A beautiful balance: A talk with Sandra Gulland at the Toronto Reference Library

Sandra Gulland, the author
I have A LOT of books. I’ve been collecting them since I was a little girl, and my parents’ attic can attest to the fact that I can never own too many books. And I remember while reading these books, many of which have become long time favourites, I would imagine meeting the author, but never thinking I would be able to. However, since pursuing a career in publishing, I have met more authors than I had ever thought possible. When you’re little you think of authors as these grand, untouchable beings that one never sees never mind talks to. My younger self was obviously very wrong. Authors are everywhere, especially in Toronto, and they make sure they can be found with book launches and events at various venues.

I read Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy when I was sixteen years old (there are somewhat messy “This Book Belongs To” handwritten notes on the inside the covers of all three books), and thus my love of historical fiction was born, and I’ve never looked back. I have read A LOT  of historical fiction since then, but I have always remembered Sandra Gulland’s books fondly. I have also been obsessed with Josephine and Napoleon, reading their real love letters to each other and researching them for history papers in university. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that Sandra was coming to the Toronto Reference Library to talk about her latest book The Shadow Queen.

the eh list author seriesThe event was a part of the Toronto Public Library’s author series The eh List in which throughout the year, the library has been showcasing the works of various Canadian authors, having them come and talk about their latest book. Last fall, I saw C.C. Humphreys, another long time favourite author of historical fiction, and I was very impressed with the whole evening. When I noticed Sandra Gulland was coming in 2014, I was ecstatic (living in the city does have its perks…sometimes). If you love Canadian literature and Canadian authors then you should definitely think about coming out to one of these events if you are in the Toronto area. They are well worth the effort—you get to know the author and you can get a favourite book signed.

Sandra’s talk was a great exposé of how she writes historical fiction and the careful blending of fact with fiction that happens. It is a difficult process writing historical fiction. You have to make your plot exciting even though your readers likely already know the ending to the story (unless they have been living under a rock or snoozed through every history class). This difficulty was something I was taught in my substantive and stylistic editing course, and it was nice to know that authors are also aware of the challenge they face and are able to approach it themselves. Of course, it also helps that Sandra was an editor in another life (a fact that served to increase my admiration of her, including the fact that she helped start the Editors’ Association of Canada [EAC]!).

Sandra GullandAll of those in attendance were also given an inside look at Sandra’s characters and just exactly how they develop. In addition to being true figures from history, Sandra also imbues them with certain characteristics from people she knows and loves. This was the case for The Shadow Queen, where her father’s quirky and loving mannerisms have been incorporated into two of her most cherished characters: Claudette’s brother and the playwright Corneille. This admission was truly touching. No wonder Sandra’s characters are able to lift themselves off the page and so easily dance into our lives full of vibrant energy: She knows them in the most intimate way possible, and it shows in her writing. We also learned another lovely fact about Sandra’s characters, a trait that has been consistent until now with the introduction of Claudette: All of Sandra’s characters had bad teeth. It was a known fact. Poor romanticized Josephine had terrible, terrible teeth in real life. Apparently this fact was very disconcerting for some readers. I don’t particularly remember being put off by it, but I was only sixteen at the time and memory of my reactions are vague. Although, I don’t know what all the fuss was about. The French also barely bathed back then, so how are rotting teeth much worse?

After these lovely anecdotes, Sandra read from The Shadow Queen. While I haven’t bought the book yet, I certainly have a desire to read it now. Not every author has the ability to capture an audience when speaking aloud, many excel only on the page, but Sandra certainly didn’t lack expression. When she spoke her characters were speaking through her. Claudette was young and excitable and Corneille was wise and artistically brilliant. I felt like I already knew them from the get-go, and I yearned to hear mind. If the objective was to entice her readers, Sandra certainly succeeded.

Following a brief Q&A period, Sandra also graciously signed books. One of the first in line, I had my worn Josephine B. trilogy and The Mistress of the Sun ready to be signed. This woman and author, who I had never imagined meeting, signed three of the most influential books in my life, and I can’t wait to read The Mistress of the Sun, which she signed with the words, “Sing Ye.” She said I would understand its significance after I read the book. It is safe to say, I am intrigued by this allusion.

signed book by Sandra Gulland

If you want to know more about Sandra Gulland, she has a beautifully detailed website, which talks about all her books and her sources.

Also, if you want to be able to attend the next eh List Author Series event, you can find all upcoming events on the Toronto Public Library website.




