Elle Andra-Warner is a bestselling author, journalist and photographer. Her award-winning articles have appeared in major publications around the world, and her columns have been in print since 1994. She has presented journalism workshops throughout Canada, been a guest lecturer for on-line journalism, and past co-editor of the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society’s annual journal. An active volunteer, Elle is currently on the national board of directors for Access Copyright Foundation, and is a founding director of Lakehead Transportation Museum Society which brought back to Thunder Bay as a museum ship, the former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Alexander Henry (built in Thunder Bay).
By the age of five, she had already lived in three countries. Estonian by heritage, she was born in a castle in post-war Europe and, after living in England for a few years, immigrated to Canada with her parents, settling in what was then Port Arthur. She attended St. James Public School, the former Lakeview High School, and is a graduate of Lakehead University. You can find her online at www.andra-warner.com.
Shauna Kosoris: What attracts you to writing about historical subjects?
Elle Andra-Warner: I’ve always been a history buff, whether it be about a place, its people, events or culture. History is like a world-wide tapestry, with many stories woven through it, waiting to be discovered or re-told in new ways. That history belongs to everyone and should be accessible to all.
A bonus in historical writing is being able to become a historical detective, digging deep into research for details. Sometimes it may be an obscure reference I’ve come across that lights up like a flashing guidepost, signalling ‘stop and look over there’ and leading to areas of new or untold information. Particularly interesting to me are the lives of individuals, whether from the past or living today.
In his book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America, Dr. Thomas King wrote “History is about stories of the past.” In my writing, I try to make that history alive and to bring the reader into the story so as to ‘feel’ the history, not just read the words. Writing about Canadian history is especially interesting, covering a broad landscape — its diverse true stories are better than any fiction!
So what inspired your newest book, Lighthouses of Lake Superior’s North Shore: Minnesota, Isle Royale and Ontario?
Lighthouses, ships and tales of the sea have always held a special interest for me. Over the years, I’ve visited and written about Canadian, US and European lighthouses, so when my publisher asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Lake Superior lighthouses, I quickly said yes. Each lighthouse and their keepers’ fascinating tales are a unique historical record.
Additionally, there’s a strong sea-faring history in my family background. My father was a Chief Engineer serving in the merchant marine of Estonia and later England, and my great uncle was a decorated naval commander in Europe. And I had my own ‘sea legs’ before the age of five, having travelled with my mom on my father’s ship Äksi a few times during our time living in England.
What was the most interesting fact you learned while researching Lighthouses of Lake Superior’s North Shore: Minnesota, Isle Royale and Ontario?
Among the most interesting was learning just how dangerous life was for those early Lake Superior lighthouse keepers. For example, there was a period of time where the lake’s Canadian keepers had to transport themselves in small boats to/from their island stations at the end of the season when Lake Superior could be the most dangerous. Some never made it.
Along similar lines, who was the most interesting historical figure you’ve written about?
That’s a tough question. They were all interesting. Topping the list though would be the famous poet Robert Service. To challenge future researchers, in his two books of memoirs (which he didn’t want to write but his publisher insisted), he changed some dates, names and event details, plus added elements of other people’s stories as if they were his. He intentionally left it to future biographers to figure it all out, though some simply repeated as true what he wrote in those autobiographies.
While researching, I felt at times a smiling Robert Service was casually looking over my shoulder, giving me red flag moments and hints as to what was true, what was not and where to go to find out. Later it was an honour to connect with his granddaughter in France who wrote the book’s Foreword.
Have to also mention that David Thompson is on that ‘top’ list as one of the most interesting historical figures. It was only when I delved into his life, I became aware of his wide-ranging trailblazing accomplishments as a mapmaker, astronomer, explorer, adventurer and discoverer. Then later, after retiring from the fur-trade, he became part of the commission that surveyed some of the Canada-US boundaries.
They both sound fascinating! You don’t just write about historical subjects, but travel as well. How did you get started in travel writing?
I had already been writing my column “People Behind the Business” for the local publication Lakehead Living for a few years when I visited Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories around 1995. After returning, I asked the editor Simon Connolly, if he’d like a story on the trip. He said yes, and that resulted in my first published travel article.
Since then, my articles have appeared in publications including Toronto Star, WestJet inflight magazine, Northern Wilds, Ontario Tourism, Lake Superior Magazine, Thunder Bay Seniors (“Traveller’s Muse” column) and others.
What was the most interesting travel piece you’ve written?
Hard to pick one out of the hundreds published so far, but I’ll say the travel series that was published after I visited the US Virgin Islands. It was my first time in the Caribbean and was surprised that the landscape really looked like those in picture-postcards or glossy travel magazines — white sands, turquoise waters, lush greenery and palm trees. Besides the beautiful scenery, there was so much history, culture, events and activities in each of the three islands.
Also, among my most interesting published articles are those written after visiting for the first time my ancestral homeland Estonia, which in 1944 my parents had fled days before the Soviet occupation. When we arrived in October 1991, it was only a few weeks after Estonia had regained its independence — even the Soviet soldiers had not all left. I wrote about places like the abandoned Soviet airfields and buildings, cobblestone medieval town square in the capital Tallinn, castles, knights’ manors, and much more (including the fancy dinner in the president’s private dining room, thanks to my half-brother’s wife who worked for the Estonian president!)
Wow! So what are you working on now?
Working on the first draft of a book about the famous shipwrecked luxury yacht the Gunilda which sank in Lake Superior. Finishing my chapter contributions for the upcoming book Movers & Maverick of Thunder Bay, Volume 2 (launch in fall). Continuing writing columns plus feature articles for two publications.
Good luck with everything. I’d like to finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?
An avid reader all my life, the drive to write has been with me since childhood but there isn’t any particular book or author that specifically inspired me to begin writing. I do lean toward the notion that perhaps some have an in-born passion to write, a skill or perhaps gift that can be further developed by the books they read.
However, finding my writing voice took a bit of time. I credit reading Paul Theroux Pillars of Hercules many years ago with setting the path leading to that voice, especially in travel writing. It was his storytelling style, filled with great nuggets of information and interesting people that influenced finding my ‘writing voice’.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers and any novels by Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear.
And what are you currently reading?
Just finished reading Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, A Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic (Natalie Warren) and Maisie Dodds (Jacqueline Winspear). Now reading An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America by Dr. Thomas King and Mind of the Raven (Bernd Heinrich).