This week I'm talking with Bella Books author Genevieve Fortin about her recent release Water's Edge, involving Canadian immigrants to New England in the late 19th century. Genevieve talks about how local and family history inspired her to write this story.
Now with transcript!
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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 14b - Interview with Genevieve Fortin - transcript
(Originally aired 2017/09/09 - listen here)
(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)
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Heather Rose Jones: Today the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is talking to Genevieve Fortin whose new novel, Water’s Edge, is set in 1880s New England and Canada. Welcome, Genevieve.
Genevieve Fortin: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
H: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your current novel.
G: This was probably the first novel idea that I had. It’s my third novel that was published but it’s actually the first idea I had. Back in 2002, I was working on a research project that was… My job was basically to transcribe interviews that were done with Franco-Americans in New England. I really became fascinated by their stories because it’s people from where I’m from, from Quebec. Back in the late 1880s, early 1900s, they packed up everything with their families and left for New England. I was really interested in that aspect and I knew I wanted to write a book about it, but I was very intimidated by the historical part of it. The research it took and everything. Then I started writing lesbian fiction and then I wanted to kind of marry both. I started thinking, ‘Ok, well, those Franco-Americans, those French-Canadians that moved to New England, I’m sure, like in any situation, in any environment, in any period in history, lesbians existed.’ I started to imagine what it would be like for two young girls to realize what they felt for each other was more than friendship back in that time.
H: Well, that’s a great idea because ordinary historical fiction I think is a harder sell sometimes than if you add in a bit of romance.
G: Yeah, and personally, I’m more interested in the historical when there’s a little of romance to it. It’s still very realistic to the period, I think, but it’s about finding a way to make the romance and the love story plausible and possible in that environment, in that setting.
H: Uh huh. Other than the inspiration of the interviews you were doing, what’s your background in history?
G: I’ve always been interested in history. I was studying French literature, and, at some point, I had a class on the end of the 19th century. We talked about the decadent movement and Oscar Wilde in England and other writers in France and this particular writer, Rachilde, wrote Monsieur Vénus, Mr. Venus, and that talked about genders in a different way and I thought it was very daring and I just became very, very interested in that specific period. 19th century and, more specifically, the end of the 19th century. After that, you know, any movie, everything that I could find to read, in that time period, I loved it. That’s how it happened.
H: Uh huh. Have you always been interested in history in general or was there something in particular that sparked it?
G: History in general, like I said, that class, that one class on the end of the 19th century, that sparked it. I always liked history, I always liked to know what was going on in a time before me. In Quebec, on TV there’s always been a lot of TV shows that were set in 19th century, early 20th century; it’s a thing that I grew up with. But my personal fascination came up when I was in that class and the teacher was so fascinating, the way that she spoke about the Decadent movement and the end of the 19th century. She made comparisons with the end of the 20th century, which was the time when I took the class and I was very, very interested in that. Yeah.
H: I noticed in your biography, it says that you live in that area. Almost right on the border between the US and Canada. When you were researching the novel, did you go and visit the places you were writing about?
G: I visited the place where the families are from. Rimouski is also where I’m from, so I visited that place a lot, in Canada. But also, when I was transcribing the interview, working on the research project, we went to Woonsocket, Rhode Island; we went to Bristol, Massachusetts. We visited different cities where there was a lot of textile mills and where those families came. I did go through Fall River. I did spend enough time in Fall River, I would have liked to spend more time there, but I didn’t see in my traveling, I made up for it in research. The first time, I remember when I was working on the research project and I went to Woonsocket, there was a special event. I can’t remember what it was exactly, but we were invited and I started telling those people, they were not young people, they were mostly older people and I started telling them I was Rimouski, it was...they welcomed me as if I was their granddaughter or their great-granddaughter and I felt so overwhelmingly welcome and appreciated by those people, like they were so happy to see someone that came from the same place where their family came from. It was amazing and I really felt like I had to write about them.
H: Oh, that’s fabulous. Moving over to the lesbian side of things; what did you do to research what women’s lives would have been like at that time as lesbians?
