Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com and reviewer Lily Azerad-Goldman are pleased to have as our guest Heidi Radford Legg author of My Evangeline. Heidi is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. Born in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada in the heart of Acadia, she holds a graduate degree in journalism from Concordia University in Montreal. Legg has studied screenplay writing at Harvard and contributed to documentaries filmed in Toronto, London and Paris. She lives near the Longfellow House in Cambridge, MA, with her husband and two children. My Evangeline is her first novel.
Good day Heidi and thanks for participating in our interview.
Norm & Lily
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
I have always been drawn to creative writing and creative storytelling. As a child I would write books about my brother, put on neighborhood plays, tasking everyone with a role and then charging the parents a quarter. I wrote for the local paper, school papers, ran yearbook and those other geeky things but it was always my friends who were better writers, more scholarly. I looked up to them. My undergraduate degree was in Communications at Mount Saint Vincent in Halifax and then graduate school for Journalism so it's just always been what I do. However, it was not until I had my second child that I realized fiction was the thing that moved me most. Before that I was drawn to writing features, profiles, documentaries or paid content for television and the internet.
In 2005, I took a screenwriting class at Harvard to shake things up and juice up my increasingly sluggish and sleep deprived mother brain and this lightbulb went off. I realized I could show with a camera and make things up with my pen. It was so liberating. Before then I had always worked on factual work, non-fiction. At that point I just had to write and unleash it. They were a prolific few years and I wrote five screenplays, a television script and this novel. I made time a few mornings a week while my children were at nursery school and then once they went to school all day I remember thinking, "Yes! A whole day until 1pm to write." I just make it a priority because it keeps me going. It's my prozac. Other people use marathons or hobbies or homemaking or much more edgy activities to work things out... I write.
Norm & Lily:
What was your creative process like when you wrote My Evangeline? What happened before sitting down to write?
My Evangeline came to me distinctly in a dream. I saw Eve, her black hair and her story untold on the sea with a raven and birds flying around. I really remember just that. I started to write. I wrote the first few scenes of her story in a screenplay and then I had to back away and create the outline. I did take Robert McKee's STORY in NYC and LA (highly recommend) while I was writing Evangeline and that helped me with the mushy middle and to carve out Narcisste as the villain. Eve had all these outer forces that pull her and challenge her but I needed to anchor them somewhere so I used him. I also used the magic realism that was in the dream to help me see the characters for who they really were. Some agents asked me to take away the magic realism but it was so much part of the story for me, I could not let them go. I still love the moment she stands rooted as a tree. I love that image and almost used it for the cover.
In My Evangeline, you don't devote a great deal of time into the deportation history of the Acadians. You put much more emphasis on the Quebec Separatist cause. Why?
When I started to give the story more of my time (I had been crafting another screenplay at the time about 40-year-old siblings), I was at a point where I worried my writing was not original enough. I love Woody Allen and Nicole Holofcener as filmmakers and writers and their ability to capture the everyday. I had been trying to write those stories and then realized I might get further if I transport people somewhere. My hometown in the summer, Shediac, New Brunswick, is so old fashioned and lost in time in many ways and I realized that to transport people meant finding a time in Canada that represented the same conflict and tensions that arose in 1755 when the Acadians were displaced. It was very important to me that if I were going to lean on Longfellow's poem in a modern day, I needed a modern conflict between the two cultures to engulf the story.
I also had experience to draw from. I studied in Montreal in 1994, and worked in Montreal in 1995, so I knew that conflict very well. We would be sent out by our journalism professor to cover the stories in the street. It just seemed retro enough to be cool but still current so I placed Eve in a political time that was real, relevant and another major turning point in this long love/hate between the French and English in Canada.
Your mother figure in your novel is very sketchy. Was that intentional, to let us guess what she did in Montreal?
It was intentional. I was trying to mirror Longfellow's poem where we hear only about her father of 70 winters and she being the belle of the town and his beloved daughter. We do not learn about her mother at all in the poem. I needed her mother though to get her to Montreal and because my own mother played a real role in my life so having her motherless felt too far from real to me and it also felt odd in a full blown novel, unlike a poem, to avoid having a mother figure. I also wanted the aunt Chantal because I am so enamored with the Acadian woman as a role model and I needed a vehicle to showcase her.
