The first time I heard of Ann Shortell was when The Miramichi Reader (TMR) reviewed her dynamic novel, Celtic Knot. Read it HERE.
I knew then I wanted to read the compelling historical fiction of Clara Swift.
The tag line – It all starts with a shot in the dark. That did it for me.
I’ve read Ann’s story, and enjoyed it tremendously. If you love historical history with a mystery, it doesn’t get much better than Celtic Knot. Read about it HERE.
Ann has graciously agreed to chat with us today on Branching Out, answer a few questions and is sharing an excerpt from her novel.
Ann Shortell published Celtic Knot in 2018. Before that, she wrote two other novels. One is a mystery set in Florida, the other is historical fiction set in the U.K. and France. She keeps those manuscripts in separate drawers, but she hasn’t yet tossed them—which proves she is an optimist. In another century, Ann was a journalist. She spent her salad days in Kingston, Ont. and in Ottawa. She and her husband are now locked down in central Toronto, so she is treasuring her journeys to fictional landscapes.
So, Dear reader, pull up a chair and let’s chat with Ann.
Allan: Hello Ann. I’m pleased to have you here this week. Before we talk about writing stuff, tell us about your family, childhood years, and early influences. Also, in our earlier messages, you mentioned the importance of libraries for authors. Would you care to expound on that comment?
Ann: Allan, recently The Indie Author Project competition posted quite a bit about my childhood in Kingston Ontario, my early literary influences, and my lifelong love affair with libraries. I hope it’s OK to provide a link here.
There are two great strands of story that weave together to form the fabric of our country, the aboriginal story and the immigrant saga. I’m the daughter of an immigrant, which by some definitions makes me a first-generation Canadian. I’m also a descendant of settlers who began arriving on this land in the 1790s, and might, like so many recent immigrants, be described as political, economic and religious refugees. I draw on all these ancestors when writing.
Most particularly, I carry with me the lessons in communal memory instilled by my parents. My mother was the family storyteller, but my father also taught me that our present is wrapped around our past.
In 1986, I travelled with him to Kilkenny, Ireland. On arrival, he casually commented that we’d be going to “our castle”, a place he’d never before mentioned. “The other Shortell castles were grander,” he said, “but ours is still standing.”
When we arrived at Castle Clara, he knocked on the door of the farmhouse next to the five-story keep, explained we were Shortells, and asked for the key.
The farmer’s wife said, “how long have you been away?
My father replied, “I’ve been away 150 years.” He smiled, as if he were having us on. But we knew he meant it.
My series protagonist, Clara Swift, is named after that 16th-century tower house.
Allan: When I read of you winning the fiction category at the Whistler Independent Book Awards, there is a photo of you with fellow authors, Diana Stevan and Bill Arnott, and others. As you may know, both Diana and Bill have been guests on the Scribbler. All terrific storytellers. The awards for your writing keep piling up (Congratulations!) and it speaks loudly of your writing. Which of the awards has been most meaningful and why?
Ann: The 2020 Ontario Indie Author Project Award, referred to above, is cosponsored by Library Journal and the library ebook platform Biblioboard. As you mentioned, I also had the privilege to win the 2019 Whistler or WIBA award, which is judged by members of the Canadian Authors Association and co-sponsored by the Writers Union of Canada. Before that, I placed as a finalist in both TMR’s “The Very Best!” Book Awards, and in Crime Writers of Canada’s Unpublished Manuscript contest. As a Canadian writer, these honours are particularly meaningful. As Dorothy Gale said, there’s no place like home.
Celtic Knot is such a Canadian book, I’ve been surprised and of course delighted to also be honoured by American contests. I’ve often thumbed through Writer’s Digest, looking for the magic formula to great fiction. So, winning an Honourable Mention in their self-published ebook competition has a special resonance. Another highlight was a finalist placement in The Sarton Award for Women’s Historical Fiction. The Sartons have been called an indie version of the U.K.’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and my competition included traditionally-published books by U.S. publishers such as Grove Atlantic, so I felt like I’d jumped the high bar.
