Last week I presented the first part of my interview with author, Sherryl Caulfield. As promised, we are back this week to share Part II of that interview which focuses on Sherryl’s writing. In particular, we will talk more about her first novel Seldom Come By and get a preview of its follow-up Come What May.
Now, on to Part II of my interview with Sherryl Caulfield:
Sherryl, what was the inspiration behind Seldom Come By?
Even though she barely features in it, Gene was a big part of it. I had the sense she was estranged from everyone who had ever loved her and was as far away from her family as possible. So to me, her family was on the East Coast of Canada. I was living in Sydney at the time and given my age and her age, I thought I could just as easily have been her daughter, perhaps a long lost daughter.
I started mapping out her life and in the process I realised I couldn’t stretch her life as far back as I wanted to, so I decided to start with her mother’s life, Rebecca, and her homeland, Newfoundland. And once I focused on Rebecca I knew I had my first story. What surprised me was that I actually had three stories to tell, not two!
Before Seldom Come By even had a title, or words on the page, three other elements came together over the long years I spent conceiving this story.
Firstly, I had become good friends with a woman from Newfoundland. She is a proud Newfoundlander, brave, fun-loving, risk-taking and resilient. I used to be captivated by her stories of Newfoundland and what people thought of The Shipping News, a novel I thoroughly enjoyed for its dryness and sense of survival.
Secondly, in imagining life in Newfoundland and my young character, I drew on the loneliness I felt at times as a teenager growing up on a semi-isolated farm and my sense that the world was out there and I was missing out on it. When I came round to writing about Rebecca, I was living at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sounds, in New Zealand. Several times a day I would look down the Sounds and see the large white Interislander ferries on their way to and from Picton. They reminded me a little of icebergs and once again I had that sense that there was a whole world out there, beyond my reach.
Finally, as well as wanting to capture that sense of longing for life, I wanted to capture that palpable longing for love and the intensity of teenage love, which is timeless – just look at Romeo and Juliet. I never saw myself writing a traditional romance; rather an epic, adventurous love story – like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness and Paullina Simons’ The Bronze Horseman. The latter’s storyline about young love triumphing over impossible odds in the most egregious circumstances was a theme that resonated with me and one I wanted to explore in Seldom Come By.
Rebecca and Samuel’s love story is such an epic tale. Are their experiences based on someone you know or events in your life?
Funny, that is what most people want to know. In the main, NO
They say often say: Write what you know. And I broke that rule completely by writing about a time and a country I knew very little about. I did draw on certain human experiences, but mostly Seldom Come By is my imagination at play and my heart open to joy and pain.
The Canadian surgeon, Dr John McRae, is the only historical figure in the book, along with a few other senior Canadian medical and military personnel mentioned in passing, but all of the Canadian and Newfoundland war developments did happen as told in the book, including the bombing of Hospital City in the last few months of the war.
Some influences / parallels:
I grew up on a farm so some of Rebecca’s routine and her subsistence I understood.
My grandmother had a brother who fought in World War I and was killed at Ypres. She was 14 at the time and he was 20… his military portrait had pride of place in her home and now in my fathers. In part, this is why I wanted to write my book against the backdrop of WWI.
I mentioned I lived in New Zealand…there is an island at the bottom of New Zealand, not far from the mainland, called Stewart Island, that only has a permanent population of 300 people. It is even more remote than our former home in the Marlborough Sounds. My partner’s ancestors originate from Stewart Island as fisherpeople and whalers and also doctors. His great grandfather was a doctor, as was his father, whom sadly I never got to meet. Mark is not a doctor. His grandfather was a school inspector who spoke fluent Latin but also taught himself Russian. His mother has told me of the first time she heard music through a gramaphone was on Stewart Island – so this was a glimpse into people who worked the sea and others who were very cultured for their time, perhaps even more than we are today. So a little bit of the Daltons (Samuel’s family) is drawn from them.
Mark’s mother also told me a story of a terrible incident that happened to her aunt when she was holidaying on Stewart Island in the 1930s. She miscarried and her mid-wife took the baby out to the long drop and hacked the fetus with dress making shears before throwing it below into the toilet. Yes, you read that correctly!
I was horrified by this, as I’m sure you and your readers are.
I did wonder if that scene would make its way into my novel, but it never did. The story reminded me of The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland, when Quoyle’s aunt, pours her brother’s ashes into the long drop and pees on top of them, as punishment for raping her when she was young. And so I did see some paralells in what I imagined life in these two far flung countries – Newfoundland and New Zealand – could have been like a century ago…but then again such callousness can happen anywhere.
For those who are new to you and your writing, why should a reader pick up Seldom Come By?
Seldom Come By is a book that will make you fall in love with icebergs. It will transport you out of your lounge and into a life of idyll and longing on the edge of the North Atlantic. While men will enjoy this novel, it will appeal more to women of all ages – as every woman was a teenager once. It tells the story of a teenage girl who feels trapped by her surroundings and wants to experience more of the world and the surprising way her dream is realised.
This is a story about unexpected, blissful, all-encompassing, all-powerful first love as told through the eyes of both the hero and heroine. But more than that, this is a story about family love, about the surety of sisters, the bonds of brotherhood, and the unyielding and sometimes misguided love of parents and children. Above all it’s about how love is tested and salvaged, and how forgiveness is the key to healing.
Even though it’s set on the eve of The Great War, many of the elements of Seldom Come By are universal and timeless giving the novel a strong sense of realism and plausibility. This is further enhanced by passages of high emotion that unfold in the solace and beauty of nature delivering, unforgettable, signature moments.
What can we expect from your next book in the trilogy, Come What May?
In some respects more of the same yet different: icebergs, drama, fraught-family relationships, a love story, adventure, beautiful Canadian scenery, unpredictable characters, strange beliefs, heart-in-mouth moments, heartache, forgiveness and deliverance.
Come What May starts exactly where Seldom Come By ends: in Newfoundland, in the summer of 1939 when Rebecca is 40 and Samuel, 44. It finishes in 1977.
WWII barely rates a mention. You get to meet two of Samuel and Rebecca’s grandchildren, Lindsay and Shane, but mostly this book is about Rebecca and Samuel’s youngest daughter, Gene, and, to a lesser extent, two of their sons.
In Seldom Come By, the story was told alternately from both Rebecca’s and Samuel’s point of view. With this novel and the addition of new characters, I move the storytelling to be mostly from both Rebecca’s point of view and Gene’s with some chapters from Gene’s love interest, Sonny. Like Rebecca, Gene is a complex and uncertain character, at times driven by well-intended but misguided motives. Sonny is not unlike Samuel. He has a huge passion for life, game for anything, down-to-earth, and wants to draw Gene out of her melancholy. He’s a strong individual and an accomplished pilot.
Geography-wise, this novel starts out in Newfoundland but spans the country to Ontario, James Bay, the Canadian prairies and Winnipeg, with glimpses of The Rockies and British Columbia. The Iceberg Trilogy is really my Canadian lovesong.
With Seldom Come By, I ask readers to put their faith in me – a new and unknown novelist – and go on a whole-of-life journey with my characters and me.
With Come What May, I ask readers to keep the faith, come with me on what will be at times a shocking, numbing, devastating time for characters they have taken into their hearts, but ultimately I ask them to have faith and believe that love, happiness and togetherness will ultimately triumph. Like Samuel says: “Never give up hope.”
If you haven’t done so yet, pick up a copy of Seldom Come By. It is an epic love story that you will not want to put down. To read my review click here. Also, stay tuned for the final installment of this interview in which Sherryl shares her advice for new authors.