Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today Jeannette de Beauvoir, whose latest novel, Asylum, has just been published. Jeannette grew up in Angers, France, and presently divides her time between my own hometown, Montréal, and Cape Cod. She is an award-winning author, novelist, and poet whose work has been translated into twelve languages and has appeared in fifteen countries.
Norm: Bonjour Jeannette and thanks for participating in our interview. Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal as well as your professional background and how you got started in writing? As a follow up, what keeps you going?
Jeannette: I cannot think of a time I wasn’t writing, storytelling, or daydreaming in some way—what was going on inside my head was always more interesting to me than anything outside. The nuns at my school always told my mother, “Jeannette can be looking straight at you and you know she’s not even in the room!”
I was always a voracious reader, and I’ve come to understand that stories are what inform, divert, inspire and ultimately change the human race. The role of the storyteller is an essential one, and I’m honored to be part of a long tradition as a writer. Besides—well, honestly, writing is the only thing I’m really good at! As to what keeps me going—it’s the stories. I know I’m being redundant, but it’s the truth. I constantly have ideas for—oh, I don’t know, five or six new stories floating around in my head. I read something or hear something and there’s a voice inside that immediately gets interested and says, “What if …”
Norm: Much of your recent novel, Asylum focuses on some extremely callous, insensitive, and inhuman behavior occurring in Montréal during the 1950's and 60's which are connected to the topic known as “Duplessis's Orphans” that from time-to-time we see crop up in our Canadian and local media. Could you tell our audience more about “Duplessis's Orphans” and the possible connection with the CIA as well as to a psychiatrist affiliated with McGill University, Dr. Ewen Cameron?
Jeannette: Ah, the Orphans. I want to start by saying I’m not singling out Montréal here—I love love love the city—because this sort of thing goes on everywhere, all the time. It’s the incidents that we actually know about that are in the minority. A friend of mine was a psychologist at a state school in Massachusetts where pretty horrible things were going on at around the same time as what happened at the Cité-de-Saint-Jean-de-Dieu.
The point is that whenever there’s a vulnerable population, there will be someone who will take advantage of it, of the people within that group. Orphans were plentiful and very vulnerable in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, so it comes as no surprise, really, that they were abused. In this case, because the federal government was offering more support for the insane than for orphans, someone had the bright idea to reclassify an already vulnerable population into an even more vulnerable one, putting children in places they never should have been, and with the kind of abuses that happen in such institutions.
As for the connection with the CIA’s MK-Ultra program, I don’t have proof. I’ve been able to find a lot of allegations that such a connection existed, and it’s frankly not an unreasonable assumption, but I don’t want to state it as fact. Whether or not the two were in fact working together, either one on its own was pretty horrible.
Norm: In your author's note you mention that although your protagonist Martine LeDuc is fictional, most of what she learned about Montréal's past is true. What kind of research did you do to write your book and why did you feel compelled to write the book? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Jeannette: Aïe… years of research! I love history, have studied a lot of history, and whenever I travel it’s the history of the places I visit that immediately hooks my interest. So when I started spending time in Montréal many years back, I naturally read everything I could get my hands on.
Eventually I stumbled across Rod Vienneau’s work and knew right away that I wanted to give a voice to these children. He’s done it in real life, of course, and I wanted to do what I could through what I do best, through a story. It’s part of a bigger picture, the need that we all have to know where we came from. I’m enough of a cynic to believe that even knowing the past doesn’t mean we won’t repeat it, but I think that knowing our stories—as individuals, families, cultures, nations—we can see more clearly where we want to be going, even if we sometimes fall short of our ideals. By understanding that we are all part of a world where people do both breathtakingly beautiful things and absolutely horrible things will, if anything, help us to have less hubris about ourselves and more sensitivity to others. At the end of the day, the character Gabrielle just wanted someone to know her name. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? To have meant something?
Norm: Did you know the end of your book at the beginning? Did you work from an outline?
Jeannette: I have to laugh. Heavens, no! I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of disciplined writer who outlines and is clear about everything from the start and I’m afraid I never will be. I always start with a place: Montréal, its neighborhoods, the basilica of Notre-Dame, which is to my mind the most beautiful church in the world. I knew I wanted to set a dramatic scene in that church. I knew about Martine—sort of—and about Gabrielle. And I spent a lot of time with both of them inside my head before I even started writing, getting to know them, listening to them. Eventually when I start writing my characters take over the story and tell me where to go. They’ve made me eliminate a lot of scenes of which I was rather fond, but c’est la vie.