Allan: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
Ann: When I was nine years old, I dropped a library book in the bathtub. Of course, I had to pay for the book, and that took a while to accomplish. What has stayed with me, though, is the look on my father’s face. He was too stunned to be angry. He had never conceived that anyone could have the time, let alone the audacity, to read a book in the tub. (With seven people sharing the bathroom, I’ll admit it took some ingenuity.)
As for early influences? As a teen, I began rooting around in used bookstores for early-edition L.M. Montgomery books. One Kingston Ont. bookseller, Stephen Heinemann, made a point of setting aside books for me, even keeping an eye out for them at sales. My Montgomery collection is largely due to him. Years later, I found out that Stephen is from a storied family of booksellers, who fled Nazi Germany and then Shanghai. He is now finding books for people in St. Catharines, Ontario. Thank you Stephen!
Allan: You co-authored several non-fiction books with Patricia Best, most notably A Matter of Trust & The Brass Ring. What can you tell us about this partnership? What changed your direction from non-fiction to Celtic Knot?
Ann: I am now where I wanted to be as a young writer. Journalism was a key step on my road here.
At age 22, I arrived in Toronto and became a financial journalist for a sound economic reason: I needed a job. Without any background in economics, I received an amazing on-the-job education. My business-book coauthor Patricia, a talented writer, was a colleague at three publications. Our coverage of corporate Canada during those years led to those co-authorships, as well as to Money Has No Country, my solo book on Canadian business reacting to globalization.
At the WIBA Awards, I told the awards audience that when I was a young woman, I wrote about men with money and power, and how they reacted in times of great change. And that now, as an older woman, I am telling tales about a young women, who writes about men with power, and how they act during times of great crisis. I thought afterward that I should have added this lyric, from Come A Long Way, by Québécoise songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle: “The earth really ends where you started to roam/ And you and I know what a circle is worth.”
Allan: Thinking of the following comment you made when we discussed your visit to the Scribbler. Please share your thoughts on this:
In his review for TMR, James said I depicted John A. Macdonald in “a kinder, gentler light”. Macdonald is also a character in my sequel WIP, which is partly set in Manitoba during the Red River Resistance. As is Louis Riel.
Neither are central characters, but both are important minor characters. And both are complex people.
Ann: My sequel-in-progress, An Irish Goodbye, is an immigrant’s tale, featuring series protagonist Clara Swift and Fenian rebel William O’Donoghue. It is set in the new Canadian province of Manitoba, Washington D. C., and the Dakota Territories, between spring 1869 and autumn 1871.
O’Donoghue, (who referred to Louis Riel by the nickname “Irish”, after one of Riel’s ancestors,) was an Irish-American who became treasurer of the Riel’s provisional government. O’Donoghue is said to be the reason their flag bore a shamrock as well as a fleur de lis. O’Donoghue returns to America, and Clara and my story follow him there. For now, I’ll leave his history at that.
The Red River Resistance portion of the story is viewed through Clara’s young, female, immigrant lens. Clara’s story is also told from a Roman Catholic viewpoint, and Sister Sara Riel, a Grey Nun, is a character. Clara enters Louis’ story through the eyes of this loving younger sister—who holds her own strong views on the Resistance.
The Riel family’s Québécoise grandmother, Marie-Anne Gaboury Lagimodière, is also a minor character. Her late husband, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, and his late first wife, Little Weasel, are present through flashbacks, and one of their grandchildren is a character—the fellow began as a minor character but he’s pushing his way into the heart of my story.
Clara’s Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendency family’s immigrant experience is a link to the viewpoint of those opposing the Resistance.
The long conflict between Riel and John A. Macdonald is born from the events of the Resistance. Of course, the root causes run deep, and the historical outcomes stretch well beyond the timeline and the reach of my novel.
So many Canadians meld the events of 1870 and 1885 into one narrative arc. In writing this story, I must keep in mind than an accounting of their interactions in 1870-1871 cannot be framed by the horrific events that have yet to unfold.
