Becca Babcock grew up in Alberta, but since 2005, she’s lived just outside of Halifax with her husband Trent, and now with their almost-five-year-old son Thorin. Becca is a writer, writing instructor, and sometimes an actor and a filmmaker, as well. She teaches writing and English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and occasionally at other universities in the region. (Photo Credit: Claire Fraser)
You originally came to Halifax to complete a PhD in English. What’s kept you here?
We fell in love with life here. Originally, we’d planned to stay no more than 4 years, but both my husband and I realized very quickly that we were very happy here, and it would take a pretty attractive opportunity elsewhere to make us consider moving.
You’ve said your debut novel One Who Has Been Here Before was inspired by Nova Scotia’s real-life Goler clan. Why did you want to approach these historical events through the lens of fiction?
I’m a fiction writer. I tell stories. Marianne Moore said that “Good stealers are ipso facto good inventors,” and this idea feels very true to me. The line between stealing and inventing, truth and fiction, is actually more of a smudge for me.
Also, this family has been through a lot. The more I learned about them, the less I wanted to add scrutiny to them and what they’ve lived. I hope my book makes readers consider families like the Golers more gently. I didn’t want to turn a hard spotlight back on them.
This book is part of a long tradition of East Coast gothic literature and, as the Toronto Star notes, women writers have been at the forefront of the genre’s recent resurgence. Why do you think gothic tales have such staying power in Atlantic Canada?
I think it’s because we have a longer settler history than most of Canada. Gothic fiction is about reckoning with the most uncomfortable parts of our past. The legacy of colonialism is one of the hardest things for us to really come to terms with. It makes sense that a region that has a long colonial legacy is going to have the most to work through, in terms of the horrors of the past.
You published a collection of short stories with Blaurock Press in 2011. Did you learn anything from writing that book that helped with the development of this one?
Patience. I learned patience, and to manage my expectations. Especially as someone who studied literature, I had a very unrealistic idea of the reach and potential of a book. My first publishing experience made me realize just how many books are out there, competing for readers’ attention, and what a challenge it is to woo readers into choosing yours to spend a weekend with.
What’s it been like to do podcasts and press for One Who Has Been Here Before?
Honestly, it’s been really scary. The past year, with COVID and restrictions, has actually made me realize how much more comfortable I am in relative solitude. Certainly, I love teaching and I love performing, but when I do either of those things, I’m not centering myself—I’m centering either the concepts and texts for my students, or I’m entering the character and the story on the stage. I love sharing the story that I’ve written with readers, but sharing myself with the public has been a very uncomfortable experience. I’ve been trying to keep the focus on the book, and what I think readers will find most interesting about it. But my book is very different from someone else’s character, or someone else’s novel. It’s part of me. It takes a lot more energy and effort to make the book the story, to figure out what people might want to know about it.
In addition to being a writer and academic, you’re also an actor. Has that experience influenced your writing style in any way?
Yes, I think so. When I act, I look for the character. It’s a quest—find out what you know about them, and unfold it. That’s essential for both writing and acting.
As a reader, I found the quiet, contemplative moments your protagonist Emma experiences while exploring the ruins of the Gaugin family property particularly compelling. How did the landscape of the South Shore influence the way you told this story?
The landscape of Nova Scotia in general, and the South Shore in particular were absolutely central to the story and the characters, and the way they developed. Since I moved here, I’ve spent a lot of time out walking and hiking and really appreciating the landscape, the environment. It used to be something I did a lot on my own (with my dog for company), and now my son and I share the experience of going for long walks in the forest or along the shore. It’s something we both love.
A few years after my husband and I moved to Nova Scotia, my mom moved out here, too. She lives in the Hubbards area, and I’ve really loved the experience of getting to know both the community and the landscape where she lives. In a lot of ways, my book is a love letter to that place. I wanted Emma to feel the same way about the place that I did.
Do you have any favourite spots to visit along the South Shore?
Hubbards is such a lovely community. My mom lives there, and folks have been really welcoming to both her and us. And I love going for day trips to Mahone Bay. It has to be the prettiest town in Canada.
I was intrigued by your choice to include both first- and third-person sections for Emma. What led you to introduce these shifts in perspective?
I wanted the book to be a bit of a pastiche, to reflect Emma’s research quest. So there’s a central, unifying narrative that tells the story from a third-person perspective, but then there’s also Emma’s research material—the first-person passages are her own reflections, what she writes down for her thesis (maybe), as she digs into the story. And there are other letters and journals, and even newspaper articles. Originally, I’d planned to include photos as well, but they felt clumsy and intrusive. It felt more natural to stick to written storytelling.
Along with the letters, journal entries, and articles, there are also chapters that present the viewpoints of other characters. Why was it important for you to incorporate a multiplicity of voices in One Who Has Been Here Before?
I felt that was the best way to center my protagonist, Emma, and her quest—to include both her story (the story about her), and the story she’s telling as she gathers her research.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin