When Elle Wild was in elementary school, she had a clear sense of what she wanted to do with her life. “I still have the school journal I kept growing up, which had little boxes next to your photo where you could check off your career choices,” says the writer from her island home, a short distance from Vancouver. “I annually checked ‘detective,’ ‘writer,’ and ‘cowboy.’”
With her debut novel, Strange Things Done, Wild gets to live out all her youthful fantasies. The story is set in the wilds of Dawson City, Yukon, and features Josephine Silver, a young journalist fleeing disgrace in Vancouver, looking for a fresh start as the editor of the fictional Dawson Daily. When a body is discovered in the Yukon River, Jo is drawn into the intricacies of a small-town murder, as an amateur investigator, and as a suspect.
Strange Things Done is rooted in both the author’s childhood, and her own experience in Dawson. Wild comes from a family with deep ties to the Klondike, including an aunt and uncle with a gold mine, and an aunt who was a cancan dancer. Her family told stories around the campfire in the summer months, and her father had memorized Robert W. Service’s classic “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and “would break it out from time to time, like a party trick.”
Service’s poem “enthralled” Wild, stoking a fascination with the north that reached its peak in 2007 when she applied for an artistic residency in Dawson, where she “exchanged screenings of my short films for room and board.” Wild fell in love with the town, and was inspired to write the novel, which takes its title from the poem’s opening line: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun.”
“I wanted to write a tall tale in the spirit of the Robert Service poem that had captured my imagination as a child, and I wanted to infuse it with the timelessness of the location,” she says.
Strange Things Done was a long time coming, considering how long Wild had wanted to be a writer. She grew up in southern Ontario, and studied literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, before transferring to history: “I felt it might be more practical – a decision that amuses and confounds my present self.” Next came a film degree at the University of British Columbia and a master’s in fine arts (Wild had to refer to her work as “literary mystery” to circumvent the program’s resistance to genre writing), which she left before completing in order to care for her newborn son.
The novel draws from Wild’s previous careers. Her work as a copywriter is apparent in the tongue-in-cheek author bio, while her experience as creator of the CBC Radio Vancouver program Wide Awake was “great training in finding the core of a story, receiving feedback from an editor, and reshaping a story on a deadline.” Similarly, her background as a filmmaker and screenwriter, which she calls “highly useful in learning about plot, pacing, and in experimenting with character perspective,” is clearly evident in the novel itself.
Wild had clear, concrete goals for the manuscript: “to be shortlisted for an award and find an agent.” Even before its publication, Strange Things Done was successful on both counts. In addition to being shortlisted for numerous prizes, including the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing and Criminal Lines competitions, it was longlisted for Amazon.com’s Breakthrough Novel Award, and won the 2015 Crime Writers of Canada’s Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel.
Strange Things Done also got the attention of Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists during its competition run. “I have to personally love a story, and in this case I just fell right into this ‘Klondike noir,’” Forde says. “Elle’s a clever and funny writer, but with a strong literary bent, and she evokes place wonderfully.”
Diane Young, who acquired the novel for Dundurn’s TAP line, agrees, citing Wild’s “offbeat, dark humour,” while drawing particular attention to her “flair for quirky characters,” especially Jo. “When we meet her, Jo has just gone through an unnerving experience in Vancouver that has left her feeling vulnerable. She doesn’t deal with the crisis very well, but her attempts to tough it out and wisecrack her way through it are endearing.”
Having recently returned from several years in England, Wild is maintaining her pattern of writing about places where she has lived; her next project is a novel set in 19th-century London. “I don’t know how much I can say about it yet, as it’s early days,” she says, “but I’m very excited.”
Given the interest that has greeted Strange Things Done, she’s likely not the only one. – Robert J. Wiersema