I was introduced to Heather by an author friend and discovered her captivating book – Somewhere in Flanders: Letters from the Front. Published in November, 2019, by Crow Mountain Publishing, it is the story of James W. Johnstone who enlisted in Canada’s Expeditionary Forces in the First World War and contains the love letters he sent home to his sweetheart, Isobel.
She has graciously agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing an excerpt from her interesting book.
Well, first, I’m an x-ray technologist masquerading as a writer! It’s interesting how life goals come full circle. I have been passionate about books my whole life, and began writing my own stories at a young age. I could always be found, nose firmly between the pages of one book or another. When I was desperate, I read encyclopedias, sitting in the front hall beside the bookshelf. As the middle-ish child with four much older and two much younger siblings, the world of books gave me the friends and companions I lacked at home, and to some degree, at school (I was terribly shy!). Wherever I was, if I had a book, I had a safe, friendly space. My oldest brother had the knack of finding me the most wonderful books; A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth were gifts from him.
I was fortunate in high school to have an English teacher who encouraged creative writing and was happy to read everything his students wanted to share, outside of class work. Because of him, I entered a national short story contest, got an honorable mention and a $25 cheque. Big leagues! However, my life turned to the sciences and a career in health care, and while I still never went anywhere without a book in my bag, writing took a backseat to work and the myriad chores of adulthood, marriage and motherhood.
Reading to my three sons was a joy, encouraging their interest in reading a return to the pleasures of my childhood. After many, many years, I found the joy in writing again, in creating, in reproducing for others a world long gone. I have a feeling this is only the beginning. When not reading or writing (or working), I’m playing with my two wee grandsons, filling my nose with the scents of horse and hay at the barn, or plotting offshore adventures with my husband on our sail boat (AKA my summer writing office!).
4Q: Who is James W. Johnstone to you? Why did you decide to tell his story?
HM: Jim is not a relative, but had he survived the war, he might have been my grandfather. Okay, okay, I know genetics don’t quite work that way, but I’ve adopted him as such. The recipient of Jim’s letters - and his incredibly touching expressions of love - was my grandmother, Isobel McCurdy. They were school chums, although he was a bit older, and the mere fact that she kept his letters all her life speaks volumes about her feelings for him. Through these letters, I feel a connection to her, a woman who died before I was three years old and who I never knew.
Jim seized me from the moment I read the first letter, pulled at random from the pile of 69. He was this bright spark of determination and duty, cheeky and flirtatious, trying his best to make light of what became a horrific situation for him, as he saw friends die. His love for my grandmother and his deep love for Canada is moving and inspiring. He was so alive, he leapt off the page, and I could not let him sink into obscurity again. I have a lifelong love of Egyptian history. The Egyptians believed that as long as a man’s name and deeds were spoken of and written down, he lived; I wanted to make sure Jim lived again.
4Q: Please tell us what to expect when we pick up our own copy of Somewhere in Flanders.
HM: Be prepared to make a friend, and lose a friend in Jim. This is what happened to the men in those trenches. They went in with a crew of guys who they worked with side by side, in miserable conditions, becoming brothers, and then suddenly some would be gone, instantly, gruesomely. The longer they were in the war, the fewer and fewer of their original friends survived with them, and the further some withdrew from their comrades. Be prepared to cry a little, but also to laugh, and to be inspired by the dedication of Jim’s generation, who went in and fought a dirty, bloody war to protect the innocent of a country not their own - for which the people of Belgium are still incredibly and touchingly grateful. Be prepared to see this war as not just some ancient, dusty history. It was lived by young men with the same hopes and dreams we have, many who never got to live those dreams. Jim’s words make it as relevant to the reader today, as it was to him.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
HM: I don’t remember a time without books. Apparently my mother decided to teach me to read at age 3. I do remember the first time I learned a rather big word. I was six, and had been placed in a very small group of more advanced readers in my class at school. We were allowed to take home real chapter books from a classroom library, not the Dick and Jane readers (dating myself here!) that everyone else used, and I raced through those voraciously. One day, the teacher wrote down a word – “determined” – and I recall sounding it out, finally getting it right and the blaze of accomplishment when I realized I knew what it was. Right then I fell in love with words and reading. It was an empowering moment!
4Q: In your opinion, what makes a great story?
HM: Characters are the most important part of a good story. They don’t have to be likable or good people (in fact, I prefer a character who is flawed) but they can’t be too good or too bad; that’s a cardboard cutout. They have to move you and be believable, have flaws and redeeming virtues. You have to feel what they are feeling and be transported into their minds and situations. If I hate a main character, I cannot continue reading the book, no matter how interesting the plot may be. Second, a great story needs great language – not big fancy, ten-dollar words but beautifully arranged words. It needs to sing and to elevate the reader. If I lose myself in the beauty of the language, I am transported and transformed by the book. I just finished a book that sums this all up, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf…I devoured it.
4Q: What are you working on now?
