Book Club Questions for the Author of Ravenscraig

Book Club questionsOne of the greatest pleasures of being a writer is the chance to meet with readers who want to talk about the story you invented.

I am fortunate to be  invited both in person and on Skype to talk with book clubs, service organizations, synagogues and history buffs about the story and to give presentations on the research I did to create Ravenscraig.

It is just a lot of fun to talk with readers who become deeply involved in the story.

The following questions came to me from a book club in Florida.  I couldn’t attend this event due to an ill-timed appendectomy and wrote out the answers to these questions while I was recovering.

Here then, is a little background on the writing of Ravenscraig.  Please do write to me if you have any other questions!

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Why did you decide to title your novel Ravenscraig? What other options did you consider? 

Finding the title was challenging. My first working title was the incredibly bland Willows on the Crescent.  After that there were a number of titles that related to the Titanic.  Finally I settled on Ravenscraig because it was the name of Rupert’s home (Rupert Willows is the lead character) and because it just seemed to work better than any of the other titles I had on my list.

Ravenscraig Hall (a fictional home) is located in the real neighbourhood of Armstrong’s Point which has a charming history and truly remains a sought-after residential neighbourhood to this day.  On the location that I placed Ravenscraig Hall there originally sat a mammoth home known as Bannatyne’s Castle.  How unfortunate that only the gates of that home are still in existence today.  I took the name Ravenscraig from Ravenscraig Castle in Scotland, which is big, ugly and was among the first built to withstand cannon fire.  Once I tripped across that, I knew it was perfect for the mansion.  Coming to the conclusion that it was the right name for the book took much longer.

Naming characters was a similar problem.  I learned all of the baby name sites on the net in my search for names that I felt would be most appropriate. I also did extensive searching through archival materials from Ellis Island, the Canadian Census reports of 1901 and 1911, the Jewish Genealogy website and City of Winnipeg archives.

What is your greatest pleasure – researching the historical underpinnings of the plot or creating the characters and dialog to communicate the historical elements?

I love the research.  The idea of writing a novel first came from stumbling across a great story about the scandals involved in building the Manitoba Legislative building a century ago.  Great story.  The more I learned the further back I needed to go.  What I learned about the conflicts between rich and poor, and English and everyone foreign during the height of the immigration boom (1896-1914) became so interesting that the focus of my story naturally shifted to the stories of that time.

There was such extreme poverty and so little political will to do anything about it that it just seemed unbelievable.  I read stories of 40 or more people living in boarding houses of 800 sq ft or less and thought it impossible that this had happened. Moreover it made me wonder that if it indeed had happened, how had I never heard of that before?  The 1911 census is an amazing document that lays out the truth.  Then, knowing the extent the overcrowding existed set a different colour to the many essays and memoires that I had read and new materials that I sought out.  What I had seen as perhaps exaggerated through a nostalgic memory suddenly came into focus as an undertold story of suffering. I wanted to bring that story to life.

This led to learning about the Typhoid epidemic in 1904-1905 when Winnipeg had the highest rate of typhoid per capita in the western world.  I first learned of it in a book by Dr. Alan Artibise, titled: A Social History of Winnipeg, 1874-1914.  There truly was a Dr. Jordan called in from Chicago to investigate the health crisis. I ordered a full copy of his report from the Manitoba Archives and was shocked to learn that he did not condemn the use of dirty river water being brought into the water mains for use in fire control.  He did say the water should be used “as little as possible”.  Equally interesting was that the Winnipeg newspapers produced no screaming headlines demanding to know the source of the typhoid.  It appears the city leaders just didn’t want the shame on a national scale.

Did Rupert Willows ever get on your nerves?  

Yes. But as awful as his behavior is at times, I admit to a deep affection for him. I enjoy his complexity.

Which is easier for you, description or dialog?  

