Quarterdeck Interview

This interview originally appeared in the
September 2007 issue of Quarterdeck.

by George Jepson

KIMBERLEY JORDAN REEMAN’S debut novel, Coronach, has traveled a long and winding road en route to its release on both sides of the Atlantic in October. In this interview with Quarterdeck, the author, who is married to British novelist Douglas Reeman, describes her journey:

What motivated you to write your first novel? What had you written up to that point in your life?

Before Coronach, I was serving my apprenticeship as a writer. I wrote stories as soon as I could print. Before I could print, I was telling stories to my brother. I wrote continually throughout my childhood; I wrote my first book when I was thirteen! I wrote a couple of plays, and many short stories; I wrote poetry and had some published. I was learning the craft, and the power of words.

What drew you to write about the Jacobites and their war with the English and the ensuing years leading up to and through the American Revolution?

It all started with the first mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie, a firebrand journalist and political agitator, who led a rebellion in 1837 against the government of Upper Canada. When I was very young I read a biography of Mackenzie which contained the intriguing snippet of information that both Mackenzie’s grandfathers were “out in the ’45.” As we hadn’t covered that period of British history in school, I went to the encyclopedia to discover what the ’45 was, and what people were doing “out” in it. The subject took hold of me then, and has never let me go. And the more I researched, the more I realized that the ’45, like every other event in history, cannot and should not be portrayed simplistically. It wasn’t black and white, but many shades of grey. Nor were all the Jacobites Scots. It was all very complicated, and woven into the texture of the eighteenth century, and what was essentially a world war being fought wherever their armies or navies met, or wherever nation could intrigue against nation, by those hereditary enemies, England and France. Which led me, in due course, to the American revolution, another complicated situation, but very definitely part of the pattern of the century.

I should also say that I was a teenager during the Vietnam War, and I think it was the first time Canada as a nation confronted the issue of collateral damage, and the morality or otherwise of a war which was inflicting such indescribable suffering on civilians. And from all of this emerged one character, a soldier with a conscience. In unravelling the complexities of his story, Coronach was born.

How did you research Coronach?

The characters appeared by my desk, so to speak, and said, “Let me tell you my story.” And each character would put a figurative thread into my hand, and it was my job to follow the thread and find out where it led. My research took me from Toronto to England, to Scotland, to the Caribbean. To museums, churchyards, cathedrals. To Culloden moor. There is a quote by Goethe, “A whole stream of events issues forth … raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way,” and it seemed that whatever I needed did, in fact, come to my hand. Invaluable documents and rare books, army records, estate records, letters, maps. And music. Music evokes very powerful images for me. I don’t have it playing while I’m working, but many of the scenes were inspired by it.

How do you name your characters?

Most of them arrived with their names intact, with the exception of the soldiers. I knew Mordaunt’s official first name, but I also sensed that was not the name he preferred to be called, and as soon as I saw that name on a map of Ireland, I recognized it as his. As soon as I knew Bancroft’s Christian name, Bancroft was there completely.

What was the genesis of your primary characters in this epic story?

No one is drawn specifically from history, or from real life, although there are resonances. And no one is created to fulfill a role or to resolve any aspect of the plot. They appear with their threads, and you follow them, and analyze them, and peel back layers of their personalities until you find out what made them who they are. It’s like method acting, only it’s method writing. They are. It’s my job to find out why.

Do you work out your plots in advance, before beginning each novel?

No. I knew where it was leading, but not beyond a certain point. Sometimes I thought of it as an archaeological dig, discovering a shattered mosaic, unearthing fragments, polishing them, and setting them piece by piece, an inch at a time, not knowing what the finished design would be like.

Do your characters ever take on a life of their own and influence the direction of your stories?

Yes. And that’s the magic of it. I’m not a puppetmaster. I don’t pull their strings. They live, and they behave as they would behave, and their personalities and their pasts and their actions are their own. I’m only the conduit. They speak through me, and I cannot and should not put words into their mouths. They have to be allowed to say what they would say, whether that’s something a nice girl from Scarborough should be expected to write or not. To do otherwise would be to compromise my integrity as a writer. I am always in control as far as the business of writing goes, the exercise of the craft, but I merely watch the action, and direct it.

