Sue MacLeod is a poet and editor living in Toronto, Ontario. Her debut novel, Namesake, is a time slip title for teens about the friendship between Jane Grey, a high school student in Halifax, and Lady Jane Grey, the short-lived Tudor queen who spent her last days in the Tower of London.
Sue joined us to talk about poetry, prose, and the magic of characters.
You are already established as a poet, and in fact were the inaugural poet laureate in Halifax. Did you always want to write a novel as well? Where did that urge come from?
I’m not sure about the word “established,” although I did write poetry first. For me, it hinges on the subject. A subject will compel me and will seem to call for one form or another—poem, short story, or novel.
Did you find the switch to prose challenging? Exciting? Surprising in any way?
Yes, all of the above. The amazing thing is the characters—they do become real, just as I’d heard other fiction writers say. It sounds like magic, and is. But I think it’s also a writer’s reward for Sitting There … and Sitting There.
But then you have cause for worry. What if you abandon your characters for weeks or months? (As I, for one, have often needed to.) They fade, and you have to resuscitate them. You can only hope they’ll come back to life.
Why Namesake? Why Lady Jane Grey?
As a child I read a historical novel about Lady Jane Grey, and it stayed with me. Years later I decided to write about her—not just as a victim, but also as someone courageous, strong and full of life. And I wanted to write about a contemporary girl who was those things too.
What interested me most was creating the two stories—contemporary Jane’s and Lady Jane Grey’s—and intertwining them. I had to build links between the two girls, links of emotion and sensibility that would connect them despite the “culture gap” of being from different times.
I’d read about Jane when I was ten or so, but by the time I started writing, it was a teen story in my mind. She was a teen—executed not long after her 16th birthday.
I also knew, looking back, that I’d had a romantic vision of Jane Grey in my own teens, partly because I was drawn to victimhood—I identified with it somehow. That draw isn’t unique to me, I’m sure, and may be common among girls, for a whole mix of cultural and personal reasons. I wanted to write through that, to come out on the other side.
What did you enjoy the most about doing research for Namesake?
I loved learning more about how people talked—colourfully, dramatically, often in full sentences that were long and complex.
But best of all was a week I spent in London one July, visiting the British Library almost every day. I sat in quiet rooms at smooth, dark tables, reading biographies and Lady Jane Grey’s letters and other writings, and holding 16th-Century books in my hands.
Finest of all, still at the British Library, was seeing Lady Jane Grey’s prayer book. It was in a glass display case (I’m not sure anyone gets to touch it). But seeing it in person is still much different than online—its compactness, its beauty.
Namesake’s modern-day sections take place in Halifax. Can you talk about your connection to that city?
I moved to the Halifax area with my parents when I was 14, and lived in Halifax for many years.
Lots of the places in Namesake are ones I know well. I used to work at the library on Spring Garden Road; I walked our dog across the Commons, and up Needham Hill. We lived in a Hydrostone house when my daughter was a baby.
What is writing like for you? Do you love the process—or the result?
I love them both, but find the process hard. I’ve heard that there are people for whom the words flow easily. I am not one of them.
On a good day a problem gets solved, a scene takes on a nice shape, or a character says something that moves things to a new dimension. These are wonderful moments. Or I just feel—more generally—the satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing my best to tell the particular story that only I can tell.
On a bad day, I figure anyone could write a novel if they were willing to work this insanely hard. (I suspect this may be true.)
I find the first draft the worst stage, because there’s so much chaos to deal with. It’s hard to sit there writing drivel and believe something will come of it. But first drafts do have their lovely moments too, with characters forming in broad strokes and plot lines starting to be traceable.
Do you have other novels in mind you’d like to get down on paper?
Yes, about five more. Right now I’m in the early stages of my next one—a teen love story set in present-day Toronto. There are political overtones. There are clashes of values within a family.