Dialogue is much easier for me.  There comes a point where you spend enough time with your characters that you understand their morals, failings, strengths and misery.  I don’t mean to sound nutty, but I got to like a lot of them, especially the ones I spent a lot of time with.  So then, with the kind of research I did in Ravenscraig, you have a real story that you need them to react to.  You create a circumstance, place the people in it and then listen…and type.   There was one night I remember where I had had a particularly productive day.  I work outside on the patio most of the time when the weather allows.  I was working away and was quite overcome by what unfolded.  It was dark. The pool light was on, as was a lamp on the patio table. Katiana, my daughter, came out to ask a question and caught me as I wiped the tears from my eyes.  “ARE YOU OKAY, MUM?”

I think that when we think that these are not just stories, but that each of us has someone in our own ancestry who suffered, who fled, who persevered so that future generations would have a good life, it becomes something worth learning.  Each of us has a history worth knowing. Sacrifice is a big word and it counts for a lot.  It enriches your life when you contemplate the suffering that was done on your behalf.

Who do you imagine as your ideal readers?

Wow.  To be totally honest, this was a selfish endeavor. I wrote something I had searched out to read and couldn’t find. I thought if my mum read the book I wrote I would be happy. It pleases me to no end that the story has touched others and that it has sparked interest among some readers to learn more about their own histories. Historical fiction is not one of those BIG genres publishers are clamouring to publish.

As an author are you more interested in portraying the history of a period/place or in drawing “life lessons” from historical events and suggesting parallels to present issues?

I think there are life lessons in every circumstance and I wanted to tell a story that was historically correct.  I was very concerned about reflecting the attitudes of the day, particularly in the impact on women and the underclass. I like the idea that readers might learn something new that makes them think about the immigrant experience, whether it be a hundred years ago or in modern times.

Even in the most seemingly objective narrations of history, the historian has a point of view, a bias, a cautionary message.  As an author working in the genre of historical fiction, how would you characterize your moral slant or philosophical position.

I think it is very humbling to look at all of the difficulties that were borne by our ancestors.  I have little interest in anyone who might whine about not having the latest cell phone or tablet. Freedoms are too easily characterized as entitlements. I look back at that time a century ago, and imagine who or what I might have done or been. My heart goes out to the unfed children, the women who gave birth with their hair frozen to a wall in an unheated shack, and to all of the men that drove themselves to find any way possible to provide for their families. All of those who faced the tremendous challenge of putting down roots in a country where so many people were against them, simple because of a  name, a religion, or an ethnic background.  I think if I were to have lived in that time I would have thrown all my might behind Nellie McLung and the group of women who saw to it that Manitoba would be the first province in Canada to gain the right for women to vote in 1916.  Can you imagine we haven’t had the right to vote for a hundred years yet?

Why did you choose to conclude the book the way you did? Did you consider other options?

The ending came at the very end.  I had an earlier version that I was just not satisfying so I had to take some time away and just think about it. I have a deep affection for certain characters and it was very troublesome to learn what happened.  I was quite shocked, I must say, when I finally learned.

How does the ending reflect on or influence the themes of your novel. Family, Loyalty, Education, Integrity, Politics, Gender Issues (changing role of women, suffrage, etc.), Responsibility, Community, Work Ethic, Luck, Chance, Identity… personal versus social, ethnic, religious, economic, gender, family connections and expectations.-

Because the ending was the last of the book to be written, I cannot say it influenced the themes. It does influence thoughts of a sequel.  I am interested in the Great War and its impact on the city.  I am greatly interested in the work and strength of the women particularly through the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, and the suffrage movement.  Sam Bronfman became Canada’s best known Jewish leader after he became known for Seagram.  He and his family started out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a variety of jobs which ultimately led to the the hotel business. He became the owner of the Bell Hotel in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties and ultimately became Canada’s most famous bootlegger. Lots to research in this area.  And then there is the matter of the 1915 scandal of the building of the Legislative Building.

Who are your favorite authors, particularly in the historical fiction genre?

