Fall Books: New novel from Ottawa’s Frances Itani leads a healthy list

Frances Itani

Fans of Ottawa author Frances Itani may remember how her last book, Tell, ended with the adoption of a baby called Hanora. Well, Hanora is all grown up now with her own book, That’s My Baby, to be published this September.

Unlike those of us who read Tell, Hanora does not know who her biological parents are. She plays detective to find out. The resulting story is the third in a trio of books, beginning with Deafening, about one extended family in the small town Deseronto on the Bay of Quinte.

Deafening was Itani’s breakthrough novel. The story of a young deaf woman during the First World War era was an international success. Then came Tell, which was nominated for a Giller Prize. Now, there’s That’s My Baby.

Other much anticipated novels this fall include Wayne Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light, a follow-up of sorts to the author’s mega-hit Colony of Unrequited Dreams about Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood. Giller Prize winner Will Ferguson is offering The Shoe on the Roof about three homeless men who each believes he is the messiah. Another Giller winner, Linden MacIntyre, publishes a book in August called The Only Café about the ghosts of the Lebanese civil war haunting some Canadians.

Some Ottawa-area authors with forthcoming books include Roy MacGregor, with the non-fiction Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada. Wendy MacIntyre of Carleton Place has a new fable-like novel called Hunting Piero about some young, naïve animal rights activists caught up in murder and mayhem. Kenn Harper has the true-life story of Minik: The New York Eskimo: An Arctic Explorer, a Museum, and the Betrayal of the Inuit People; it’s about an Inuit boy brought to New York City to be a living museum exhibit. Sonia Tilson explores transgender issues with the young adult novel The Disappearing Boy.

Frances Itani was interviewed about her forthcoming novel, her extensive research and her love of writing. Here is an edited text.

Q. One of the last lines in Tell reads: “Someday, who knows, Hanora may own her life story.” Were you already planning That’s My Baby when you wrote that line?

A. I was certain that I’d finished writing about those inter-linked families from Deseronto and Belleville. But three years ago, while choosing what to write next, I was discussing possibilities with my editor and mentioned to her that I could always take the baby, Hanora, and create her story. She was the blank slate, the adopted baby at the beginning and end of Tell. Therefore, I could do anything I wished with her personality, her likes and dislikes, her travels, her progress through the world. And I liked the idea of readers knowing something Hanora did not, i.e. her identity.

Q. Do you find it difficult to say “good-bye” to your characters? Some characters from Deafening reappeared in Tell and now some of Tell’s characters are in your new book.

A. I don’t find it difficult to say good-bye, but certain characters from previous books live on in my imagination, whether I invite them in or not. Georgie, for instance, in Remembering the Bones. I began to be really fond of her while writing that novel, and had such fun creating her life story. People still ask about the ending. People from all over Canada, people met in elevators, or at a P.E.I. beach, or at a country dance, or when I speak to groups, etc. The question is always the same: “Does Georgie live or die?” I have never discussed the ending, so I’m the only one who knows. One reader said to me: “If you’ll never discuss the ending and you’re the only one who knows, what happens if you die?” And my reply: “I’ll take the information with me!” Deafening will live on for me forever because of my great love for my late Belleville grandmother, who was deaf. The novel is not about her, but it IS about the period in which she lived. And now Deafening has been optioned for a TV series or mini-series, and the screenplay is being written.

Q. You are known for engaging in intense, detailed research. What kinds of adventures did you have researching material for That’s My Baby?

A. I was following several lines of research for the new novel: adoption; dementia; World War II and the Hasty Ps (the Hastings and Prince Edward County Regiment); Duke Ellington and his music. I decided to put Hanora on an ocean liner headed for Europe in early 1939 and discovered that Duke Ellington sailed with his entire orchestra on the SS Champlain (French Line) from New York to Le Havre, in March 1939. I was very excited, and immediately put Hanora and a cousin on the same ship. I wanted Hanora to meet with Duke face to face. Of course this necessitated listening to Duke Ellington’s early recordings for about three years. I loved every minute of that (and learned a great many of his compositions while listening). I read several biographies of Duke and watched many videos and film clips. He does make a cameo appearance in the novel, which was great fun to write. I decided to interview as many adoptees as I could find, by putting the word out. One contact passed on another. When giving talks to groups, I would announce that I was seeking people to interview, and sure enough, people would come to me at the end of my talks and volunteer, or offer information or pass on names. I ended up interviewing about a dozen adults who had been adopted as children. I could not have written this book without their frank discussions of the issues they face — and these are issues that extend over entire lifetimes. As for the topic of dementia, well, that is ongoing. I was a nurse long ago and cared for many individuals who suffered from dementia. I also do ongoing research about the brain as that is a topic that highly interests me for future work. I try to keep up to date with medical information that is constantly unfolding. I am a frequent visitor to assisted living residences and encounter and am able to help many people who are in varying stages of dementia.

Q. Your late friend Janet Lunn posted this statement on her website to explain her determination to write: “It’s work I love. It’s work I can’t stop myself from doing and I’ve been doing it for a long time.” Are you similarly driven to write?

A. Writing is what I love to do. Like my late and very dear friend, Janet, I, too, am driven to write. I never stop working in some capacity or other, even while attending to other responsibilities — and those are many. I work every day in some way. I carry a notebook and pen in my shoulder bag wherever I go. While I am finishing one novel, I am already starting another. This new one, now being created in my imagination, will be set in contemporary times. I am completely involved with five new characters as I move through my daily tasks each day.

That’s My Baby (HarperCollins)

Frances Itani
In town: The author will launch her novel at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St. on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. in the Pellan Room. For information and tickets: writersfestival.org.

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