- You were born in Southwestern Ontario where your first three novels are set. How did your upbringing shape you as a writer?
I grew up in Chatham, Ontario, a one-hour drive from the Windsor/Detroit border, and lived there until my late teens. My father worked at International Harvester, a plant that made trucks and tractors, and my mom stayed home to take care of my brothers and me. My parents were children of Kent County farmers, practical people, their work ethic engrained. We went to church on Sundays, and attended a Catholic school until eighth grade.
I thought of myself as deeply religious, and even when the rest of my family seemed ambivalent about God, I wanted to become a nun. All of that changed around the time I was in seventh grade, when I discovered the well-known secret about our beloved parish priest. Then the next year, when my cousin was born, the parish refused to baptize her because she’s biracial. I left the church, but it never left me.
Chatham Kent’s history has always fascinated me. The area was a terminus on the Underground Railroad, a hotspot for bootlegging during prohibition, a hunting ground for the Neutral Indians and an important battleground in the War of 1812. I spent my youth searching the creeks for arrowheads, and wandering the fields thinking about the eccentric characters I knew, and the stories I’d write one day.
Like many, I was introduced to Canadian literature in high school. My heroes were, and still are, the trinity – Alice and The Margarets, whose fictional worlds I recognized and whose language I wanted to learn. I loved Mavis Gallant and Mordechai Richler, who made me feel sophisticated, and Susanna Moodie, who made me feel bushed, and poets like Al Purdy and Earle Birney and P.K. Page who excited me about poetry. Around the time I was discovering Canadian literature, my history teacher stirred my interest in the stories from the county’s past.
I would write dozens of short stories and a half dozen plays, and countless spec screenplays, few produced, before I sat down, many years after leaving Kent County, to write my first novel, but Rush Home Road is unquestionably the product of my upbringing. Everything that I write has been influenced by those early years.
- You talk about your children in interviews, especially in regards to The Girls. Do they continue to influence your writing? Did they influence the writing of The Mountain Story?
A few months after finishing the first chapter, I learned that I was expecting my first child, a son. I finished the first draft before he was born. There was some revising and editing, and a year later the book was taken on by my agent and then publishers. Of course I felt like I’d won the lottery. I had! It was less overnight success and more late-bloomer. I just came to it a different way. My second child, a daughter, was born within months of the launch of Rush Home Road. That novel is enmeshed in my memories of early motherhood.
I’ve talked about the physical and emotional bond I felt with my children and how it was a jumping off point for writing about conjoined twins Rose and Ruby. They’re in middle school now, but we remain tethered. They are intricately woven into the fabric of The Mountain Story. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time with them, driving them around because of where we live. They are in my kitchen, my thoughts, or my car at any given moment! Or maybe it’s because I hope to inspire them with a story about survival, and to show them that everyone has secrets, that forgiveness is powerful, that love in all forms is a gift, and that life is sometimes hard but precious, and to remind them to take care of each other, always.
- Your third novel begins in Ontario but ends in California, where you live now.
Mary Gooch in The Wife’s Tale moves from Southwestern Ontario to California, with a stop in Toronto. The Mountain Story is set near Palm Springs, California, a few hours from where I live.
- How was the transition from Canada to America?
My husband is a director and we moved to the Los Angeles area for his work nearly ten years ago. It was difficult to leave my family in Chatham Kent and all of our friends in our downtown Toronto neighbourhood. I still miss my family and friends, my home and native land. It’s the same for ex-pats all over the world – there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians in the L.A. area alone.
Living in California has been a wonderful adventure though, and I’m grateful for the rare opportunity, as a writer, to experience another place and a different culture from within. When my husband read the first draft of The Mountain Story he commented on the fact that I’d given the main character, born in the Detroit area, a French Canadian bloodline. My roots are in the margins and between the lines of all that I write.
- What experience do you have with the California wilderness? Have you always loved the outdoors?
We moved from downtown Toronto to California with our two young children and made our home in a canyon in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountains where we share our backyard with mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and rattlesnakes. We live in the wilderness.
A few years ago a mountain lion killed a deer in our backyard. The lion left a hind leg, a front leg, tufts of fur and bits of tissue strewn about the lawn. I’d heard the struggle in the middle of the night, and when I looked out the window I could make out their forms in the darkness, the limp deer, the chuffing lion. A few other neighbors said they’d glimpsed the lion that week and wondered if it was the female that had given birth at a nearby ranch. Unlikely things happen in the wild.
We also have a bobcat that routinely visits our yard. My children think the animal looks cool and ancient. He does. But we still have to scare him off when he lounges on the rock in the shade of the eucalyptus. . The coyotes around here are defiant, if not downright aggressive. More than once, in daylight, they’ve come up to the glass in the patio door and looked inside the house.