As for James’s description of a “kinder, gentler” Macdonald, I understand why James characterized my portrayal of the Prime Minister in Celtic Knot that way. I would say rather that in Celtic Knot I attempted to show Macdonald as a wily politician, a man who connived to have his own way, who could be harsh, and could play fast and loose with the truth—and as a loving father and husband, a loyal friend, and a man who, like his own father before him, treated his demons by drowning them in alcohol.
|Sir John A MacDonald|
Macdonald the man and his contribution to Canada are being re-examined, and there is need for that re-examination. The man played a key political role in this land, before and after Confederation, for half a century. No one can write 19th-century Canadian fiction without taking Macdonald’s role—or roles—into account.
As a writer thinking of a character’s motivations, I start with what that man may have learned from history. Macdonald’s Scottish ancestors had been driven from their land by the British, the Anglo-HIbernian upper-class, and the forces of economic change.
He was an immigrant, in good part because of his own family’s failure to recover from that invasion and seismic change. His father, in particular, suffered from the same alcoholism that would haunt and at times overwhelm Macdonald himself.
My heroine, Clara Swift, opens Celtic Knot by grappling with the conflict that she knows the truth behind T. D’Arcy McGee’s assassination, but cannot share it.
“John A. Macdonald is our Prime Minister and so boss of us all, as well as me in particular. He was Mr. McGee’s close friend. I must believe he knows best . . . I suspect Mr. Macdonald may tuck away this testament, leaving for posterity’s judgement the strict moral of the choices made . . . Mr. Macdonald isn’t a dreamer like Mr. McGee. His tools are people; he knows how they can best be set to use.”
She ends it (spoiler alert) torn by Macdonald manipulating her to leave Ottawa—and to be silent about the identity of McGee’s assassin.
An Irish Goodbye picks up the Clara-Macdonald story from just after that point in 1969.
The sequel includes scenes with Macdonald’s son Hugh, a soldier who arrives in Manitoba with strong anti-Métis sentiment; of Macdonald’s life-threatening illness, which coincides with the Resistance; and of the Macdonald family’s personal and political crises in 1871 Washington.
Through Clara’s view of nation-builders such as John A. Macdonald and Louis Riel, I aspire to look at our history the way a novelist such as Hilary Mantel looks at major characters in British history. None of us can erase our history, nor rewrite it. Exploring it through fiction is a way to gain some understanding and to learn from it.
An Irish Goodbye, at this point in the drafting, includes a flashback to Macdonald’s youth. He told biographer Joseph Pope, “I never had a childhood.” Thinking of his history, a month or so ago, I did a short free write showing Macdonald at age seven. This may not end up in the book, but it gives a window into his complicated life. For me, scenes often begin with dialogue, and I then have to build the physicality of the characters’ world. This nub may yet be shape into a piece of my story.
Jimmy and I were under a table, twirling empty bottles as if they were giant glass spinning tops. Leaning against kitty-corner table legs, with our legs spread wide, we could contain our bit of fun beneath the table, so no-one would be the wiser.
By no-one, I meant Kennedy.
The old Irish bugger had no love for my brother and me. He’d been forced by our Ma to keep an eye out for us while she and Da went to the bank about keeping the store.
She’d meant him to watch us in the back yard, while tending shop.
It was the middle of the afternoon, a Wednesday. Yet as soon as Ma and Da set out, with their Sunday shine on, old Kennedy reached for his blackthorn cane, hid the cash drawer under the loose floorboard, and swept us along with him to the pub next door.
I’d whispered to Jimmy to hang back, at the pub entrance. Hoping Kennedy wouldn’t miss us, and we could scoot back home.
To do so we would need to go down the alley, climb atop the neighbour’s privy, and drop down from a six-foot height to land in our own back yard. Well, I’d have to boost up wee Jimmy, first, then catch him as he fell. I figured I could handle it, being seven.
Then Kennedy called out, “you two Macdonalds—don’t give me that look, Johnny—get yourself and your brother in here before I give you both a licking. And tell your Da on his return that you deserve a second lashing.”
So in we went, and here we were, going at it with the old bottles and staying out of Kennedy’s sight.
Jimmy couldn’t twirl so well, of course, he being only four, and I took joy in my longer arms, fatter fingers, and the arm strength to send a bottle careering. I moved into a crouch, to give the dancing bottles more room to move. ‘Course, that meant one of the danged things rolled right out from under the table, spinning like mad on the open floor, then hitting one of the legs on the next table.
