Genevieve Graham moved to Nova Scotia in 2008 and fell in love with the integral history woven into every aspect of this province. Using her love of historical fiction as a palette, she began in-depth research into the little-known, even forgotten history of Nova Scotia, then the rest of Canada, publishing five Canadian bestselling novels in five years, including the “instant #1 bestseller,” The Forgotten Home Child. Prolific and determined, Genevieve is proud to bring Canadian history to life through the popular, mainstream market of commercial historical fiction and plans a book a year for as long as she can keep up!
You mention on your website that you started writing when you were 40. What were you doing before? And what made you start writing?
I graduated from the University of Toronto in 1986 with a Bachelor in Music Performance (on the oboe), but my life changed direction when I developed an autoimmune disease called “Sjögrens Syndrome.” Unable to play anymore, I taught myself to type in a weekend and then embarked on a crazy but fascinating series of jobs in advertising, promotions, marketing, and fundraising in retail, media, and non-profits. I also taught piano in my home to dozens of local kids over the years. In 1998, I became a stay-at-home mom, and that was the busiest of all my jobs! When our daughters were about six and eight, my mother noticed that I spent very little time on myself, and she decided to change that by bringing me a book and insisting I sit down to read. That book was “Outlander,” and it turned my world upside down. I proceeded to read as much historical fiction as I could find, driving the local librarians nuts with my need for more. Then, one day, I decided to try my hand at writing something myself. I’d never written much more than a thank-you note. I remember Mothers Day 2007 fondly, because that was the day my husband bought me my very first laptop, all to encourage me on this new path. Well, it worked, and I’ve never looked back. I am self-taught — I joined writing communities online (I highly recommend Scribophile.com) but never paid for a single course, and while I worked on my first novel, I ran my own freelance editing business that taught me even more.
Your books are all set in the past. What is it about historical fiction that attracts you?
My love for history is only a few years older than my writing career. I will admit that I slept through history class in school, but well-written historical fiction (mostly about 18th century Scotland) awoke a need in me to learn about what and who had come before. It wasn’t until we moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia in 2008 that I began to recognize just how much history existed around me, and how little I knew about my own country. I decided to focus exclusively on Canadian history, and I left my Scottish research behind.
For me, historical fiction is a very powerful tool. I had no interest in history before I discovered the genre. Now I understand that historical fiction has a huge responsibility: we must teach the mind but also touch the heart. History itself is in black and white. It feels far away and cold. Bringing the colour of fictional characters into a well-researched point in history, essentially breathing life back into the history, makes the past real. It’s much more difficult to forget a story if you care about the characters, and so history is remembered. I absolutely love reading reviews that start with “I had no idea about this history until I read Genevieve’s book …”
What kind of research do you do?
My first stop is always the library, where I take out every non-fiction book I can possibly find on the subject. It’s not exceptional for me to check out 20 books one week and go back for ten more the following week. I read through as much of the serious history as I can — though I’ve never been good at dry non-fiction — and I learn the basic background, the five Ws.
Then I go online. My favourite resource is finding individuals who are passionate about a certain subject, like re-enactors. I remember once meeting a Scottish man wearing eight layers of thick wool (his kilt) in the heat of summer during a historical reenactment weekend. The history mattered so much to him, and that’s what I need: people who really care about the right information being shared. They are the most critical and determined sources I’ve ever come across.
The third step is to go onto social media. You’d be amazed how many facebook groups have been created for specific historical research. For example, I once joined a facebook group made up of descendants of POWs in one particular German camp during WW2. I recently joined one completely made up of historical photos of Toronto. And when I was researching the British Home Children for The Forgotten Home Child, I joined a half dozen regional pages of the children’s descendants, as well as the main page at www.facebook.com/groups/Britishhomechildren. Those people were so enthusiastic about sharing the information about their ancestors that over 200 of them filled out surveys for me, detailing their ancestors’ usually heartbreaking stories. As a result of their responses, I was able to integrate actual experiences into my characters, making the book even closer to non-fiction, and much more compelling.
Most of your books are set in Nova Scotia. Why?
