25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Jennifer DeBruin

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Photo Credit: Jennifer DeBruin

Jennifer DeBruin, from Cornwall, ON, has just released her first novel, A Walk with Mary (GSPH). In today's On Writing interview, Jennifer talks about the research she had to undertake to write the novel and the biggest challenge she had to overcome.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, A Walk with Mary.

Jennifer DeBruin:

The book explores life along the St. Lawrence River through the experience of one of the former residents of the ?Lost Village? of Moulinette. Precipitated by the onset of Alzheimer?s, Mary?s granddaughter Eliza begins to realize that there is more to her grandmother and that if anyone is ever to truly know who she is, her story must be told. Sitting on the banks of the river, overlooking the dark waters where Mary?s home once stood, Eliza tries to imagine a time and place that no longer exists.

The story begins with William Phillips, a young blacksmith, setting out to find a place he can call home with his beloved wife, Adelaide. What he finds is the idyllic village of Moulinette, revered for its natural beauty, generational Loyalist homesteads, and among the traditional lands of the Mohawk people for centuries, yet now known to history as a ?Lost Village.?

Their daughter, Mary, raised in a generation known for its stoic resolve, is witness to some of the greatest event in modern history: the advent of the automobile, the tuberculosis pandemic, war, the Great Depression, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. For Mary, all came with a price.

Even though Eliza finds raw emotions that linger beneath the surface in having loved and lost cherished people and places, despite it all, she also finds a spirit that endures.


Historical fiction must require a lot of research. What was your strategy for your research and writing? (i.e. did you do all of your research first, or did you work on both at once?) What were you most surprised to learn?


Much of my research was garnered from family stories over the years, which even from a young age interested me. I have also been conducting extensive genealogical research for over a decade and find the stories within it help build much of the historical context needed to set the scenes in my writing. However, the research for my next book, which explores Loyalist history, has required many hours of furthering my knowledge. In this case, I have been writing and researching simultaneously.

One surprise in my research was the fact that even though I endeavour to see history as it is, not as I might wish it to be, there were times when the illusions about my own family?s role in history were made evident. Depending on who has written a historical piece and their affiliations (family or otherwise), it can be made to seem that past actions were righteous, dignified and always honourable. However, once the glorified, biased renditions were peeled away, the truth was much more raw, and at times, brutal. This is sometimes difficult to accept, but I believe it is necessary to have a truth in my writing.


What was your inspiration for A Walk with Mary?


The inspiration for the book was my grandmother?s life journey. The word "journey" implies challenges along the way and there were times she only persevered through shear willpower. Many events changed the course of her life, yet until I became an adult with my own family, I could never have put myself in her place to better understand her experience. Once I looked past the label of "grandmother," I imagined what it must have been like as a woman in a time very different from my own; to go through all the challenges and disappointments she had and yet come through with a spirit, while appropriate to her generation, was no less passionate than my own.

One quote from the book, ??just as the waters washed away Mary?s beloved village, so now Alzheimer?s is washing away her memories,? best describes the connection between the setting for the story and my grandmother?s experience. As Alzheimer?s took hold, my grandmother?s beloved Moulinette became ever-more present, allowing her to go home again in the only way this ?Lost Village? could be brought back to life. I found that fascinating. A place lost to history, was made alive again through her. The story of the ?Lost Villages? is heartwarming and equally heart-wrenching. I wanted to honour this history by humanizing the experiences of what my grandmother, and so many others, went through.


What was the biggest challenge to writing your first novel, and how did you overcome it?


As writing the book was essentially like watching a movie unfold in my mind, it was easy for me to write as the characters "lived" their story. I could look around the room the character was in and see every detail, which can be a bit of an issue. You can get caught up in the detail. Sometimes I found myself so focused on the minutia it stalled the overall story unfolding. I had to learn to stay focused on the story.


What advice would you give to other first-time novelists who are just embarking on the process?


Don?t focus on the fear. My book sat under my desk for eight years before I was "brave" enough to share it with others. Yet, the experiences I have had to date since the launch of the book have been more enriching than I could have imagined.


What are you working on now?


I am working on another historical fiction which follows the experience of a Loyalist woman during the time of the American Revolution until her arrival to the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

In my own genealogy women are often "the mother of" and "wife of," with their story but a footnote. It is important to me, however, that the story is truthful in its telling. It is not a sentimental, rosy view but rather a complicated, sometimes terrifying, journey often made with children in tow. It is the human story of a very important part of our history. Though I have enjoyed many books on the subject of the Loyalists, I wanted to shift the focus a little.

An avid student of life, with a particular interest in history and genealogy, Jennifer DeBruin has had the opportunity to do research and travel in search of stories about people and places. Currently a communications professor at St. Lawrence College in Cornwall, Ontario and an experienced entrepreneur with a successful training business, Jennifer has developed a diverse and rewarding career. Jennifer is happily married with two children and lives in Eastern Ontario. A Walk with Mary is her first novel.

For more information about A Walk with Mary please visit the GSPH website.

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

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