Our July Canadian Living Book Club pick is Madame Zee, a historical novel about the infamous mistress of B.C. cult leader Brother, XII. (Click here to read an excerpt.) We spoke with the author, Pearl Luke, about the history, the story and the joy of writing.
Canadian Living: How did you first come across Madame Zee?
Pearl Luke: I first encountered Madame Zee on a History Channel documentary by History Television. The documentary title is "Edward Arthur Wilson -- Brother 12." The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation series.
CL: Why did it become important to tell her story from a different point of
PL: My interest in Madame Zee was with the way historical accounts disparaged her, as there existed a sort of gleeful maligning that made me uncomfortable. I wondered if that attitude had more to do with misogyny or resentment than with actual fact. She was a strong, apparently outspoken woman. I could imagine the colonists resenting that. I could also easily imagine them resenting her position of power. Some of them may also have been jealous or envious because the Brother did not choose them -- either to be his lover or his lieutenant, and possibly their accounts were biased by that. Also, she had already approached middle age, and her previous lover, Roger Painter, had brutally beaten her. It seemed to me that given these factors, she might be prone to bizarre behaviour, caused either by hormones or by psychological pain, and that the behaviour might not necessarily define her. We are all sympathetic at some level, even if monstrous at others, and common sense and intuition tells me that she must have been a product of her environment, subject to the same hurts and stress as anyone else.
CL: It took you five years to write this book. What was your research process
like for creating a believable background of a real person?
PL: I began by researching the Brother, XII, as there are many books and articles written about him. I spent hours in the Nanaimo archives sifting through letters, manuscripts, articles, and other fascinating written material; I searched libraries for old newspaper stories on microfiche. I hoped that in learning about him, I would also learn something more about Madame Zee, but instead I found the same anecdotes repeated. I spoke to Ron MacIsaac, one of the authors of The Devil of DeCourcy Island: The Brother XII, I searched court records, and I went to Cedar by the Sea to speak to residents there, one who remembered the colony. I also read numerous books about Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Astrology, and searched out and read books and articles written by the Brother, XII, and members of the colony and its supporters. I familiarized myself with similar Theosophical colonies started in the U.S., most notably Katherine Tingley's 1897 founding of Point Loma, near San Diego. There, as at Cedar by the Sea, women were meant to escape the hierarchy of gender and receive equal treatment, something that happened in neither failed utopia. Nevertheless, combined with the recorded facts about Madame Zee, these accounts allowed me to recreate scenes as they might have occurred at the colony.
CL: Was your goal to create an accurate portrait of Madame Zee or to utilize
her life to weave an engaging story?
PL: I wanted to include as much period information as possible and also any historical information about Zee and her time with the Brother, XII, but my strongest motivation was always to create an engaging fictional backstory for Zee that would be plausible when paired with historical accounts of her. If she was cruel, I wanted to understand why she may have resorted to cruelty, and have readers understand as well. I was specifically interested in Madame Zee, not in the Brother, XII, or his colony, which for me were peripheral to the story that interested me: How did Mabel Rowbotham become the much maligned mistress of Brother, XII, and why was she not remembered with more compassion?
CL: Mabel met the Brother, XII, in the 1920s and became Madame Zee. How do you think her person and actions were affected by that time period?
PL: Women had only just attained the right to vote, and while more women were entering the workforce and making a name for themselves in other ways -- Helen Keller, Dorothy Parker, Amelia Earhart -- in general, women were not expected to equal or surpass the accomplishments of men, and were not easily accepted in power positions. As an assertive woman willing to state her opinions and disagree with men when necessary, I think Zee would have faced a great deal of resentment and opposition even before the Brother, XII, made her his second-in-command.
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CL: How has the telling of the story been affected by the period it was
written in (published 2006)?
PL: I have purposely written the story in a contemporary style, with contemporary language. I was careful not to use expressions or ideas that would not be common during the period of the story, but in checking the etymology of words, I was surprised to discover how far back some words and expressions go, and how recent other terms are. An occasional person has also suggested that some of the ideas are "New Age," and would only occur later in the twentieth century, in the 1970s or 1980s. However, ideas that many people consider "New Age" actually originated in the resurgence of esoteric and occult practices associated with Astrology, Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Magick, all popular in the late 19th century.
CL: Since finishing the novel, have there been any new facts unearthed that
would have affected the way you told this story?
PL: About six months after Madame Zee came out in hardcover, I received an e-mail from the grandniece of Mabel Rowbotham, aka Madame Zee. She was able to tell me that Mabel arrived in Canada with her father and two brothers, and that her mother had actually died in England, before they came to Canada. That information would have added a new dimension to the book that I would have enjoyed exploring.
CL: What kind of response have you been receiving from readers?
PL: Most of the comments have been about Zee, and how they like how I portray her as a real person who makes mistakes but keeps growing in spite of them. Some readers are interested in the psychic side of her, and others like the factual, historical aspect. Some people say they like the sensual quality to my writing. Others find it erotic, which always surprises me. Reviewers have been very kind; several book clubs have asked me to join their discussions, either in person or by telephone, and Madame Zee received a Golden Slipper Award, naming it one of the top 10 works of Canadian fiction in 2006. It has several times been featured as a book pick, and best of all, I have received numerous heartwarming personal e-mails, every one of which made my day! It's incredibly moving to know that people actually like what I write, that they can identify with characters so different from themselves, and that they are waiting for another book. Writing is difficult for me, so knowing readers want another book can really keep me going.
CL: Do you think people had more of a belief or faith in the supernatural in
the '20s or '30s than they do now?
PL: The popularity of such television series as Supernatural, Medium, Crossing Over, and Antique Psychic all suggest not. Books about the paranormal sell well, and there are more people claiming psychic abilities than ever. However, I do think it's natural to look outside ourselves for meaning, whether that is through belief in the paranormal, religious faith, or science. We want explanations, and hope. I don't suppose that changes much from one century to another.
CL: Is there anything you want people to take away from this story?
PL: Samuel Goldwyn said, of Hollywood scripts, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." That is likely good advice. I'd like readers to enjoy my books, whether they're looking for a bit of knowledge, an emotional experience, or simply a good story. I'd like them to have no regrets that they spent twenty bucks on a book, instead of a movie or a bottle of wine. And I'd especially like them to enjoy Madame Zee enough to recommend it to others.
CL: What discussion points would you like people to bring up at a book club
meeting about this novel?
PL: It may be interesting to discuss the historical aspects of the cult -- did it surprise anyone to learn of the colony and its treatment of colonists? Also, how does Madame Zee's spiritual quest parallel the spiritual quest a contemporary woman might undertake? What does the story say about the nature of love? Or sex, for that matter?
CL: What is the next writing project you're working on? And will you tackle
another historical story after this experience?
PL: True to my process, I just discarded my next project, though I will be able to use much of what I wrote. At the moment, I am writing bits and pieces, mulling over their connections, trying to determine what exactly the story is about, so I can shape it into something someone might want to read. And will I tackle another historical novel? Maybe, once I forget how difficult it was to write this one.
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