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Speaking in the Past Tense

Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction

By Herb Wyile
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Paperback : 9780889205116, 336 pages, October 2009
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554588251, 336 pages, October 2009
Ebook (PDF) : 9781554581467, 336 pages, October 2009

Table of contents

Table of Contents for Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction by Herb Wyile
Introduction: Speaking in the Past Tense: English-Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction
Making History: Guy Vanderhaeghe
Walking Where His Feet Can Walk: Rudy Wiebe
Confessions of a Historical Geographer: Jane Urquhart
An Afterlife Endlessly Revised: Wayne Johnston
“We Have to Recover Their Bodies”: George Elliott Clarke
Ghosts are our Allies: Margaret Sweatman
History “from the Working Man’s End of the Telescope”: Fred Stenson
Pushing out the Poison: Joseph Boyden
In the Lair of the Minotaur: Heather Robertson
The Iceman Cometh Across: Thomas Wharton
“The Living Haunt the Dead”: Michael Crummey
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Speaking in the Past Tense participates in an expanding critical dialogue on the writing of historical fiction, providing a series of reflections on the process from the perspective of those souls intrepid enough to step onto what is, practically by definition, contested territory.”
— Herb Wyile, from the Introduction
The extermination of the Beothuk ... the exploration of the Arctic ... the experiences of soldiers in the trenches during World War I ... the foibles of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister ... the Ojibway sniper who is credited with 378 wartime kills—these are just some of the people and events discussed in these candid and wide-ranging interviews with eleven authors whose novels are based on events in Canadian history.
These sometimes startling conversations take the reader behind the scenes of the novels and into the minds of their authors. Through them we explore the writers’ motives for writing, the challenges they faced in gathering information and presenting it in fictional form, the sometimes hostile reaction they faced after publication, and, perhaps most interestingly, the stories that didn’t make it into their novels.
Speaking in the Past Tense provides fascinating insights into the construction of national historical narratives and myths, both those familiar to us and those that are still being written.


Speaking in the Past Tense allows fans of such authors as Heather Robertson, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Wayne Johnston, and Jane Urquhart to glimpse the research processes behind their successful novels ... but it also operates on a deeper level, encouraging readers to interrogate history in all its shapes and proclamations.... Wyile's books stimulates such creative musings in the reader in part because it shows how expansive the genre of historical fiction is. Although staying within the realm of English Canadian literature, his participants represent a cross-section of social and historical interests. And just as his interview subjects are not limited in their craft by convention, nor are the interviews restricted by Wyile's agenda. Reading through Speaking in the Past Tense, one has the sense of being privy to real dialogues as opposed to QandA sessions. This thoughtful book helps us see that ... these authors are making it [history] live again.

- Andrea Belcham, Prairie Fire, 2007 July 11

While Speaking in the Past Tense will be useful to students of Canadian literature, general readers who pick up the book for one favourite writer may find that the rest of the interviews provide a unique entry point to the discovery of new favourites.

- Bryony J. Lewicki, Quill and Quire, 2007 April

Canadian history is alive and well and thriving in Canadian literature, says University of Acadia CanLit prof Herb Wyile in these interviews with 11 authors whose novels are based on Canadian history. These illuminating conversations explore the writers' motives for writing about history, their research and approaches to historical material, and the challenges of writing fiction about real characters and events.

- Kathy English, Globe and Mail, 2007 March 24

This book is an excellent resource. Fronted by a substantial introductory essay.... The interviews bring out an engaging diversity of ideas about history and about the proper or improper literary representation of history, on the part of contemporary writers. They delve substantially, as promised, into class, race, ethnicity, gender, and post-colonial issues, as well as questions of hegemonic nationalist as opposed to alternative representations of history, and the commodification of historical fiction itself. Wyile's questions are probing and connection-building, and he elicits detailed, sustained, thoughtful answers. Moreover, while the topic is historical fiction, its problems and possibilities, the interviews range across matters intrinsic to each author's work; they are fertile ground for readers not drawn by genre interests, and a must-read for scholars dedicated to any of the eleven writers. Wilfrid Laurier University Press has published the volume in a finely designed and illustrated, yet affordable, paper edition.

- Glenn Willmott, University of Toronto Quarterly, Letters in Canada 2006, Volume 77, Number 1, 2008 July

As close as you can get to representing the astonishing breadth of the contemporary English-Canadian historical novel.... Coming straight from the horse's mouth, the collection provides valuable insights into the works of Canadian historical novelists and their abiding interest in things past. Reading these conversations makes you want to return to the novels at hand. And what more can possibly be said for the merits of a work of literary criticism.

- Gordon Bölling, Canadian Literature, 2008 October