It nigh unto exploded, I swear.
Shards of glass flew up down and sideways. Worst of all, right into the path of the barmaid who was refreshing Kennedy’s gin.
“Out from there,” Kennedy shouted.
Jimmy began to blubber, and rolled up into a ball, like that would save him. I nudged him to follow me, saying lickety-split, we could scoot out on the nether side and be out the door before Kennedy caught us. Jimmy wouldn’t budge.
And then Kennedy scraped his chair over, and bent to see to us.
“I’ll gie ye a skelpit lug, alright.” He said.
And sure enough, he grabbed us each by an ear, with a snatch of our curls for good measure, and hauled us right on out, me wailing as high as Jimmy did.
“Look at me,” he said.
When he held our gaze, he said it again. Louder, to make us smaller. “Look at me. A man can’t have a tot for his tea without you lot falling into some shite. Johnny, go grab the Mistress’s broomstick and clean up the mess you made.”
At that, he at least let go of me.
He pulled Jimmy, still by the ear, to his own table. “Sit,” he told Jimmy “Don’t step on the glass, you wee pisspot, do I have to drag you onto that chair?”
When Jimmy managed to climb the chair legs, and began to raise himself by his hands and knees to the seat, old Kennedy leaned over, all casual-like, and swatted Jimmy’s bottom, so that he lost his balance and both he and the chair tumbled down.
I had managed to sweep the glass into a pile, which I pushed under our table, hurrying to help Jimmy remount the chair.
“Johnny, you sit too,” Kennedy said.
“But the glass—”
“Will be there when I’m done with you two. I won’t have you disturbing me again, see? Here,” he said, pouring two drams of gin from his bottle into glasses already dirtied by the pub’s clientele and still set on the table. “You two drink this down, it’ll set you to a sleep as sweet as mother’s milk.”
Jimmy raised the liquor to his lips, and stuck his tongue inside. “Burns,” he said.
I laid my hand over the top of Jimmy’s glass. “James Macdonald,” I said.
That’s how Ma always says our names when she wants our full attention—'James Macdonald, John Alexander Macdonald’.
“James Macdonald,” I repeated. “You’re too young for this drink.”
“And you aren’t, John A.?” Kennedy asked, as if forgetting he’d been feeding us the gin.
“I’m old enough to know what I don't like, Kenne—Sir,” I said.
“If you don’t like gin, you’re sure not your father’s son,” he said. “With the way your Ma spoils you both, perhaps you’re holding out for brandy?”
At that moment, the barmaid approached, yet another gin jug in hand, and a message from the barkeep—no more, until Kennedy paid up.
Kennedy dug into his pockets.
I grabbed Jimmy’s hand. “Now,” I said to him, “follow me—Scoot.”
We made it out the door of the pub, down the street, back up the alley, atop the privy. As I eased myself down into the yard, Kennedy came out of our own back door.
“You wee buggers, you think I couldn’t come next door in the time it took you to stagger two city blocks?” he said.
He walked over to the privy. Grabbed me, turned me over one knee and swung at my bottom with the blackthorn cane. Once, trice, thrice.
“Johnny, I can’t—” Jimmy cried out.
Kennedy pushed me to the ground. From that vantage, I could see Jimmy, still seated atop the privy, tears rolling down his face like he were the one whose backside was smarting from the lashing.
“There’s more of that coming, Johnny,” Kennedy said. “First, fetch me your brother.”
At that moment, lying in the backyard, a mad, drunken Irishman in front of me, ready to strike out again, I thought better of bringing my brother home safe.
“Stay up there, Jimmy,” I called. “Ma will be home soon now, and then we’ll see who catches trouble.”
“Johnny,” my brother wailed. “I’m scairt up here, Johnny, I can’t hold on.”
The stench of fresh urine was rising from Jimmy, overwhelming the stench of the privy. “Hey, pants on fire,” Kennedy said, “don’t make me come up there after you.”
Turning, he held the cane up in an arc above my head. “And you, don’t encourage the boy,” he called to me. “Get him down here, now, if you know what’s in your own best interest, Johnny Macdonald.”
