Saturday, September 20, 2008

Canada Calling: R. J. Harlick

R. J. Harlick is a Canadian author who loves to write, loves to get her heroine Meg Harris into tricky situations from which she has to extricate herself, and loves to spend as much time as she can in the Great Canadian Outdoors, just like Meg.

Your books take place in the forests of West Quebec. Can you give us an idea of what geographical area is included in that term, “West Quebec?”

West Quebec is a term used by the English-Canadians that inhabit the area rather than being an official region of the province of Quebec. It encompasses the province’s sparsely inhabited western part that is bounded by the Ottawa River to the south and stretches northward to the vast forests of La Verendrye Park. In French, the region is called ‘Outaouais’, meaning Ottawa, after the tribe of Indians that lived along the river when the Europeans arrived in the 1600’s.

Meg’s home, Three Deer Point, is located in an isolated corner in the north-east part of West Quebec, about a two hour drive from Canada’s capital city, Ottawa.

It’s an outdated cliché that all Canadian literature deals with the wilderness. Yet, in your books, the setting provides an incredibly textured backdrop for your characters. How do you research the land?

I suppose one could almost say I’ve been researching the Great Canadian Outdoors ever since I was a child. I have always loved tramping through the woods, either on foot or cross-country skis or exploring the many waterways via canoe. And when my husband and I were looking for a cottage, we immediately honed in on the forests of West Quebec across the river from our home in Ottawa.

Like my heroine, Meg Harris, I like to sit on my cabin’s porch and listen to the timeless sounds of nature, be it a solitary ‘peep’ of a warbler intent on finding his dinner or the lonely cry of an upset deer. And because I have this great interest in the natural world, I have always been curious about its inhabitants, so over the years I’ve made a point of informing myself as best I could. If I have one guidebook, I have twenty.

They often say authors should write what they know. So when I set out to write the Meg Harris series, it only seemed natural that I make the setting the wilderness, where I spend half my time.

You worked with the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation to create the Migiskan Anishinabeg, a fictitious band. What was that process like?

R. J.
When working on Death’s Golden Whisper, the first book in the series, I was fortunate to meet up with two very helpful women at the KZ reserve’s Cultural Centre, Pauline Decontie and Annette Smith. In fact Annette suggested the name Migiskan, meaning fishhook. So the Migiskan Anishinabeg means Fishhook People. Although much of my research into Algonquin culture comes from books and the Internet, including the KZ website, I have found the women invaluable in helping me ensure that the Algonquin culture is reflected as accurately as possible.

Do you have English-Canadians, Quebecois, and First Nations people read any of your drafts to comment on if you have the characters “right?”

R. J.
I’m not sure one can say whether a character is ‘rightly’ English-Canadian, Quebecois or First Nations. I view all my characters as people foremost, each with his or her own unique personality regardless of culture. But I do try to have them view the broader world from their own cultural upbringing. To do this I will bring in aspects specific to the culture of that character.

Sometimes I do this through dialogue with the characters using Algonquin or French words as appropriate or terms that are culturally specific, such as when Eric Odjik, the chief of the Migiskan Algonquin, is called an “apple” (red on the outside, white on the inside) by dissenting members of his band in The River Runs Orange.

Other times I will use scenes, like the smudging ceremony in Death’s Golden Whisper or the building of a birch bark canoe in The River Runs Orange. In Red Ice for a Shroud Meg is served pets de soeur, meaning ‘nun’s farts’. Although it is a typical Quebecois pastry made from leftover dough, it is not considered good form to serve it to guests. So when Meg is served this at the Gagnon home, it is intended more as an insult than an act of hospitality.

Generally, for these culture specific aspects of my books, I will have my contacts within the various communities read them to ensure they are accurate.

Do you plan to continue using a color as part of each title?

R. J.
I love colours and I loved John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series in which he used a colour in each title. So in part as homage to John D, I decided to use a colour in my Meg Harris series’ titles. The fourth book, due out in Fall 2009 is An Arctic Blue Death, which needless to say takes place in Canada’s Far North. I felt it was time for Meg to travel and since I’ve always wanted to visit the Arctic myself, I took her there last summer in search of her father whose plane vanished over 35 years ago in the arctic blue ice off Baffin Island.

For more information about R.J. and her books, visit her web site at


Julia Buckley said...

The titles are lovely, and this sounds like an intriguing series!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Hi R.J. Nice to see you on PDD. I still talk about I learned by listening to your pitch 20 times when we were partners at Malice-Go-Round: the conflict between archaeological and tribal points of view about bones, and the fact that when you canoe in white water, you can expect to--I forget the technical term you used, but it meant get wet and walk home (or wait a long time to get rescued).

Darlene Ryan said...

Welcome R.J. You write beautifully about a beautiful part of the country.

RJ Harlick said...

Hi Liz

That Malice-Go-Round was great fun, wasn't it? The word you are looking for is 'dump' and it's the only way to describe the action, when one moment you are paddling through the water and the next you are floundering in it with your overturned canoe bobbing along the water beside you. I see your book is doing very well. Good for you.

ciao Robin