If tenderness be gold

November 2020

“Writing a novel as opposed to writing for a live audience is a very different kettle of fish,” says playwright-turned-novelist Eleanor Albanese. “It was only after the second draft that I realized how different!”

It was only a matter of time, however, before the award-winning playwright, short-story writer, film maker, and multi-media artist turned her talented hand to a novel. That novel is called If Tenderness Be Gold, and her experiences appear to have served her well! I asked Eleanor about her 5-year long journey to publication and asked how she felt at the daunting prospect of a playwright and filmmaker embarking on a project to write and publish a novel.

“I felt compelled to pour myself into the story, to give a voice to women raising their families in the isolation of a rural setting,” she says. “I’m grateful to my years of working in theatre as it gave me a strong sense of story, how to create believable characters, and how to move a story forward through dialogue. Words on a page must become costumes, actors, sets, lighting, etc. However, I found the research fascinating, and the impetus for writing the novel fueled me and stayed with me throughout those five years.” 

Writing a novel is one thing, but publishing is a very different story.

I asked Eleanor about her publisher, Latitude 46 Publishing, a company based out of Sudbury that launched in 2015 with an eye toward Northern Ontario authors.

“Latitude 46 is a rare gem,” she says. “It accepts unsolicited works from Northern Ontario writers. This isn’t as common anymore – the idea of publishers accepting unsolicited works (as in, without agent representation.) So, I was delighted when I received the call that there was an interest in publishing my novel. Given that the story is very much rooted in the history of Northern Ontario, it was an excellent fit for both of us.”

Even the cover has a regional connection, created by Thunder Bay artist, Alana Forslund.

“Alana’s work of art is just so perfect for the story,” says Albanese. “It creates a mood of resilience, hardship, and connection to the natural world.”

Painted in the golden hues of a setting sun, the dreamy and ever-so slightly surreal cover echoes this tale of ‘generational memory’ drawn from Albanese’s Irish-Italian family. Set at the turn of the century, it focuses on a very particular trio of women and one reluctant poet of a young man. It’s also set in Northern Ontario, primarily in Hurkett on the shores of Lake Superior.

“My mother comes from a large family of storytellers and we often visited our relatives in both Hurkett and Dorion. Growing up, I was exposed to many kitchen parties and “good humour” about the days gone by in Hurkett. The stories have worked their way into my imagination over the years.”

Albanese’s imagination is foundational for the novel, as it’s a unique blend of historical characters and fictionalized ones, creating a vivid setting that comes alive with time and place.

“I did base this novel on family history,” she says, “But it takes place long before I was born so most of it is from either my imagination or from the oral history of my maternal family. I began writing it with a desire to share my great-grandmother’s story. As a child, she crossed the ocean with her large family, and was the only surviving member as they all died of typhus on the journey.

I tried to put myself in her shoes—the horrific conditions of the “coffin ship”, navigating a new country, marrying young, and having to deal with a husband who was a heavy drinker. The couple, Faolan and Primrose, are based on my maternal grandparents, but again, I have no memory of my grandfather as he passed away when I was only a small child. Strangely, the character Primrose—based on my grandmother— was a private and quiet woman, and was the most difficult to find a voice for. I found this more challenging to convey than the characters who are more expressive, like Fiorella, the Italian herbalist.”

So, what’s next for this multi-talented artist? “Another novel,” she says with a grin. “I’m now working on a book that captures the essence of my childhood home and growing up in a large family in an immigrant neighbourhood in Port Arthur.”

With her eye for detail, her love of theatre and her vivid imagination, I can only imagine where this next story will take her!

If Tenderness Be Gold is available at Indigo stores and online through Latitude 46 Publishing, Indigo, and Amazon. Also available from Fireweed Crafts in Thunder Bay and McNally Robinson in Winnipeg.

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at www.hleightondickson.com

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