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.

Thank You Reviewers of Ravenscraig in the UK

Ravenscraig coverFew things are more gratifying to a writer than to have someone say they like your story. Readers who share their comments about what they like, what they found lacking and what they are recommending to the world is the lifeblood of an author’s career.  We learn from the criticism and we are encouraged by the praise. 

This may seem like a small thing, but it remains remarkable because there are thousands of books sold before a review is posted.  I’m talking about your neighbor, your sister, your co-worker here, not the big time reviewers in newspapers and bloggers who get books in advance of publication.  It’s the reader who buys the book or who is given a copy by a friend, or borrows it from the library who matters.  A choice is made. A book enters your life to occupy your time for days. If you hate it you will drop it in four minutes.  But if you like it, you become invested in the world of the characters.  You come to know the people in the story and you develop opinions about them. Sometime you fall in love and it is sad when the book ends and you feel that the story should have gone on, just a little bit longer, or that there should be another book, or an entire series.

Once in a rare while, a reader feels compelled to share their thoughts.  That is gold for areviews writer.  For me, this has made all the difference and has created the desire to write the sequel to Ravenscraig. (This next one will be all about art forgery in 1914  being sold to millionaires in New York.)

Next time your book club gets together, ask your members how many books they read in a year, and ask how many reviews they have written in their lifetime.  It’s true that those who take the time to post those reviews are very special indeed to the authors.  Even the big names are likely to read your words when you post those reviews. 

So it is that I send out a big thank you today to the readers that have found Ravenscraig and have been moved to write a review.  Writers live off the kind words of people who love our stories. We know that not everyone will get what we are saying, but for those who do, there is no greater joy than a fab review on Amazon.  It drives us to keep going, despite it all.

So to Mazza who posted this review in the UK, I can only say thank you so much for your enthusiasm and for sharing your thoughts.

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Thank you Mazza!

Happy weekend everyone.

And by the way, if you want to send me a note, I will certainly write back to you.  You can write to me at sandikaltner@aol.com. Or connect with me on Twitter @SandiAltner.

Also please see the reviews on Amazon.com

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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.