Back in 2013, I was thrilled to hear that Penguin Canada would release a teen novel based on the life of Anne of Green Gables author L.M. Montgomery. What fun to fictionalize a Canadian icon who’d left us with so many literary treasures! I had perfect faith that the talented Melanie J. Fishbane would bring teenaged Lucy Maud Montgomery to life. Too bad I had to wait four years to enjoy the results.
I’m not known for my patience, but somehow I endured the long years of anticipation. Lucky me – I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy. Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery will be available for purchase on April 25, 2017.
In Maud, Melanie affectionately reveals Maud’s life from age 14 to 18, including her time as a student in charming Cavendish, PEI, and her year living with her father and difficult stepmother in the frontier town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Fans of Montgomery’s novels will adore this exploration of her bosom friends, her handsome and teasing suitors, her rigid grandparents, and the challenges she faced in pursuing her dream of becoming an author. But readers don’t need to be familiar with Montgomery’s books to enjoy Melanie’s absorbing prose. Maud is a heartwarming story by an author who is certainly a kindred spirit of Montgomery’s. You can check out Melanie’s blog or find her on Twitter.
Me: How did it feel to fictionalize a Canadian literary legend? How did you approach that task?
Melanie: There’s a tremendous responsibility to fictionalize someone whom people have an idea about. L.M. Montgomery left so many parts of herself behind, but it didn’t tell the full picture. She also crafted the idea that she’s Anne (or Emily from Emily of New Moon), and that’s how people tend to see her. She’s very precious to her readers, to Canada. I was also aware that her family would be reading the novel. I was compassionate about this, but I also knew I had to be true to my character and her story.
I read Maud’s journals, her autobiography, scrapbooks, and combed through her library at the Guelph Archives. I also read the letters she wrote to her best friend and cousin growing up, Pensie Macneill. And, of course, I read her fiction. I particularly looked at the Emily books because they are Maud’s portrait of a young writer. Some things are written in fiction because they are safer to explore. And then I listened to her. I interviewed Maud’s family, I walked her paths where I could. I travelled to both PEI and Saskatchewan. I embodied her physically and hoped that what emerged was as truthful to my character and her story as it could be.
The other thing I did is write papers. I found that it helped me to figure things out, maybe because of my MA in History. I gave a number of papers about Maud as teen writer, one about Maud’s experience with the “mean girls,” who in the novel are embodied in Clemmie, and a few on what I call “The Perfect Man Archetype” in YA literature. Here I explored the connection between Maud’s fictional characters and those in her real life. This helped me sift through the many questions I had.
Me: I agree that “some things are written in fiction because they are safer to explore.” That’s so true. On another note, as a writer, I felt very connected to Maud’s desire to write and her use of it to understand her world. Can you tell us about your personal connection to Maud as a character in your novel?
Melanie: Maud came from a family of storytellers, and she wanted to tell her own story. I, too, come from a family of storytellers. My brother, Joel Fishbane, is a playwright and the writer of The Thunder of Giants. On my mom’s side, I have many creative cousins: Beth Dranoff, just got her first book published, Mark of the Moon; Shaina Silver-Bard, is a musician and playwright. And that’s just a few. On my dad’s side, I have a cousin who writes academic works, and one who writes about yoga. So Maud and I both come by it honestly. 🙂
On both sides of my family we tell our personal history, too. My Zaida Myer (who I dedicated the novel to) would tell me many stories about growing up in Toronto and being in the army in the Second World War. Right now, I’m soaking up my 94-year-old grandmother’s stories about immigrating to Canada in the 1920s and making a life in Edmonton and then in Toronto. In fact, one of the best compliments I got about Maud was when she told me the Prince Albert sections reminded her of growing up out West.
Maud is connected to her stories through her experience and listening to her family’s stories. She was very clear about this in her autobiography, The Alpine Path, and her journals are full of those stories. I had initially tried to get these into the draft, but it didn’t quite work out that way. But it was definitely a way for me to get into her character and her process. I’m inspired to write because of my family’s stories, and I think it was the same for Maud, too.
Me: You’ve recently completed a MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts – a program that a young Maud would have been thrilled to attend. How did the skills you learned there help you in crafting your novel?
Melanie: It is true that she would have loved to be part of such a rich and vibrant writer community. VCFA taught me … everything. My advisors gave me permission to trust myself, listen to my characters, and honour my process. They also helped me understand that the story comes from revision and that all stories must go through this to find their truth. To listen to the feedback and (at least try) not to take it too personally (which was something I struggled with when I was writing my first MA). I realized in hindsight my advisor then was just trying to make me a better writer. What becomes important is the story, making it the best it can be. I learned plotting techniques, mapping, and the questions one should ask when writing historical fiction. Some of this of course I knew, but my advisors gave me more tools for my toolbox.
Me: I kept comparing Maud to Anne Shirley as I read, and your novel highlights similarities between them. Was one of your goals in writing the book to help readers understand Maud’s own fiction better?
Melanie: Certainly. As I said above, one of the ways I found Maud’s character was to read her fiction. That’s the way her readers discovered her. It was important to me, though, that there was room to breathe. Anne Shirley is her own fictional character that was birthed roughly 15 years after this novel takes place. By that point, Maud had experienced many more things that would have influenced the writing of that book. It was important to find Maud as a teenager and consider how she was separate from Anne Shirley. But I also needed to find the seedlings of the character Maud would one day create.
Me: You’ve mentioned your academic papers about the perfect man archetype in young-adult literature, so let’s talk about Maud’s beau’s in real life and the fictional beaus she created. How does her character Gilbert Blythe relate to Maud’s real-life beaus?
Melanie: Ha! Well, as you say, I’ve written many papers on this. Let’s see if I can do the short-answer version without giving away spoilers. There are two boyfriends featured in Maud, Nate Lockhart and Will Pritchard. Truthfully, it’s difficult for me to distinguish between the fictional Nate and Will and the real ones. Also, I’ve learned about the “real” ones through the lens of Maud’s journals, so I already have a barrier. But, from the sources, I can tell you that Nate was the Baptist minister’s stepson, and they competed often for grades in school. He was also a bit of a romantic and enjoyed poetry; he and Maud had those things in common. Maud and Nate’s relationship was up and down; they fought often, and there were times when they didn’t talk. Maud met Will when she went out West. He was better with the land than with words, but he encouraged her writing. I think he allowed Maud to be herself, as much as she knew how to be. Gilbert Blythe was Anne’s academic rival. He doesn’t always do things right, like Nate, and he has a romantic side – the heart in Anne of Green Gables. As Anne and Gilbert grow older, at least before they get married, Gilbert encourages Anne’s work. He’s the one who tells her to write about Avonlea. He loves Anne for Anne. Nate and Will both loved Maud for who she was.
Me: Will you give us a sneak peek into what you’re writing now?
Melanie: I’m writing another historical fiction. Different period. A young woman who has her consciousness raised about women’s rights because of something that happens to her best friend … and she decides to do something about it.
Me: Sounds intriguing! I look forward to reading it.