No apologies: The M Word book launch

The M Word book banner

At some point in all of our lives we feel an outside pressure to, putting it plainly, give birth. And yes, in the Stone Age, it was expected. But not now. I admit, I have given the whole “having kids” thing some thought, and, for the most part, I am undecided. I will smile at the cute baby in the buggy or the toddler making funny faces, but it doesn’t mean I want one of my own, even if that is the mistaken assumption of others if I opt to hold the newest baby in the family or wave back at a curious two year old. I can think they’re cute, but that is as far as it goes. Of course, it doesn’t help that I am only in my 20’s, just getting my career off the ground, and still living apart from my boyfriend.

So, here I am with these conflicting thoughts on motherhood and whether or not it is in my future and I’m wondering, “I can’t be the only one who thinks this way, right?” Watching various people I grew up with get engaged, get married, and get pregnant (whether or not in that exact order), I was beginning to think…maybe I was.

Well, the book launch on April 15, 2014  of The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood edited by Kerry Clare thankfully proved me wrong. It was hosted in the infamous Ben McNally’s bookstore (If you haven’t been, I suggest you do. The interior and its contents are to-die-for beautiful).

Upon initially arriving I felt terribly out of place. There were a lot of older, more than likely married women with children running around. I began to think…maybe this was a bad idea. I was wrong to think so, of course, because that evening was not about “motherhood” and “mothers” in which the definition of both translates into “women who are married with kids.” The M Word is a much larger conversation than that and it takes being a mom to a whole new level. It talks about becoming a mom, waiting to become a mom, becoming a mom through different methods, and deciding not to become a mom at all. It is a very liberating, honest collection of real stories that are frank in the best way possible. There is no sugar coating or pretending to be the stereotypical “super mom” every child thinks he or she knows and loves.

Kerry Clare and the book The M WordThe evening opened up with the editor, Kerry Clare, talking about the book and how it all began. A fantastically personable individual, she started the book launch off right. She discussed how the concept for The M Word came about and not too surprisingly, it came from conversations she had been having about motherhood with other moms. And it was through having these heart-to-heart talks with other women that Kerry came up with her idea of collecting all these truthful, even anti-conformist ideas of what motherhood means and making a book out of it. One literary agent and a book deal with Goose Lane Editions later and The M Word was in business, and now out just in time for Mother’s Day! (If you are behind on the whole gift thing, here’s a helpful option. It is only a week away now.)

The M Word contributors

The M Word contributors After Kerry’s introduction, each of the contributors who were present for the evening came up and read a short excerpt from their essays. This blog post would become unbearably long if I were to go through each of the contributor’s talks, but I will say that there is no doubt in my mind that each hit a familiar chord with someone in that audience, young and old, married and single, even me, and frankly, I am just starting my life in the “real” world post-university. However, there were a couple stories that resonated with me the most. In particular, Julia Zarankin’s “Leaving the Eighteenth Floor.” While I’m not currently planning on having children or trying in the same way as Julia, her words stuck. In her essay, she talks a lot about planning and preparing and trying to take control, which in the end only eluded her because of her obsessing about it. Minus the whole wanting to get pregnant part (definitely not there yet), I could understand how she felt. Interning, job hunting, money problems…I also have felt like I am grappling for control of certain aspects of my life only never to find it. It can be quite frustrating, and Julia has some great advice at the end of her essay: Let go of the “master plan.” It isn’t giving up, but it is letting go of the fine-tuning and the obsessing, which is something we all should do. Life is messy. Accept it and go with it.

After listening to stories like Julia’s, I realized as much as The M Word’s theme is motherhood, it is also about good old plain-jane life. I hope to fully read this book at some point, but I already know that it is chock full of relateable stories that will mean something different to every woman who reads it.

So what is the honest to goodness truth of what the “m” word means? For me, imperfection. So put away your “how to” books and breath. My mother has always told me there are no guidelines or hard-and-fast rules to cling to when you become a parent (or choose not to, for that matter). You wing it, and you learn as you go and hope for the best.

I think she did a pretty good job.

Kerry Clare, editor of the M Word's babyOne final word on The M Word book launch, Kerry Clare has the cutest little girl imaginable (pictured to the left). I had to say it. Noisy or quiet, she was adorable. She was also great publicity for the book. I am pretty sure everyone in attendance cooed at her appearance more than once…guilty as charged.

Thank you, ladies, for writing The M Word and finally putting in print what many women have been thinking, and thank you to Ben McNally for generously hosting the book launch.

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of The M Word, which I highly suggest you do (it makes a beautiful Mother’s Day present for old and new mothers alike), you can get one from the publisher’s website Goose Lane Editions, Indigo, Amazon, or beautiful independent bookstores everywhere, such as Ben McNally Books in Toronto!

The M Word book launch