Daniel Marchildon is a French-speaking Canadian author born and raised in Penetanguishene, (Ontario, Canada) a small community 160 km north of Toronto. In his thirty years as a freelance writer, he has published thirteen novels in French, as well as short stories and historical works. He has also written the screenplay of a feature film, La Sacrée (Holy Brew in the English subtitled version) produced in Canada in 2011. Odyssey Books published his turbulent family saga, which mixes the captivating tale of Scotch whisky with the stories of the challenging Georgian Bay coastal life in 2015.
Thanks for chatting with us, Daniel. What have you been up to since the release of The Water of Life?
I’ve been concentrating mainly on writing kids lit. I published an historical novel for seven year olds and up last year in French, Zazette, la chatte des Ouendats (Zazette, the cat of the Ouendats). It’s based on a real story, the adventure of the first cat to be brought into the interior of North America by the French in 1623. Another book in the same vein will be coming out in 2018. It will be about Kana, a cow, and recounts the 400-year history of the amazingly robust Canadienne cow breed which has nearly been lost. I’m presently working on a young adult novel, a mother and son story centred on a hostage taking staged to save a forest with sand dunes considered sacred by First Nations people from a logging company. I’ve also been writing radio scripts for several series of short chronicles, mostly historic. The last one was for kids, two-minute historical chronicles, in which objects and animals recount different stories relating to Canada’s 150th anniversary which we’re celebrating in 2017.
What made you decide to write a novel that is, in large part, about whisky?
There are some stories of the past that are just crying out to be told. A trip to Scotland was the starting point. Being a person born, raised, and living next to water, (Georgian Bay, part of Lake Huron) as I was exploring the burns (streams) in Scotland, the water of the land and the whisky resonated with me. That’s what inspired me to write The Water of Life. When I started researching the history of Scotch I was amazed to discover that there weren’t really any novels about this fascinating tale. I uncovered so many fascinating anecdotes and facts. It turned out to be an incredibly rich history to mine.
The particular challenge of this novel was sifting through all the material and distilling it down to the most interesting stories. After that, an even bigger challenge was finding the way to weave it all together into an entertaining and eventful novel. I ended up using the time-shift formula and family saga approach. But this involved following three lineages over several centuries and jumping from one story to the other and then back, from the present to different periods in the past. I played with arranging the scenes in a number of ways until the story flowed like a fine single malt whisky. At the end, even I was surprised by the result. When I started writing I had no idea what the book would look like at the end. During the writing process I ended up having to create a genealogical tool (similar to the family tree included at the beginning of the book) so I wouldn’t get lost. It proved to be essential. I think my greatest achievement with this novel is combining elements, both stories and characters, that at the outset seem totally unrelated and gradually interweaving them to the point where, on the last page, the revelation of the tight bond between them makes perfect sense while being quite unexpected.
Do you think that in producing a work of fiction, you’re bringing the knowledge of Scotch to a new audience?
Definitely. I wish I’d received a dollar for every person that has told me that after reading my book they acquired a taste for Scotch. Many a reader has commented that, prior to reading the book, they had no interest or knowledge of the subject. My novel piqued their curiosity and in some cases, turned them into Scotch drinkers.
The setting of The Water of Life is evocative. How do you go about making sure you recreate it as closely as you can?
When you’re writing fiction, the goal is to bring the reader into the world you’re creating whether it be based on reality or totally invented. When I research periods, historical context, I get an image of what things look like in my head. It’s this picture that I try to convey. Photographs and paintings are great for that. But, of course, the reader will use their own imagination and experience to create this picture for themselves. Readers are participants in the novel, not passive spectators. The writer is a guide, drawing them into the story, but they are going to do an important part of the work. So giving them the tools they require to travel with me into this universe and do the job is important.
What was it about a family saga that lent itself so well to being mixed with whisky?
It was ten years in the making, lots of research on Scotch whisky, its five-century history and mythology. As well, I blended (like distillers do with whiskies) this Scottish story with my own Franco-Ontarian history along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, combining the flavours of these two unique realities. The novel is comprised of nearly fifty tableaux of sorts that are often almost stand-alone stories, while remaining intricately linked in an increasingly suspenseful and rapid flow. I think I managed to achieve my goal with this book since readers comment that I deftly spliced together fact and fiction in such a way that they can’t distinguish one from the other.
Having published so much in Canada, what attracted you to having The Water of Life published by an independent Australian press?
I wanted to broaden my reputation as an “international author”, LOL. In actual fact, Mārta Ziemelis, who translated my novel into English, was familiar with presses in Australia and thought we should try Down Under. So, when we got a positive response from Odyssey Books, we didn’t hesitate to say yes.
You’ve written novels, non-fiction, screenplays and short pieces; do you have a favourite medium to create within?
It all depends on the story. Each medium has its own characteristics, advantages and drawbacks. When I think up a story, its nature usually dictates which way to go. Although a good story is a good story period, some ideas work better as young adult novels, even if adults also enjoy reading them.
What do you do when you find yourself lacking inspiration?
If I’m desperate, I’ll do housework. After a bit of that, I rapidly come to the conclusion that even staring at a blank page is more fun. And the thought of returning to the dreaded cleaning gets the words flowing once again. I also like to take long walks or go cycling, two activities that usually free-up the mind. Once, when I was frantically searching for a short story idea, I went for a stroll down by the water and upon seeing a plastic bag buried in the sand, I got the inspiration for a story of a bag that, just before it is consumed in a forest fire, recalls its long journey which has taken it from the airport in Amsterdam to the coast of British Columbia.
How do you decide on a setting for your novel?
I get inspired to write when something, like an historical event or a current issue grabs my attention. For me, storytelling is a type of philosophical exercise (and therapy). By creating various worlds and characters you can work things out on paper and hopefully engage the reader to think about these issues. A good starting point for a story is always what bugs you. By creating a story around that you may not solve the problem, but at least you get it off your chest and maybe get others to think and act.
I’ve always been passionate about history. I’m also somewhat lazy. So, although the historical novel demands a ton of research, it often allows you to dig up many fantastic true stories that are even better than anything you could bust your brains to make up. The other wonderful thing about the historical novel is that it’s reassuring for the writer to already know who dies at the end even before you start writing. Perhaps what I enjoy most about this genre is that you get to solve some intriguing historical mysteries by offering answers (that you create) to unsolved puzzles. In The Water of Life you find out how Scotch distillers came upon the trick of improving whisky by allowing it to age in wooden barrels. But, in actual fact, nobody knows who was the first person to come up with the idea.
What do you consider the most difficult aspect of novel writing?
For me there are two aspects that are closely related. The first being getting started and, the other, writing until you find the real story. In the research phase, it’s so easy to get caught up in it and keep researching; there’s always more to uncover. And it’s a great way to put off actually writing by fooling yourself into thinking you’re working and moving your novel along (which is of course false if you’re not writing yet). So, at one point, I have to pinch myself and say enough! Stop avoiding the real work, stop researching, and start writing the story. Start anywhere, but just get started. Then comes the second challenge: finding the real story. So I start with a scene and then maybe a second or a third and about 23 pages later I finally get in the zone where the real story begins to appear and the characters’ voices emerge.
What do you consider the most rewarding aspect of novel writing?
Writing that last line and hearing the character’s voice say, “Yeah, that’s it, you got my story right.” Writing a book is setting out on a journey where you often have no idea of the final destination. When I at last get there, after many trials and tribulations, having brought my journey to a successful end gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.
Describe your writing style in three words.
Passionately story-driven. I would add succinct, but that depends if you count story-driven as one or two words. LOL