I count myself lucky that I knew so little about the publishing industry when I started writing Ravenscraig. It would have gotten in the way of the writing.
Well over a decade ago, I tasted the freedom of “making up a story”, when I started to play with words outside of work. As a news reporter, my writing was constrained by the rules of truth and responsibility, and a strong journalistic ethic to be unbiased and thorough. It was a tantalizing treat to find that fiction would cut me loose. I could invent anything. Well, not exactly. I’m not the science fiction type and I’m not much for literature that involves flying dragons or dripping daggers. While I love reading history of any kind, as well as mysteries, biographies, political memoires, and even the occasional juicy “beach trash” novel, as a writer, my heart is in historical fiction.
So it was that I gravitated to the news stories of Winnipeg, in the late 19th century and found myself writing a novel. I buried myself in research and learned fascinating tales about a hard living western saloon town bent on success. I spent evenings and weekends combing through the Internet as well as piles of documents, tattered books, scholarly works, newspaper archives and microfilmed testimony from a hundred years ago. I learned about prostitutes, typhoid epidemics, the struggles of immigrants, anti-Semitism, fire fighting in the 1890s, travel in the gilded age, and of course, I became all but swallowed up by the most appealing subject of all: the Titanic.
I developed a great passion for historical research, but it was the people I studied who set my imagination on fire. A parade of characters, some true, some figments, wandered into my mind, demanding that I pay attention and hear what they had to say. Writing their experiences, dealing with their emotions and living with their joys and heartaches became a very fulfilling journey over a great many years.
If you are not a writer, and perhaps, even if you are, about now you might think me a bit of a nut, someone who has imaginary friends to hang out with and lives a small and withered life in the back corner of a dusty library, communing with spirits. I can assure you that I am actually quite well grounded, and deeply content in my life, and that I prefer to sit outside when I write. (I gave up snow for palm trees.) But we can talk more about the satisfaction gained from living as a writer on another day.
A part of every trip to Winnipeg was and is dedicated to research. Most trips started with visiting Burton Lysecki and Karen Sigurdson at the fabulous Burton Lysecki Book Store. They specialize in rare Manitoba works and always kept special books aside for me, and helped me track down works I needed. I also spent a lot of time at the Manitoba Archives, the Manitoba Legislative Library, Heritage Winnipeg, the City of Winnipeg Archives, and the Jewish Historical Society, where I read family accounts of early Winnipeg memories.
More than anything it was the photos of those many years ago that truly inspired my desire to learn more about how people managed.
There was such great poverty and hardship suffered by so many people in the foreign quarter.
It is astonishing to think about it, especially when we look at pictures of children. The Foote collection at the Manitoba Archives is particularly interesting and sobering.
Equally of interest to me was learning about the wealthy class. Winnipeg, like so many other cities with rapid growth at the turn of the century was a city of stark contrasts and home to a number of millionaires who traveled the world, enjoyed theatre, opera and the musical society as well as sports such as curling, golf, and fox hunting. There were two distinct worlds in Winnipeg and undoubtedly many people lived out their entire lives never seeing “how the other half lived”.
In 2009 I was ready to expose my work to friends and family. A cumbersome prospect for a novel of 500 pages. My mother certainly wasn’t going to read anything like this on a computer. I found a print on demand company that charges you by the book. I ordered a few a copies and it was the best thing I could have done. When that box arrived and I opened it, on March 6th, 2009, I was over the moon with excitement. It looked like a book. It hefted like a book. And the best was, it didn’t look like it was going to fall apart. I felt like an author for the first time.
To my utter delight, I had very encouraging feedback from my advance readers. Three comments stand out.
First from my friend Jane, an oncologist in Florida, who called me on a Sunday afternoon: “Sandi, I have to tell you that first I wanted to read this only because you’re my friend, and I’m too polite to have said no to you. I’m a hundred pages in and just had to call to let you know that this is really good.”
Janet, a dear friend in Montreal: “I was reading your book while in line at the grocery store cash register, and I was so taken with the story, I had tears running down my face. The manager offered me a chair, so I could weep in comfort while I finished the chapter.”
My greatest worry was how this was going to read in the Jewish community in Winnipeg. I am a Jew by choice, having converted in 2005. I have no genetic link to Judaism that I know of. My knowledge comes from study so it was very important to me that the story rang true among those whose roots are among the Jewish pioneers of Winnipeg. I sent the draft to Louis Kessler, former president of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, whom I first met in Junior High. We were in class together at Edmund Partridge.
Louis sent me this note: “I thought Ravenscraig was superb. You can add another dozen superlatives here. But it is a book that you almost seem to have written specifically for me, being located in Winnipeg, referring to landmarks and locations that have meaning to me, involving Jewish immigrants who resemble what my great-grandparents were like, and reflecting the attitude and hope that I have in life.”
What followed next was sending the book out to publishers. The letters came back gently refusing the work. But one in particular was very encouraging. In evaluating the manuscript, the editor wrote:
“There is a great deal to admire as well as to be charmed by in the novel: Ms Altner’s ability to imagine herself into the minds-and hearts-of characters who are very different from each other, and distant from ourselves by virtue of the traditions and conditions of the time. I learned a great deal about the growth of the city of Winnipeg, which I have always thought one of the most intriguing cities in Canada (western yet not quite, the incubator of fiercely held political/social beliefs, an arts capital), and found the approach to issues such as the pressure to assimilate, never mind outright racism, sensitively and intelligently treated.”
This editor, whom I have never met, but to whom I am indebted, had also provided clues on what was needed to address the weaknesses in the manuscript. I rewrote the book twice over the following 18 months, conjuring up an imaginary version of this editor to rake me over the coals and help me find the path to a cleaner story.
I cautiously put the new version into the hands of a select few new readers. Among them was an old Winnipeg friend who had gone into the film business in Toronto, Greg Klymkiw. Greg was a tremendous help in both his enthusiasm for the work, and his bold statement. “I want to be your editor.” Over several months Greg would “Skype me in” and we’d have these fabulous story building sessions talking about characters, story lines and how to think about writing action as opposed to reflection. I am very grateful for Greg’s valuable and generous input and can only say that if you ever have the opportunity to work with him, you will be truly blessed.
At the same that I was working through new revisions with Greg, Ravenscraig caught the attention of Peter St. John of Heartland Associates and the long road to find a publisher ended in Winnipeg with Heartland purchasing the Canadian rights. Publisher and editor, Barbara Huck, provided the polishing touch to the manuscript and was the driving force to get it out in time for Christmas and Hannukah. This week Ravenscraig is rolling off the presses at Friesens in Altona, Manitoba. A Manitoba story with a Manitoba publisher and a Manitoba printer. I am utterly thrilled that Heartland took this on and was so determined to make this happen.
It is a long and interesting road to bring a book through traditional publishing, especially in these challenging times in the industry. Thank you, Peter and, especially Barbara, for moving mountains to make this dream come true.