What was the inspiration for After River?
After River started out more or less as a writing exercise. A four-word sentence popped into my mind early one morning when I was outside working in the garden. Mulling those words over and over, I recalled an incident that happened to someone I knew briefly in the 1960s. I mentally played with the 'what ifs' of the aftermath of that incident then went inside and used those four words as the start to a free writing exercise.
What came out was completely different from where I thought I was going with it when I sat down. I had expected those four words to be the lead-in to a short story with the main characters being a priest and a confessor. Ten pages later I still hadn't mentioned those two. But I did like the characters, the entire family, who showed up. I had the immediate feeling that this could be the beginning of a novel. So I followed where those characters led.
Those first 10 pages, starting with that four-word sentence, ended up being the second chapter of After River. Of all the chapters in the finished novel it is the least revised. The priest and confessor finally did make it into the story but in a much smaller role.
The setting of After River truly sets the tone for the novel. Why was it important that the novel take place on a dairy farm in the Cascades?
During the 1960s, many Vietnam War resistors took refuge in that area of the province. Although I grew up in Vancouver, as a young girl I spent summers with an aunt in a small town in the mountains of the West Kootenays. After I graduated from high school I moved there, married and lived on a small dairy farm for a few years. Although the town of Atwood, and the Ward family are entirely fictional, I drew on my vivid – if not somewhat romanticised – memories of that era and setting to create them.
Page 1 of 3What was the hardest part of writing your first novel? And what has the experience of publication been like?
The hardest part was definitely structure. The first draft was finished quite quickly but it took a great deal of time to dovetail the past and present chapters properly. For months I had all the chapters spread out on the dining room table and floor where I moved them around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until they fit.
The publication experience has truly been exciting and sometimes overwhelming. Even in my wildest imagination I never expected all this. I am only now beginning to believe it is true. I am sure it will feel even more surreal the first time I see After River on the shelves in the bookstore.
River acts somewhat like the sun from the minute he arrives on the farm, and everyone begins to revolve around him. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Yes, it was a conscious decision that this stranger would be someone that everyone in the family would fall in love with. In a critique of an early draft, I was advised to turn River into the antagonist, but I just couldn't make him the bad guy. Yet even keeping his character gentle, his arrival would act as the catalyst to throw their seemingly perfect lives off balance.
The women in the novel are exceptionally strong characters. Do you have a favourite among them?
Nettie, of course. This story is in no way autobiographical, but for this one character I did use my own mother as the prototype. I gave Nettie some of her qualities (and many I wished she'd had). Her physical appearance, her love of books, and her piano playing, for instance. Like Nettie my mother was an accomplished pianist and had one certain song she would always play for me. My mother passed away last year and that piano piece still has the power to make me weep.
Why do you think Nettie has so many regrets – many things 'haunt' her throughout the book – and what is it about mothers and daughters?
What is it about mothers and daughters? Well, that's a huge question. It's my experience, as a daughter, and as a mother of a grown woman, that we are extremely hard on each other. I identified immediately with the Jodie Foster quote in the book about a "time in every young girl's life when she hates her mother so deeply she can feel it right down to her toes." There was definitely a time in my life when I experienced that feeling, and moments when I recognised it flashing in my daughter's eyes. Yet behind all that you know there is love and that’s what keeps you going. I read the first draft of After River out loud to my mother during her last months and we discussed this aspect of mother/daughter relationships. She too identified with the statement in regards to her own mother. I was fortunate to be able to spend her last days with her and there was very little left unsaid by the time she passed away last year. Still there is always that something left buried, untouched. And in the end what we can't, or don't, say to each other causes more regrets than what we do.
Page 2 of 3Both Natalie and Boyer are bookworms of a sort, even if traditional education just isn't the way for them. What kinds of books do you see lining their bookshelves?
A varied selection.
Scanning Boyer's bookshelves in the 1960s these are some of the titles of non-fiction books that would jump out: A Ghost in The Machine, The Death of A President, Profiles In Courage, Vietnam: the Origins of Revolution, The Elements of Style, Poetry, a Modern Guide to Understanding and Enjoyment, Selected poems of Walt Whitman, The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare.
An eclectic collection of novels, including: Sometimes A Great Notion, Don Quixote, Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse, Great Expectations, The Einstein Intersection, To Kill a Mocking Bird.
What are you working on now? And what books are currently lining your bookshelves?
I am working on another family story set in Vancouver in the 1960s. The story is told from two different points of view, the 12-year-old daughter and her father, a Canadian war veteran struggling to keep himself and his family together after the death of his wife.
A large number of the books lining my shelves, piled on desks, coffee and end tables, at this moment are dog-eared and battle scared research books on World War Two relating to this project. Also on my book shelves: The New Earth; Eat, Pray, Love; Alice Monroe, a Biography. And always at my fingertips, The Right To Write and Writing Down the Bones.
As for fiction, I must have, need to have, at least two novels on the go. I start to panic if there is not a least one good book waiting as I near the end of what I am currently reading. Some of those on my bookshelves right now include, The Book of Negroes, The Tenderness of Wolves, The Gift of Rain, Lullabies for Little Criminals, Lauchlin of the Bad Heart, Moral Disorder, A Map of Glass, The Known World, Mudbound, A Thousand Splendid Suns. And my current favourite: The Kite Runner. I can't overstate how much I love this novel. I've read it no less than four times over the last two years, three of those times out loud to relatives and friends. Khaled Hosseini's delicious prose makes writing look so easy. Wish it were so.
Click to read an excerpt from Donna Milner's book After River.
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