Growing up in Toronto, then living 18 years in Calgary, Nova Scotia had always seemed like a faraway, wild place. It wasn’t until we actually moved here (completely by choice) that I fell in love with it. And the history was so very real — actual hundred-year-old houses abandoned along the Eastern Shore (where I lived) had me questioning everything: who lived there? what had happened that forced them out of their house? I could frequently be found in cemeteries, intrigued by generations of families all living in the same area they’d always lived in, all buried there as well. Then, one day, I heard about the Halifax Explosion for the very first time. I was astounded that I’d never been taught about something so important in our country’s history. Despite going to school in NS, our daughters knew nothing about it either, and very few people out west had any idea of what I was talking about. So I decided to educate myself, and as soon as I started doing that, the storyline began to build. Tides of Honour came from that research. While it was in the process of being published, I learned about the Acadian Expulsion, and Promises to Keep was born. Then I heard about the Merchant Marines and the German U-Boats skulking along the Eastern Shore during WW2, about fifteen minutes from my house, and that evolved into Come From Away. At the Mountain’s Edge, the story of the Klondike Gold Rush and the early Mounties (NWMP) took me to the west coast, but the characters in The Forgotten Home Child all arrived via … you guessed it, Pier 21, right here in Halifax. How could I not write about such a history-rich province? Nova Scotia is a historical fiction author’s dream location!
What are some of the difficulties in setting things in the past?
Research is obviously the most time-consuming part of the journey, but for me it’s also the most exciting part. Still, some facts can be elusive, and when I am unable to find them, I am forced to change direction. My characters are always fictional, but I will never try to “create” history. Other than that, I don’t find it difficult to write about history — I feel more comfortable writing about the past than the present, to be honest!
Can you tell me about your latest book, The Forgotten Home Child? What made you write this book?
My passion lies in discovering forgotten or little-known moments in Canada’s history, because I feel our history is so often in the shadows of other countries’ stories. In my search for “new” stories to pursue, I follow a lot of historical pages on social media. Back in 2017, one of those sites posted an article about the British Home Children (BHC) and I was intrigued since I’d never heard of them before. At first glance, I was taken aback by the fact that I’d never heard about tens of thousands of British children being placed into indentured service, but when I read on and discovered the children were shipped to Canada, well, I was hooked. What I do remember learning during history classes in high school are the basics: War of 1812, Plains of Abraham… but how was it possible that I had never been taught about the over 120,000 destitute children shipped from England to Canada to be used as a source of labour on thousands of Canadian farms and households? The more I dug into the story, the more my heart twisted with the need to get the truth into the hands of Canadians. And when I learned that over 12% of Canadians – more than 4,000,000 people – are descended from the children and most have no idea, well … how could I not write it?
What is it like releasing a book during the pandemic?
It’s been a roller coaster. Two weeks before bookstores locked their doors, I was flown into Toronto and Montreal where I was on four or five radio programmes, I was on TV, and I spoke to crowds. I learned that The Forgotten Home Child was an instant #1 bestseller while I waited to speak to an auditorium of students in Montreal. At the time, nobody could have imagined how the world was about to change.
But change it did, and it was like someone had turned off all the lights. It broke my heart, imagining that no one would ever see my book or read its important content. I wanted so badly for people to learn about the British Home Children.
Fortunately, I’m stubborn, and I refused to go quietly into the night. I quickly learned that my computer’s camera was not actually my enemy, and I used it on Facebook live videos via Zoom with book clubs, book promoters on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, local newspapers, museums, and more. I did an interesting one with the British Home Children descendants as well. Then I expanded, creating “Historical Fiction Panels” on Zoom, inviting other authors to come onto my Facebook page and talk about their books. At one I had six of us, another had three, and I have another one coming up in November. Now I’ve added short videos about “Historical Fiction coming soon,” where authors come on my page and read Chapter 1 of their new novel. I find that one of the best and most thoughtful ways to promote yourself is by promoting someone else, and there were so many people out there going through the same thing as I was. We all helped each other.