Most of what I read is non-fiction, but I very much admire and enjoy: Chaim Potok, Ken Follett, James Michener, Allan Levine, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Carol Shields, Irwin Shaw, Alice Munro among others I have forgotten to mention.

Ravenscraig 100th Amazon Review

Sandi AltnerFew things are more gratifying for an author than to have people tell you they like your story.  Whatever you may think of Amazon and its dominance of the ebook market, I can tell you that there is a huge benefit to being able to hear from Amazon reviewers who take the time to share their thoughts on the books they’ve read.  Like many authors, I appreciate and read every review.

It takes a long time for a book to gain traction and to become known.  The reviews help people find books that are in the area that they like.  Ravenscraig is a family saga, historical fiction, with romance, a Canadian immigration story and of interest to people who like social history and particularly the Titanic.

So it is with delight that I saw the 100th review of Amazon appear this weekend.

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The 100th review was written by Mary K. from Minnesota who gave Ravenscraig 5 stars. Thank you, Mary!

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Here are some of the other comments from Amazon reviewers.

Click here to see more Ravenscraig reviews.:)

reviews

Ravenscraig: The Freebie on Kindle

Click to download Ravenscraig

I am excited to let you know that Ravenscraig will be offered as a special promotion this week.  From Oct. 10-12 it will be available for free download on Amazon.  Click here to download the book….but wait until Wednesday, Oct 1oth, and please be kind enough to  send this message on to everyone you know.

So why does a writer support giving a book away for free?  The idea is the more people who download the book, the better chance this story, and this author, have of finding a readership.  In this new world of enormous strain on traditional publishing combined with the desire for instant access  downloads, I think this might be a most welcome manner to get a Canadian story out to a wide audience. I am particularly hopeful that someone in Scotland who lives within driving distance of Ravenscraig Castle  might download the book.

You will find a short book trailer at the bottom of this post.

About the book

Romance, scandal, and tragedy grip the lives of two families and threaten to destroy them both in Ravenscraig, by Sandi Krawchenko Altner.

Winner of the 2012 Carol Shields Book Award, Ravenscraig, pitches rich against poor in the height of the immigration boom a century ago. Rupert Willows buries his cruel past and schemes his way to wealth and power when he buys his opulent home, Ravenscraig Hall. Zev Zigman, a devout Jew, mounts a desperate struggle to bring his family out of czarist Russia.

At the center is the feisty Maisie, who hides her Jewish roots to enter the world of “The English” and a better paying future at Ravenscraig. Love, anger and determination fuel the treacherous journey ahead.

About the author:

Sandi Krawchenko Altner is a former television news reporter, anchor, and radio host who enjoyed an award-winning career in broadcasting over two decades in Montreal and Winnipeg.   She is a fifth generation descendent of the first colony of Ukrainian immigrants to settle in Manitoba in 1896. Sandi grew up with a keen interest in her roots and a deep love of history. A Jew by choice, she celebrated conversion in 2005.

Sandi moved to Florida in 2001 where her passion for family histories gave rise to her business as a personal historian, and documentary producer.   She specializes in interviewing people about their lives and creating tribute video projects. Ravenscraig is her first novel.

 

Ravenscraig: Questions for the Author

I had a most unusual experience the last time I was in Winnipeg.

It started with a wonderful event arranged by the Armstrong’s Point Residents Association, where I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in September talking about the early history of the neighbourhood with residents, history enthusiasts, and readers.

A couple of days later I wound up in the hospital with an emergency appendectomy.  A little scary, and very disappointing as it interrupted my planned meetings and visits in Winnipeg, but it wasn’t all bad. I was in and out in less than 48 hours and all went well.  I also had the pleasure of extending my visit and recuperating in my mother’s house, while she baked pies with apples harvested from her backyard.  How wonderful is that?

