Genevieve Graham, author of 6 historical fiction novels had no idea she was going to be an author – an acclaimed one at that.
Written by Cece M. Scott
“I’ve never been an historian; I used to sleep through history class.”
Genevieve Graham, author of 6 historical fiction novels had no idea she was going to be an author – an acclaimed one at that. She grew up in Toronto, graduated from the University of Toronto in 1986, and started making plans to become the principal oboe in the Montreal symphony, which did not come to fruition. She did however attend the esteemed Juilliard School of Music where she stayed long enough to play principal oboe in one of their orchestra concerts.
After trying her hand at different careers, including advertising and fundraising, Graham took on what she calls the hardest career she had yet embarked on, becoming a full time mom to two young daughters. Serendipity and the stars aligned for Graham however when her mom gifted her with a copy of Outlander and told her daughter it was time for some self-care.
“So basically, Outlander did it for me,” Graham says with a laugh. “I started reading all kinds of historical fiction, everything I could find. It turned a switch for me and I thought, why don’t I see if I can do this [write]?”
And the rest, as they say is history. (Literally).
Interestingly, when Graham and her family moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia, she became aware of the province’s deeply entrenched history, 150-year-old houses and cemeteries that were filled with several generations of families.
“Cemeteries in Nova Scotia were filled with people who had died on the Titanic or in the Halifax Explosion, and yet I had never heard of the Explosion until I moved here. The Halifax Explosion was the largest man-made explosion in world history, pre-Hiroshima. How was I not taught about this? How was such a major event in Canadian history being forgotten? So that’s what started all of this: my need to educate myself. Now all I want to write is Canadian history,” Graham says.
What intrigues Graham about researching and writing historical fiction is the fact that it informs readers about a period of time that often reflects situations and challenges more difficult than what we are experiencing now, and that people lived through those times, they survived them, they moved forward and created new futures. It is a perspective that Graham says it relevant to what the world has been going through these last many months with COVID-19.
“Throughout this pandemic, we are seeing and experiencing things that we are unfamiliar with. People are worried. They feel trapped and isolated. But everything that we have been going through this past-year-and-a-half is a reminder of other difficult and challenging periods in history. What we need to remember is that we are still here. Other generations have been through much worse, and yet they survived and prospered,” Graham says.
Describing herself as detail-oriented and driven, Graham was 42-years-old when she began her writing career. She takes great pride in being a tireless researcher, delving deep into the details to feel the history and inject it into her characters.
“I’m a romantic, so I love writing love stories,” Graham says. “I am passionate about developing a love story between my characters and between their families. It’s such a funny mix, isn’t it? I am a perfectionist when it comes to gathering historical details, but I also love collecting the emotions that go with a love story.”
In her new book, Letters Across the Sea, (April 2021, Simon & Schuster), Graham explores the decade leading up to World War II from a Canadian Toronto-centric perspective.
Set in 1930s Toronto, the story is narrated in the voices of characters that the reader quickly identifies with and invests in, emotionally and spiritually. I loved the touchstones, the Toronto destinations that I readily recognized in the book: Shopsy’s Delicatessen, Trinity Bellwoods Park, the Star newspaper, and the core and heartbeat of the story- Christie Pits -–where a riot birthed by anti-Semitism renders neighbours against neighbours, best friends against each other, while imploding familial relationships in dark and unexpected ways. Our hearts soar as the fledging relationship with Molly and Max deepens only to be challenged by the realities of their religious beliefs as Max joins his father in the League for the Defence of Jewish Rights. It is a time when Jews Need Not Apply signs appear in the front of store windows; it is also a time when young women’s hopes for a career are more than just a job at Eaton’s department store, or a menial job in a factory. The feel of hope within the chaos keeps Graham’s characters alive for us, the readers, as we invest in their futures and cheer them on.
“I learned everything that I could about the black and white history of the Christie Pits riots,” Graham says. “That is the foundation of the novel. I think of it as a black and white picture that I colorize as I research. After that, a lot of the research I do involves information that comes from first person interviews. I listened to a lot of pre-taped POW interviews, and I read journals. In fact, everything that’s truly emotional comes from these first person accounts. The research for Letters Across the Sea made me reflect on my own years growing up in Toronto. I went to school with a lot of Jewish people, but I never thought much about that. Learning all this really made me wonder what it was like back then for them; I tried to put myself in their position. Toronto was a mixing pot of so many different kinds of people. In writing this story, it became apparent to me that the city I had grown up in and loved was thick with undercurrents I’d never imagined before.”
“We are shaped by our past. If we forget it, if we delete it, then what do we have to go on?”
Eleven of Graham’s twelve novels have a war theme threaded through them. Her 2020 book, Forgotten Home Child, tells the infamous story of the British home children, 75% of whom were abused, neglected, or killed.
“Most of the children felt so horribly about how they lived that they never admitted to anybody who they really were, or what they’d been through. They told lies about their past so that their families wouldn’t know. And it wasn’t until recently, with the rise of genealogy tracing, that it was discovered that approximately 12% of Canadians are descended from these children, so over four million people. And most have absolutely no idea,” Graham says.
SPECIAL BOOK CLUB FREE VIRTUAL EVENT
Jillian Horton, M.D., whose novel, We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing will be Creative Aging Books & Ideas Virtual Book Club Author on Monday, September 27 at 2 p.m. with host Jen Tindall and Cece Scott. Register for the event here.
An in-depth accounting of what it takes to both become and then be a doctor, Jillian’s book is an intertwined canvas of both personal and patient stories. Woven throughout those accountings Jillian’s attitude, toughness, resilience and self-deprecating humour, not to mention her empathic and human overall dedication to her craft, makes for a read that is both intriguing and captivating.
Read Cece’s review of We Are All Perfectly Fine here: Book Reviews – NO. 12: We Are All Perfectly Fine, by Jillian Horton
Cece is the feature cover writer for several prestigious publications and is an informed, connected and enthusiastic book blogger at cecescott.com. Her first book, The Love Story, was published in 2019. Her second book will be coming out in the spring of 2021.
Cece is also working on a book of Daily Reflections for Auto Immune Condition Warriors.
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