G: As lesbians, it was difficult because I couldn’t find anything specifically to New England or, especially specifically, to those communities because all you read about in the books is the way they work, the families that they raised. You know, they were raised to work hard, marry young, and have children. Lots and lots of children. They had to be good Catholic families, so trying to find things that were written about women that might have been lesbians in that setting, I had to work with a setting that I read about and imagine the rest. You know? Think, but what if you don’t want to get married? What if you fall in love with your friend? What happens then? Do you then just get married anyway and do what people want you to do? Well, maybe, but for my book to be interesting, I had to have at least one of them that didn’t want to do that. The same time there were other women in larger cities, like in Boston, who did live single. It was not easy, but they could have small rooms in lodging houses or small jobs. There were people, there were women that lived unmarried. That’s why I chose to make Emily move away from Fall River to Boston for a while, where she actually started living her life and discover what she truly was.
H: I know that, for me, one of the hard things about writing historic stories is not having my characters reinvent sexuality. Giving them a basis for saying, ‘Oh, this is a thing, this is a way you can be.’
G: Yes, exactly. You can’t think of it the same way we think of it now. It’s difficult now for young women to accept it, very often, you do see young women struggle with accepting that they’re gay, so imagine back then when they didn’t even see models. They didn’t… a young girl like Emily, growing up in a little Canada, in Fall River, didn’t have models and see other lesbians. She didn’t even know. That’s why in the book it’s when she reads another book, from France called Nana. In Nana there is a character that has a friendship that is also sexual. It’s a prostitute that has a friendship that’s also sexual with another prostitute. That’s when she’s that, that she realizes, ‘Oh, my god. Does that really exist?’ Then she starts thinking of Angeline in a different way. But she had to read it, she wouldn’t see that in her village.
H: Right, right. When you were working on the book, what was the thing that you found either most interesting or most fun, that you didn’t know going in? Something that just really suddenly struck you, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this before.’
G: So many things. My favorite book that I read for my research, you know I read everything I could put my hands on, but my favorite thing was a book Yves Roby, which is called The Franco-Americans of New England. I guess the most surprising thing to me that I didn’t know is to see how much, how difficult, how difficult it was for those French-Canadians. Because you think once they left the farm where they were starving and they found jobs, yes, I knew that working in the mills was difficult, it was not an easy job. But on top of that they were really, really not liked by the other groups in the cities where they were. The Irish, Polish, especially the Irish, didn’t like them at all, for all kinds of reasons and it was justifiable in some way. But it was a very, very hard life. I guess for me the most difficult was to allow Emily to break away from that hard life, in some way. Because it felt to me that it was a life that you were pretty much trapped in and there was no way out of it because all you can think about is work. 12, 13 hours a day, 6 days a week, and then go to church, then have kids, have children, raise children. It seems that there was no space to dream, to read, to be something else. That’s what Emily very much is, she’s definitely something else. She reads a lot, she has aspirations that she couldn’t find in that life that she was living. I guess the most surprising thing to me was just how difficult it was, the more I read, the more I realized just how difficult it was for them.
H: Yeah. Do you expect to continue writing historic novels or was it just this one that you really wanted to write?
G: I will definitely keep writing historical fiction. I plan on writing a sequel to this one. My plan is to write over the last hundred years of so with the same family, but in different periods of time. What I want to see, because I was telling you earlier that in Quebec there’s a lot of historical fiction, whether it’s on TV, it’s in literature, but it’s never with lesbian characters. If it is, it’s just to show it in a very negative light. I want to lesbian characters be at the center of that history. Revisit our history and have lesbian characters at the center of it. That’s my goal. I don’t want to write only historical fiction, but I will keep writing historical fiction, for sure.
H: Yes. I think it’s so important to write ourselves back into the history books. There’re so many reasons why lesbians were not included in official histories. But, as you say, we must have been there and figuring out how to paint ourselves back into the picture is so important.
G: It’s important and it’s a nice exercise too. I like it. It’s very stimulating to imagine how we survive those years.
H: Yes. Well, thank you very much, Genevieve Fortin, for joining the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast to talk about your new novel, Water’s Edge, which has just come out from Bella Books. Before we go, Genevieve, tell us about how your readers can find you online or in social media.
G: I think the easiest way is to go to my website. It’s gfortin.com. There, right on the homepage, you have all my links to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, so you can find me there and you also have my email address. Feel free to email me, I’m always happy to receive emails and to respond to them.
H: Okay, I’ll add all of that information into the show-notes so people can find you easily. Thank you.
G: Thank you very much, Heather. It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for the opportunity.