Born in Musquodoboit Harbour and raised in Halifax, Louise Michalos brings an authentic voice to Marilla Cuthbert’s story. The second youngest of a family of nine, whose mother was raised in a lighthouse and whose father was raised in a home that housed the post office, Louise’s life was infused with the stories of love and loss that are held within small communities throughout Atlantic Canada. Louise currently lives in Bedford with her husband, Trifon. Marilla Before Anne is her first novel. (Photo Credit: Nicola Davison)
Out of all the characters in fiction, why Marilla?
I was looking for an east coast story and a character that people would be familiar with. Many people know the story of Anne Shirley but there wasn’t much written about Marilla Cuthbert, the woman who adopts her. As a woman, a mother and grandmother, I wanted to know more about her life and what brought her to that decision at age 52.
What clues in the Anne books did you have to work from in fleshing out the younger Marilla?
When Anne first arrives at Green Gables, and as much as Marilla remains stern and practical in her approach to the perceived mistake of her not being a boy, there are moments when she is described as mellow. “Something like a reluctant smile, rather rusty from long disuse, mellowed Marilla’s grim expression.” Snippets of these types of reactions by Marilla throughout the Anne of Green Gables novel show a warmth that existed within her but had little opportunity to surface. I wanted to explore why.
What were some challenges / favorite things of writing historical fiction?
The challenge was in making sure that the actions taken by the characters (for example, a train ride, ferry boat to Halifax, graduation from Veterinary College) could actually happen in that time period. And to make sure the timelines of all the characters from three different novels all lined up, including the birth dates of Marilla (from Marilla before Anne) Bertha (from Before Green Gables) and Anne and Gilbert Blythe (from Anne of Green Gables).
One of my favourite things is immersing myself in the time period and hearing the various voices, dialects and expressions come to life.
I know that you’ve taken writing workshops and participated in Nova Writes … would you recommend things like these for a writer getting started?
Absolutely! One of the first things I did was join WFNS. I kept up to date on events and workshops and contests that were being promoted or announced. I attended the Word on the Street author readings and “Pitch to the publisher” events, I attended author book launches at the Dartmouth and Central library. I attended workshops conducted by Donna Morrissey and most recently by Carol Bruneau. I participated in the first Sherbrooke Village writer’s camp in 2018. I entered the Nova Writes competition and various other short story and poetry competitions.
What other pieces of advice would you have for a writer getting published for the first time?
Follow manuscript submission instructions for each specific publisher and present yourself (and your manuscript) as professional and as polished as possible. Help the publisher understand the audience you’re trying to reach and suggestions on how to reach them.
Fiction inspired by other earlier works of fiction – I’m thinking of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Longbourn by Jo Baker – come with a built-in audience. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?
The advantage, especially for an unknown author, is to have the book noticed on the book shelf, not for the author’s name but for the character that readers already know. The disadvantage is that readers can’t or won’t accept your version of the story you’ve created around their beloved character.
Were you ever able to speak to Budge Wilson, who also did a book inspired by Anne of Green Gables, Before Green Gables?
No. Unfortunately I didn’t. I had hoped to have a copy of my book sent to her and meet her once the book was released. When she passed away I was so upset. She inspired me as a writer because she wrote Before Green Gables when she was 80 years old, which made my idea, that starting writing at 60 was way too late, seem silly.
What kind of reaction have you got from Anne fans so far?
I’ve only had two or three negative reviews from Anne fans. They simply can’t accept my version. Other reviewers expressed that they really enjoyed the story and welcomed the opportunity to get to know Marilla better…which warms my heart.
Did you need to get permission from LM Montgomery’s heirs?
I wrote and asked for permission, but it was not required. Because the characters of Marilla (and Matthew and others) belong within the public domain of Canada, LM Montgomery Inc. doesn’t have the authority to impede the freedom of expression of authors wanting to use those characters in their creative pursuits. They of course want it made clear that they have not provided an endorsement or approval of any kind but wished me well with my work.
If there were other characters in the Anne canon to flesh out, who would they be?
I think I’d like to know more about Violet, the love interest of Matthew. There’s a whole story behind that story and I think I’d like to know more!
What’s your position on puff sleeves?
Well Marilla wouldn’t be caught dead in them, but being a bit of a fashion buff, if they go back in style I just might have to try them! After all we did the padded shoulders in the ’80s, so why not?
What’s next for you?
I want to revise my original manuscript for Out of the Ashes, which is a love story set between 1917 and 1945 and describes the connection between Boston and Halifax during and post Halifax Explosion. I want to get it as polished as I can (it’s the one I cut my teeth on!) and then submit, first to Nimbus of course, but also publishers in Boston who may be interested as well. Aside from historical fiction, I started a third novel set in Halifax in present day which is either a murder mystery or a psychological thriller. I’ll know better when I get back into it. Needless to say my retirement hobby has now turned into real work… and I love it!
—Questions by Marilyn Smulders