Melanie Fishbane’s historical novel, Maud, inspired by the teenage years of Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, was nominated for this week’s Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature (Children’s/YA category). Fishbane was interviewed via email prior to the Oct. 11 event.
Forgive me for being obvious, but Maud is shortlisted for a Jewish writing award – how do you see your portrayal of the teenaged Maud Montgomery in relation to Jewish girls?
I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see Maud on the shortlist! You might not see the connections right away, but after the nomination I started thinking about this more. The other novels I write do feature Jewish protagonists, but with Maud I was writing outside my cultural and geographical – and historical – experience. I study religion and theology but needed to ground the book in Montgomery’s late 19th century Presbyterianism because her novels are full of references. The interesting thing is that she loved the Old Testament and I looked to it to help me inform some of her spirituality. (I also consulted with experts). She was a person who questioned and explored spirit – something that many young Jewish women do. I did.
At one point when she is in Prince Albert, (Sask.) Maud talks about being a “stranger in a strange land” and that is part of the Jewish experience. The outsider looking in. Maud is a writer, an ambitious woman in a time where women were not encouraged to go to college. I also think Jewish girls of a similar age can relate to the questions she has to ask herself – do I pursue a career or get married and have a family? Can I do both? How do I do both? In the modern world girls have more choices, but the pressure to have a family is still there.
And, with her mom dead and her father out west, Montgomery was on the outside of her large family, often looking in. There was an instability for her, she knew she was going to have to make her way because she couldn’t rely on them. But, in many ways she was also part of her community, taking part in school and church functions. This, I realized is part of the Jewish experience. There is always an element of outside looking in, while also being part of the grand world community. It is a dichotomy that is in constant motion and flux. And, as Jewish women, we are double outsiders because of our gender. My experience as a Jewish woman often made me feel like an outsider in my own community. Honestly, being nominated for this award was the first time I ever felt like I was accepted by my community of origin.
Another thing struck me about your novel, in addition to period details about clothes, hairstyles, friendships, and social events, was how contemporary Maud’s world can seem—the “mean girls,” the gossips, the character slurs that make a motherless girl feel persecuted – all could be taken from today’s social media-obsessed world – any thoughts on that?
Part of writing YA is considering your audience and how they can relate to your character and their experience. This becomes a deeper challenge when it is historical fiction because you need to somehow show younger readers how similar things actually are – just the medium is different. For example, when Maud and her best friend Mollie are passing notes in class, I (hopefully) created the rhythm of texting. I would think that readers could see the parallels in how things can escalate online.
Links with other famous literary rebels also appear, most obviously Maud’s own adored Louisa May Alcott, but also, in the western chapters, Charlotte Bronte, whose Jane Eyre seems to pop up in Maud’s relationship with her cold and controlling stepmother – does that seem fair?
The fact is, Montgomery loved both Alcott and Bronte. Her copy of Little Women is so well read, that at the archives you can only look at a photocopy because the original is practically falling apart. The Emily series is heavily influenced by Bronte. Montgomery was a deep reader and would read and re-read these books throughout her life. I always went back to the source material with this book, seeing who Montgomery loved. The way the stepmother is cast is inspired by the journals.
Your inclusion of the Métis character and her culture expands and strengthens Maud’s experience in the west, yet was something that the real Maud wouldn’t have recognized in the same way – was there anything else you either expanded or discovered in her diaries and letters?
This was one of the most challenging questions I had when writing the novel because it was important to me that I show the Métis and Cree Nation (Nehiyawak) experience out west, while also being true to who Maud is. In my author’s note I talk about this at length, but, again, I went back to the source material. Montgomery was never an activist; she was, however, someone who used her writing to subvert the system. She used humour as a way to show the contradictions and highlight hypocrisies.
With the situation out west, she had the opportunity to write two articles at the age of 16! Imagine that! I looked to these essays and one she wrote in college, as well as the journal entries to figure out how to approach this. It is interesting to consider that when asked to write about Saskatchewan, in A Western Eden, Montgomery chose to write about the Cree Nation (Nehiyawak), using humour (in language that would be offensive today) to show readers that some of their perceptions are misguided. She discusses how the indigenous people might all disappear. And, when she returns to Prince Albert in the 1930s, she talks about how much she misses them. She is seeing the loss. I also worked very closely with Gloria Lee, a Cree-Metis from Chitek Lake to help with the cultural setting and to give the Métis character a voice. She was essential to this process.
Montgomery is also completely heartbroken by what happens in both wars. Her journal is a wonderful resource for this, particularly for the First World War. She didn’t live to see the end of the Second World War, but she was deeply affected by what was happening in Europe. She was a compassionate person who felt horrors deeply and it later contributed to her depression. I think about how she would be so disheartened now by the state of world affairs. So, I tried to balance the book with these elements in mind.
Have you been surprised by the readers your book appeals to?
Interesting question. I’m excited to see older men loving it. I get a few who come to my talks and ask great questions. The best, though, is getting emails from young readers who are doing it for a book report, or just asking me so many questions about Montgomery and her friends. What’s amazing about Montgomery is that she connects a diverse community of people from around the world. n