I had the pleasure of reading Cathy Marie Buchanan’s wonderful new book, The Day The Falls Stood Still, and I just have to say that I loved it. Gorgeous, lush and rich in historical detail, I was really drawn into the characters’ lives, environments and decision-making. I was constantly engaged even as I learned more about the customs of the times, and gained knowledge on the evolution of Niagara Falls. Cathy was gracious enough to stop by and answer a few questions about her book and her writing process.
Hi Cathy! Will you tell me a little about yourself and how you started writing?
I’m often asked if I always wanted to be a writer and the answer is a definitive no. I spent my teenage years disgracing myself in English often getting upwards of 20% deducted for spelling mistakes on high school English exams. When it came time to head off to university I picked my courses using the criteria that I wouldn’t have to write−that is spell−a single thing. I graduated with a BSc in biochemistry and then an MBA and spent the bulk of my non-writing work life at IBM. By then spell-check had been invented, and I started noticing that I could write pretty well. I took a continuing education course in creative writing, on a whim really, and soon enough I wanted more time to write than the tiny gap that existed between scrubbing my children clean and falling into bed myself. With my husband willing and able to be the family’s sole breadwinner, I quit my job. I have been writing five days a week ever since.
How did your characters present themselves to you? Do you make an outline or do they come to you some other way?
The characters come to me as a write. For instance, in the very first bit of the book that I wrote−it’s long since been scrapped−Bess Heath, the book’s narrator, was an old woman, bitter and hateful of the river. I’d conjured her up from the little I knew of real life riverman Red Hill’s wife, who was quoted as saying she hated the river, that she was afraid of it. In addition to being a hero, Red Hill was a daredevil. He risked his life shooting the Whirlpool Rapids of the Niagara River in a barrel three times. In 1951 the eldest of the couple’s sons died attempting to go over the falls in a barrel constructed of inflated rubber tubes, canvas and fishnets, and another son was killed in a hydroelectric accident on the river. Cleary, she has cause to hate the river. She is where I started with Bess Heath, but once I decided not to incorporate the daredevil side of Red Hill into the book’s riverman, Tom Cole, Bess evolved into the strong, intelligent woman that I hope readers find between the covers of the book.
William “Red” Hill (right)
Credit: Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
Isabel. I like how complex she is. One moment she is self-centered and then, the next, utterly devoted to Bess. She oscillates between easy confidence and debilitating self doubt.
I always feel like writing historical fiction is a balancing act, and its success is all in the way you write it. It can either be wholly accurate, but dry and boring or not as truthful, with enough detail to be believable, and a bunch of combinations in between. What is your approach to blending fact and fiction?
When I set out to write The Day the Falls Stood Still, I read books surveying Niagara’s history, and, by the time I put pen to paper, I had a thousand tidbits of lore percolating in my mind, all of which I wanted to use. The trick, I decided, would be not including too much and overwhelming the story. Throughout the rewriting process I was often chopping anecdotes that I thought slowed the pace of the story too much. Once I was working with my agent and the editors at the publishing houses, they wanted more of the lore that I’d left on the chopping block. Much of it came back in the form of the newspaper stories that appear throughout The Day the Falls Stood Still. To decide what to reincorporate, I had to be sure the lore served a purpose. Did it illuminate a character? Create a mood? Move the story along?
In The Day The Falls Stood Still you explore questions of faith, crisis of faith, conservation, and the way the that we as humans interact with the environment…did you know that you wanted to write a book that included these issues? Can you tell us a little about how that happened? Did these things arise out of what was coming from your characters or a master plan you had?
Once I’d made the decision that the main male character in The Day the Falls Stood Still would be loosely based on William “Red” Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman, it set the time period for the book as the early decades of the twentieth century. These were the years when massive amounts of water were first diverted away from the Niagara River and Falls for the production of hydroelectricity. I saw right away the potential for conflict between a riverman, who is deeply reverent of the river, and the power companies set on harnessing the river’s power. The questions about faith came as wrote. My much-loved father died as I approached the end of the first draft of The Day the Falls Stood Still. The depth of my grief was astounding to me, as was my inability to grasp the concept of mortality. Where was my father? Why was he gone? Why had he spent seventy-four years on this earth? Why was I here? Was humankind’s existence entirely accidental? I will not pretend that I’ve figured any of this out. What did happen, though, was that my bewilderment found a home in Bess.
What types of books would I see if were to visit Tom, Bess, or any of the other characters? Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
Tom would be reading nonfiction, books about nature and geology, such as Sir Charles Lyell’s Travels in North America, the book Bess’s father sends to Tom when he is overseas. Bess would be reading the classics she grew up with at Loretto Academy: Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, Last of the Mohicans. No doubt, Mrs. Andrews would have her nose in a travel guide.
I just found this blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. I’m kind of obsessed with it- and probably because there is so much that I am involved in and like to do that I’m always looking for ways to make all of it work time wise. What does a typical day look like for you?
I write everyday, sitting down at the computer as soon as my boys leave the house for school. I do not wait for inspiration or a certain state of mind, and there does not appear to be any rhyme or reason to when I write well. The objective is always the same, to lose myself in the words I am setting on the page. And I have had moments when I look up from the computer, dazed. It takes a second to grasp that I am sitting at my desk, a further second to decide: Is it morning or afternoon? Have I had lunch? Have I forgotten to pick up my boys from school? My head was a hundred years away in Niagara Falls. It’s when the best writing has come.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book but ultimately decided not to include?
Long before the days of hydroelectric development, fear for future of Niagara Falls ran high, as well, mostly on account the unsightly factories and bazaars taking over the wilderness that had once framed the falls. As early as 1869 a group of prominent men led by Frederick Law Olmsted, most widely known for designing New York City’s Central Park, began lobbying the governing officials of both New York and Ontario to expropriate tracks of land on either side of the falls, demolish the buildings, and restore the scenery to that which was “originally laid out by the hand of nature.” After a sixteen-year, hard fought battle, the group’s vision was realized and the New York State Reservation at Niagara Falls was opened to visitors. For the first time in American history, public money had been used by a state to expropriate land for purely aesthetic purposes. Close to 150 buildings, including mills and factories built along the river to exploit its power, were demolished. The epigraph in The Day the Falls Stood Still comes from the oration delivered at the opening.
Mill district on American rim of the Niagara Gorge
Credit: Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library
Anything else your readers and potential readers might like to know?
I’m often asked about the current status of hydroelectric development on the Niagara River. With the drastically more lenient diversion limits set out in the Niagara Diversion Treaty of 1950, the water plummeting over the Horseshoe and American Falls now amounts to about 50 percent of the natural flow during the daylight hours of the tourist season and 25 percent otherwise with the rest being diverted for hydroelectricity. The largest diversion tunnel ever−it’s about 6 stories high−is currently being dug under Niagara Falls, Ontario. When it begins operation in 2013, more water then ever before will be diverted away from the river and falls. I can’t help but think Tom Cole would be preaching conservation rather than the further diversion of water away from his beloved river.
Thank you Cathy for a wonderful interview!
Niagara Falls is amazing! It is always so incredible to hear how reduced it is in power because when you see it, it’s so beautiful and majestic and magnetic. Have you been?