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The Chat with Christine Higdon

Christine Higdon for 49th

Toronto-based author Christine Higdon has a special place in her heart for the ocean. Perhaps that’s why she’s set her second novel—the exquisite Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue (ECW Press)—firmly on the West Coast, in the heyday of 1920s Vancouver. The book follows the trials and tribulations of the strong-hearted and strong-willed McKenzie sisters.

The Literary Review of Canada calls the novel "A tender and memorable look at love, loss, and sisterhood...Although fictional characters, the McKenzies represent the untold stories of countless real-life women desperate to shed strict gender-based expectations."

Christine Higdon is the author of the award-winning novel The Very Marrow of Our Bones. She has won a National Magazine Award, been published in numerous journals, and nominated for CBC literary prizes. She lives part-time in Nova Scotia but mostly in Mimico, Ontario.


Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue is your second novel. What was your experience writing this one compared with your much lauded debut The Very Marrow of Our Bones? Any sophomore jitters?


I had planned to approach my second book very differently from the first. The Very Marrow of Our Bones grew out of a series of loosely connected short stories I’d written over a number of years. With Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue, I thought I’d carefully plot the book out and stick meticulously to my outline. As I wrote, however, planned secondary characters became protagonists, and planned protagonists faded into the background, and I quickly learned that my approach to writing is rather organic. As they had with my debut novel, my ideas were coming to me through writing, while writing. In the end, I kept my eye on the plot I’d imagined, but let the characters lead the way.

And jitters. Yes! I’m curious to know if any author feels completely confident as their second (or third, or sixth…) creation is dressed in its handsome cover and launched into what can be a very exacting world.

It didn’t help that before Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue had even been officially released, someone on Goodreads gave my brand-new baby a one-star rating. Ack! I was heartbroken. Would this be the trend, I worried. Then I saw that "Linda" had rated 16,636 books. Hmmm ... My trusty calculator soon revealed that even if Linda had read one book a week—52 books a year—it would have taken 320 years to read that many. Ha! No one’s that old.
Happily, “Linda” was an anomaly. From all reports, people are loving Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue as much as they loved The Very Marrow of Our Bones.

This novel is set in 1920s Vancouver and explores the lives of four working-class sisters. How did you approach writing a novel set in this time, and what do you love most about writing historical fiction?

It started with a curiosity for social history and ended with a ton of super-interesting research. There were a few things I didn’t have to google … such as what it is like to fall in love, to have siblings, to doubt oneself, to love a dog, to make mistakes, to be working class, to lose a father when young. The rest required some intense historical research, and that, I loved.

I spent time in the City of Vancouver Archives, the BC Archives in Victoria, and the Vancouver Police Museum and Archives. I spoke with researchers and historians and archivists and museum staff. I read a woman’s wonderful thesis. I pored over hardware store catalogues from the 1920s, 100-year-old transcripts of abortion-related inquests, a beat cop’s notebooks, the daily calendar of a wealthy businessman, and old photographs of a shoe factory (where I gave the characters in my book jobs).
And I thank the heavens for the internet. I have a 100-page document built entirely of URLs, my proof to myself that everything I put down on the page, from the characters’ vocabulary, to street names, to customs and laws of the day, was historically correct. Or as close to correct as possible. I fell down thousands of rabbit holes on this journey too. They were delightful even if endlessly distracting.

Without giving too much away, the novel features a very powerful and believable queer love story. Why is it important to write queer characters and stories into history?

The short answer, of course, is that queer people have always existed, but until relatively recently, queer lives have not been celebrated. Few historical artifacts of everyday LGBTQ life are readily available from the 1920s. And, for example, in something as simple and yet as wonderfully revealing as a love letter, lovers may have couched their words to protect themselves. And relatives may later have destroyed that evidence of a queer life. I am grateful to have a photograph of a friend’s great aunt from the 1920s who lived with her female partner all her adult life. In that photo, perfectly androgynous in a men’s cap and with a cigarette hanging off her lips, she gazes at us with both confidence and a burning sexual energy.

We can make a political point in writing about these hidden lives in an effort to counteract historical and present-day homophobia. And maybe we can just shine a light on the historical reality of queer folks and tell a damn interesting human story.

Few historical artifacts of everyday LGBTQ life are readily available from the 1920s.

It’s also a novel that explores abortion and the fight for reproductive choice at a time when Canadian women had barely just won their fight for the vote. Can you speak more about what it was like to write about abortion and choice in this period? What did you learn?

