‘spotlight’ series: lorraine o’donnell williams

Spotlight’s on…

Lorraine O’Donnell Williams!

It’s time again for Peace Garden Mama’s “Spotlight’s on…!” This monthly feature highlights fellow mother-writer-faith friends I’ve met over the past years who’ve been immersed in the writing life long enough to have stored up some insight that begs to be shared.

For the April ‘Spotlight’s on…!’ we’re crossing the United States-Canada border to introduce Lorraine O’Donnell Williams, a Canadian author whose memoir, Memories of the Beach, has just been released.

First off, Lorraine, congratulations on finding a publisher for your memoir. It must be thrilling for you to be at this place. Is this the first book you’ve authored, and if not, is it the first memoir you’ve birthed?

I’ve written two other books, one for the Canadian market and one for the U.S. market. From my long years as a trustee on public library boards and position as former president of the Canadian Library Trustees Association, my books dealt with the partnership between the chief librarian of a system and the board members. It’s called, The Library Trustee and the Public Librarian: Partners in Service. I’ve also written two smaller books – one the history of a pioneer Catholic Church and the other a history of Carmelite Sisters in Toronto. However, this is my first memoir.

What is the basic premise, and what prompted you to write it?

The basic premise of my memoir, Memories of the Beach: Reflections on a Toronto Childhood, is to celebrate a particular locale and era in which I grew up, to show how important a part it played in my formation. I also wanted to celebrate the city of Toronto and particularly The Beach district where I grew up. Although there are a few books out there detailing the history of the area, no one has ever written a memoir of growing up in The Beach. Where I grew up turned out to be an integral part of me.

You’ve shared with me before that Memories of the Beach is not defined as a spiritual or Catholic memoir, and yet it has some elements of spirituality in it. Being that we’ve just emerged from Lent and are now in the Easter season, I’m curious about those elements and how you infused them into your memoir.

Those elements of Catholicity just came naturally as I wrote. The grade school and high school I went to were both Catholic, staffed mainly by nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph. My mother was a very pious French Canadian and my father was second- generation Irish, so their Catholic faith was prominent in our daily life. One example of that French -Canadian influence was that a large picture of The Sacred Heart, hanging over our fireplace mantel, dominated the living room. (This was a prominent French-Canadian custom). For any guest coming to our home, it was evident where we stood in our beliefs! Interestingly enough, it was a picture which I had won in Grade 4 for having the highest marks in religion. By the way, did you know that in the province of Ontario and several other provinces throughout Canada, Catholic schools are funded by the provincial (i.e., state) government. No tuition required!

What were the most difficult aspects of writing about your own life? Did you rely on people in your life to help piece together the details, or mainly on your own memory of it?

The most difficult aspects were were: a) trying to figure out which time period of my life would I cover. I ended up doing birth to end of high school, with some of my parents’ background worked into the narrative. b) The chronology was another challenge. Should it read in a straight linear fashion or should some chapters cover several years, if they dealt with the same topic – e.g., influence of movies and books in my life. I ended up with a combination.  Most of my writing came from my own memory of things, although I did ask others or consult references when certain factual or historical events (e.g., dates of births, famous events) were written about, so that I could get them correct.

When you were writing this book, whom did you have in mind as far as the typical reader?

I thought the readership would appeal to: a) readers who have lived in The Beach, or live there now, or know others in either of those two categories, b) people of my own age range who had experienced Toronto and The Beach area, c) people who have an interest in the social history of those times in Toronto and The Beach in particular and d) my children, husband and family members.

Everyone has a story – things in his or her life that are unique. How does one discern whether they have a story that is memoir material? And how did you set about putting your story onto paper?

That’s a great question and a hard one to answer. Most memoirs I read nowadays seem to be about very dysfunctional families. I grew up in a normal family which had some problems, but very minor ones. Our upbringing was pretty blessed and I wanted readers to know that not all family life is blighted, and especially, that in order to write, you don’t have to be neurotic or a product of an alcoholic or abusive home. Also, as mentioned earlier, my book was unique in that no one had written a memoir about that place and time in Toronto before.

How did I put it on paper? I wrote one incident years ago that’s now in the memoir and entered it into a contest and it got excellent results. That gave me confidence that there was something there worth telling. However I put that aside and started writing a historical novel about a completely different place and time. One day, I went to my daughter’s, who has a small town house at The Beach, to write in silence. Suddenly the memories of growing up there started to wash over me like flood waters. I had to put them down and abandon the novel. From then on, everything came pouring out. I was back in the environment of my youth, and it took over!

How long did it take you to write it, and how much longer to find a publisher? Do you work with an agent?

It took about five years off and on to write the complete memoirs and edit them for submission to a book publisher. I was working on other freelance writing – travel articles, pro-life issues, book reviews, histories of churches and religious order. It then took about three years to find a publisher. Then the publisher who wanted the book was absorbed by a bigger publisher and the latter had to decide whether he wanted my book or not, and that stretched out another two years.

I had an agent for my first two books, but by the time I’d finished this one, she was only doing movie and TV scripts, so I had to send it out myself – many times. I always got glowing praise for the writing, but most big publishers felt it was placed in too local a setting and I wasn’t a high name that could overcome that.

Are there marked differences between the publishing industries in Canada as opposed to the United States? How did being a Canadian resident make it either harder or easier to bring this story to fruition?

I’m not sure. I know in Canada the publishing industry is highly subsidized by grants from the Federal Government. Our population is so much smaller compared to yours, resulting in lower sales, that it can’t support book publishers without help. I didn’t submit this to any American publishers because the locale might not be of interest to them. On the other hand, maybe finding a publsher might have been easier, since Canada has many publishers who are interested in literary (or creative ) fiction and non-fiction.

What did your family of origin think about your project? Did you meet any resistance in sharing what is, in part, their life story, too?

My family has been extremely supportive. I didn’t meet any resistance. Maybe because it only covers our childhood up to end of high school. If I was telling about their private lives after that, they might have had some objections.

I noticed you have a son who is also an author. Who became an author first?

I became the author first. But Harland has written far more than I – nine children’s books and now one for adults just out called, The Things You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know.

If you could write in only one genre, what would it be?

Probably memoir.

How has your faith impacted how you approached this story?

In the sense that I would pray that I would not hurt anyone by what I wrote. Also my faith had to be imparted in the story because it is such a fundamental element in my formation.

What would deem this story a success, in your mind?

If my nuclear and extended family enjoy it, and if it achieves good reviews from the critics. Of course, it would be wonderful if someone wanted to make a movie or tv series out of it!

What writing advice that has been particularly helpful to you?

"It’s by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal. — David Shields, "Reality, Persona" in Truth in Nonfiction (edited by David Lazar)

Where can we find your book? Do you have an author website?

The book’s available for presale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc or from me at lorwill@sympatico.ca or from my publisher, Dundurn Press. I don’t have an author website as yet.

To the aspiring memoirist who might be reading this, what advice do you have?

Just get started and keep writing. Don’t worry about editing until later. Don’t worry about chronology. Start anywhere and then go back later if that is what gets you started. As with any form or writing, join a group where you can read and critique each other. Be sure to be consistent about VIEWPOINT. Put in bad or sad parts as well as good times. No one has a perfect life and no family has a perfect life. If everything in your memoir is "peaceful and light", there is no tension and the reading gets very boring.

Thank you so much, Lorraine, for sharing a bit of your writing journey with us. We wish you the best in the launch of your memoir. Congratulations on its completion and your success in landing a publisher for it!

Q 4 U: What question do you wish I would have asked Lorraine? Here’s your chance!