25th Trillium Award

Trillium Takes Ontario: Linda Spalding

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Open Book loves Trillium season! Find out more about the talented authors nominated for the Trillium Book Award by following our special new series. We'll catch up with as many of these writers as we can in the lead-up to the awards announcement on Tuesday, June 18th. You can hear the finalists read from their nominated works on Monday, June 17th at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library. Visit Open Book's Events page for details.

Linda Spalding was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for her novel The Purchase (McClelland & Stewart), which was also a finalist for the Roger's Writers Trust Award and won the Governor General's Literary Award. Today Linda tells us about the shock of learning that her ancestors had been slave-owners and the years of inquisitive research that followed.

Open Book:

What was one source of inspiration for your Trillium-nominated book, and how did that spark find its way into the final version of your project?

Linda Spalding:

As a child, I learned that my paternal family had been slave-owners before moving from Virginia to Kansas in 1856. This was a terrible shock to me as my father was a civil rights lawyer and activist and I took our virtues for granted. Worse was to learn that we had come to North America as Quakers, people of strong moral and ethical purpose, the very people who began abolitionism and outlawed slavery amongst themselves. How then, I wondered, had we slipped into the vicious practice of slavery? What had brought that about?

I think the puzzle of this must have nagged at me more or less gently for many years as I became more and more interested in Quakerism, participated in meetings of worship and made a pilgrimage to early Quaker sites with a group of international students. At some point I received a batch of family papers, too — geneology, some mythic stories, some rough facts about the past. I saw that my father’s people, who had come to Pennsylvania in 1725, were well connected politically and apparently devout. With all this in mind, I began to imagine the world they’d inhabited and the problems they had confronted. I looked into the lives of the first three or four generations. I went to Virginia to look at the site of my great, great, great Grandfather’s cabin and to read deeds and census reports.

More than the question of breaching ardent beliefs, I wondered about the effect of such a breach on the first slave-buyer and his family. The Purchase is concerned with these questions and writing it brought me some sense of understanding my ancestor and his heirs but, of course, it is a work of fiction. I cannot really know the truth of those forgotten lives. Instead, I read the journals of 19th century planters, slave narratives and histories. I read Jefferson’s descriptive book about Virginia, which lists every river and creature and plant. I read books of herbal medicine and learned details of the War of 1812. All of this was great fun. Research is the second-best thing about fiction. The first-best is making things up.


What was an essential part of your writing routine while you worked on this book?


Most important, I think, was the research. I had to dive into a time and place I knew nothing about — frontier Virginia in 1798. I found that reading slave narratives and planters’ journals was essential to my search for voice as well as information. This was a long, long process of several years. Slowly, I began to feel my way into the mindset of a man of that period. The women were always easier, since I’m sure my grandmother’s life was not very different from her grandmother’s life. But the men’s circumstances changed radically, along with their views and beliefs. For years, I wrote copiously. Then I cut and cut and cut.


What location in Ontario do you think would make the best writers' retreat, and why?


For me, it is my own cottage, because I like to spend hours alone, garden, read and swim during my working hours. For others, I’m sure it should be a place on water, reasonably remote for the same reasons. How lovely if there could be food drops! And pets must be allowed. Also wi-fi because research is impossible now, without it. Good luck!

Born in Kansas, Linda Spalding immigrated to Canada in 1982. She is the author of three novels and a work of nonfiction, The Follow, which was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award and the Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize. She received the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the Canadian literary community. The Purchase was the winner of the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about The Purchase please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

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

Visit the OMDC website to read more about the Trillium Book Award.

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