Women in the roaring twenties might not have roared quite as loudly in Vancouver as they did in New York or Chicago, but that period was a time of great change for many women. In 1922, white women across Canada were being given the right to vote federally and provincially. Unmarried, middle-class women were entering the workforce in larger numbers than before as secretaries, and “salesgirls,” and teachers, joining their working-class sisters who’d always had jobs. Birth control activists were becoming vocal in the United States and Canada.

There is a wealth of feminist literature that discusses the impact of the historical criminalization of abortion and birth control. Abortion was made illegal in Canada in 1869, and in 1892, the Criminal Code made it illegal to sell or advertise methods of contraception. So in 1922, when my character Isla falls pregnant, she would have had very few choices, both in terms of what she might have used for reliable contraception, and how to end a desperately unwanted pregnancy that would have had an unfathomable impact on that unmarried woman’s life.

A lot of my research was enraging and distressing. I read transcripts of inquests into deaths of women following illegal abortions. I read about the use of "dying declarations"—interviewing women as they lay near death, insisting that, before they "meet their maker," they reveal the name and whereabouts of the person who’d helped them. I read about how poorly women were often treated by backstreet abortionists who took their money while shaming them for their “moral failings.” And, at the same time, I read about the people who strove to help women who found themselves "in trouble."

The title of my book came to me while I was researching the history of abortifacients. Gin, turpentine, and the herbs pennyroyal and rue are all things women have used in the hopes of bringing on a miscarriage. The list of what women have consumed or done to themselves to end an unwanted pregnancy is long. While much has changed in 100 years, all around the world the battle for reproductive rights rages on.

Some readers might be surprised to hear from Rue…a beloved and adorable canine companion and one of the narrators of the book. What was it like to write from the point of view of a dog?

For fifteen years I had a beloved and adorable canine companion, Rosie the pug. Rosie, I’m sure, was as clever, witty, opportunistic, and opinionated as Rue, the old beagle in Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue. Rue allowed me to offer the reader moments of silliness and levity as the two-legged characters tried to sort out their lives and longings. Writing Rue’s chapters brought a smile to my face. She was part of the warmth in this, ultimately, hopeful story. In the audiobook, reader Emma Love gave Rue the most wonderful accent. It’s well worth the listen.


Excerpt from Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue
Three years later—May 1925
Here are two women. One of them has loosened the dirt beside the grave with the tines of a kitchen fork. Onto the dark-brown earth she tips a handful of seeds. Earlier, at home, two nails were hammered into a cedar stake, one at the top, one near the bottom, and between them, tied a length of garden twine. Now, using a rock, she pounds the stake into the ground, two inches from the headstone. There’s an image in her mind: those sweet-pea flowers, a month from now, twining up, their green tendrils reaching out for the little granite angel, smothering it with fragrant pinks and purples.

   She traces the engraved names—a woman’s, a man’s.

   ‘Such lovers there never were,’ she says.

   On the grass, the other woman, shoes off, stretched out on her back as though ready for the dark earth herself, laughs and slides her hands over the round hillock under her maternity smock. She does not open her eyes. ‘What a silly romantic you are.’

   Hip against the headstone, the sweet-pea woman frowns, whether against the sun or the other woman’s words cannot be known. She is flooded with an ache so familiar, so formless, it is like dust: these two loved ones dead, their child taken away. The King’s courts concurring with the child’s grandparents, those high-and-mighties: they are the only ones with the “financial and moral wherewithal” to raise an orphaned two-year-old. Wherewithal. Oh, sorrow: the little boy’s face the day they took him, his mouth an open maw, no sound coming out of it, tears rising but not falling, his eyes wet blue.

   She wipes the dirt off the tarnished fork and puts it in her jeans’ back pocket. ‘It’s easier that way,’ she says and, searching the graveyard with an unhurried gaze, kneels to glide her own hands under the smock and onto that taut belly. There’s a kick, and she lifts her hands briefly, as she always does, then places them back on the warm skin. ‘Hello, beauty.’

   The squint of an eye opened, a smile. ‘Are you talking to me or the baby?’

   She lies beside her. Not close. Not too far. Fingers touching, then locking. The sky is cloudless, birds are singing, the breeze is gentle. The old dog is just over there, snuffling a dead person’s roses. For reasons that are the animal’s alone, it barks, just once, the sound a herald of this beautiful day. Somewhere nearby, a cow is lowing, deep and dissatisfied.

   ‘You or the baby . . .’ she says, closing her eyes. She inhales spring. Does it matter? She touches the thin gold circle on the other woman’s ring finger. ‘I would have married you.’

   ‘A woman marry a woman?’ The pregnant one rolls heavily to her non-heart side and smiles. ‘When pigs fly.’

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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