While I thoroughly enjoyed the time with my mother, and the rest of the family, it was disappointing that I had to miss a book club event at home in Florida that had been in the works for some months. Jane, who had invited me to speak to the club, sent on some questions and promised to read the answers in her “best Canadian accent” to her book club members.  Following are the questions and my answers.  By the way, if  there is anything you would like to know about the story in Ravenscraig, please email me at Sandi.Altner@gmail.com.

Thank you, Jane.

Why did you decide to title your novel Ravenscraig? What other options did you consider? 

Finding the title was challenging. My first working title was Willows on the Crescent.  After that there were a number of titles that related to the Titanic.  Finally I settled on Ravenscraig because it was the name of Rupert’s home (Rupert Willows is the lead character) and because it just seemed to work better than any of the other titles I had on my list.

Courtesy Provincial Archives of Manitoba c. 1915

Ravenscraig Hall (a fictional home) is located in the real neighbourhood of Armstrong’s Point which has a charming history and truly was a sought after residential neighbourhood.  On the location that I placed Ravenscraig Hall there originally sat a mammoth home known as Bannatyne’s Castle.  How unfortunate that only the gates of that home are still in existence today.  I took the name Ravenscraig from Ravenscraig Castle in Scotland, which is big, ugly and was among the first built to withstand cannon fire.  Once I tripped across that, I knew it was perfect for the mansion.  Coming to the conclusion that it was the right name for the book took much longer.

Naming characters was a similar problem.  I know all of the baby name sites on the net. I also did extensive searching through archival materials from Ellis Island, the Canadian Census reports of 1901 and 1911, the Jewish Genealogy website and City of Winnipeg archives.

What is your greatest pleasure – researching the historical underpinnings of the plot or creating the characters and dialog to communicate the historical elements?

I love the research.  The idea of writing a novel first came from stumbling across a great story about the scandals involved in building the Manitoba Legislative building a century ago.  Great story.  The more I learned the further back I needed to go.  What I learned about the conflicts between rich and poor, and English and everyone foreign during the height of the immigration boom (1896-1914) became so interesting that the focus of my story naturally shifted to the stories of that time.

There was such extreme poverty and so little political will to do anything about it that it just seemed unbelievable.  I read stories of 40 or more people living in boarding houses of 800 sq ft or less and thought it impossible that this had happened. Moreover it made me wonder that if it indeed had happened, how had I never heard of that before?  The 1911 census is an amazing document that lays out the truth.  Then, knowing the extent the overcrowding existed set a different colour to the many essays and memoires that I had read and new materials that I sought out.  What I had seen as perhaps exaggerated through a nostalgic memory suddenly came into focus as an undertold story of suffering. I wanted to bring that story to life.

This led to learning about the Typhoid epidemic in 1904-1905 when Winnipeg had the highest rate of typhoid per capita in the western world.  I first learned of it in a book by Dr. Alan Artibise, titled: A Social History of Winnipeg, 1874-1914.  There truly was a Dr. Jordan called in from Chicago to investigate the health crisis. I ordered a full copy of his report from the Manitoba Archives and was shocked to learn that he did not condemn the use of dirty river water being brought into the water mains for use in fire control.  He did say the water should be used “as little as possible”.  Equally interesting was that the Winnipeg newspapers produced no screaming headlines demanding to know the source of the typhoid.  It appears the city leaders just didn’t want the shame on a national scale.

Which is easier for you, description or dialog?  

Dialogue is much easier for me.  There comes a point where you spend enough time with your characters that you understand their morals, failings, strengths and misery.  I don’t mean to sound nutty, but I got to like a lot of them, especially the ones I spent a lot of time with.  So then, with the kind of research I did in Ravenscraig, you have a real story that you need them to react to.  You create a circumstance, place the people in it and then listen…and type.   There was one night I remember where I had had a particularly productive day.  I work outside on the patio most of the time when the weather allows.  I was working away and was quite overcome by what unfolded.  It was dark. The pool light was on, as was a lamp on the patio table. Katiana, my daughter, came out to ask a question and caught me as I wiped the tears from my eyes.  “ARE YOU OKAY, MUM?”