Norm: What was your main focus when you created your protagonist Martine LeDuc and is there much of you in Martine?
Jeannette: I’d already decided that I wanted to have more than one book here, that I wanted this to be a series. So in creating Martine I had some requirements from the beginning. She had to have work that allowed her some freedom, some latitude, and contact with interesting people. She had to be at a point in her life where she’d appeal to readers, but leaving room for her to grow as a person throughout the series, to change, to develop. I wanted her to be wholly human, I expect, and to have potential to surprise people, as we all surprise each other and even ourselves. As for me?
There’s part of me in every character I write. I’ll confess that I gave Martine stepchildren because I am myself a stepmother and it’s an interesting (to say the least) relationship; I thought it would be fun to explore it in fiction. And we share the sense of breathtaking joy at the beauties and life of this city.
Norm: What was your secret in keeping the intensity of the plot throughout the narrative?
Jeannette: No secret. That’s just plain hard work. It’s editing and re-editing, going back and cutting things that don’t contribute to the forward momentum, adding someone, taking someone else out. It’s the part of writing that no one talks about, that makes up 90% of what we do, and that is the least glamorous.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your book and did you learn anything from the book?
Jeannette: The difficulty was emotional, in not being able to make it all okay for everyone. It’s odd: in real life I’m a reasonably cheerful person, but my writing is often if not usually dark; and sometimes the everyday Jeannette gets annoyed with the writer Jeannette. Really? Couldn’t you allow for a happy ending, just this once? I wished that everyone would live happily ever after. Doesn’t happen.
Norm: I believe you mother tongue is French, how easy or difficult was it for your to write Asylum in English?
Jeannette: I am actually very fortunate in that I grew up in a bilingual environment. While my family lived in France—in Angers, as you mentioned—my mother was American, and the family rule was that you walk in the house and you speak English, or at least the American version of it. So in my teens I wrote mostly in French because most of my environment was French, but I did a lot of reading in English thanks to my mother’s obsession with English-language bookstores—every trip to Paris included Smith’s or Brentano’s (they may not even be there, now), and brought volumes and volumes into the house!
So I’m very much at home in either, and as I mostly live in the States now, most of my writing over the past 20 years or so has been in English. I did translate one of my historical novels from (my) original French into English. I will say that in wanting to sprinkle some French throughout Asylum, I completely neglected checking with friends to see whether it would pass the does-it-work-in-Québécois test, and it doesn’t always! Désolée! I made sure to remedy that in the next book.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Jeannette: I think we all come from a number of cultures—family, neighborhood, school, city, region, etc., etc.—and they all influence us. The trick for a writer is in sorting them and finding the voice that is meant to be uniquely ours. It’s odd: I’m teaching an online class in August called “Creating Compelling Characters,” yet for the first five or six years I was writing fiction, I fear that all my characters sounded like white educated women. Hmm. So the thing is to make your background part of you, but be open to everyone else’s.
Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Jeannette: I am very suspicious of writers who claim they don’t read. It’s all about the words, the stories, and how can you create them if you don’t already love them? Writers are the shadow side of readers, not the other way around. Does that mean we owe readers something? I think it does. We owe them our best efforts to tell the story in the most compelling way we can manage. If nothing else, we owe them some entertainment, some distraction. Maybe more: a story that will haunt them, make them think, change their lives. It’s not impossible to imagine.
Norm: What is next for Jeanette de Beauvoir?
Jeannette: Ah, well, the second Martine LeDuc, Deadly Jewels, is going through editing now and will be available in March, and I’ve begun assembling ideas for the third in the series. I’m also working on another mystery with a different setting and protagonist, and hoping that my agent will maybe this year find a home for my more literary novel, which he’s been trying to sell for about seven years! In the meantime, of course, I continue to teach and lead writing workshops and classes, and mentor other writers, all of which is tremendously rewarding.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Jeannette: I’ll just take the opportunity for some crass self-promotion: if you liked Asylum, please tell the world! Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are the best way to thank me if you did like the story, and I’m always happy to hear from you, even if you didn’t—that’s how I grow and become a better writer.