by Rebecca Murray with Renée BelliveauI’ve had the pleasure of sharing a virtual table with Renée over the past two years on the ACA Communications Committee, but we didn’t start talking about her books and writing until this summer. It’s been a unique pleasure to work with Renée professionally and to read her writing. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions after reading her most recent novel, The Sound of Fire, this summer.
Rebecca: Your novel, The Sound of Fire, is a beautiful blend of historical fact and creativity. You’ve written a really strong account of the tragic fire that raged on the Mount Allison University campus in December 1941. You show many perspectives including that of the fire (which we’ll get to), but I’m curious what elements or perspectives, if any, were missing from the narratives found in the archival or published record?
Renée: There were many perspectives missing from the archival holdings at Mount Allison University, which were understandably focused on students and faculty. I unfortunately did not have access to accounts by physicians and nurses who attended to the wounded, or by parents and community members. However, I was able to imagine what they might have experienced that harrowing night.
This is one way in which the fictionalization of the story was helpful. Rather than focus solely on the perspectives for which we did have archival records, I was able to include others who were affected by this tragedy. Usually there were records that gave me flashes of inspiration, such as the many telegrams sent by frantic parents eager for news of their sons, or newspaper mentions of the medical professionals who cared for injured students at the Amherst, NS hospital. My job was simply to breathe life into them.
Mount Allison campus, ca. 1904. Mount Allison University Archives -- 2007.07/51
Rebecca: I’ve read a lot of Canadian literature recently and the elements and the landscape really prove themselves to be pivotal characters in our country’s stories, time and again. Sackville, New Brunswick is, in my mind, known for its proximity to the marshlands and of course any story set in the east conjures up some imagery of water or shorelines no matter the setting’s proximity to the coast. Your focus on the fire is of course apt and points to danger (an obvious one in this case) in the otherwise idyllic landscape. How did you go about incorporating this perspective into the story, and what kind of mood or zone did you have to get into to do this? I presume the writing process was different from the other perspectives you wrote.
Renée: The voice of the fire came to me unexpectedly near the end of my first draft. I had not intended to anthropomorphize the fire itself, but as soon as I wrote the words down, I knew I had found the central thread that would allow me to bring so many disparate perspectives together.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I was inspired by novels like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which is narrated by Death. I remembered Zusak saying in an interview that he endeavoured not to make Death sound malicious. I had the same intention when writing from the perspective of the fire. I wanted it to be more of an observer than a villain.
While the book is in third-person narration, when the voice of the fire appeared, it was in first-person. It was also much more poetic, so I did have to put myself in a different mindset to expand that perspective (usually by reading poetry). But I had spent the entire novel shifting perspectives and adopting different voices, and Fire was simply an extension of that.
Mount Allison men’s residence fire, 16 December 1941. Mount Allison University Archives – 2007.07/962.
Rebecca: You’ve chosen to highlight so many voices rather than just focus on a select few. You also chose to come back to some voices time and again, whereas others seem to have their moment and we don’t necessarily hear from them again. How did you make these choices? How many narrators or perspectives is too many? I think many readers are used to a duo or perhaps trio of narrators, especially in current historical fiction, but you’ve surpassed that — without causing confusion. How have readers responded to this and is it something you think you could take on again?
Renée: I’m so glad to hear you didn’t find it confusing! Not every reader agrees, but this narrative structure was inspired by the archival records themselves. There were so many voices speaking to me from the archives that I never imagined writing it any other way. The book intentionally lacks in depth in favour of breadth. I wanted to show how many people had been impacted by this fire, and how it had affected them in different ways.
As with all historical research, there were contradictory accounts in the archives, which, to me, is as important as the story itself. By including all these voices, I was able to dive deep into the nature of truth.
I did initially compile a list of all the perspectives I wanted to include in the book, but writing was a much more fluid experience. From one day to the next, I got to choose which voice I wanted to embody. It was a very intuitive process. I didn’t focus on the number, but my editor and I did eventually cut or combine a few of them for the sake of clarity.
There is a long tradition of writers using this interconnected format in short story collections, and I would gladly take up the challenge again in that medium.
Rebecca: As archivists, we know records are not neutral: there’s bias in the historical record, there’s bias in the published record (for example newspapers). And certainly, for the characters in your novel, they have their own personal biases and perspectives as the tragedy unfolds. How did you balance your professional training, your creative spirit and your (presumed) desire to tell an honest account of what transpired during that horrific night?
Renée: Throughout my research I was faced with contradictory accounts of what happened that night, and I also encountered recollections that were refuted by the records themselves. That, I think, was the most interesting part of this project.
There is a slogan pinned to the wall of the Mount Allison University Archives which reads, “The truth is in here somewhere.” It is part of our job as archivists to find the “truth”— but truth is malleable, and memory is fallible. The experience of writing this book really made that clear for me, and fiction enabled me to play on that a bit.
Spoiler alert: I was recently asked why I did not make up a cause for the fire, which was deemed accidental. I was not willing to take so much creative license. There is always room for interpretation, but as an archivist, I wanted to remain faithful to the written record.
Rebecca: Do you think that being an archivist helps or hinders the historical fiction writing process?
Renée: I think it helps, especially with the research process. Not only are our technical and research skills invaluable, but as an archivist, I approach the records with so much respect for the individuals depicted in them.
Archivists are not supposed to interpret records, but I see my writing as an extension of my work as an archivist. By writing about history in an approachable way, I am doing outreach and inviting readers in.
Rebecca: Do you have other projects on the go that you’d like to share?
Renée: My current novel-in-progress was also inspired by voices I encountered in the archives, but I’m approaching it differently. Although I fictionalized the characters in The Sound of Fire, I was surprised by how many readers were able to correctly identify the real individuals who inspired them. This time, I’m writing about a larger historical event and supplementing my archival research with plenty of literature so that I can draw on the experiences of many rather than a few and envision new characters entirely.
I’m also continuing to focus on Canadian history. Archivists throughout the country know how many fascinating stories are hidden in our collections!
Rebecca: Do you have advice for any other aspiring authors in the archival or information science world?
Renée: The magic is in the details, and archival records are full of details that are glossed over in history books. Take note of what sparks and sustains your interest!
Renée Belliveau is a writer and archivist from Sackville in the Siknikt district of Mi’kma’ki (New Brunswick). She is the author of The Sound of Fire, a novel based on the true story of the devastating 1941 fire at Mount Allison University, and a memoir about her father’s battle with cancer entitled Les étoiles à l’aube. She holds degrees from Mount Allison University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Toronto. Follow her on Instagram: @reneecbelliveau
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.
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