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.