It was a frantic, frustrating, but exciting time. While I was desperately promoting, the books sold out and replenishments were trapped across the closed border for weeks. Anyway, something I did must have worked, because even with the bookstores locked up tight, The Forgotten Home Child was on the Canadian Fiction bestseller list for 19 weeks, and 11 of those weeks it held the #1 position.
I noticed that your website delcares you open to appearing at book clubs. What do you get out of book clubs? Isn’t it nerve-wracking?
Originally, before all this virtual stuff, I was terrified of going to book clubs. I’m not usually a social person (I prefer my quiet little desk!), and while I knew book clubs were important for sales and for reaching new readers, I was nervous about little things: what will they ask? what should I wear? what if they hate the book?
It didn’t take long before I realized that book clubs are wonderful! I was there because they wanted me there, and what they really wanted was to listen. Ask anyone about their passion, and you’re liable to get a lot of answers, so we all enjoyed the meetings. Then everything moved to Zoom, and it all got so much better! I had offered FaceTime / Skype meetings before, but I hadn’t done very many. Suddenly groups were meeting up all over, getting comfortable with Zoom, and I was meeting with three or four clubs a week for a while, all over Canada and the US.
I think book clubs are very important for authors to recognize. First, everyone in the club has to read your book, so there are sales up front. Second, and more important, those are serious readers who know other serious readers. If they liked the book – even better if they like you – they will be recommending it to other readers, helping to get your name spread far and wide. Third, I always send out a book list before the meeting, because if they enjoyed the book (and you!), they might just be motivated to buy from your backlist. Of course, if I am going to a live, physical book club, I always bring boxes of books to sell, along with bookmarks for everyone!
Your website also features the trailers for your books. Is this something you recommend for other writers? What other things do you do to promote your books that may be a little out of the ordinary?
I’m not sure why I love making book trailers so much, but I do. The thing is, they are a lot of work and really don’t amount to much, in my experience. But they are one more weapon in my arsenal, so to speak, and I believe in coming fully armed.
Hmm. What else? I think I do what most people do, but just in case, here are a few suggestions:
I always carry bookmarks and business cards with me, and I leave dozens at bookstore tills when I’m visiting. Bookstores love free stuff! At one point, my publisher asked “why business cards?” I use them a lot — for e-books! I love to sell at farmers’ markets, and I hand out bookmarks to tons of “tire kickers.” Some of those people are interested, but they don’t want physical books. So I hand those out. I advise having both. Oh, and both my husband and my mother always have a stack of business cards. I know they’ve both brought me readers!
I’m quite active on Instagram and Facebook, and sort of active on Twitter. I have one big rule: I will never engage in any political discussions. That’s very, very important to me. No matter how correct you believe you are, there is always going to be someone who feels the opposite. I know some authors feel passionate about speaking up, but I don’t see the value in cutting off half your potential audience just to make a political statement — or worse, to argue about one.
In addition to my own news, I share other authors’ announcements on instagram and twitter whenever possible. Doing that makes friends and builds loyalty with other authors, and it gives your followers some recommendations to check out.
I have an e-newsletter, but I only send it out three or four times a year, and only when I have important things to share.
On my website, I post both Historical Information about the books AND deleted scenes/chapters.
What are some historical fiction books that you like and recommend?
The Outlander series will always be my favourite because it was the one that encouraged me to try writing. Other favourites are Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, Paullina Simons The Bronze Horseman, and a recent favourite from close to home, Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer.
What are three things on your writing table — and what significance do they have to you?
I have a big, ugly paper blotter (I think it’s from an auto body shop?) under my laptop which is for scribbling phone conversations or notes on, as well as for sopping up all my spills.
I have a pair of candles which I light whenever it’s cloudy. They’re kind of a zen thing, I suppose. I have a box of Kleenex always on hand, because I cry a lot while I’m writing. It’s true. I write some very sad things sometimes, both historically and fictionally. With The Forgotten Home Child, I made it even worse by listening to sad music (Ezio Bosso’s “The Rain in Your Black Eyes” over and over and over). I think it’s good to cry. We wouldn’t cry if we didn’t care, right?
– Questions by Marilyn Smulders