Every family has its secrets. In 1935, Hannah Parsons left her home in Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland, at the age of seventeen to work in service for Charles and Virginia Sinclair, a wealthy St. John’s family. While working for them, Hannah catches the eye of the patriarch of the household, and her life takes an unexpected turn. Now, sixty years later, Charles Sinclair has passed, and his last living will and testament is about to throw his family into turmoil. His children and grandchildren learn that no family is as perfect as it seems, and that some secrets refuse to stay buried forever. From a Good Home is a novel of family legacy among the St. John’s aristocracy. Recently we spoke with author Trudi Johnston about her first full-length novel.
When and why did you want to be a writer?
Since my childhood I have been an avid reader.When I was a teenager, I read John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Sagaand dreamed of writing a series about a family set in my home province of Newfoundland. The works of Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope inspired me to write about family and relationships. In recent years, I’ve become a fan of Canadian writer, Louise Penny, mainly because of her strong, multifaceted characters and the unique Canadian setting. My doctoral studies focused on Newfoundland history, particularly the history of women and their connection to property and inheritance. For me, writing fiction based in a Newfoundland setting is an enjoyable alternative to academic writing. Through fiction, I can share the experiences of women in history who do not normally make headlines. Some of those experiences found their way into the book.
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
My goal has not changed. My novel is set in Newfoundland and spans several decades from the 1930s to the 1990s. Ultimately, I want readers to be entertained, to enjoy the twists and turns of the plot, to laugh and perhaps even cry. I want them to escape to another time and place for just a few moments and look forward to returning to it when they can. At the same time, I would like my readers to learn something about history. My research into inheritance practices and the role of women, including domestics, uncovered the contributions of those individuals who are often obscured in written history. I felt that writing a fictional account of a young woman who worked in-service would shed light on their experiences.
What inspired you to write From a Good Home?
I created the characters many years ago and have carried them with me as long as I can remember. I have searched for a way to put them into an effective storyline. They continue to evolve in my mind. As a young girl, I listened to stories told by my mother and many of her female friends and relatives who worked in-service for wealthy St. John’s families. Their experiences ranged from very good to quite horrific. I admired their courage, determination and commitment to their families. I felt that it was a valuable story to tell. My research in Newfoundland legal history provided the context for a story rooted in inheritance practices.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
The first challenge for a novice writer is to get published. I submitted my manuscript to four Newfoundland publishers and waited two years for a response. Finally, Flanker Press offered to publish it in 2015.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
Unquestionably, the most rewarding part is listening to readers from different ages and backgrounds who love the book. I am thrilled that my book appeals to a broad demographic. Many have sent me emails or posted messages on Facebook. Others have dropped by at signings and shared stories about friends or relatives who worked in-service. Some have confessed that they cried at the ending. I heard from a senior citizenwho admitted that she stayed up until 2 am to finish the book. Her neighbours were so concerned that her house lights were on they decided to call law enforcement to determine if she was in distress. She assured them that she was fine, she was simply reading my book!
What did you learn during the process?
As much as feedback from reviewers and readers is important and appreciated, I have learned that I have to write for myself first. At the end of the day, I have to be content with what is on that printed page. I write for me.
How did you feel when the book was completed?
I am not sure that any writer ever feels that a book is finished. At some point, others persuade you to stop. There are always ways to have done it differently. There’s one more edit, as always. When the book was completed but before it was published, I questioned whether I wanted to put my characters out there for the general public to meet. I have known them for so many years and my relationship with them has been private. Once the book came out in print, it felt great to see the story in print and to hear others talk about the characters and their actions. I enjoy hearing how others interpret the book.
What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
I have had dozens of personal messages and numerous reviews and interviews throughout Atlantic Canada and they have all been very positive. Many people write to ask when the sequel will be released. Some people are looking for an audio version as well. I am not surprised at the number of people who share the experiences of their family members who also worked in service but I am pleased at how much they appreciate that I highlighted this aspect of our history in a fictional work. I have received lengthy emailed messages from readers thanking me for sharing the story. Younger readers tell me that they love the 30-somethings in the book and cannot wait to read how their lives will evolve. Recently, a reader commented that what she enjoyed about From a Good Home was seeing different sides of one of the characters and trying to determine why she is the way she is. A reviewer wrote that everyone will find at least one person in the novel who is like someone they know. That is very satisfying for me.
What makes a good book?
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are readers. Each one of us looks for something different. Personally, I must have at least one character that I really like, someone I can root for. Plots that have intriguing twists and turns are also important to me because they keep me reading. I always appreciate a satisfying ending as well. I feel a good book entertains, informs, and challenges the reader to think about events in our lives differently.
Is your creative process more 'inspirational' or 'perspirational'?
My creative process is totally inspirational and never perspirational. I thoroughly enjoy writing, I look forward to it every day. Most of my writing has been academic to date so writing fiction is a wonderful, relaxing distraction from that style of writing. In fact, I started to write From a Good Home when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on inheritance practices.
What are your thoughts on Newfoundland's literary scene?
I think Newfoundland and Labrador has many wonderful writers and the number is growing.A few have become well known nationally and internationally. We have always had a rich story telling tradition in our culture.In recent years, we have seen more novels written in Newfoundland. This is a trend away from true stories. As a new writer, I would like to see more opportunities to market across Canada and beyond. Readers out there want to visit unique parts of the world throughout books and I believe we can do that for Newfoundland. I read many books that are set in other Canadian provinces so I wish that we could promote our books nationally as well.
What's next on your creative agenda?
Book 2, All Good Intentions, is the second in the series, a sequel to From a Good Home. It picks up about two months after the first book ends. Readers want to know more about the relationship between Hannah and Charles. They will find out in the flashbacks included in book 2. I am working on it this summer and I hope to have it completed by next spring.