Linda Spalding, Kansas-born Canadian fiction and nonfiction writer, often explores world cultures and the clash between contemporary life and traditional beliefs. Her most recent book, The Purchase, won the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Prize for Fiction. Spalding is also well know for Who Named the Knife (2007), the true story of the murder trial of Maryann Acker, a teenager sentenced to life in prison for a murder committed while on honeymoon in Hawaii. Spalding, who served on the jury, tracks down Maryann 20 years later in order to reexamine the murder and the question of Maryann’s innocence. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it, a “delicate yet powerful work.” The reviewer for the Miami Herald said, “Spalding is amazing in her ability to seamlessly present a legal paper trail and other research alongside her emotional and honest assessment of herself.” The book was made into a TV movie – Of Murder and Memory – written by Semi Chellis.
Spalding’s earlier books include the novels Mere (2001) co-authored with her daughter Esta Spalding; The Paper Wife (1996); Daughters of Captain Cook (1989); and the nonfiction book The Follow (1998), about renowned orangutan expert Birute Galdikas, one of the three female acolytes of anthropologist Louis Leakey known as “Leakey’s Angels” (along with Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey). The reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor called the Galdikas book, “An intimate and deeply thoughtful chronicle of a woman’s awakening to the many challenges facing orangutans and the earth as a whole.” It was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award and the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. The Purchase, a novel, was published in Canada in the fall of 2012 by McClelland & Stewart. An editor of Brick, a Journal of Reviews, Spalding has been awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the Canadian literary community. Linda lives in Toronto with her husband, Michael Ondaatje, her dog Jasper and her cat Jack.
Interview with Linda Spalding
by Maria Judnick
Maria Judnick: For anyone who has read The Purchase, it comes as no surprise that it won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Prize for Fiction – it’s a meticulously researched novel that reveals the complex lives and decisions of the Dickinson family. In your acknowledgements, you list some great resources that helped you in your research. How much did you know about your family history (besides a connection to slavery and Quakerism) before beginning the novel? How much did those family details help frame your narrative and how much of the plot was influenced by your historical research about Virginia, slavery, pioneer living, etc.? Are there any other elements of family history that you’d consider writing about in future novels?
Linda Spalding: I knew my ancestors’ names, dates of birth and death and, in some cases, places of same. When I went to Virginia, I learned that Daniel, a Quaker, had been the first in the family to purchase a slave. I knew he had been disowned by the Quakers (from family notes) but assume he must have carried the same convictions he’d been raised with. So, I began to wonder what he must have suffered as a result of his act. I had a few notes made by an aunt on an earlier trip to Virginia, her genealogy, and whatever I could find in the Jonesville courthouse. I read widely in books of history, slave narrative, published diaries of the time, nature studies and biblical theory. I wanted to keep true to whatever facts I had, but sometimes I strayed, as in the case of the real Mary Dickinson, who actually died at the age of twenty-eight. By the time I rechecked the facts, it was too late. She was too important to the story to keep to the facts.
MJ: In the course of reading The Purchase, I was greatly intrigued by the female characters and the roles that they carved out for themselves in the midst of this male-dominated world as healers, teachers, or churners of “heavenly butter.” Even as the women faced many setbacks in their lives (often as a consequence of a man’s actions) they were able to find great reserves of strength in facing the future. Are these healing roles of the women in this novel meant to contrast or compensate for the far-reaching, often negative situations created by the men in their community? Were they inspired by any particular women you read about in your research or in your own experiences? Who were your favorite characters to write about in the novel? Which character in The Purchase was the hardest / easiest for you to create?
LS: I am fondest of Daniel. His was a difficult portrait – really the most challenging – but he seems very human to me. The women were easier because I think their lives were not so very different from my own grandmother’s. Women’s lives have changed much more recently than men’s. My grandmother made all her own clothes, her own furnishings, her own canned goods. She was a woman of many creative talents. I had heard it said that one of my female ancestors was a healer and one was illiterate. Probably nothing very unusual in that, but I did not intend their activities as compensation or contrast, simply as means of survival and creativity.
MJ: As a Canadian transplant, were you surprised that your novel about American slavery was so enthusiastically received in Canada? Do you see any significant differences between American and Canadian fiction / nonfiction?
LS: I have been tremendously surprised by the book’s reception in Canada! But I’m not qualified to speak of differences. Really, I am simply not well enough read. A Canadian once told me that American fiction always poses moral questions, whereas Canadian fiction does not. If that is so, it may be because of a more troubled heritage in the US. From the start, Americans were fractious and discontented. The Federalists, the Republicans, the Baptists, the Methodists. Always there was sound and fury.
MJ: In an article written by Stacey May Fowles (The Walrus — 2012), you mentioned that the thread tying your books together is “they’re all about good people doing bad things” and tend to focus on a “going-astray moment in a life.” Is there a difference in the way you see this idea played out in fiction as opposed to your nonfiction works? Are there any other connections in terms of your own interests/ ideas spread throughout your books?
LS: I thought of that connection only when Stacey asked the question! I think there is also a thread of mythology of one sort or another in all of my books. Harder to find in The Purchase, but I’ve lately been reading about the great tree in Germanic and Scandinavian mythology and think I must have felt that ancestral theme along with a few others, most of them biblical. In the non-fiction books, the thread of myth is less obvious.
MJ: You’ve written about a wide variety of subjects, places, and characters — how do you decide the next topic for your book? What sorts of topics attract you as a reader or a researcher? What has been the most helpful resource you’ve used in the process of writing a text? What do you read in between projects to get you thinking about your next book?
LS: At the moment, I’m reading The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor because I became fascinated by that strange war when I was writing The Purchase. I often read non-fiction while I’m also reading a novel. As to how I decide what’s next… I really have no idea. Something quickens in my mind or my hand and I simply begin.
MJ: In your visit to St. Mary’s you talked about how much “tighter” of a writer you became after getting an editor. Can you talk a little bit about the revision process for you? How much do you cut or rewrite your work before showing a manuscript to your editor, for example? How much do you think about structure or plot lines as you are writing? What have you learned about your own writing from serving as an editor for Brick Magazine?
LS: I worked on The Purchase for a year or two before showing it to my agent. She told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t ready. She said the same thing every spring for three or four years. It was disheartening, but she was right. When she finally sent it out, it was well received but the editor who got it made it very clear that we had work to do. I don’t think that’s unusual. In Canada we still have dedicated editors though I understand they are becoming rare in the U.S. And about Brick – I suppose I take a harder line with my own work than I would have done without all the practice of working with other people. I write many, many drafts of each book. Writing is the most plastic of arts. The trick is to know when you’ve got what you want and need.
MJ: You’ve talked in previous interviews about how you don’t think receiving the GG will change your writing, but do you think the GG has changed your life in other ways?
LS: That wonderful award means so much to me. For one thing, it is the most Canadian of awards, so it makes me feel somehow accepted by the country I’ve lived in for thirty years. The joy of it has been tremendous, because suddenly people are reading a book I wrote about something that happened a long time ago that still reverberates through all of us. That history is the sludge we walk through everyday. It matters and we need to think about it and feel it. So, I am gratified that the story has readers. What could be better? And I know the GG award helped make that happen.