Interview with Eleanor Albanese

photo of Eleanor Albanese

Eleanor Albanese is an award-winning writer, artist, playwright, and filmmaker living in Thunder Bay, ON. Her work has been published by Innana Publications, Playwrights Canada Press, Burning Books Press, Arctic Journal, as well as numerous journals and magazines. If Tenderness Be Gold, which was published by Latitude 46 Publishing, is her first novel. You can find her online at www.iftendernessbegold.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration for your debut novel, If Tenderness Be Gold?

Eleanor Albanese: My inspiration was my great-grandmother who, as a child, emigrated from Ireland to the United States on a “coffin ship.” She had eleven brothers and sisters and they all died on the voyage, as well as her mother. This has always haunted me. However, it was when my mother and sister visited the cemetery of my great-grandmother on the 100th anniversary of her death, I began to think that there was perhaps a story worth sharing with the world.

Why were you interested in the role of midwives and “natural helpers” in rural Northern Ontario?

My other great-grandmother was a midwife and delivered hundreds of babies in rural and isolated northern Ontario. Her name was Emily Watte and she had thirteen children of her own. At that time, the midwives had a very crucial role to play in isolated communities because they not only delivered babies, but also used herbs and natural medicines to heal and assist those who were sick. There was no road access to the city, and trains whistled through the village only once a day. Emily had a close friend who was Indigenous and generously shared knowledge with my great-grandmother. This knowledge sharing is perhaps something that is underestimated—the role that Indigenous people played in the survival of rural settlers. I was fortunate because much of the oral history of Emily was captured through interviews with my great aunts. One story is that, whenever Emily walked through the bush to pick up her groceries, which had been dropped off at the side of the tracks by the train, she felt a fear that wolves would attack her for the food. In fact, there were a number of times that the wolves devoured the foodstuffs before she got to the pickup location.

How frightening! What was the most difficult part of writing If Tenderness Be Gold?

The most difficult aspect was understanding World War I. I had never shown an interest in military history, even though my father was a history teacher and a WWII veteran. But placing a story in a certain time period required that I understood how world events impacted the lives of everyday people. It seemed as if I were climbing a massive mountain of information regarding WW1 and often felt overwhelmed by it. Eventually, I came across a military book that outlined the exact footsteps of my grandfather’s division. The historians at the US Army War College Library were also very helpful.

So what was the most interesting fact you encountered?

Great question! There were many occasions where I felt as if I’d stumbled across a jewel in my research. I learned about everything from mail order birth control in the 1930s to the importance of community interdependence. Perhaps one strange fact is that prior to 1908, a person could go to the drugstore and pick up a bottle of Laudanum without a prescription. Laudanum was a tincture of opium and very addictive.

Oh wow, from a modern perspective that is strange indeed. Prior to writing If Tenderness Be Gold, you have long worked in theatre and film. What now draws you to fiction?

When I began to write my novel, I wasn’t sure what art form the story would take. My main focus was to get the ideas down on paper in the voice of Mary, the character based on my great-grandmother from Ireland. As I wrote, other voices came forward, giving their version of events, so I found myself writing from different points of view. It was then that I realized I was writing a novel.

How does your process for writing plays and screenplays differ from working on fiction?

The process of writing for theatre and writing fiction begins with an initial spark of inspiration. In theatre, the work is incomplete without actors, directors, designers, and so on. Theatre is a very collaborative art form. As a necessary step in the creative process, the playwright needs to hear their words come alive by actors. In theatre, subtext is vitally important and the only way to communicate that subtext is through an actor. Fiction has a very different set of tools and techniques to communicate, such as symbolism, imagery, and figurative language. Though there is some crossover, the process is vastly different. However, the years of writing for theatre did give me a strong sense of story, how to create believable characters, and how to move a story forward through dialogue. 

What are you working on now?

I grew up in Port Arthur in a culturally diverse working-class neighbourhood of large, mainly immigrant families, including my own family of nine. I feel that, with the divisiveness of our current times, there is something to be explored in that period of history where families found a way to connect, whether they were families dealing with the trauma of WWII, or politically diverse families including those who were seeking refuge from communism or embracing far left ideals. As a child, I sensed a true commitment to tolerance and inclusiveness and I want to write about that.

Good luck with that! Let’s finish up with a few questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

As a child, it was Lewis Carroll and the Alice books that completely captured my imagination. As a teenager, my tastes were very broad, but I often returned to the classics including works of Oscar Wilde, George Elliot, and the Bronte sisters. Books that stand out as inspirations include Away by Jane Urquhart, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

That’s a difficult question because everyone is drawn to different styles of writing and also books that resonate with their own personal experience. Reading and storytelling have such a huge potential for shifting our views and opening up possibilities. An author I would highly recommend is the Columbian writer, Gabriel García Márquez. His works are superbly crafted and beautifully poetic.

And what are you currently reading?

I’ve just begun The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See and feel already that I’m going to enjoy the journey.

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