I did not realize the loss of a mother figure was Eve's major conflict until I was done the story. The book was originally called Father Told Me and then I realized the father was only ancillary to her. I had thought her conflict was her inability to listen to her own voice but a very close friend and reader of my work who is actually now a psychotherapist, helped me realize that Eve was missing her mother's love and that this debilitated her from being able to love herself. I rewrote the novel with this in mind. The result was that once she overcomes this loss, she is able to move forward with clarity and voice and love Max.
Eve transforms from young and carefree to later adolescence, revolting against the establishment . Was she revolting against the system or in reality against her father's influence?
She was absolutely revolting against her father and her repression at home. Here is a girl whose character is to survive, dare and dream big but she is unable to stand up to her father. That seems unimaginable. That is the dichotomy of Eve.
Anything that is repressed in life will come out somewhere else. It set her up perfectly for me to fold her into the protests in Quebec. I was worried post 9/11 that these Quebec spray painting binges and protests would appear undramatic but they were very dramatic at the time in 1995. I remember from the press and I looked back into old clippings online to read about the scandal. But then once the book came out this Fall and the Wall Street protests were front and center, I realized they are perfectly apt for an 18-year old in a first world society - it felt like the perfect place for her to stage her rebellion. It's not like she was sexually meek or unaware of the world outside.... it's more that she was indebted to her father, like Evangeline of old on the beach when her father falls to the sand in a heart attack in the poem. Longfellow's Evangeline just does not know how to let him go and be with the man she loves - Gabrielle then and Max today.
Eve's boyfriend seems to be just as forceful as her father and the other man in her life. Is that a trend for male characters?
Again, I mirrored the poem with the missing mother and the strong male leads. Evangeline in Longfellow's poem spends eleven years traveling with a male Priest up and down the coast, settling for a time in the Cajun Louisiana, looking for Gabrielle. Speaking of the ultimate father figure.... at then end of the poem, she becomes a nun and finds him under her care in a soup kitchen, hospice. As a very wise and famous Acadian told me before I wrote the book...."No Acadian woman would spend eleven years in search of her lost love... we are far more practical." I wanted to honor that reality which is why I had Eve leave Max. I do wish that I had given Eve more forceful dialogue in the earlier part of the novel but I needed her to have room to grow.
Your descriptions of the New Brunswick scenery is very vivid. Did you ever live there?
Oh yes. It is my home! I have lived in Halifax, Montreal, London, England, San Francisco and Boston (namely Cambridge for over a decade). But Shediac, New Brunswick is home. My kids think it is our family heart because they know it is mine. It is a place of beauty, serenity and simplicity and while I could not live there forever, it is my home and it always will be inside me.
How much of you is in My Evangeline?
Eve is her own person. My alter ego perhaps but not me. I have thought about this often because I have placed her in a very personal location but again, I wanted to find my original voice as a writer and I wanted to place the story somewhere to transport people to something original to me. However, Eve is stronger, more daring, quieter, more decisive, edgier and more sport. I wish I had known her when I was 18 because her courage would have been useful.
Eve is a very successful painter which is hard to believe. As my wife Lily is a painter, I know how difficult it is to break into that business. Do you have any business experience in this area and are you an artist?
I am an artist and a hopeless romantic so not only does she get the guy, she gets the dream. I know it is far fetched that a gallery owner would give her a show in NYC. My personal goal was to sell 200 books! I understand how hard it is to get a break in the arts. However, I do know that most of my opportunities in life came about when I was 18-25. Today I would die for the type of opportunities that presented at that age. Job offers, travel, new creative endeavors and it did not matter where or how much they cost because it was just you and your rent and a few meals here and there. At 40, you have to work much harder to find these breaks and have much more to lose. At 18, the world is yours. You are free to roam and dream and try new things. Not that you cannot today but a mortgage and children and marriage and that big girl sofa you bought are harder to lug around. I think it is more likely that at 25 you get plucked up by some movement or mentor than at 40. That struggle is more of a reality now so why not let the 18 year old have the dream while she's all lovely and bright. And Agnes, who I adore as a character, was the perfect conduit.
What voice do you find most to your liking: first person or third person and why?
I prefer dialogue so that would equal first person. It would like to have been an actor (of course, a glamourous silver screen star), so trying on the parts as I write them in the first person feels raw, real and intimate. The narrative around dialogue is that of an observer so even when it is in the first person, I assume observer mentality. It is in the dialogue that I feel most, and also in inner dialogue where screenplays would not let me tread.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Yes. Tying in all the tiny details that make a character's setting and habits that I see in my head but need to convey to the reader. I sometimes forget that the reader needs my help in imagining the character's surroundings and I prefer to get right to the action and dialogue. I also have a horrible case of misplaced modifiers. I like to blame it on the fact that I was in full French immersion until grade four. However, I think it is a case of needing to break a bad habit. I am working hard on it to save my poor copy editor so she can focus on other mistakes I make like word use such as clamor instead of clamber. Writing takes work and constant improvement unless of course you studied at top tier schools your entire life, even then there is nothing more important than a great copy editor.
What do you think makes a good story?
I am a character writer more than a plot writer. I really think there are people who are stronger at one and we fall into two camps as writers. It does not mean you cannot improve but natural talent or innate abilities usually lead a writer to be stronger at one. A character that calls to readers, that they can relate to while still luring them into voyeurism is vital for a good story. Sometimes I will read a book and the hero or heroine are mere puppets in an interesting observation of place or time in life and the plot moves well but I never really fall in love with the hero or hate or feel for the villain. On the flip side, sometimes we come to love a character but wish we could see them act more, move forward faster or with more original plot. I think I need to work on both but plot is the one I work to improve in all my stories. I want you to see where we are and how the characters are feeling and I am working to improve interweaving a tension. In my latest novel, I am rewriting plot not characters for just that reason.
Do you agree that to have good drama there must be an emotional charge that usually comes from the individual squaring off against antagonists either out in the world or within himself or herself? If so, please elaborate and how does it fit into you novel?
Hmmm.. I think you might be referring to my fear above. I worried that this novel was an insight, a slow burning narrative without enough drama in this fast paced, ADD, iphone, angry bird world. However, there are novels that I adore and movies that I covet that have that slow pace and higher tension. I think the greatest talent is to create that emotional charge between individuals squaring off. Why is a character so distraught over another's mere poker playing? Why does one hate someone so intensely for small changes in behavior? Usually it is laced with a history that is triggered by this squaring off. That is what we need to find as writers to make our characters ignite.
In this novel, I aspired to take you into Eve's soul. To see her struggle with the silver thread not an old rugged rope. Her life is not one of dire poverty, or loss and despair, or evil monsters trying to kill her. But hers remains real. It is one many can relate to where the everyday influences and baggage of life trip us up. One where she wants to make a choice but is frozen, she cannot get past the duty of her role as a daughter or the expectations of her culture or the imagined rules she has created in her head. This is not a hardship but it is still an obstacle to finding voice and being true and I wanted Eve to be a slow romantic simmer of a drama like the dramas of old. Henry James and Jane Austen gave us characters that were living a life of frivolity and privilege but they were still suffering, still confused and 18 is a very confusing time for most.
How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
I am an indie
author on an indie budget which I admit is still more than most who
are struggling to get their stories to the page. As a result, I have
a modest website I built myself with a selection of my poems, essays
and screenplay synopsis. I did run a Scene of the Week last winter
where I offered a complete screenplay, KNOWING MARIA, which is much
more contemporary and set in Boston and I serialized it for
subscribers over 14 weeks. It's still up on the site. I love that
script and still hope maybe someday a director will fall in love with
it and collaborate with me. I would love to see My Evangeline is
film. It was a visual story with the magic realism. I aspire to the
lyrical and the visual like Gabriel Marquez, Isabelle Allende and Yan
Martel. I may serialize another script again this winter. I am
currently working on a new novel so that will take up most of my time
but I do post essays and poems once they have been turned down,
often, by traditional publications. You can find out more about me on my WEBSITE
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
In the few short weeks that my book has been in print, I have been fascinated and surprised by the robust, active and pioneering community online. Last weekend I offered my book for free on Kindle and I was shocked at how many people downloaded it to their ebook readers. I am inspired by the bloggers, reviewers and members on Goodreads who share their wealth of knowledge and devour books. It is inspiring.
I am also humbled by the truism that if you write and write and write, finally your words will find their way. Not in a year or two but in five years. My daughter recently told me she thought I would be one of those writers people know once you are dead! Kids say the most compelling things! It is a journey and it takes time to improve and writing groups, teachers and practice are the only way to get there. I wish I knew more bloggers, more sites and more ways to spread the word about my book and I invite people to send me those ideas on my site or on my twitter account @heidilegg. For now, I hope to write better stories and finding audiences who will read.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors