Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Five Explorer Questions For Dorothy Ellen Palmer re: When Fenelon Falls

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer is whip-smart and unafraid of new experiences. She has a keen eye for details, voice and forging connections between seemingly random occurrences. But don?t take our word for it: pick up her latest book, When Felelon Falls (Coach House Books), and see for yourself. Dorothy actually shares some important details with her main character — specifically that she was also conceived during Hurricane Hazel and adopted at age three. Dorothy graciously shares her experiences in writing When Fenelon Falls with Open Book Explorer.

Open Book:

Could you tell us a bit about how the book came about?

Dorothy Ellen Palmer:

When Fenelon Falls kicked around in my head for about 20 years. It?s the story of a hurricane, a bastard, and a bear, set in cottage country in the iconic summer of 1969. Much of it is openly biographical. Like Jordan May March, I was conceived in Hurricane Hazel when it ravaged Toronto in 1954. I grew up in the Toronto suburb of Alderwood, and saw it change from an English/Scottish neighbourhood as Italian families crossed the railroad tracks from Mimico. My family has spent every summer since 1921 at our cottage on Balsam Lake where there really was a bear named Yogi caged at the top of our road. I?d always wanted to write about someone I?d never seen in Canadian Literature, someone like me: a disabled a girl with corrective shoes and a limp, an adopted teen who has two families in her head, two homes in real life — the suburbs and her family?s Kawartha cottage — and a real home in neither.

And, who wouldn?t want to write about the summer of 1969? From the death of Judy Garland, through to the moon landing, Helter Skelter and Woodstock, like Jordan, I was fourteen, obsessed with Toronto radio station CHUM, and the proud owner of a yellow transistor radio. I still know all the songs of that summer by heart.

Lastly, I?ve always been fascinated by what authors use as building blocks. When Jordan writes 100 Hazels, linked creation stories that imagine and re-imagine her illicit conception during Hurricane Hazel, she does so using my real-life adoption papers, my Non-Identifying Information from Toronto Children?s Aid. She invents her birthmother, an unmarried, unstable Scots-Ontario '50s farm girl, hospitalized for electroshock, whose pregnancy ?explanations? include the trailer park at Marie Curtis Park, the Mimico Insane Asylum, the CNE Horse Palace, JFK, Marilyn Bell, Perry Mason, and Louisa May Alcott, all the touchstones of my own childhood. When I finally met my birthmother in 2011, I was amazed by how many times I had invented things that came eerily close to the truth. When Jordan used my building blocks, we both built new homes.


The novel bridges a considerable gap between the early 1950s to late '60s. Did you find it difficult to avoid anachronisms? How did you go about staying consistent with two seemingly disparate eras (and the sliding in between)?


It was extremely important to me to recreate both eras as vividly and as accurately as possible. I was helped by two things: Firstly, having lived through the 1960s, I could mine my personal memory. Put a box of Pink Elephant Popcorn on your desk, and the world it comes from comes with it. Secondly, with a degree in Social History, I already had an historical and cultural understanding of post-war and 1960s Toronto. Once I got Jordan?s voice in my head, I heard, saw, smelled, and felt 1969 again. Once Jordan began to write in her birthmother?s voice, she relived all the post-war stories of my parents and aunts and uncles. Using this ?second story- teller in the story? technique, helped to keep he two times and settings separate.

And thanks to the wonder of Google, it was fun to avoid anachronisms. That research was a blast. I got to spend my day checking the really vital things, like the exact day that Star Trek got cancelled, how it was Roy Rogers who gave Marilyn Bell her trophy after her historic swim across Lake Ontario to the CNE, and exactly how many weeks Sugar Sugar by the Archies ruled the Chum Chart at Number One.


The use of vernacular (Marchspeak) in this novel is wondrous; contextual, it appears, to a specific location but also highly relatable. Were there invented elements, or was it a candid reflection of your own experiences?


Both. When I was in high school, my group of friends developed our own language, Narg. A kind of Pig Latin, it added ?arg? to every word, leaving meaning to context, inflection, and how well we knew each other. ?Arg do narg tharg I warg to garg swimarg todarg.? is, ?I do not think I want to go swimming today.? As unintelligible as it sounds, we understood it perfectly. Marchspeak grew from Narg, and from all the ritualistic Scottish sayings in my family. We have chants for things like jumping off the dock or knocking on a cottage door. Those are used verbatim, making Marchspeak about half real and half invented. And, of course, language draws some in and pushes some out. That is its real function in the novel.


Given the darker elements of many of the book?s themes (abuse, bigotry, neglect etc.), how important was it for you to weave humour into the narrative?


Absolutely vital. In my 23 years as a high school drama teacher, my speciality was improv. I ran a weekly lunchtime show, countless tournaments, and Canada?s only two-credit improv program. I?ve seen generations of young people explore anything and everything using humour. From gay-bashing to cyber-bulling, my improvisers made their audiences both think and laugh. With the recent death of Robin Williams, I put the conjoining of humour and darkness this way to one of my former improvisers: ?I often think that comics know a rare kind of pain, and from it, and because of it and despite it, their genius fights sadness with joy. I think that those of us who have ever stood on the edge of a stage longing to make people laugh understand their lives as a triumph over pain.?

So while many of the events and themes in When Fenelon Falls are dark, infant sexual abuse, date rape, the bullying of the disabled, teen suicide, Jordan attempts to face all of it with a spunk and sarcastic bravado that make it more possible for the audience to face it with her.


When you look at Toronto and its remarkable history over several historic eras, what stands out to you most? Why?


Hmmmm?. I?ll pick five. 1. Gridlock. The lack of vision by a series of conservative mayors for some fifty years, who didn?t have the guts to say we need to build new expressways and subways now, in 1954, now, in 1969. 2. Immigration. The transformation of staid WASP Toronto to a buzzing multicultural hive. 3. Our waterfront. The founding of the Toronto Parks Authority and legislation prohibiting residences on low-lying land, created our waterfront and parks, all thanks to Hurricane Hazel. 4. Scandal. That prissy Toronto the Good, the city that when I was a child closed cinemas on Sundays, now has a crack-smoking mayor. Enough said. 5. Potential. The historical project of Toronto is inclusive, democratic, people-centered and progressive. Let?s hope it remains so.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer grew up in Alderwood, Toronto and spent childhood summers on Balsam Lake, just north of Fenelon, where there really was a bear in a cage. In 23 years as a Drama/English teacher, Dorothy taught in a Mennonite Colony, a four-room school house in rural Alberta, and an Adult Learning Centre attached to a prison. She has coached for The Canadian Improv Games, attended The Banff Writer?s Colony and The Humber School for Writers, and is a proud executive member of her Sherlock Holmes Scion Society, The Bootmakers of Toronto. She is currently at work on two second novels, Kerfuffle, the story of a Toronto improv troupe whose theatre is damaged in the G20 protests, and another work blending personal history and fiction: Wiggins: Spawn of Sherlock. From her condo window, she continues to enjoy the Lake Ontario view she loved as a child.

For more information about When Fenelon Falls please visit the Coach House Books.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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