Susan Young de Biagi has written several nonfiction books and branched into fiction with her debut novel, Cibou, published in 2008 (which I have read twice and highly recommend). She currently resides in BC. Here, she talks about how the story caught her attention and how the characters took over the story.
Susan: Over 10 years ago, I was researching a CD-ROM called The Peopling of Atlantic Canada (produced by Folkus Atlantic) in the archives of the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University. I found an account of the trick Charles Daniel played on Lord Ochiltree, by capturing and dismantling Stewart’s fort then rebuilding it on French territory. I was pretty sure few people had ever heard of Charles, and I thought it would be a fun story to tell.
At the time, I was totally immersed in First Nations history through my research for the CD-ROM. So when it came time to write the story of Captain Daniel, I wrote it from the perspective of a young Mi’kmaw woman.
KBW: Tell us about researching the factual details of Mi’kmaq life that make the setting come alive for the reader.
Susan: In the 90s, I was asked to be the head writer on a number of CD-ROMs for the educational market, so I had been researching the history of the area for several years. Over the course of about 5 years, I read hundreds of books and thousands of documents, many of which had never been published. The appendix in the back of Cibou lists the sources for the stories told in the book. I encourage readers to go to these marvelous sources and read the material themselves.
KBW: One reviewer suggested that the story should have been told from Antoine’s perspective. How did you choose whose perspective to tell the story from?
Susan: I didn’t choose Mouse, she chose me. I had originally envisioned the book as a swashbuckler, filled with ships and sword fights. But it’s a funny thing about the writing process, at least as I’ve experienced it.
When I write, I don’t get the impression that I’m creating the story as much as discovering it. I was very surprised by many things that happened in the book. I was, for example, shocked and grieved by the death of a favourite character. Mouse introduced herself to me very early in the process and kind of took over the telling of the story. In many ways, I was just a fascinated observer.
KBW: In a few places, you alter historical details to fit the story. Why?
Susan: I began my writing career as an historian, a writer of nonfiction, someone who deals in fact. But it’s also true that documents can never tell the whole story; there are simply too many huge gaps in our knowledge. I think I’m able to make some pretty good guesses—educated guesses, based on research—about what it must have been like. There is no room for guessing in the world of historical nonfiction.
Feeling constrained and frustrated by that lack of freedom, I turned to the novel. In doing so, I discovered the novel has its own truth, which is—in its own way—just as uncompromising as nonfiction.
In answer to your question, though, I don’t think I altered events so much as telescoped them. [Saint] Antoine may not have been present when Charles took Lord Ochiltree’s fort. But he certainly served at the Cape Breton mission, if a few years later. I also used Mouse’s dream to recount events that actually happened much later in time.
I’m hoping that readers interested in the historical facts and timeline will consult the appendix.
KBW: What was the most rewarding part of writing Cibou?
I’m a reader, as are most writers, so the really lovely part for me was the sense of community I felt with all novelists—alive and dead. When I encountered a problem with plot or character, there came the recognition that other authors I admired had encountered the same problem. I’d think about how they solved it, then compare my solution to theirs. It was exciting, and something I never grasped as a reader. It took the act of writing my own novel to truly understand the books they wrote.