I think that when we think that these are not just stories, but that each of us has someone in our own ancestry who suffered, who fled, who persevered so that future generations would have a good life, it becomes something worth learning.  Each of us has a history worth knowing. Sacrifice is a big word and it counts for a lot.  It enriches your life when you contemplate the suffering that was done on your behalf.

Who do you imagine as your ideal readers?

Wow.  To be totally honest, this was a selfish pursuit. I wrote something I had searched out to read and couldn’t find. I thought if my mom read the book I wrote I would be happy. It pleases me to no end that the story has touched others and that it has sparked interest among some readers to learn more about their own histories. Historical fiction is not one of those BIG genres publishers are clamouring to publish.

As an author are you more interested in portraying the history of a period/place or in drawing “life lessons” from historical events and suggesting parallels to present issues?

I think there are life lessons in every circumstance and I wanted to tell a story that was historically correct.  I was very concerned about reflecting the attitudes of the day, particularly in the impact on women and the underclass. I like the idea that readers might learn something new that makes them think about the immigrant experience, whether it be a hundred years ago or in 2012.

Even in the most seemingly objective narrations of history, the historian has a point of view, a bias, a cautionary message.  As an author working in the genre of historical fiction, how would you characterize your moral slant or philosophical position.

I think it is very humbling to look at all of the difficulties that were borne by our ancestors.  I have little interest in anyone who might whine about not having the latest Smart Phone. Freedoms are too easily characterize as entitlements. I look back at that time a century ago, and imagine who or what I might have done or been. My heart goes out to the unfed children, the women who gave birth with their hair frozen to a wall in an unheated shack, and to all of the men that drove themselves to find any way possible to provide for their families. All of those who faced the tremendous challenge of putting down roots in a country where so many people were against them, simple because of your name, your religion, or your ethnic background.  I think if I were to have lived in that time I would have thrown all my might behind Nellie McLung and the group of women who saw to it that Manitoba would be the first province in Canada to gain the right of women to vote in 1916.  Can you imagine we haven’t had the right to vote for a hundred years yet?

Why did you choose to conclude the book the way you did? Did you consider other options?

The ending came at the very end.  I had an earlier version that I was not happy with. I have a deep affection for certain characters and it was very troublesome to learn what happened.  I was quite shocked, I must say, when I finally learned.

How does the ending reflect on or influence the themes of your novel.Family, Loyalty, Education, Integrity, Politics, Gender Issues (changing role of women, suffrage, etc.), Responsibility, Community, Work Ethic, Luck, Chance, Identity… personal versus social, ethnic, religious, economic, gender, family connections and expectations.-

Because the ending was the last of the book to be written, I cannot say it influenced the themes. It does influence thoughts of a sequel.  I am interested in the Great War and its impact on the city.  I am greatly interested in the work and strength of the women particularly through the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, and the suffrage movement.  Sam Bronfman became Canada’s best known Jewish leader after he became known for Seagram.  He and his family started out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a variety of jobs which ultimately led to the the hotel business. He became the owner of the Bell Hotel in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties and ultimately became Canada’s most famous bootlegger. Lots to research in this area.  And then there is the matter of the 1915 scandal of the building of the Legislative Building.

Who are your favorite authors, particularly in the historical fiction genre?

Most of what I read is non-fiction, but I very much admire and enjoy: Chaim Potok, Ken Follett, James Michener, Allan Levine, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Carol Shields, Irwin Shaw, Alice Munro among others I have forgotten to mention.

Two Minutes to Make an Impression at the Jewish Book Council

“Two minutes?”
“Yes. Two minutes.”
“But it took four years to write my book.”
“Yes.  Two minutes. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

The smiling coordinators of the Jewish Book Council Network Author Event spent months communicating the dreadful news to the author participants of the annual June conference.  Dreadful news? Yes indeed. The People of the Book are also the People of the Need to Talk.  Holding a Jewish comedian to a two minute audition is enough to cause an anxiety attack.  What if the punchline doesn’t get delivered in time?

