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Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction

by Herb Wyile

In Speaking in the Past Tense, Herb Wyile interviews 11 Canadian novelists about writing historical fiction. Several recurring topics weave through the informal, conversational interviews, but the predominating theme is that of the tension between creating a strong story and remaining true to historical evidence. Several authors discuss the criticisms their work has received, and reveal the reasoning behind their decisions regarding such tensions.

The authors are divided in their approach to the integration of fiction and historical fact. Guy Vanderhaeghe, Rudy Wiebe, and Jane Urquhart express a desire to be true to the historical record. Other authors, such as Margaret Sweatman, make it clear that they feel comfortable manipulating events and rewriting people to fit the spirit of the time or to fulfill a novelistic need – which is where most criticisms begin. George Elliott Clarke, who wrote both a collection of poems and a novel about the 1949 execution of two of his cousins, says the main issue is the reader’s inability to separate reality from imagination.

The interview subjects represent a cross-section of Canada’s historical fiction writers that is both geographically and generationally diverse, with veterans Wiebe and Urquhart alongside such relative newcomers as Joseph Boyden, Thomas Wharton, and Michael Crummey. In spite of that diversity, some repetition does creep in. Readers not obsessed with Louis Riel may find three interviews in a row touching on the subject a little excessive.

Another recurring theme is the question of how the authors’ personal histories overlap with their fiction. Boyden, whose novel Three Day Road is set during the First World War, says that he developed his interest in both world wars through his family’s participation in them.

While Speaking in the Past Tense will be useful to students of Canadian literature, general readers who pick up the book for one favourite writer may find that the rest of the interviews provide a unique entry point to the discovery of new favourites.