“I’ve turned my ankle, sir,” I lied.
I faked a rise, then tumbled. “I can’t.”
Kennedy pulled out a rag and wiped the sweat that had been dribbling into his eyes. “Damnedable sun,” he said. “Why can’t it rain to break the heat, like ’twould at home?” He moved toward the privy once more.
I crab-walked, backwards toward the store.
“Jimmy, grab my hand, here—and there’ll be no licking,”Kennedy said.
“Cross your heart,” I yelled at Kennedy, knowing that was somehow sacred to Catholics.
“Jimmy, you’ve my word,” he said. “No licking.”
Jimmy looked ready to faint, from the sun and the heat and the burn of tar paper on his hands and legs, let alone his own stench.
He pushed himself, the slightest bit, and began to slide toward Kennedy.
The moment Kennedy could, he grabbed Jimmy, by one arm, and pulled him down the tar-paper privy roof in such a way as would leave a chafing burn.
When Jimmy reached the edge, Kennedy didn’t catch him under both arms, or grab him by the belly. He let a screaming, stinking Jimmy fall six feet with only one arm dangling from Kennedy’s stiff hand.
And as Jimmy landed, Kennedy swung his cane, whoosh, with his other arm.
By the cane’s arc, he may have meant to strike Jimmy’s bottom.
If so, he missed.
The cane landed, whack, against Jimmy’s temple.
Kennedy dropped Jimmy to the ground.
An hour later, my parents heard my story, and they heard Kennedy’s.
They believed me.
But speaking of it would only make matters worse, they said. There was no money for the law. No money even for a coffin. Our sister May sewed Jimmy tight in his shroud, with his favorite carved wooden soldier for comfort. Our cousins dug the grave, and we didn’t invite any neighbours, only family, to the service.
Then we went home. Da didn’t even have the pleasure of firing Old Kennedy. The bank had foreclosed on us all.
Allan: Anything else you’d like to tell us about?
Ann: You mentioned Bill and Diana earlier, Allan. I must say that the single best thing about being an indie author is that, as with Bill and Diana and the other WIBA finalists, we indies see ourselves as colleagues, not competitors, and cheer for each other on social media. I could mention so many others: Ottawa author and reviewer Jim Napier; Canadian-American writer and brander extraordinaire Karen A. Chase; Michelle Cox, a star at hybrid publisher SheWrites; Jane Austen variation writer and tweet-booster Kelly Miller; Janet Kellough, of Picton, Ont.’s Women Killing It festival; fellow Crime Writers manuscript finalist Charlotte Morganti, and CWC’s Kathy Prairie, a finalist for Britain’s Rubery Award; Canada Writes FB member Terry Fairhurst Leinemann; Words With Writers podcast’s Chris Gorman; and so many I have met through writers’ associations and across the social media spectrum, in the three years since Celtic Knot saw the light of day.
Thank you, Allan, for this opportunity to give some shout-outs, and of course to think back on my journey to fiction, and of the one upon which I have embarked in writing An Irish Goodbye.
An Excerpt from Celtic Knot.
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)
From Chapter 2: Clara is watching from McGee’s window in Trotter’s boarding house as McGee lies dead at the entryway below:
. . .
Another carriage hightailed it up the street, this one a four-in-hand Clarence.
The driver jumped down. He wore a banged-up cowboy hat, and he never wore a red coat, but I knew from Mr. McGee that Pierce Doyle held the rank of Major. First in the British Regulars, now as one of the first officers in the Canadian government’s new Dominion Constabulary, which was about to be tasked with protecting Parliament.
So when Major Doyle opened the carriage door, I wasn’t surprised to see Prime Minister Macdonald step down.
“Clara?” Mrs. Trotter rapped on the door. She’d checked my room first thing, no doubt. “Are you in there?”
She pushed the door open but hung back, like she didn’t want to be too close to Mr. McGee’s belongings.
I motioned her over. “The Prime Minister’s down below.”
Mr. Macdonald passed by the sergeant’s outstretched hand. He knelt by Mr. McGee.