Sandi Krawchenko Altner
Author of Ravenscraig
. Click to hear interview on Researching Ravenscraig

I feel very fortunate to be counted as a Jewish Book Council Network Author. It was very exciting to have been among close to two hundred authors who were in New York this month to present, or truthfully, audition, before the organizers and coordinators of the major Jewish Book Festivals and events throughout North America.   It is a brilliant idea, nerve-wracking though it might be. Highly organized, efficient, welcoming and inspiring.

I worried for weeks about what to wear and even longer about what to say, then what to leave out for lack of time.  The prize?  Authors are supported with an expenses paid book tour to visit with communities that invite them to speak.  There could be 30 invitations.  There could be none.  We were told not to worry and have fun, that the Jewish Book Council exists to help support authors who write books of interest to a Jewish audience.

“What if there is a lot of laughter?” one worried presenter asked in the round of questions prior to the audience being allowed into the room.  “Do I get extra time, if I have to wait for the crowd to settle?”

It took a little more than two hours for our group of authors to give their presentations on the first of three nights of author rounds. Almost all were within the time limit.  One woman was ten seconds under, which prompted the promise of an auction for extra seconds for willing spenders. Several were brilliant performers, others thoughtful and interesting, revealing painful stories of difficult life moments and situations.  Still others were very funny leaving the less comic in the audience thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to make people laugh like that. It was fascinating.

After the presentations we moved to a “mingling” opportunity and I was delighted that there was interest in Ravenscraig and in historical fiction in general.  It was, by all accounts, a warm and engaging session.

Over the next few days a heavy workload is facing the leaders and committee members of book festivals across the US and Canada as they finalize their lists of books in order to place their author requests with the Jewish Book Council. Many of the review books are traditional ink on paper, some, like Ravenscraig, which is available in print and digital, were sent electronically for easy access to committees of 20 or more.

(Reviewers will find instructions here for getting emailed files onto your e-reader.)

So what do you say in two minutes?

It’s easiest for me to show you with the book trailer.

A warm thank you for all of the staff at the Jewish Book Council for supporting authors and creating such an exciting opportunity.

Click on the logo to learn more about the Jewish Book Council.

Armstrong’s Point: Home to Ravenscraig Hall

Armstrong’s Point c. 1915 courtesy Manitoba Archives. Filed under Winnipeg Streets.

Armstrong’s Point is among my favourite neighbourhoods in Winnipeg and was the ideal choice for the location of the fictional home Ravenscraig Hall in my novel Ravenscraig.

Tucked into a bend in the Assiniboine River, the lush landscape and expansive lawns of “The Gates” as it is often called, have continued to inspire new generations of homeowners for more than a century.  There is no other place quite like this, and it fascinates me.

You will get a sense of the luxurious homes that were built in Armstrong’s Point at the turn of the 20th century if you read the opening chapter of Ravenscraig, which you will find here on line.

To this day, Armstrong’s Point remains a distinctly beautiful and peaceful residential area, hidden away from the busy streets of downtown, yet a short walk to the city centre, public transportation, fine restaurants, bakeries, walking paths, as well as churches and a synagogue.

No, you will not find a real Ravenscraig Hall, there, but I can tell you exactly where it would have been located had it existed.

I wanted to share this short video to show what Armstrong’s Point looks like today. It was produced by Compass Digital Media of Winnipeg and is narrated by Bill Richardson.   I hope it will help you understand why the residents association of Armstrong’s Point remains so fiercely protective of their historic neighbourhood.

The following notes were posted by Compass Digital Media to accompany the youtube video.

Historic Armstrong’s Point received its name in the mid-1800s, when the land was first granted by the Hudson’s Bay Company to Captain Joseph Hill.