My environment puts me in a state of hyper-awareness, and heightened appreciation. Living in the mountains I learned to love and fear nature in equal measure.
- Did you decide to write The Mountain Story after your first visit to Mount San Jacinto? Or did the characters come first?
The characters came first.
Not long after we moved to the canyon, several local high school students in our community committed suicide. Their deaths preoccupied me, and drew me into my past and memories of dark days and tragic souls. Those teenagers were always in my thoughts, and along with my sorrow for them was fear for my own children, and for the teenaged children of my friends. The character of Wolf came from that place, fully formed, and so did the survival aspect of the story, and so did Frankie, the damaged father.
The Devine women have been stepping out from behind the curtain for some time. They’re drawn from life, some from my past but most from my present, women who’ve piqued my curiosity because they’re not entirely who they appear to be. I wanted to explore their family dynamics in this focused way on the mountain.
I had the characters relationships roughed out, and the ending, just as it is now, was decided, but I didn’t have the right setting, and the setting would determine how the characters acted out their intentions. I let the survival story simmer while I went on with life.
- You had the characters and you went looking for the mountain?
I was still working on my previous book when my husband and I went to Palm Springs the first time. When I mentioned to another mom that my kids were missing snow, she told me about Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs, and about how she liked to take her children up in the tram to experience winter. When, later that evening, images of San Jacinto appeared on my computer screen I got excited. I had to see it. My husband worried about my vertigo and extreme motion sickness. Between the traffic and the tram I wasn’t entirely confident either.
We didn’t bring the kids up the first time and we didn’t make it in time for snow. I took an extra dose of motion sickness medication before we road the tram up to the mountain station at eight thousand feet. Maybe it was the thin air, or maybe it was the meds, but standing at the first lookout, I had something like a religious experience. The fragrant pines, the wind-worn rock, the miles of wilderness. It was like I’d come home.
My husband and I set out on a short hike, following what looked like a path but wasn’t. After a time we realized our mistake and backtracked, or so we thought. Then we scrambled over some rocks to get a photograph and just like that we were lost. We argued about whether or not we should cry out for help – he didn’t want to – or just wait to see if we heard or saw other hikers through the trees. We weren’t very lost for very long but neither of us showed much grace under pressure. Eventually, we heard hikers in the distance and finally found the trail. We were quiet on the drive back to the hotel later. I was already writing The Mountain Story in my head.
- What kind of research did you do to prepare for writing about the realities of being lost in the wilderness?
I read survival stories and whatever I could about San Jacinto, and books about the Cahuilla Indians who lived in the canyons and foothills. I also surfed hiker’s blogs and birder’s sites and climbing blogs and the rescue archives. It was on a climber’s site that I found a glossary of hiking terms and came across the word thrutching, meaning to climb without finesse. I love that word. It’s not in the dictionary but it should be. I think it could be adapted for broader usage.
By far though, my most valuable research involved spending time on the mountain, being there and experiencing it. I sometimes went alone, never straying far from the station, and several times over the years hiked with Matt Jordon, a member of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit. He took me much farther than I could have gone on my own. I asked him questions, checked in with him to make sure that certain aspects of my story were believable. He was patient and enormously helpful and kept me from getting lost figuratively too.
- The novel explores the complicated relationships between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. Did you always conceive of it that way?
The characters came as a package. In the case of the Devines, I wanted to explore those familial relationships stripped of all intentions except survival. I wanted to look at motherhood in an elemental way.
In Wolf’s case, it’s the accumulated damage from years of paternal neglect that weighed him down, but Frankie made Wolf strong in some ways too, and compassionate. Wolf’s close and loving relationship with Danny is in some part a reaction to his lack of a relationship with his own father.
- Why did you decide to frame the story as a letter to Danny? Why does Wolf choose now to tell him what happened on the mountain?
The story is really a confession. Wolf could never tell Danny in person because he couldn’t trust himself to tell the truth. It’s also a complex story where understanding the past is critical. Wolf needed to write it out to makes sense of it. A letter is a private affair, and Wolf’s confession is not intended for public consumption.
Danny is a college student, on his own for the first time. There is physical distance between father and son. Seeing Danny flying solo prompts Wolf’s decision to finally tell him what happened on the mountain. It’s not lost on Wolf, that in revealing his long-held secret, he’s offering his child a cautionary tale about risks and boundaries.
- Did you ever consider a final chapter addressing Danny’s reaction to the letter?
I wanted to let the truth sit with Danny, the way a story does with a reader.
- All of your characters keep secrets, many of which are revealed on the mountain. Why do you think people tell the truth when their lives are at risk?
Maybe it speaks to a deep desire to be known and accepted, sins and all, even in our final moments.