HM: I’ve got a novel on the go, rather than non-fiction, as my next project. I can’t say it’s the first I’ve started, but it is the first I have begun in an organized and deliberate way…which I hope translates into getting more than a few pages done! 11,000 words down; 60-70,000 to go! Having reached the goal line of publishing a completed book, I feel I have more discipline now. Staying true to form, this one is set during the First World War, and involves a young couple from Halifax. What is different is the hero comes back, albeit not the man he was when he left, and the heroine is a medical student who faces the trauma of the Halifax explosion. They are both left splintered, much like the environments they experience. I am stealing heavily from my grandfather’s stories as a med student at Dalhousie in December of 1917!
4Q: If you were to write a biography of anyone you want, who would it be and why?
HM: My grandmother, Isobel McCurdy. I have always known she was an interesting woman, but I only now appreciate just how much she experienced, from the death of her beloved young man, her work during the war years with the Red Cross, to setting off to China in 1921 - pregnant, with one year old baby in tow - with her medical missionary husband. There, they spent six years deep in the interior, in remote outposts, before fleeing the revolutionaries with hardly more than the clothes on their backs. My father (born in China having made the trip there in utero) made a comment once, that his mother often thought they’d never have gotten away but for their – by then – four little brown-eyed, tanned boys, who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese fluently.
4Q: Can you remember that defining moment when you decided to become an author?
HM: I’ve written short stories all my life. I began and abandoned novels before. It had always been a dream to be a published author, see my name on a cover. It was not until these letters that I knew I had a book. There was never any question I would finish it, almost like Jim was guiding my hand…or perhaps it was my grandmother. Certainly, her picture gazed down at me from the top of my desk through the whole process. I can’t say where the drive came from but it was unstoppable, and was nothing I really decided. Remember that word “determined”? This was determined for me, and I was determined to make it happen!
An Excerpt from Somewhere in Flanders: Letters from the Front.
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)
The paper was old and stiff, yellowed from age. The notes, addressed to my grandmother, were small, folded over and over to fit in tiny envelopes, and crackled alarmingly as I unfurled the pages. Faint notes of must, the tang of rusty-coloured ink and old books rose from the paper. The writing was far more elegant than anything I’d been taught, slanted, spiky, the product of years of careful tutoring and hours slaving over lessons. Young men never write like that now. The ink was faded, but the words leaped out at me “My Dearest Chiquita”. Flipping to the end, there was a quick scrawl, “Yours ever, Jim”. My grandfather’s name was Kenneth.
My grandmother, Isobel, died when I was three, so I only knew her from pictures: an older woman, hands folded lady-like in her lap, back straight as if she still wore boned corsets. Her grey hair was neatly braided and coiled around her head in a halo. Her face was always turned ever so slightly away from the camera, eyes always a bit sad. Her lips, never smiling in those photographs, were mine. She was a pianist, a graduate from Dalhousie University in Halifax with a music degree, but rarely played publicly. She was the daughter of the editor of the Halifax Herald, brought up in a well-to-do home. She was a diarist, and I devoured her record of the years she spent as a newlywed and young mother in China in the 1920’s, while my physician grandfather worked as a medical missionary. She was most definitely not a Chiquita! And who was Jim?
The letters had come in a tattered old cardboard box from my cousin in BC, part of a mishmash of things she was cleaning out of her father’s basement. As I read through this treasure trove, I came to know Jim. His letters were filled with misspelled words and insufficient punctuation, but also with quotes from Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam. He had strong opinions on many subjects, and experiences none of us want to repeat. He was bright, and funny, and oh, so young. This book is his story.
From Somewhere in Belgium
April 21/15 [eve of the Second Battle of Ypres]
My Dearest Chiquita:
We have been on the march again and now are within a very short distance of the firing line. A certain town within a mile or so of here has just been under a very severe bombardment by the Germans and it would make anyone heart sick to see the women and children and old men hurrying away from their homes with only what they can carry with them. The road is practically blocked with motor-lorries, transports, ambulances etc carrying the refugees away and those who are not fortunate to get a ride are pulling little carts with their personal necessities in them.
Your birthday was celebrated by a bombardment from both sides all last night and early this morning the enemy sent up a quantity of star shell all last night they must have expected an attack. We have orders to keep in the billets and move out to the trenches in a moment’s notice, so it looks as if there would be something doing in a short time. Just behind us is an observation baloon but the German shells don’t seem to be able to get the range at all as nearly all of their shells go wide. I like Belgium ever so much more than France the people are very much more civil and a whole lot cleaner the whole country seems much more prosperous, you notice the difference the very moment you cross the frontier. We were billeted just outside a very large chateau which was once owned by the Rothschilds so as you can image it is quite a place. The park is simply grand with little grotos here and there, statues and caves etc imitation Moslem temples etc. We were in for a bath in one of the lagoons in the park and although this is April the water was quite warm. Just received your letter written on March 13/15 so you see it must have gone astray for the one you wrote on the 23rd I received a week or so ago. We have to parade in a very few minutes so will have to close. Please excuse pencil and writing. Good bye my dear Chiquita. I trust you have come out successfully in your exams which I know you will so au revoir dear.
Thank you, Heather, for being our featured guest this week. Wishing you continued success with your writing journey.
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