I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Frances Itani has published 16 books including, most notably for those interested in WW1, the bestsellers Deafening and Tell. Deafening won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2004, amongst many other accolades. Tell, her most recent novel, was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A member of the Order of Canada, she lives in Ottawa.
Frances has kindly agreed to share some reflections about her work.
What drew you to write Deafening and Tell, two books set around the time the First World War?
Frances Itani: I decided to include the war years in Deafening while doing research. I had been reading newspapers of the period from about 1900 and onward. My original plan had been to write a novel about the life of a young Deaf woman from about 1900 to 1914. However, when I began to read the issues of the day after Britain and then, Canada, went to war in August 1914, I decided to extend my story to include the years up to 1919. In particular, I was interested in details of how the war affected the family of almost every student and staff member at the very real Ontario School for the Deaf. All of this research added up to become a long journey for me, one that still hasn’t ended. I studied American Sign Language, worked with members of the Deaf Community in Ottawa, learned about the war, interviewed extensively, read the histories, visited battlefields of the Western Front, and spent weeks and months in the reading rooms of the Archives of the Canadian War Museum. This is a journey I’ve never regretted taking, and I now feel a responsibility to share, through my art and my stories, my knowledge of the Great War and the sacrifices that were made.
As for Tell, this novel was written six books later. That is, I wrote six books between the publication of Deafening in 2003 and Tell in 2014. More than a few readers kept asking about the characters in Deafening. What happened to the minor characters? What were the back stories? I decided to take on the post-war situation, and set Tell during 1919-20. In this novel, I was dealing with the aftermath of war: the lives of the soldiers, their wives and parents, their children. People who were affected by that war are still alive in 2015; that war is still in living memory. My 95-year-old mother can tell stories about her father and her cousins and uncles who went off to fight in World War One and how they were when they came home. If they came home.
What was the biggest challenge in researching the books?
FI: The vast amount of written and recorded history presented a challenge. I had to keep refining and refining my search. I made decisions as I went along, I talked to the experts, I immersed myself in the period: socially, culturally, historically. Thankfully, we have great museums and archives in our country; I discovered rooms and museums and Great War displays in even the smallest towns and villages. There was always something to find, another story to hear. I made the decision to write about a stretcher bearer because I have a medical background of my own. When I was finally comfortable with the language of the period, the facts, the social and cultural milieu, that’s when I moved my own fictional story forward. There comes a point during the research process when an historical novelist says: Enough. Now I will tell my story.
Did you know how each story would evolve as you started to write, or did they change as you wrote?
FI: I never know for sure how a story will unfold. I start with an image, an idea, a detailed scene, and watch it change under my pen. I never make an overall plan when I start out. I try things different ways and stumble along. I knew that for Deafening, the themes of Sound and Silence, Love and Loss would be paramount; I knew that Secrets withheld, Secrets revealed would be at the core of Tell. But the actual storyline, its complexity and its resonance, is worked out through my characters as I go along … often taking years.
What do you hope people will take away from the books?
FI: I never quite know what readers will take from my books, because each reader brings knowledge and experience of his/her own. I do hear from readers frequently, however, and I know that they are often moved by the stories. They tell me they’ve learned a great deal, too. And readers want to share their own stories. Of the war, of Deafness, of family experiences. A common theme, too, is how we all despair of war, and yet, it continues, on and on.
What is your most interesting writing quirk?
FI: Readers often assume that I have a great filing system because I do so much research for many of my novels. My filing system consists of milk crates. I toss in heaps of paper, heaps of notes; and I cover my dining room table with notebooks, photographs, newspapers, articles, etc. That’s the sum total of my filing system – although I do keep an orderly list of the reference books I’ve read in case I want to go back to my sources/resources.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
FI: Well, I actually get pretty interesting questions; I’m often out touring and addressing audiences for many of my books. And Deafening seems to go on and on. It was celebrated in three counties of Ontario for six months in 2015; it was published in translation in China last year, the 17th country to do so. Tell is just beginning its journey. I think I’m happy when people realize that I have a sense of humour, despite some of the serious topics I choose to write about. War, for a start. But there is often music and art in my work, too – which means music and art in the lives of my fictional characters. There is always redemption, of some sort. Or let’s just say, HOPE.
And if people do want to ask what’s coming next, the answer is the third of the trilogy: Deafening / Tell / ?? so far, untitled. That’s what I’m working on now. I’ve jumped 20 years forward and this new one will be set just prior to WWII, in early 1939. There will be some new and a few familiar characters.
Thank you so much, Frances, for taking the time to offer these insights. I enjoyed both Deafening and Tell, so I look forward with anticipation to the next in the series.