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Archivist Authors: The Foulest Thing by Amy Tector

22 Sep 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

Amy Tector works at Library and Archives Canada and is adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and a sessional instructor at Carleton University. Amy’s debut novel, The Honeybee Emeralds, was published in spring 2022. Her second novel, The Foulest Things, is the first in a loose trilogy centered on murders and mayhem in the archives. Follow her on Instagram @amytectorwrites.

Rebecca Murray is a Senior Reference Archivist at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Ontario.  She is an avid reader and Editor of the In the Field blog.

On what felt like the hottest day in Ottawa this summer, local author and archivist Amy Tector biked to meet me at a coffee shop just west of downtown.  Our sandalled feet bobbed under the tiny table, and our cold drinks perspired in the heat despite the air-conditioned store.

Amy’s most recent novel, The Foulest Things, (to be published September 27th, 2022) is a murder mystery set in Ottawa.  The protagonist is Jess Novak, a newly employed archivist at the Dominion Archives.  She’s working through a series of farm ledgers that have just been acquired through auction (there’s a great side story about a cardigan mishap), and she stumbles across letters that date from the early days of the First World War, linking the past to the present.  I asked Amy about her choice to use letters as the connection to the past and as a way to shed light on a contemporary mystery.

Amy told me that almost everything she’s written has been influenced in some way or another by A. S. Byatt’s Possession (which, no, I haven’t read but have added to my list!) Amy admitted that writing the letters was tricky; she needed to convey information specific to the storyline yet be natural and channel the character.  Amy wrote The Foulest Things at the same time as she was completing her PhD in literature with a focus on representations of disability in Canadian novels of the First World War.  Immersed in the perspectives of young men from that era, she was able to take what she’d learnt from these works and use that as inspiration in her own writing.

The letters play a key part in the contemporary mystery, and it’s a popular theme in the historical fictionesque genre to use historical letters as a way to dip into a historical perspective or storyline without devoting every second or third chapter to that perspective or narrative.  Amy’s done it in a really thoughtful and creative way, giving the protagonist another layer of historical detail to absorb as she balances placating her mother, trying to stay on her boss’s good side, and keeping her snoopy colleague at bay.  Not to mention having a social life!

Before I had finished reading The Foulest Things, I already knew that Jess Novak was a great protagonist and that she’d speak to a lot of professionals in the GLAM sector.  I noticed a lot of parallels between Jess and magazine intern Alice Ahmadi in Amy’s debut novel, The Honeybee Emeralds.  On the surface Alice and Jess are very different, but they both seem to fall into a story they couldn’t have seen coming, each grappling with secret histories while trying to figure out who to trust, how to make it to work on time, and still enjoy life as young women in the bustling metropolises of Ottawa (ahem) and Paris.  I think of Alice at the safety deposit box (you’ll need to read to find out more!) and Jess with the file folder of letters and can’t help but feel that they’re living through similar experiences.  I asked Amy to tell me a bit about her choice to put young female professionals at the front of these stories.

Amy spoke of drawing inspiration from her students (she teaches at Carleton University) and of enjoying being in the classroom as a way to keep in touch with youth.  She told me, though, that the similarities between Jess and Alice were not planned and that hearing my thoughts was one of the lovely things about talking with readers - hearing about their reactions to her book, the things they loved the most, that have stayed with them, has really touched her as a writer.

I think that many archivists could probably relate to Jess or Alice in that we’ve probably all got a special box, collection, or memory that we can recall from those early moments in our career.  Something that shaped our work, touched us deeply, and that perhaps has given us that touchstone from which to continue our work over the years.  Am I the only one with an email folder or One Note tab of good memories related to my work?  It’s not exactly a safety deposit box at a historic bank in Paris. Maybe it’s a little closer to Jess’s file folder?  Something that caught our fascination, that puzzled us, that drew us further into the line of work that surely revealed more surprises than we could have anticipated when we started.

I asked Amy about her thoughts on the relationship between being an archivist and a creative writer.  She agrees that there’s definitely something there.  The potential for storytelling as a result of our work, our interactions with records and researchers, opens the door to something more.  She spoke of opening a box and looking at records, such as photographs, and asking herself: What's in here?  What can I learn?  Archival records are amazing sources for feeding creative and artistic interest, whether it's writing or another medium.  Archives are rich repositories of stories, many of them waiting to be told.

I asked Amy if she had any advice or for other aspiring authors, especially those in the GLAM sector.  She said, “Believe if you write that you are a writer - no caveats needed.”

Amy really emphasized the importance of finding a group of people to share writing with.  She said she’s been with the same group for almost 20 years and has learned from both the critiques she’s been given and that she herself has given to others.

She also recommends The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast, which focuses on the craft of writing and the publishing process with a focus on the Canadian context.

As busy as she’s been writing and editing, Amy’s also been reading a lot!  Her favourites this year include Letters to Amelia (Lindsay Zier-Vogel), which is chock full of archives content (including historic love letters!); The Final Look (Dianne Scott), a novel set on Toronto Island in the 1960s, which Amy found fascinating; and Dark August (Katie Tallo), a murder mystery set in Hintonburg.

Amy has three forthcoming titles (Keylight Books): The Foulest Things, Speak for the Dead, and Honor the Dead.

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