Saturday, June 21, 2008

Canada Calling: Theresa Greenwood

Therese Greenwood is a Canadian author who grew up on Wolfe Island, Ont., the largest of the Thousands Islands, where her family has lived since 1812. The region forms the backdrop for her historical crime fiction, which has twice been short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Award, Canada’s top mystery-writing award. She is co-editor of two mystery anthologies as well as the annual Osprey Summer Mystery Series carried in 23 daily newspapers across Ontario. The 2008 series launches on the first weekend in July. For more information, visit

PDD: Historical crime fiction is really hot right now and you have a natural tie-in having grown up on Wolfe Island, Ontario. Tell us a little about how the Island influenced your writing.

When I was a kid on Wolfe Island everyone told stories, always about “The Island,” as if it had capital letters.

It was the late 1960s and early ‘70s, but The Island was still very much an old-fashioned farming community. On the weekends the families would turn off the televisions and go to the church hall to pay euchre, or to the neighbours for a sing-along, or to your grandparents after Sunday church. My grandfather, who lived to almost 100, would tell stories that went back into the late 1800s -- how he helped his father haul rock to build the church, the first time he heard a Victrola, how the post mistress ran the town.

There were scary stories too, about people who drowned when their boat capsized, or froze to death when they got lost on the ice, or died of infection after they were gored by a bull. They were true stories, too, because we could see their headstones in the graveyard.

There were restless ghosts on Spook Hill who made the wagon wheels turn backwards if you drove past alone. A red-headed school teacher always gave the strap. Tricky Dickey’s amazing horse Minnie could find her way home across the winter ice in the worst snowstorm. Dr. Spankie became the local Member of Parliament so he could bring electricity to The Island. And there was the time they had to shoot the bull, the time the colt ran through the village and upset the milk wagon, the time a little girl no bigger than me caught the giant muskie.

It sounds tame now, in a universe of 500 channels and frenzied video games, but my three younger sisters and I loved it. My sister Cathy still reminds me of how the four of us, who shared one room, would lie in bed and tell stories about rabbits and chicken coops and talking cats. My niece Emily thinks this sounds cool and remarkable and she’s right, I suppose, it was.

Those early stories certainly influenced me -- that must be why it seems so natural to set a story in the past. It’s not a legitimate story if it happened only last week – that’s just gossip.

Tell us about Wolfe Island’s honored son, Grant Allen, a prominent figure in the Canadian crime writing scene.

One of the stories they still tell on The Island is how “The Castle” burned down in the 1920s and they never caught who did it. Of course, everyone says they know who did it but they can’t tell because the family still lives on the Island. That doesn’t narrow it down. (I have first cousins from five different families that have all been on The Island for six or seven generations – and I am certain none of those families were involved.)

One family that did leave The Island is the one that owned the Castle, the Allen-Longueuil family, whose most famous son is the crime writer Grant Allen.

Allen was born on Wolfe Island on Feb. 24, 1848, at his family home Ardath Chateau –"the Castle." The family's Wolfe Island connection dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when Allen's great-grandfather, David Alexander Grant, bought a large chunk of The Island. Grant's wife -- who had the impressive handle of Marie Charles Joseph Le Moyne de Longueuil, Baroness de Longueuil -- belonged to a family that historians consider one of “the most truly eminent in Canada.”

Grant Allen was the second son of Wolfe Island's first Anglican minister, the Rev. Joseph Antisell Allen, who married into the eminent family. The Reverend Allen's wife Catharine Ann Grant was the only daughter of the fifth Baron de Longueuil, and the Island's Trinity Anglican Church was built in 1845 on land granted by the Longueuil family in a rather obvious bit of nepotism. It is a lovely little church surrounded by beautiful trees and well worth a visit. It is also home to some of the events at the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival, which some friends and I founded to honour both Allen and his early connection to The Island.

As its fortunes waned, the Allen family moved away from the Island, with Grant Allen ultimately settling in England to become one of the most prolific authors of the Victorian age. He was the Danielle Steele of his day -- but he is now best known for being Arthur Conan Doyle’s neighbour and good pal.

