Why will I forever laugh out loud at the sight of a pontoon plane? Why do you see Boyden inside the front cover of my copy of The Orenda?
The answer is simple. Joseph Boyden and Michael Winter spoke at the Uxbridge Musical Theatre and I was there.
Ted Barris, host interviewer, referred to Boyden and Winter as a Vaudeville act. Right on cue, their heads poked through the center curtain.
The tone of the evening was set, a mix of serious discussion and levity.
Joseph Boyden read a scene from The Orenda that began with Snowfall, a young Iroquois girl, blackening her face in an effort to intimidate the Huron village. Snowfall soon experienced the mystical powers of Gosling, the shaman. As he read about Gosling’s hand cupping snow and the images that emerged there, his own cupped hand hovered above the podium, mirroring her movements.
Boyden shared that Snowfall is his favourite of the characters he’s created thus far. He is comfortable writing from the feminine point of view. Boyden commented that the women he writes about are usually right and the men are usually wrong, as in real life. He laughed along with the audience here. He referred to the Huron women bringing in the harvest and the auntie in Three Day Road keeping Xavier alive.
“I felt channeled through Snowfall.” – Boyden
Michael Winter’s natural storytelling ability transformed the theatre into a Newfoundland kitchen party. He’d just learned that a young Glen Gould played piano on the Uxbridge Musical Theatre stage years ago.
Winter shared an anecdote about how Gould had created a Newfoundland soundscape. After countless failed attempts to capture the right wave sounds, Gould’s producer played a recording of Galapagos Island waves. Gould was finally satisfied. The wave track was included in the Newfoundland soundscape. Winter read a soulful passage about Henry from Minister Without Portfolio. This is a character who becomes an adult, fails at it, then tries again.
“Sometimes to make a thing seem more itself,
you have to make it something else.” – Winter
On the Importance of Detail
“I always go to the people with knowledge,” said Boyden. In the early days of his career, he felt shy to approach experts for information about their area of study, so he’d write a letter. “I hope you don’t mind me bothering you, he’d write, but I’m working on this novel …” He sought out elders, WW1 historians, engineers, and McGill professors. “People with knowledge don’t hold it greedily,” he told the audience. They want to share it, if you approach them properly.
Winter traveled to Afghanistan to experience the country he would write about. Interviewees who’d served abroad explained the experience in broad sweeps, so he asked them specific questions. Did you get thirsty often? How did you get home? What kind of plane brought you back? At first, people found these questions odd until they realized that the answers they shared were taking the shape of a narrative. “Detail brings the story to life. Details are critical.”
Although the first person present point of view is “tricky and exhausting” to keep up, Boyden said, “I love the immediacy of it.” Referring to Three Day Road, Winter adds, “Rarely do you see a book that when you step back, you wonder if the book is a dream or real life. Joseph can “keep the airplane in the air for 300 pages”. “He has the technical skills and he is a great story teller.”
“Any good historical novel must ring true contemporarily, in some way.” – Boyden
When asked why he doesn’t use quotations marks, Winter grinned. “I write with quotation marks, but when I finish, I sweep them into a small burlap bag I keep next to my desk. By recycling day, it can weigh up to five pounds!” When the laughter subsided, he went on to explain that quotation marks are clunky. They announce, “Here is the dialogue.” Without them, he is saying, “Be very quiet and come along with me. I have some people back here. You need to meet them.”
“Without quotation marks, reading feels like a voyeuristic act.” – Winter
Ted Barris expressed curiosity over Jim Balsillie, cofounder of Blackberry, being thanked in The Orenda’s acknowledgements. Boyden asked Balsillie to read The Orenda because of his passion for history and his reputation for thinking “outside the box”. Balsillie agreed to read The Orenda and share his impressions.
Winter acknowledgment gives the nod to over 50 people who assisted with dialogue. When asked why, he explained that he carries a notebook with him at all times to record pieces of dialogue which he later adapts to his characters. “It’s true,” Boyden chuckled, “he always has a notebook in his pocket.”
So, why will I forever laugh out loud at the sight of a pontoon plane?
Michael regaled the audience with his experience of being pinned beneath the neighbour’s beautiful daughter after they were pummeled to the ground by water dropped from an overhead pontoon plane. Somewhere in the mix was a mischievous older brother, a blazing fire and a bikini.
Michael was as engaging and genuine off the stage as on. He signed my book, “It’s easy, small things add up!”
And why do you see Boyden inside the front cover of my copy of The Orenda?
On my approach to the signing table, I said, “Hello Mr. Boyden.” He shook my hand. “No, call me Joseph.” The following morning, when I reread the inscription, I noticed that he’d crossed out his last name.
Perhaps the most subtle unspoken message I’ve never heard.
Do you have a book signing story that you’d like to share?
I’d love to hear from you.
(PS Many thanks to Blue Heron Books for organizing such a wonderful evening.)