“D’Arcy,” he said, touching Mr. McGee’s near arm. “The Goddamned evil buggers.” He looked up at his man Doyle, then at the sergeant. “I want them all rooted out,” he said. “D’you hear me? These Goddamned rebels must all
Mrs. Trotter stepped across the room, her meaty fingers snatching at me. “Out of here, Clara. Lest Tommy O’Neill catches you mucking about with Mr. McGee’s papers.”
“Look, Willy’s snuck back out,” I told Mrs. Trotter. “He’s watching from the alley.”
Mr. Macdonald stared up at the moon a moment, then all around the lot.
“Robitaille,” Mr. Macdonald said. “We need to carry D’Arcy inside. Pierce—”
Mr. Macdonald’s aide came up to his side.
“I’ll deal with the skull,” said Dr. Gillivray.
“No,” Mr. Macdonald said. “I’ll hold D’Arcy where he’s bleeding.”
Mr. Macdonald pushed himself up on one foot, pulled his scarf from his neck and draped it over his gloves. Then he placed Mr. McGee’s head ever so gently on his cradled hands.
Monsieur Robitaille, Dr. Gillivray, Mrs. Trotter’s friend and Ottawa Police Sergeant O’Neill, and Major Doyle, all squatted in position on either side of Mr. McGee.
“Rise,” the Prime Minister called out.
Slowly, steadily, the five men lifted Mr. McGee up, and carried him out of my sight.
At the last, Willy crept out of the alley. He picked up Mr. McGee’s white hat and walking stick, and followed the parade of living and dead.
From Chapter 3:
. . .
The parlour, I found, was quiet enough.
Willy had placed Mr. McGee’s top hat and stick atop the new speech. Mr. McGee’s body had been laid out on the bar.
If his shade were still hovering, it didn’t shine through him. It was as if he’d shrunk away from us, in the time he lay on the doorstep.
Not that he was ever a big man; he just seemed a giant when he spoke. Mr. McGee was always a soulful man; his ideas had been the biggest part of him.
He was always talking, singing, speechifying, or dreaming up ways to better all our lives.
Whereas his bone and muscles only filled a boy’s pants. Even I could almost look him in the eye. Those as didn’t like him called him ‘all hat and swagger.’ He laughed and made a joke of it on them, wearing the beaver or the white hat as if to say ‘what of it?’ to all naysayers.
Until someone’s bullet knocked it off his head.
I’d seen the dead before, of course. Back home in Carlingford, there was always a funeral, a wedding, or a baptism in the offing. There was a comfort in the pattern—the church ceremony, the house visit. I’d sat with the departed alongside
Gram, too, when the family needed to catch some rest. We all did such for one another. It was as the Lord wanted, that a man be with his own kind until he was laid in his grave.
I’d even seen my own Gram’s shade, as sometimes happens right on a loved one’s passing. She’d been stretched out, silent, on her deathbed, and rising above it, too. As if to comfort me, though she’d rarely done so in life.
“You were there?” The voice was quick and sure.
Major Doyle was standing where Mr. McGee’s boots hit the lace antimacassar.
His glanced fell on the archway. “You were there—when D’Arcy was shot?”
For all the times Mr. Macdonald had sent Major Doyle with messages for Mr. McGee, this was the most I’d ever heard come out of him.
“I live in, here,” I said.
“Clara Swift, I know you’ve been working for McGee. Didn’t I see you at his own house in Montreal?” he said. “And now you’re here at his boarding house in Ottawa. Some folks may be wondering at that.”
Major Doyle liked to let on he was one of the lads, in a boiled-wool shirt and ill-fitting trousers. A glorified errand boy. I knew better.
“Driver, indeed,” Mr. McGee had said, when this man had accompanied Mr. Macdonald ‘round town. “Doyle’s to be a big part of Macdonald’s new special federal police, Clara. The man’s driving John A.’s private forces faster than he is the Prime Minister’s horses. Watch out, there’s a coming lad.”
*** *** ***
Thank you, Ann, for being our special guest this week. Wishing you continued success with your writing.
For all you fantastic visitors wishing to discover more about Ann and her writing, please follow these links:
Perfect Books, Ottawa
Books On Beechwood, Ottawa
Ben McNally Books, Toronto https://benmcnallybooks.com/order-books/