Author spotlight: Deborah Hemming

Deborah Hemming lives and writes in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She holds an MA in English from McGill University, a BA in English from the University of King’s College, and an MLIS from Dalhousie University. When Deborah’s not writing, she works as an academic librarian. Throw Down Your Shadows, her first novel, was shortlisted for the 2021 ReLit Novel Award.

Congratulations on getting your first book published. What did it feel like to first hold your book in your hands?

Thank you! Holding my book for the first time was something I had looked forward to for a while. There’s so much about the process of writing a book that feels intangible, from nurturing the initial idea in your head to how much the story changes draft to draft, and I was certain once the book was printed and bound, it would take on a new weight. But I have to say, my experience of first seeing my book in the flesh was one of weightlessness. It was very surreal to see it printed, but it was also, overwhelmingly, a strange relief. I realized, even though I was finally holding it, it was now out of my hands. There was no more tinkering possible. It felt like letting go, which was very freeing.

Tell me about your book – what was your inspiration?

Throw Down Your Shadows is a coming-of-age story set in the Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia. It follows 16-year-old Winnie and her group of guy friends through a life-changing summer in which they meet Caleb, a charismatic new neighbour. Caleb totally upends their lives, exposing them to new ideas, encouraging them to push personal boundaries, and awakening feelings and desires that, until now, lay dormant.

At the heart of the story is a mysterious and devastating fire at a local winery. We don’t know who or what started the fire, but as the narrative jumps back and forth in time, the story gets closer to the truth of the event.

My inspiration for Throw Down Your Shadows was what I saw as a void. Coming-of-age stories are common, but I had rarely seen stories that dealt with friendships between young women and young men and how those friendships change due to the pressures of adolescence. I’d also never seen a teenage character like Winnie before. Most depictions of young women rely on heightened emotion and feeling, whereas Winnie is very cold and detached. I wanted to explore what it would look like for a young woman like Winnie to navigate lust and desire for the first time.

There aren’t very many books set in the Annapolis Valley, and the Gaspereau Valley in particular. Why did you decide to make the Gaspereau Valley your setting? What is it about this place that makes it fertile ground for fiction?

I grew up in the Annapolis Valley and had many friends who lived in Gaspereau, so I spent a lot of time in the area as a teen. I had always thought of it as this beautiful, hidden gem. It’s not so hidden anymore because it’s now considered the heart of Nova Scotia wine country, but it still retains its rustic charm.

Because Throw Down Your Shadows explores themes of appetite, pleasure and awakening desire, I really liked the idea of setting the story in a lush natural setting that would mirror the tensions and experiences of the main characters. As the world around them blossoms, grapes ripening, flowers blooming, Winnie and her friends do too.

If you were going to be a tour guide for tourists to Gaspereau, where would you take them?

I love this question. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when Winnie and the boys go tubing down the Gaspereau River. This is a local tradition and a required stop on any tour I’d be giving. After, I’d take them to Benjamin Bridge for a glass of sparkling wine in the vineyard.

What were some of the challenges you faced in writing the book?

The book is told in first person from Winnie’s perspective and finding her voice was a challenge in the beginning. As I mentioned, she’s not an overly emotional creature, so writing her in a way that didn’t alienate the reader was important. Similarly, when developing Caleb as a character, I needed to be careful not to make him too much of a challenge for the reader. He’s both charismatic and antagonistic, which is a tough balance to strike.

From talking to readers, I’ve noticed they tend to have more sympathy for Caleb than Winnie, which totally surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. I think we’re much more willing to embrace unlikeable men than we are unlikeable women.

The book bounces back and forth between “Before” and “After” and I found that to be very intriguing … it’s like the book had a dark heart that gradually comes into focus, and I read with a growing sense of dread. Can you talk about why you decided to write it that way?

There’s this notion that one event can change your life completely and I’m not sure I believe that. Change, to me, is always gradual. Even if one event ignites a major shift, the real changes happen around that event, before and after. This was why I wanted to tell a story that pivoted around a central moment, building in momentum and suspense, but ultimately, when the reader looks back, I hope they see how the story of that moment stretches beyond the event itself, from the first pages to the last.

What was your experience like in getting it published?

I finished the book in January 2018 and signed with Vagrant Press in September of that year. The months in between were a lot of querying and submitting, with inevitable rejections along the way. As a Nova Scotia-centric book, it made a lot of sense for Throw Down Your Shadows to find a home with Vagrant, an Atlantic Canadian publisher.

Can you talk about your title, Throw Down Your Shadows?

I understandably get a lot of questions about this. It’s quite an opaque title. My idea with it was that, in life, you come across certain people who illuminate unexpected sides of you. Shadows are always a by-product of light, so this fit with that idea, but shadows also connote darkness. I wanted the title to invoke how Winnie’s dark side is illuminated over the course of the story, and of course, that ultimately happens because Caleb comes into her life.

What are you writing now?

I’ve finished a second novel, which I’m hoping to find a home for. It’s very different from the first: no teenagers and no Nova Scotia connection this time. I’ve also just started a new novel, but it’s very early days. Writing is a part of my every day, so I’m always working on something.

Is the pandemic helping or hindering your writing?

The pandemic has been a very productive time for me. I always write in the mornings, very early, and now that I work from home for my day job as an academic librarian, I don’t have a commute, which means more time to write. I’ve also always used writing as therapy. It’s been a welcome escape for me over the past year or so.

What are some of your favorite coming-of-age novels?

I’m very resistant to the idea that coming-of-age novels are necessarily young adult fiction. I didn’t write Throw Down Your Shadows as a YA book and I’ve never understood why stories about teenagers shouldn’t be of interest to people of all ages. It’s such a formative time; I’m still digesting my teenage years.

That being said, I also think coming-of-age experiences can happen at any point in one’s life, not just adolescence. One of the best coming-of-age books I read recently was Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. Most people probably wouldn’t see this as a coming-of-age novel (the main character is 72) but to me, it is. It’s the story of a woman embracing transformation and learning about herself. Even though it’s set at the end of her life, it’s still has the spirit of coming-of-age.

Other coming-of-age novels I love: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler was a major influence for me. As well, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund was a masterpiece.

What are you looking forward to the most when restrictions end?

Travelling is my favourite way to spend my time. When we can travel again, I will be very, very happy. I have my sights set on a trip to France to visit friends in summer 2022. We’ll see if that’s possible. I have my fingers crossed!

Questions by Marilyn Smulders

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