Please welcome Hilary Scharper to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Perdita was published on January 20th by Sourcebooks Landmark.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Hilary: For many years—and like many people it seems—I dreamed about becoming a writer, especially a writer of fiction. Then I hit the age of 40—big shock! I hadn’t (magically) become a writer! And more, I hadn’t really even started the novel I’d always wanted to write. So I went off and began to think about why I hadn’t written “my novel.” Of course I’d been doing other things (namely being a mother, a wife, becoming a university professor), but I tried very hard not to “beat myself up” with accusations of laziness, distraction, procrastination, etc. As result, I realized that there was a dynamic at work in my life—something I called the clearing-the-decks syndrome.
The clearing-the-decks syndrome came from the belief that I had to get everything else done, organized and set BEFORE I could start writing fiction. But the problem was I hardly ever had any moments in my life that resembled a clear deck. (And if I did have them, I usually used quiet moments for reading and enjoying a novel!)
I think that once I realized that a novel was going to have to come out of the “weather” of my life and not clear decks, I discovered a sense of direction and purpose...and just started writing.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Hilary: I guess I am a bit of both.
I feel that a story is somewhere between my imagination and…something else. (In fact, in my Acknowledgements for Perdita I thank Georgian Bay as a co-author.) To be in that imaginative, co-creative space of the story, I need to be a bit of a “pantser.”
On the other hand, I’ve have to plan, craft and carefully think through things like plot and character development. Even when there are “loose ends” they must be parts of the story that are “skillfully” left open. This definitely requires a “plotter.”
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Hilary: Finding time to write!
I’ve since talked to other writers about this dynamic: of trying to establish creative time out of the bits and prices of our lives that are somehow seen as “leftovers,” i.e., as time we have after we’ve done everything else. The thing I discovered was to stop thinking about fiction writing in terms of “left-overs.” Once I took it as a serious and central part of my life, I began to find the time for it.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Hilary: My reading interests are very wide, but I have a special place in my heart for late 19th century literary classics. At the moment I am exploring “the gothic” and going back into the mid to late 1700s to explore how nature was depicted in some of the earliest gothic novels (Castle of Otranto, The Romance of the Forest, Zofloya, etc.). It’s been fascinating and I’ve been struck by how many women writers turned to the gothic to both critique and confound the rigid social codes of their lives. The gothic genre still does this for us….
TQ: Describe Perdita in 140 characters or less.
Hilary: Marged Brice is 134 years old. She’s ready to go if it weren’t for a mysterious presence she calls Perdita. Garth Heller of the Longevity Project doesn’t believe Marged, but reading her diaries from the 1890s might just change his mind.
TQ: Tell us something about Perdita that is not in the book description.
Hilary: There were many sources of inspiration for Perdita: Greek mythology, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, my own interest in aging and longevity, to name a few. One important source, however, was an old photograph. It was of the lighthouse where I was staying for a summer vacation, but taken over 100 years earlier.
Cabot Head Lighthouse, northern Ontario, Canada, c. 1900.
From the very first, I found myself drawn to the young woman standing in the doorway looking out across the landscape and contemplating the remoteness of her location. Somehow I felt as if I could hear her thoughts. Yet it seemed to me that the wind was pulling at her skirts, inviting her to step out into the wild beauty of her “home.” As I wondered what the woman in the photograph did…step outside or go back inside?…the story of Perdita came to me.
TQ: What inspired you to write Perdita? Perdita has been described as eco-gothic. What is eco-gothic?
Hilary: The "Eco-Gothic" is a term that my husband came up with after reading a draft of my novel. At the time, he was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but as we both thought about it, we grew to like the term more and more. Soon I began to think about it quite seriously.
The “eco” in my work is distinctive in that it builds on the Gothic’s depiction of Nature as more than a backdrop for plot or character. Rather, Eco-Gothic Nature is a living, acting, creating, and unfolding “other.” It is a Nature that is alive, unpredictable, and certainly capable of influencing events.
Hilary: I had to do research in many different areas for Perdita.
First and foremost were lighthouses and Great Lakes shipping, shipwrecks and nautical lore. Much of this was done at the Cabot Head lighthouse where I was staying as an assistant lighthouse-keeper with my husband and young son.
Perdita also has a long section that takes place in Toronto at the turn of the last century. I did quite a bit of research for this, particularly by looking at maps and archival images in order to get a better feel for what it would be like to not only live in, but also move around a 19th century city.
Lastly there was research on mythology and then longevity. The first took me deep into Homer, Hesiod and Greek philosophical lexicons, and the latter into scientific research on aging.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Hilary: An interesting question! I’m not sure how to answer this. Marged Brice came very easily to me because she was the first character to arrive and defined the story. Garth Hellyer certainly had his moments of challenge because I wanted to keep him reserved and cautious in contrast to Marged.
TQ: Which question about your novel do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Hilary: What does Perdita mean?
Perdita is Latin for “the lost one.” In my novel, Perdita is a mythological figure—the lost child—and she also represents the possibility of “being found.”
I drew on both Greek mythology and Shakespeare to develop her character. In Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, for example, Perdita is a child who is “lost” owing to the blind and cruel jealousy of her father. Yet she is also “found” through loving acts of rescue, forgiveness and ultimately self-realization. In order to lose and find “a Perdita,” then, one must first become aware of who or what is lost (including the possibility of being lost yourself).
Ultimately this is the problem for my character, Garth Hellyer. He is a jaded professor and a longevity researcher and he’s convinced that it’s the 134-year-old Marged Brice who is the “lost one.” Marged, however, has her own views and thinks that Garth is really the “lost one”—to himself and to the possibilities of love in his life. This is why Marged insists that Garth stick with the question he asks her at their first meeting: who is Perdita? It is also a central question for the reader.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Perdita.
“Yes. But I want to know—and you must tell me. What would your trees say about you?” she demanded. “Would your trees tell me to trust you?”
“Their words tested each other in a way that intrigued me: each man with his own hammer striking the other’s surface with skill and listening for the true ring of steel. At times they did it with seriousness and at others with humor, but I felt them drawing out that deep sound from one another…the sound of a good man.”
TQ: What's next?
Hilary: I have a second novel finished (titled “Immanence”) and I am also working on sequel to “Perdita” (tentatively titled “Lonely Island.”) In the second volume, Marged Brice journeys to a lighthouse on a remote island and is asked to assist in the care of an ill and bed-ridden light-keepers’s wife.
George, Andrew Reid, Tad, Allan and Dr. McTavish all reappear in the story, and there are some new characters in the form of (possibly) unsavory passengers rescued during a dramatic shipwreck….
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Hilary: Many thanks to you—it was a pleasure to answer these engaging questions!
Sourcebooks Landmark, January 20, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 448 pages
Marged Brice is 134 years old.
She’d be ready to go, if it wasn’t for Perdita . . .
The Georgian Bay lighthouse’s single eye keeps watch over storm and calm, and Marged grew up in its shadow, learning the language of the wind and the trees. There’s blustery beauty there, where sea and sky incite each other to mischief… or worse…
Garth Hellyer of the Longevity Project doesn’t believe Marged was a girl coming of age in the 1890s, but reading her diaries in the same wild and unpredictable location where she wrote them might be enough to cast doubt on his common sense.
Everyone knows about death.
It’s life that’s much more mysterious…
I am a Canadian author, living in Toronto. My husband and I have spent over a decade as assistant lighthouse-keepers and stewards at the Cabot Head Lighthouse and Bird Observatory, located on the northern Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada. My major published works of fiction include a novel, Perdita (which draws on my experiences at Cabot Head), and a short story collection, Dream Dresses. I am also an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.