I just finished re-reading Allen’s short story collection, An African Millionaire, probably his best-known work, and it stands the test of time. The format he uses, of successive short stories that move the overall plot along bit by bit, is still in use (see Rumpole of the Bailey.) The concept, that the thief is actually a better man than the narrator and the victim, is still an interesting one, and the writing is crisp and tight. You can find out more about Allen and the Scene of the Crime Festival at – check it out. Check out The Island, too, the free ferry ride alone is worth the trip.

You are involved in the Osprey Summer Mystery Series, which involves getting short stories, written by crime writers, into many Ontario newspapers. How did you make a connection with so many papers? What's been the response to this festival?

I have a Masters degree in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario and I’ve always worked in the media. When a former colleague, Noreen Rashbach, was managing editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard she asked me to write some Christmas stories and one of them, A Christmas Bauble, was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award.

In 2003, I met up with another newspaper colleague, Jake Doherty, who turned his pen to mystery writing after his retirement. He and I got to talking about how it would be fun to do a newspaper short story series and what a great way that would be way to showcase Ontario talent and locations. I like to joke that Jake has a magic Rolodex but it isn’t really a joke, because he made a call to his friend, Lou Clancy, who was then Vice-President of News at the Osprey Media chain, and the idea took off.

We think it’s a first for Canada, an Ontario newspaper group treating its readers with a series of specially commissioned mystery stories that showcase the province's quirky personality in tight writing, twisty plots and colourful characters. Some of the country’s best crime writers live in Ontario, too, so we had all the ingredients.

Just last month one of the Opsrey writers, Leslie Watts, won the Arthur Ellis Award for her 2007 Osprey story, “Turners,” so now we are among the top short story markets in Canada. Also, the Osprey chain is now part of the Sun Media newspaper group, so we’re expanding into other markets like Ottawa and Stratford, where we weren’t before, so our readership is growing, too. We have the potential to reach almost a half million readers – a pretty big audience for a short story. Some of the stories may also be appearing on Sun Media websites, so readers should keep an eye out . This year’s line-up includes award-winning writers Rick Mofina of Ottawa, Peter Sellers of Toronto and Sarah Withrow of Kingston, Ont., as well as Jake and me.

We also collected the stories from our first three years into an anthology, Mystery Ink, which we released last year, and we got some good national reviews. It was published by the Ginger Press, and there’s more information and links to author pages at Jake and I are talking about another anthology now that we have some more great stories coming in.

Canada’s best-known lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, wrote the introduction for Mystery Ink. He really captured the sprit of the book and the series when he said: “The 18 stories in this collection mostly involve something criminal, but at the same time these are also stories that capture, in 18 different ways, various parts of Ontario. With the stories in this book, the fun begins with knowing they all take place in Ontario, and that we are that much closer to the intrigue and suspense.”

What attracts you about short stories? What can you do in a mystery short story that couldn't be done in a novel?

I like the challenge of crafting a short story, the discipline and the succinctness -- and I like the idea that almost half-million readers are seeing it.

But the odd thing is that, when you are a short story writer, someone who has written a perfectly atrocious novel will pat you sympathetically on the back and says, “Don’t worry, someday you will write a novel.” Well, I’m not worried. Too often people have a single idea that would make a fine short story and then make the mistake of stretching it out into a lame novel.

What advice would you have for writers who want to specialize in short stories?

Listen to some pre-1972 country music, especially the prison songs of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. It’s all there, authenticity, simplicity, action, character development and perspective. In Folsom Prison Blues and Mama Tried (two of my favourite songs), the narrator is already serving time in prison when the story starts -- talk about condensing the action.

Also, when you think you are finished a story, wait a few days and then go back and cut another 250 words. The Osprey series has been a great exercise because it has a very strict word limit of 3,000 words – ads must be sold around it, like all newspaper editorial. (“Advertising drives the bus,” they tell you in journalism school.) There is no wiggle room so every word counts. You write actively rather than passively, you keep descriptions to a minimum, you start in the middle of the action. Most of our writers have told me that it has been a good exercise in self editing. There’s no room for indulgence, even if you love a particularly clever turn of phrase, out it comes if it doesn’t move the story forward.

And speaking of brevity, I have been going on too long. But I couldn’t resist the chance to tell stories about Wolfe Island and the Osprey series. Thank you for asking me.

No comments: