Welcome to Cantastic Authorpalooza, featuring posts by and about great Canadian children’s book creators! Today’s guest: Amanda West Lewis. Take it away, Amanda!
People who write historical fiction generally love research. We have a reverence for minutiae and often find ourselves spending many hours reading about things that have nothing whatsoever to do with our stories. We love the hunt and the serendipity –– those moments when something unexpected pops up that you had no idea existed, but which is the perfect thing for your characters to discover.
You might think that writing about a time period in which you have lived wouldn’t have the same thrill. But having written two historical novels that take place before I was born, and two that are set during my lifetime, I have to say the discoveries I made about my own historical epoch have been equally surprising. In fact, they’ve given me new ways of understanding my own life.
Focus. Click. Wind is an historical novel that takes place in 1968. The book is semi-autobiographical, and although the main character, Billie, is older than I was in 1968, there are characters, places and events that come from parts of my life. As with all historical fiction, the book was meticulously researched, and I spent many days fumbling about in dark rabbit holes. It was exciting to dig into those years, to study the context of my childhood and to begin to see things from a broader perspective. I had thought I knew and understood those days, but my vision was incredibly limited.
I realized that the same needed to be true of Billie. She can no more understand the world that she is living in than I could in those tumultuous years. She can’t see the wider picture, but as her author I needed to know everything I could about her world. As the canvas of my setting began to take shape, I worked to paint the brush strokes in such a way that the reader could see this larger picture that Billie herself knew nothing about. Just as we do with our own lives, Billie sees what is immediate, and what is immediately important to her. But there is so much she misses.
I wrote the story in close third person present tense, getting as tight a focus into Billie’s mind as possible. I couldn’t write it in first person (as I had with the prequel These Are Not the Words), because I needed a little space for omniscience and for a narrative presence to help the reader sort through things that Billie couldn’t see,
The unexpected personal result was that I could see, perhaps for the first time, my own teenage self in the context of her time. The more colour I put into my painting of the setting, the more Billie and I became real and immediate to me. With each detail, I could see both of us as the results of our time and our personal biography. Billie is not me, but there is enough of me in her and enough of her in me that my own memories are starting to blur. Our histories have begun to meld. A past life is, to a certain degree, fictional and I realized that my teenage life doesn’t more exist any more than Billie’s does. And because in fiction we create an arc and a resolution, I have found myself putting my own memories into an arc and giving my teenage self a resolution that I never felt at the time.
It is a delicious feeling, like going into a time machine and nudging my young self in a direction, onto a path. As in a time-travel book, the ripples of Billie’s youthful movements are travelling forward through the decades and gently adjusting Amanda’s much older self. Billie is working on Amanda, helping me forgive the hot mess of my own teenage years.
Richard Wagmese says, “Stories are meant to heal.” I don’t know if he necessarily meant it as applicable to personal narrative, but it has become true for me. More importantly, I hope it will be true for my readers. Perhaps by writing myself into Focus. Click. Wind, my younger readers can come to a bit of forgiveness of themselves. May they not have to wait for as many decades as I have in order to see themselves in a broader context! Although I suspect that they, too, will need distance and many rabbit holes before they can build their own personal time-machine and construct their own narrative arc.