When Captain Hill returned to England five years later, he left his boatman James Armstrong in charge and the area gradually came to be known as Armstrong’s Point. In the early 1880s when Hill heard that land values were escalating in the Canadian west, he returned to Winnipeg, reestablished his title to his property, and sold it to a syndicate headed by J. McDonald and E. Rothwell.

The Armstrong’s Point Association was formed 54 years ago to “preserve the residential nature” of one of Winnipeg’s most cherished neighbourhoods. Over the years, residents have come and gone, but still somehow, this peaceful, naturally beautiful setting remains, cherished by all who live here and visit here.

Of the 123 homes on the Point, 75 are on the city’s Inventory of Historically Noteworthy Buildings. The ornamental Tyndallstone gates were erected in 1902 and were designated by the City as historically significant in 1993.

The Cornish Library, a Carnegie library built in 1915, was named after Winnipeg*s first mayor, Francis Cornish. Ralph Connor House, home to the University Women*s Club at 54 West Gate, has been designated municipally and provincially and was recently named a National Historic Site. Beechmount at 134 West Gate is on the Canadian Registry of Historic Places.

Family Research Leads to Writing Ravenscraig

Mary Krawchenko and her mother Tillie Bachynsky with
Mary’s daughters, Sandi and Margaret, 1958

I have a real fascination with old black and white pictures.  I am especially interested in photos of people I know, but can spend days looking into any antique photo collection to learn about how people lived their lives generations ago.

I expect this is a familiar feeling for anyone who has looked through old family pictures and wished that there was someone still around to explain who was in the picture and what was happening on that day. Was it a birthday?  A visit to a relative?  Or just a walk in a park to share good news?  The black and white photos tucked away in shoe boxes so quickly become anonymous faces staring out at us from another century with stories that are rooted in imagination instead of fact.

If I had to settle on a single reason why I wrote Ravenscraig, it would have to be this interest in old pictures.

Ravenscraig is a novel that tells the story of some of the major events in Winnipeg during the height of the immigration boom that began in the 1890s.  Two families– one Jewish, poor and struggling to put down roots in the New World; the other rich and resistant to the foreigners among them–together provide a view of what life was like in a booming frontier city in Canada at the turn of the 20th century.

The research for the story was a most gratifying journey that included wide ranging resources from scholarly works and rare books to archived collections of rare documents, private letters and microfilmed court testimony.  Online sources included such favourite websites as the Manitoba Historical Society, the City of Winnipeg Department of Planning, Canada Census Records and the online newspaper archives like the Manitoba Free Press.

Nikola Strumbicky and Aksana Shmigelsky Strumbicky, 1958, Winnipeg

The inspiration for my desire to learn about the early days of Winnipeg grew out of a fascination with my own family roots.  My family came to Manitoba in 1896  from Zalischiky, Galicia, which is now part of the Ukraine.  They were “Stalwart Peasants in Sheepskin Coats” as Clifford Sifton the minister responsible for immigration had called them.   They came to Canada to farm, answering the invitation for free land in Canada’s determination to populate the prairies.

It is a most gratifying journey to learn about one’s past.  What pictures are in your shoebox?

Next up, New York!

I am very excited to announce that I will be participating in the Jewish Book Council Network.  What a fantastic organization.  The Network program supports authors who write books that are of appeal to a Jewish audience.

From the JBC website: For authors, this is an opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid book tour around North America. For program directors, it is the source of a wide selection of interesting authors who will speak in your community without an honorarium.

In June they will bring together a couple of hundred people from all over Canada and the US who are looking to book authors for events and speaking engagements.  Authors, like me, will have a two minute opportunity to make an impression that will hopefully lead to invitations to speak.  It has been described by one participant as a combination of the Gong Show and Speed Dating. Can’t wait.  Here’s a little video about the event.

More to come.  I will update you on all of the details of my trip.  I am set to present on June 3rd.  It happens that my daughter, Katiana Krawchenko, will also be in New York, so I am looking forward to memories that will be made.  Katiana is a journalism senior at the University of Florida and has been granted a ten week internship at CBS News in New York. How proud are the parents?

