Why did you write this book?
My mother is an amazingly vivid storyteller, the kind who elaborates as they go along, picking up details like pebbles on the beach, fingering them until they reach a high sheen. Her version of my grandmother’s life and the story of the shipwreck that shaped her life is what made me decide to write Into the Blue. About 15 years ago, I taped her talking about my grandmother—her mother—and the wreck of the J.H. Jones. I kept the tape for nearly six years before I thought seriously about doing something with it. In this story of my mother’s, my grandmother’s life was self-evidently worthy of note. I had the sense that my grandmother was a sort of heroine, the tragic centre of a Southern Ontario gothic tale.
But as I began to do historical research, I learned that like many—even most—family narratives, these tales revealed more about the people who told them than about the truth of what actually occurred. Rather than being disappointed, this spurred me on. I wondered where the chain of self-mythologizing—of picking and choosing what to tell and what to leave out—began and why. This interest in the origins and processes of collective memory is something that I never tired of examining over the four years of researching and writing Into the Blue. It’s a question that interests me still.
Considering my curiosity about the ill-defined narrative space that family stories occupy, it may seem strange that I was absolutely adamant that this book had to be written as nonfiction. Many smart people told me I should make it a novel. But for reasons that remain something of a mystery to me, I felt compelled to do otherwise. I think it has something to do with the fact that the truth of the shipwreck and my grandmother’s life was simply too rich. I felt an undeniable need to tell the incredible story as best as I could by relying on the available facts. It seemed unnecessary—even untrue somehow—to fictionalize such amazing raw material.
That said, the facts were often few and far between. Fortunately, my grandmother left my aunt and mother much of her poetry, and even old university assignments from a writing class, which offered insight into her childhood and her first marriage. I filled in some of the blanks with tales told by family members, local history and newspapers, photographs and snippets of my mother’s memories.
The story of the wreck of the J.H. Jones and her own father’s death on it, which makes up the first half of the book, was equally difficult to piece together. Though there was much written about the favourite local steamer, about her passengers and crew, the truth is, we can never know exactly what happened on the cold November day in 1906 it sank. There were no survivors, no one to tell the tale, not even a wreck to examine for the cause of the foundering.
I read accounts from people who saw the boat pass by lighthouses and fishing boats, the theories of renowned local mariners whose speculation about what happened solidified into fact. I knew I could faithfully recreate the events leading up to the disaster, but not what it felt like to be on the doomed boat—something that seemed critical to establish the long-term impact of the tragedy. I decided that the best way to tell as true a story as possible was to rely on what I knew—a man’s blue serge suit, a dictionary in another’s pocket, the clock that once sat in the pilothouse and washed up on the shore of an island 100 kilometres from the boat’s route—and make up the rest.
It’s a dicey venture to assign motive and words to real people—even those who’ve been dead for almost a century. But the more detailed my historical research—on the area, on steamboats of the early 20th century, on the towns and villages of the Bruce Peninsula, etc.—the more certain I felt that the fictionalized pieces ring as true as the rest of the book. I hope other people think so as well.