How important is historical credibility in creating engaging fiction for readers?

For me, it’s everything. If you can’t get it right, don’t write about it. Write the truth, and illuminate the past, but don’t play with it, and don’t rearrange it. There is no “what if?” There is only “what is.” Or, in this case, “what was.”

When you are working on a novel, do you find yourself falling into the past?

I see uncomfortable parallels between the past and present, and I’m reminded of that old saying: “Those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Coronach is a novel about the human consequences of war, and what happens to ordinary people when their lives are shattered by an invading army. I see a certain unpleasant relevance to today’s headlines in that.

Do you write specifically for your readers or do you write the sort of novel you would like to read?

I write, first and foremost, for myself; and, yes, this is the kind of book I would love to read. I’ve always been a voracious reader, although I read very little fiction while I was writing Coronach. I want this to be the kind of book people loved reading in the 1970s and 1980s, an epic you can lose yourself in, and finish reluctantly, and pass on to your lover, or your mother, or your sister, or your best friend, and say, “Read this. You’ll never forget it.”

Would you describe where you write?

I write at an Edwardian desk in my study, which looks out over our garden. There’s a large sandalwood fan and two eighteenth-century pistols on the wall in front of me, which probably is my personality in a nutshell, and several photos of Douglas and our cats on the desk with, usually, a rose in a vase. Mordaunt’s sabre hangs over the loveseat. My diplomas from the University of Toronto and Ryerson hang on the wall over a midshipman’s chest, which holds, among other stuff, letters, manuscripts, and flags. And there are a lot of books — in bookcases, on the Chinese coffee table, piled up on the carpet. On the desk, also, is a silver straight pen, and an inkwell. I wrote all of Coronach in longhand, with a straight pen I bought during my university days in a stationery store in Toronto. I don’t write this way for effect, or to evoke any atmosphere; it’s just that when you write in longhand for hours on end, if you use a ballpoint or anything that requires pressure on the page, you’ll end up with writer’s cramp. You can’t apply any pressure writing with a straight pen, so you hold it lightly, and on a good day when the words flow, the nib races across the paper. When I wrote the last lines of Coronach, my old pen broke, as if to say its work was finished. The new pen is now waiting for the opening lines of the next book.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I have a small family, and a small circle of friends, and their love and faith in me kept me going. I also want to pay tribute to the man who stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s Douglas. I walked a long, dark road to reach this point, and Douglas walked it with me. He is the only reason I’m still here, and this book exists. People will think that because I’m the wife of a best-selling author, that it was easy for me. Nothing could be further from the truth. His UK publisher, and all the imprints under the Random House banner, were closed to me, because they have a company policy that prevents them from publishing husbands and wives. His agent has an identical policy. So no help was forthcoming from those quarters, or from any editor he’d worked with in the past. Every agent made it clear, after keeping the book for months — months of my life, and my husband’s — that I was a waste of their very valuable time. If the book didn’t fit a genre, or the template they wanted to impose on it, it was expected that I would tear down the work of years and cut, reshape, rewrite. I was even told to put it in a box and forget about it, presumably forever. Douglas became so disgusted with the world of publishing and the treatment being handed out to me that on more than one occasion I had to prevent him from throwing out a book in progress. More than once, he told me he would never write another. The clincher was the agent who told me he would only represent me if I tore the book apart and rewrote it to his specifications, as a trilogy. I knew that would be selling my soul to the devil. By that time, Douglas and I had decided we would publish Coronach ourselves, in the format I had always intended.

And so it stands. I offer it to him as a gift, and I offer it to his readers, not as an alternative to his books, but as a companion piece, a view of the eighteenth century from a different perspective, a perspective as truthful as I could make it. I hope it speaks to people with all its power and passion, as it spoke to me during its creation.