Ravenscraig Wins Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award

What an incredible honour it is that Ravenscraig has been recognized as the winner of the  Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.  I am at a loss to describe how deeply moved I am that this has happened.

Carol Shields was born and raised in Chicago, but lived in Canada from 1957 until her death in 2003.  She wrote ten novels and two collections of short stories in addition to poetry.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she won the Orange Prize for Larry’s Party.

The Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award  is presented by the City of Winnipeg and this is how it is described on the city’s website.

In 1999 the City of Winnipeg established its first book award. The first Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award was presented in 2000 at Brave New Words, the Manitoba Literary Awards. The Award is a juried annual prize honouring books which evoke the special character, and contribute to the appreciation and understanding of Winnipeg. All genres are eligible. The Call for Submissions is issued in late fall. The Award and its $5000 prize are presented at Brave New Words, the Manitoba Writing and Publishing Awards Gala.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mrs. Shields when  her novel, Larry’s Party, was released, and I was working in television news.

Warm, quiet and dignified, is how I remember her.  She was a small and  gentle woman who seemed somewhat overwhelmed by all of the attention that was paid her at a rather large and boisterous book launch party.

That gentleness shone through in every interview I’ve heard with Carol Shields, including this one, in a biography produced by the CBC in 1982.

Carol Shields was not only wonderfully gifted as a storyteller, she was an inspiring force who shined a light on Winnipeg through her writing about streets that were familiar to her and home to her characters.

In 1992, she was interviewed about her new novel, The Republic of Love. The interview took place in Vancouver and Mrs. Shields found herself being questioned about her choice of Winnipeg for the setting. I love her answer.

INT: It warmed my heart considerably in reading this novel to see Winnipeg portrayed so affectionately because so many people seem to have had the experience – so many Canadians seem to have had the experience – of passing through Winnipeg. It’s a place they’ve been when they’re on the train, it’s a place they’ve flown over and I don’t know that it has ever been done quite this way before.

Carol Shields:  Of course I am very fond of Winnipeg. I’ve lived there now eleven years. It somehow seemed right, now, to write about it. The time had come but I’ve wanted to do a couple of things a little differently. I wanted to talk about Winnipeg in the spring, summer and fall and not just in the winter because that is, of course, the stereotypical picture that we all have of it. I also wanted to talk about it as a cosmopolitan centre. It does have more than 0.5 million people and I think that always surprises people that it does function in this big city way as well. So those were a couple of things. But I have to tell you that I did worry quite a bit about setting this book in Winnipeg because I know Canadians are familiar with Winnipeg or at least with the mythology of the city. But this book was being published inNew York and in London as well and I expected at any minute to get a phone call from these people and say “Look, we cannot publish a novel set in what is this place? Winnipeg?” And I had prepared a defense. I was going to say that if Anne Tyler can write about Baltimore, I can write about Winnipeg. But you know? No one even raised this issue so I certainly didn’t raise it.
  

How fitting that the City of Winnipeg has chosen to honour her memory with the annual literary prize that celebrates Winnipeg.

Exciting Times

It’s been a very busy and interesting April with a book tour that took me to Montreal and Winnipeg.  I met with old friends and new and was thrilled to discuss Ravenscraig with impassioned readers who had much to say about Rupert Willows and the early days of Winnipeg when it was among the fastest growing cities in North America.

Click here for the news and events page to see pictures and read details about my visit to Montreal and Winnipeg.

It was great fun to do my first international radio interview a couple of weeks ago, with Marc Montgomery of The Link on Radio Canada.

Click on the photo to link to the interview.

An updated version of the book trailer was posted on Youtube today.

And I am deeply honoured to be in the company of such a fine group of talented writers who have been nominated for the Manitoba Book Awards, which will be announced on Saturday night, April 28th.   I am still pinching myself that Ravenscraig, a debut novel,  has been short listed for the Carol Shields Award.