By Laura Keil
Valemount author Maureen Brownlee’s second novel Cambium Blue is now in bookstores. The book is set in the fictional community of Beauty Creek in 1995, a forestry community considering an uncertain future. The story follows three characters, a young single mom, a widowed newspaper editor, and a reclusive poet and junk collector who is also a veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
As a recipient of an early copy, I can tell you the novel was hard to put down. It is a powerful story that pays tribute to the “heart” of small towns, while examining their follies. It traces the tension between individual citizens and the bureaucracy, women making a path for themselves in a male-dominated world, and the lasting trauma of war, among other themes.
The Goat conversed with Maureen Brownlee about her book and we’ve compiled a Q&A below. A few answers have been edited for brevity.
A book launch will be held March 10th at the Valemount Community Theatre 7-9pm (doors open 6:30). Masks and vaccine passports are required. There will be time for questions and an autograph session at the end.
Books will be available to buy at the launch and are also for sale at the Goat bookshop.
How/when did you know you wanted to write about the characters/subject matter in Cambium Blue?
I knew that I wanted to write this book even before my first novel, but I knew I wasn’t ready. So pieces of the characters and the plot were incubating in my mind for a long time, more than 20 years.
Do you identify with any sub-genre/style?
I think what I write falls loosely in the literary realism genre but I couldn’t argue it.
What goals do you aim for in your writing (for the reader)?
I’d like to give back some of the joy that I’ve had from reading novels. I want to give the reader that experience of curling up with a book and entering a world. I’d love it if they were reluctant to set it aside. One of the nicest things a reader said to me about my last book was that she felt herself slowing down when she knew she was approaching the conclusion because she didn’t want it to end, she wanted to stay in that imaginary place with the characters.
There are many similarities between Valemount and Beauty Creek. Tell me about the process of developing characters while living in a village where readers may try to identify real people.
I work hard to make my characters believable and I’m flattered when readers ask me if the people are real because I think it means I’ve done my work well. But my characters aren’t based on real, living people in the community, and here’s why – writing a believable character, even a minor one, requires knowing everything about them, and I simply don’t have access to that kind of intimate detail about real people. I wouldn’t know something as basic as the favourite colour of a person outside my immediate family, let alone how old they were when they were first kissed, or who they love, or who they hate.
In Cambium Blue one of my characters was inspired by a real person but even then I only used a few broad, outer elements, everything that makes a character tick (their life history and personality and strengths and flaws) was created in my imagination.
Alice Walker likened fiction writing to quilting with scraps. In a lifetime of human interactions I’ve collected all these tiny scraps of character, this overflowing basket, if you will, of personality traits, histories, significant events, ways of speaking, tics, scars, laughs, etc. and I draw on all of that when I’m developing characters. So a reader might recognize a snippet of fabric as having come from a dress her grandmother wore, or an old shirt of my father’s, or even something they’ve seen me wear, but it will only be a very small piece of the imaginary whole.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
The hardest part was the structure. I had been writing around these characters for years and I had a lot of material but I didn’t have a clear structure. Sioux Browning, my first editor, gave me basically a master class in structure and that helped me begin to see how it could fit together. Then “all” I had to do was figure out what to use and what to discard and how to interlock the pieces I wanted to keep.
One of the book’s characters fought in the Spanish Civil War. What was your research process for this character?
I read a lot about the Spanish civil war. I list the high points of my research in the acknowledgements. The Canadian books (Petrou, Beeching, Zuehlke) were really helpful, and good reading. The Spanish Crucible radio broadcast on CBC was poignant because I got to hear real voices. I also read Hemingway and Orwell (For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia). I went to the Ottawa memorial. I spent hours in the Vancouver Public Library reading old newspapers on the microfiche machines. I read academic papers written in the decades after the war. And then I let that all roll around inside me for a long time.
How did your experience running a newspaper assist in the germination of the characters and this story?
The weekly newspaper world is one I am deeply familiar with, especially as it was in that particular time period. And it was a way, a place, where the characters could come together.
Your story is very much a deep-dive into small-town, rural life. Is there such a category as “rural (or northern) BC literature?” Do you think such a term is useful? (why or why not?)
Amazon has a category for rural/small town fiction. I’d say categories are inevitable – the libraries and bookstores have to be organized somehow. I think the terms are useful for readers and that is what really matters, that readers find their way to books.
Tell me a little about your next project.
I’m working on another novel that I think will also be set in the BC interior. Beyond that I try not to talk much about my work in progress, partly because of the way I write, I’m never sure where things might end up, and partly because my creative process just seems to work most productively if I don’t over-talk my idea.