Alex Custodio in Conversation with Fran Kimmel

From Shore Girl

This weekend, I’m going to bake the Chocolate Angel Food Cake, page 292 from County Cooking, with powdered sugar and frosting daisies and twenty-one candles circling the top.   

My mother forgot to teach me these things. That’s not true. My mother forgets nothing.

I don’t even know how to find her. Vanishing is what she does best. Over and over and over again. We never left Alberta, ricocheting inside her borders like an angry bullet. Just look at her map, shaped like a holster. If you look closely, you can find the dot named Chesterfield. Inside the dot, look for Blueberry Hill. Step around the towering hedge that no one owns and out onto the oiled road. When you can go no further, you can see the white house with the stippled green roof, the wrap-around veranda and the old wicker chair.  

This is the place where my mother lived. She lived with the Judge, the man who lies buried in the sixth row of the Chesterfield cemetery on the far side of the dot. You can search for what she will not forget in this house. Search in the closets, the bed sheets, the desk drawers with the brass handles. You won’t find any evidence. Before I came here, I searched in the silence as we flitted like moths atop the pimply dots of the holster. I searched and searched, trying to sniff out our history in her green-grey eyes, in the smells along the highway, in the night words she whimpered from her mattress on the floor.

Before I even knew of this place, I wanted to know if her leaving it—her running—had something to do with me. 

It did, of course. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I can tell you now that I’m all grown up, that I don’t need a mother to keep me safe. That might be a lie. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I stand at her window, and I think I see her haunted eyes staring back at me. And I have to remind myself that it’s not really my fault. That I am me. And I have come home.

Excerpted from Fran Kimmel. The Shore Girl. NeWest Press, 2012.

Alex Custodio in Conversation with Fran Kimmel

Alex Custodio: Your short story “Magpie Assassin” was recently published in the latest issue of Soliloquies Anthology and is filled with such evocative descriptions of nature as “the spring air reeking of fermenting crab-apples” and “white blossoms stuck to the cedar planks like paper snow.” How important was geography and landscape to you when you were working on this piece?

Fran Kimmel: Thanks Alex. This piece involves a collision of geographies: city and rural.  I wanted to show how the main character fit—or didn’t fit—within the landscape in which he found himself. Geography and landscape provide such rich raw materials for capturing characters’ emotional reactions to their environments. For Russell Knight, the magpie assassin, his country-boy lens coloured everything he felt and saw, or thought he saw.

AC: Your debut novel, The Shore Girl, follows the life of Rebee from toddler to teen years as she moves around with her mother or is abandoned for periods of time by her mother. While writing this novel, did you ever find it difficult to engage with the heartrending and traumatic experiences your character lives through as a child?

FK: I worried a great deal about Rebee Shore. I’d see a girl on the street and think, she looks just like Rebee; she needs a warmer coat. I guess I just kept writing until I knew she’d be okay. For me, one of the hardest aspects of writing about trauma is learning how to convey emotion without lapsing into sentimentality. In my heart, it’s all about sentimentality. I have to fight hard to keep that stuff off the page.

AC: Back in 2010, you led Parkland Regional Library’s successful community writing program Write On! where you traveled across central Alberta to present workshops and meet with emerging writers. In your experience, what role does a program like this play in the development of young writers?  What impact have these and other workshops had on you and your own career?

FK: This program was very special. Most of the communities I visited had no bookstores, and their town libraries were about the size of a living room. Very few participants had ever been to a writing workshop before. It meant so much to these people to be able to read their words aloud in a safe space. Programs like these help emerging writers understand they have stories within them worth sharing.  Whenever I teach, I end up learning a fresh set of lessons that have helped make me a better writer. We’re all so very similar. Being human is to search for life’s meaning; the writers among us feel compelled to try to explain it.

AC: On your website, you note that you’re presently working on your second novel. After the success of your debut novel, which won the 2013 Alberta Reader’s Choice Award and which was selected as a Canada Reads Top 40 book, do you find that there’s been a significant change in your approach to your new novel? In what ways has your writing process changed as a result of your novel’s success?

FK: I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I wrote my first novel. I have a short story background and I didn’t even know The Shore Girl was a novel until a few (okay several) years into writing. With the book I’m writing now, I’ve actually had a plan. Very early on, I created a scene-by-scene outline. I tried to identify who the scene belonged to, who would be most affected, and what the emotional impact would be on the reader. While I’ve dropped and added many scenes from draft to draft, my outline has been my security blanket all the way through.

AC: On the topic of your second novel, is there any chance you could give us a teaser of what it’s about?

FK: My second book is about a struggling rural family, the Nylands, and a set of quirky characters who can’t figure out how to express love for one another. Hannah is the troubled twelve-year-old girl who lives across the road. When the Nylands are forced to take Hannah into their home for a few days over Christmas, their notion of family is turned upside down—in a good way.

Fran Kimmel lives in a small town in central Alberta with her husband and overly enthusiastic Labrador retriever. Her stories have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and textbooks in Canada and Denmark, and her debut novel, The Shore Girl, took home the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. Fran serves on the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Board, where she chairs the youth committee and supports young writers. The Shore Girl is available online at your favourite outlet.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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