own story, or at least didn’t get very far. She was too busy living to write.

This is my third novel, but my first historical one. Lives don’t have an obvious arc, and Léa’s life was so long and so extraordinary it seemed impossible to cover. She kept reinventing herself. The shape of her life, I decided, was hope.

What struck me as I wrote Léa is that no matter what happened, she never seemed powerless; she always did something. She once said that the important thing in life is to do something, not just write a check. In March 2020 when I was working on this book, doing something felt impossible. It was the time of the pause, of inertia and of grief. But thinking of Lea, I started to do something. I made chilli and banana bread for a homeless shelter downtown. I started driving for the food bank in my neighbourhood, whose distribution centre had been shut down because of the virus. I went to protests and to marches, taking heart from the solidarity of the public, the energy of the crowd which Léa knew so well, and I wrote this book.


Leona Theis: Insatiability: the all-too-human desire for more, more, more. When I began writing the stories I eventually braided into the novel If Sylvie Had Nine Lives I was thinking about the many ways insatiability can mess up our relationships— with each other, with ourselves and with the planet. Sylvie, the novel’s protagonist, is a woman who wants more of everything— attention, money, chocolate, boots, lipstick, lovers … you name it. A woman who hankers after so much, in so many ways, will want at least nine lives from her author, and so I granted them. It’s only fair then, that in the final life I’ve given her, I ask her to address the consequences of all this unstaunched want.

But I haven’t told you the whole story. A novel needs forward motion, so they say. The author makes choice after choice to move the plot along. But when a writer sends a character through the red door instead of the blue one, toward this disaster instead of that, a host of alternate possible plotlines vanish. I’m always sorry to see them disappear, and so I wrote a novel where, when confronted with a life-defining decision, my character opens more than just the one door— a story where she lives not only the life behind the red one but also the lives behind the blue, the yellow, the orange, the purple and on. Forward motion that fans out and out. So who’s insatiable, me or Sylvie?

See also  Why I Wrote This Book: Issue #5

Find out more at www.leonatheis.com or follow me on Instagram @leonajtheis


Mark Abley: This was a book waiting to be written. It had been waiting for more than forty years, ever since a friend and I travelled overland from London to Kathmandu on local buses and trains. In 1978 I was determined to be a poet, and I thought that keeping a detailed journal might provide me with images and memories I could later use. I didn’t foresee how the journal would quickly become a psychological necessity on the trip itself.

The following year I drafted Asian Mass, a suite of poems that emerged from the trip. But from then on, as I moved across a county, across an ocean, across an island, within an island, my Asian journals remained in a suitcase, a drawer, and a cupboard. I was always busy with other projects and other work. But finally, as I approached retirement from my day job as an acquisition editor for McGill-Queen’s University Press, I began to wonder if those three red notebooks could provide the basis for a work of literary travel.

I’d been held back, decades earlier, by my reading of a bestselling travelogue that appeared in 1975, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. For some of the trip, Clare and I were following in Theroux’s caustic footsteps. I thought his book was brilliant (though sometimes repellent), and as a young writer I wasn’t confident enough to step out of his shadow.

At last, it dawned on me that Theroux’s book had passed into literary history and that my own experiences and perceptions were often very different from his. Had he seen the Shah of Iran and met Indira Gandhi? Had he clambered across a now-shrinking glacier in Kashmir? Had he shared a train carriage with Baloch men smuggling Western consumer goods into Pakistan? I realized that I could reflect on the meaning and impact of the ‘hippie trail’, and evoke some of the ecological devastation that has afflicted the region since 1978 – all the while keeping a central focus on the journey itself. That’s what Strange Bewildering Time: Istanbul to Kathmandu in the Last Year of the Hippie Trail attempts to do. (Available February 7, 2023)


Gina Buonaguro: Here’s the backstory to my newest novel, The Virgins of Venice, to be released on December 13, 2022. I spent fifteen years writing six novels with a coauthor: three genre romances and three historical fiction novels. The last one was a very researched murder mystery set in 1508 Rome. We were planning a sequel set in Venice, for which we began doing what turned out to be years of intricate research. When we finally decided to amicably part ways due to creative differences, I had invested so much time into the era that it seemed natural to take all that knowledge and put it into a new novel with an entirely different plot.

What I realized in the aftermath of writing The Wolves of St. Peter’s is that I don’t love murder mysteries enough. My true love is historical fiction, particularly stories focused on the lost stories of women. I knew Renaissance Venice was rich with such hidden stories. The noble girls of Venice had two pathways in life, always decided by their powerful fathers: marriage or monachization. So I set about writing the story of two teenage sisters, one who marries while the other becomes a nun. 

My research also alerted me to a major war fought at the time, the War of the League of Cambrai, which the Warrior Pope, Julius II, initiated against Venice. In May 1509, the Venetians lost a major battle on their mainland territory, leading to the city of Venice being gripped by terror and fear of a sacking. Moreover, the pope excommunicated the Republic around the same time. All of this backdrop was perfect for creating the tension so needed to propel a plot. And so The Virgins of Venice came into being.

Please visit https://ginabu.com/.


Tommy Schnurmacher: My memoir has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump. He is not even mentioned once, but he’s part of the reason I could write the book.

I have toiled as a film and TV critic, gossip columnist, political pundit and radio talk show host. For decades, I wanted to write a memoir but was thwarted by procrastination and a lack of firm deadlines.

One summer afternoon browsing at the Argo bookshop in downtown Montreal. I had an epiphany. I would make a public vow on Facebook to write two pages a day every weekday and post them by noon at the latest.

This worked for a few weeks, but hey, I was giving it away. The folks at Costco do offer you a sample but they’re not just going to hand you the whole roast.

Strong motivation to finish was still required and that is where Trump comes in.

What did I do? My hands shaking, I wrote a $100 cheque to the Re-Elect Donald Trump Fund. I placed this cheque in a small, stamped envelope. I put the small envelope into a larger one. I handed it to a close friend with the following instruction: “I will email you 800 words of my memoir every day until it is completed. If I miss one day, you are to mail the small envelope inside.”

I never missed a single day. Trump got no cheque from me. He never saw a dime.  

I finished the memoir to document the tumultuous relationship I had with my mom. Her life was a testament to the transcending of evil. I have no children so I cannot pass on her legacy directly, but I did not want her story – our story – to go untold. And that is why I wrote this book.  

An excerpt of this book can be found here: https://miramichireader.ca/2022/11/excerpt-makeup-tips-from-auschwitz-by-tommy-schnurmacher/


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