Swift Current author Bonnie Dunlop has waded into the novel genre with her debut historical novel Raft Baby.
The award winning writer burst onto the literary scene in 2004 with The Beauty Box, and that debut collection of short stories earned her a Saskatchewan First Book Award (2004). She followed up with the short story collection Carnival Glass in 2008, and that book which was also nominated for a Saskatchewan Book Award.
Dunlop says that her first novel was a long time in the works, and obviously writing a full length novel is a different process than what she was used to.
“My other two books were short story collections. So you write a short story, it’s about 15 pages. It’s pretty intense because you have to have every thread interwoven,” Dunlop said during an interview with The Booster last week.
“But a novel is different. And I think the biggest thing for me was that I did not have input on it, because you don’t ask people to read 200 pages or 300 pages. You would lose your friends very quickly,” she chuckled.
Dunlop did attend the Banff School of Fine Arts for a week, and the course instructor was Dianne Warren, who wrote Cool Water, the 2010 Governor General’s Award winning novel. Warren also has roots in Swift Current, so Dunlop found this feedback very constructive.
“You couldn’t have found a better person to look at your writing. And at that time we were just concentrating on one chapter.”
Dunlop also admits that she had to expand her own literary horizons to prepare for Raft Baby.
“I had to read a lot of historical fiction because I had to study it. And then lots of research on the Peace River country itself. I do love the Peace River. I have part of my family up there, and some good friends up there, and just the land itself is so gorgeous.”
She spent time in the Peace River country to get a feel for the landscape she would be describing in the book. She also had to research turn of the century Canada in order to better describe the characters and the rugged conditions of the era.
“That was really tough. When you’re writing historical fiction is to give the feel of the era right and don’t use phrases that never would have been spoken back then. Objects that weren’t invented yet. So it’s a lot of research.”
getting the voices right of the characters.
The idea for Raft Baby began from an old newspaper clipping saved by her uncle which told the real life story of a baby girl who was rescued from a raft floating on the Peace River in the early 1900s.
Dunlop said she quickly found a number of challenges with following the true story of “Raft Baby of the Peace River” in her work.
“That was fun too. It was a learning process for me because all of my other writing is fiction. I make up everything. But this one, because there is some true facts in it, when I first started to write it I just tried to stick to the facts. And it was just not working. It was wooden. There was no life to it. So that’s why I decided to heck with the facts. I’m just going to go with fiction. And then people appeared in the story. They were imaginary but they just kind of came into the story when I quit trying to be so precise about it. And the imaginary people I think really add to the story.”
“I had to take a break from it in the middle because that’s when I realized that I can’t write this sticking to the facts. So I just had to forget about it for a while and then when I started up it was a totally different story.”
She explains that the real story is about an English gentleman who immigrated from England, got married in Ottawa, and wanted to go to the Peace River country on a get rich quick scheme during a small gold rush. He talked his wife into going, but after not getting rich they decided to return home. However, he got injured while travelling along the Peace River and died, and his wife put the baby in a raft.
However, in her re-imagined story the wife died first and the father put the baby in the raft. The baby was found by a trapper, who leaves the baby with a first nations community to care for her. That baby eventually ends up with a childless couple and they raise the girl in Edmonton. The remainder of the story follows her life from the time of when she is in the raft through to getting married.
“The true story itself has so many unbelievable facts that it was hard because you have to make things believable, and the actual story is not. So that was fun.”
With Raft Baby officially released last Monday by Thistledown Press, Dunlop is enjoying some early success with the book.
SaskBooks has picked her newest work as a featured book for Saskatchewan Book Publishing Week which runs from September 28 to October 2. A total of 11 books by Saskatchewan authors are being featured during the week. Dunlop will be participating in an online event on Friday, October 2 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Her micro-reading will originate from the Swift Current Branch Library. The event will be open to pre-registered individuals as well as being live-streamed on the SaskBooks and Swift Current Library Facebook page.
Copies of her book are available in Swift Current at Bre’s Boutique and Pharmasave, and can also be purchased at www.thistledownpress.com or at Amazon.