Based in Toronto, Mary is known in the historical fiction field not only for her novels but also for the reader surveys she's conducted on the genre. She reviews for the Historical Novels Review and the Washington Independent Review of Books. In 2011, she contributed a guest post for Reading the Past on the different facets to her WWI research. In that piece, she wrote: "While sitting in a cafe having dinner one night, my third novel was born. You never know what a glass or two of French wine will inspire!" Now that Time and Regret has been published, the writing process has come full circle.
Hope you'll enjoy this interview.
One of the common elements running through your novels is war’s impact not just on individuals, but on marriages and families. What draws you to this theme?
Great question, Sarah. I have two answers. The first is that I began writing by investigating the lives of my maternal grandparents and as such, I came to see both sides – male and female – of a time with such dreadful consequences. Not only did men go to war, but women also ‘went to war’ on the home front and I wanted to share that perspective. The second reason is that I hope to tell stories that engage both men and women. Too much war and you lose the female audience; too much romance and you lose the men.
People’s transformative and tragic experiences in WWI have figured in your previous two novels as well. What attracted you back to this era for your third novel?
However, I have decided to move on. My next novel is underway and it will feature 1870s Paris.
In the afterword to Time and Regret, you discuss your research trip to northern France, tracing Grace’s own research journey in person. Could you share some of the more useful or more fascinating discoveries that you made there?
I could write a five-page essay on this topic! However, let me give two examples. One is the Musee de la Grande Guerre in Peronne, France – a museum dedicated to WWI. I’ve been in many war museums, but the stark simplicity of the one in Peronne affected me profoundly. The museum is housed in a medieval chateau. On the floor, surrounded by wooden frames, are the uniforms and kits for French, British, Canadian and German soldiers. Powerful statements in and of themselves. Similar wooden frames house items like rifles, ammunition clips, light trench mortars, medical instruments, ambulance supplies, signaling equipment, and camouflage materials. Small signs itemize the contents of each frame; the atmosphere is hushed. In another room were two rough tables full of debris and a sign explaining that every item had been found in the trenches and battlefields of the Somme—helmets, boots, canteens, bully tins, pickaxes, knives, shovels, petrol cans, breastplates, barbed wire. Looking at these, I felt as though someone had punched me in the gut. I have tried to convey the emotional impact of the experience through a scene in Time and Regret.
A second example is the somber tolling of the names of soldiers who died at Passchendaele through loudspeakers that line the path to the museum – an eerie experience, also included in the novel.
Martin’s diary has a blank entry for the brief time he spends at Chumley Park, where he undergoes rehabilitation for the stress he’d been under at the Somme. How did you research his time at this (fictional) facility?
Although I read reports concerning shell shock in World War One and the treatments given to soldiers, the entire Chumley Park episode is a figment of my imagination.
You seem equally adept in writing from both male and female viewpoints; both Martin’s wartime diary entries and Grace’s journey to find answers came across as realistic. Do you have a preference for writing from either viewpoint?
What a lovely compliment, Sarah! Writing a female character is in many ways easier. The challenge is to make the voices distinctive and avoid having them all sound like me. I truly enjoyed creating Martin’s voice and read many diaries, letters, and novels in order to convey a man’s perspective and experience of war. I’ve also had a few men read the final draft and I remember asking my son what a group of soldiers who had been at sea for ten days would be thinking of when they disembarked. He replied without hesitation: booze, food and women. That too is in the novel.
You recently blogged about how the results of the reader surveys you’ve conducted influenced your own writing. In particular, you’d noted how you “reshaped the plot for Time and Regret” to enhance its appeal to female readers. Can you provide any more details on how you’d tweaked the plotline? How do you balance the demands of the story you want to tell with reader expectations?
The most significant change I made to Time and Regret was to strip out some of the content devoted to Martin’s WWI experience. Originally, the story had too many diary entries and too many scenes in the chaos of war. But I also worked hard to make Grace come across as a strong, feisty person—I think she was a bit bland in earlier drafts—and to heighten the romance between Grace and Pierre.
In terms of balance, like many authors, I enjoy telling the kind of stories I like to read. Fortunately, the survey data suggest there’s a good market for such stories, although I certainly don’t consult the data before embarking on a new project :)
An online author friend of mine had been picked up by Lake Union at a time when this publishing house was securing the rights to already self-published novels. She kindly recommended me to her editor; however, when I wrote the editor about my self-published novels, Unravelled and Lies Told in Silence, I was informed that Lake Union had changed its policy. “But, but, but,” I said. “I have another novel almost ready to go.” And the editor graciously agreed to look at Time and Regret a few months later.
As for my journey, in 2010, after many, many rejections, I secured a Toronto-based agent for Lies Told in Silence. I was thrilled. But, like many other authors, two years later the novel had received a bit of attention from publishers but no deals. So, frustrated with the traditional process, I decided to self-publish Unravelled and a year later, parted company with my agent and self-published Lies Told in Silence as well. Being an indie author has been a fabulous experience; the best part is knowing that readers have enjoyed my stories.
I’m very excited to be with Lake Union and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Time and Regret will reach even more readers.
Thanks, Mary, for taking the time to answer my questions!
About M.K. Tod: Time and Regret is M.K. Tod’s third novel. She began writing while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at www.awriterofhistory.com.