Leafing through the new edition of The Ragged Believers (by Speaking Volumes), my mind reels back sixteen years (sixteen years!) to the day the original edition was released. I’m sitting in a bar on the Saint John boardwalk, celebratory pint of beer to hand, leafing through the original edition, every now and then glancing up and gazing across the harbour, just as Strathearn does in the novel.
It was first published by Dreamcatcher Publishing, the brave little publishing house in Saint John, New Brunswick, that took on a number of first time writers, including me. Elizabeth Margaris, who became a good friend, was the publisher, and in those early days Yvonne Wilson, a novelist herself, was the editor.
I first met Elizabeth and Yvonne in their tiny office on the third floor of Market Square. Books were piled in every available space and there was literally hardly room to turn around. Elizabeth told me DreamCatcher was interested in The Ragged Believers, which I’d submitted a few weeks before, and Yvonne took me downstairs for a coffee in the Market Square plaza (there really wasn’t room for a third person in the office upstairs) and told me what I had to do in order for the novel, my first, to be published. She said, knowing my background, I was too much the journalist, intent on reporting every fact and incident, and not enough the novelist, then gave me the best advice I think I’ve ever received on writing: Think scenes, like a movie. She told me to strip the narrative down to its essentials, keeping ‘scenes’ in mind. When we met a few weeks later, after I’d reduced the manuscript from something like 90,000 words to around 30,000, she told me it was a good start and now to fill out the narrative. Stifling the “But I just stripped it down …” that was my first response, I went away and thought about it and obediently filled out each scene. Yvonne also told me to delete the last two or three chapters (my lovely words!) which I did reluctantly, although I realised she was right, so the story finished with the evocative image, The girls’ thin dresses waved and fluttered in the wind, so that looking back as we drove I saw the old truck with angel wings trying to lift it from the dusty woods road.
The Ragged Believers was published in 2003 with one of my photographs in the cover design. It was my last year principalling at St. George Elementary School. I left early (how did I manage that?), drove to Saint John, picked up a carton of books from Elizabeth, kept one and deposited the rest in my car, walked to the bar on the Boardwalk, and read, On summer afternoons in summer the girls in their white dresses lay on the rocks by the sea, as vacuous and unglamorous as the gulls wheeling above them, as serene and languorous as the seals on the further rocks …
We held the launch at the Curling Club in St. George and ran out of books. I’ve never had another launch like it.
DreamCatcher also published Defiant Island (2007) and Second Wind (2011). Elizabeth sadly died a few years ago, DreamCatcher Publishing with her, but not the books she brought to life.