I recently reviewed M.L. Holton’s novel Trillium, a multi-generational saga set in Ontario’s fruit-growing Niagara Peninsula. I live less than an hour north of this area, and local history has always been an interest of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed the book (my full review is here), so I asked the author to talk a little bit more about the work.
Tell us about what inspired Trillium.
I had been thinking for awhile about how I wanted to focus on a rural environment rather than an urban one as per my last two novels, Economic Sex and The Gilded Beaver by Anonymous.
Small farming communities are tightly-bound social networks of multi-generational cross-breeding. They are, in the main, supportive and stable. In North America, they are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as the young move to the cities for better employment opportunities and generational farmers, with miniscule profit-margins, sell-out to larger agri-business concerns. The migration is undercutting the bedrock of our uniquely Canadian society.
I also wanted to explore and expand on the on-going controversy between ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’. How do we become who we are?
Trillium spans a period of 250 years, from early settlement on the Niagara Peninsula to the early 2000. This timeframe gave me a much larger canvas to work.
❖ How has your life influenced your writing, specifically in this book?
There’s no question that I have pulled on my life experiences to craft this work.
I grew up on the fringe of a farming community in Halton County. We raised sheep and fowl on a small scale. As a child, I watched and learned from my enterprising father, (born and raised in the area), as he constantly interacted with the landscape and livestock on our property. Nature was omnipresent – dictating birth, life and death. Working outside with my brothers and my father was always fun and pleasurable. Wind in our hair, dirt up our fingernails. This quasi-bucolic country lifestyle was very far removed from the social lifestyle that my mother managed to create for our family. She was involved with various local charities, sport associations and social clubs ‘in the city’. That activity widened our community circle and life experiences. My father’s family business was involved with the early development of a yarn company in Hamilton during the 19th century. But, by the mid 1980s, this century-old family firm experienced an acute downturn as a result of cheaper South American and Asian imports. We all had to adjust.
As example, I was removed from a distanced private school of 600 students and started attending a nearby public high school of 3000 students. Rather than getting picked up by a bus, I walked to school. To a wide-eyed teen, the differences between the two learning institutions were acute. Coordinated school uniforms were replaced by the media-driven trends of ‘fashion’. Individual ‘popularity’ was valued more than team work or basic ‘competence’.
These kinds of juxtapositions caught my eye and ear and became a kind of foundation about my evolving observations about the ‘otherness’ of people. I seemed a perpetual ‘outsider’, and did not fully integrate into any group ‘clique’ after the transition.
I believe this ‘outsider’ status has served me well, long term. It gives me not only an individualistic perception of ‘what’s going on’ but it provides a critical emotional distance to ‘assess’. I have always thought of myself as a ‘witness’ more than a participant. It is a good vantage point and strong starting point for any writer: distanced observation.
❖The cover is your own art work! Tell us about it.
I wanted a cover image that amplified the central idea of natural growth in the story. In this instance, the focus was on a regional grape vine. Initially, I started with a stark photo image but it was too hard. I then tried a stylized graphic but it was too ephemeral. I finally settled on a close-up detail from an oil painting I had done some years ago ~ of a man’s hand holding a grape cluster. To my mind, the image is perfect. It is a human hand connected to the growing land.
❖What do you hope readers will take from Trillium?
My intent was to write an entertaining as well as enlightening book about the evolving rural area around the southern end of Lake Ontario, in Canada.
In order to do that, I crafted the bedlam and chaos of a ‘good story’, filled with emotional arcs and empathy etc,, but interwove the story around fascinating pieces of local history from the Greater Hamilton and Niagara area. The medley of colourful characters is also influenced by larger global events, like the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. I wanted to make this fictional story ‘believable’ to the contemporary reader. As far as I know, no-one in the vicinity has attempted a similarly ambitious ‘grassroots’ construct.
I think my voice is rather unique in the telling. But, ultimately, readers must determine if that is true or not.
❖What is odd or quirky or engaging about your story or characters?
There’s plenty of quirk in this work, primarily because each character has an early failing or foible that manifests later. These insights drive the story forward so that there are ‘aha’ moments when a later incident clicks into place. It’s basic ‘cause & effect’ that amplifies the intimate causality of human interactions.
Character names were chosen to reflect the ethnic origins of their families and to help readers keep the large cast of characters clear in their minds. As example, Gregorio is clearly not part of the O’Sullivan clan …
One outstanding quirk was the development of the simpleton savant Anna. Illiterate and sheltered from the world by her protective Italian family, Anna, untethered from normal social conventions, has an uncanny knack with plants. She can grow anything. Her simplistic yet attuned capability irreversibly alters the course of her family’s evolution. To say more may ruin the story for some, so I’ll stop there except to say, readers do seem to resonate with her. She’s a peach, so to speak.
❖To whom would you recommend this book to? Are there any trigger warnings or age restrictions?
I would recommend this story to anyone who loves rambling family sagas, epic storytelling, and historical fiction that rides the vicissitudes of human logic and emotions. There’s a lot going on in this story: good, bad, ugly and even, at times, indifference as the narrative voice pulls back to ‘observe’.
As each generation matures into adulthood, Trillium could be seen as an adult ‘coming-of-age’ tale. As for warnings, there are three sex scenes that are rather graphic. Their violence is an integral part of the story, so that’s that.
❖Would Trillium translate well to the screen? If so, who should make it or star in it?
Ideally, I think this would make an engaging Canadian series ~ a timely cross between the British drama, ‘Peaky Blinders’ and the well-scripted American family drama, ‘Bloodline’, set in Florida.
Trillium would, of course, have to be 100% Canadian. Why? Because Canada is still very young on the world stage. We are in desperate need of these in-depth local stories to explain the unique evolution of our own particular civil society. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be swamped by better told English-speaking stories from elsewhere.
My dream team would be a co-production between Anglo-Canadian, Irish and Italian producers (to achieve maximum market share), with a well-rounded cast from each ethnic origin. The director, showrunners and crew would be Canadian. It could all be shot on location around the southern end of Lake Ontario – from hovels to mansions.
I have done a preliminary casting, just for fun. In the end though, that’s a pipedream for a writer. If the title was optioned by an established production company, all those casting and location decisions would be their responsibility. Yes, I am the originator of this story, but a team of seasoned scriptwriters would have to flush it out to make it truly noteworthy as well as globally marketable. The story is all there, for the right team.
❖What genre is Trillium? Is this your preferred genre to write in? What do you read?
I call this a hybrid historical fiction. As I explained above, I wrote a ‘good story’ around many current and timely issues.
In the past, I have written poetry, social history, journalism, and two other long-form fictional works. I love the nuances of languages and the endless possibilities that they offer to an open imagination.
My reading, as a human on the planet, has always been ferocious.
❖Tell us about your writing process.
For this title, I followed a strict regimen. From February to October of 2018, I did nothing but write, edit, re-craft and finalize the work. Literally, 10am to 6pm, 5 days a week. I took weekends off to recharge and took hourly lunches during the writing week to refresh myself.
It may interest your readers to know that I wrote a detailed outline for Trillium almost a decade ago. That outline smouldered in my writing box until I found the key to access the story. The key was ‘technology’.
Technology has transformed our lives over a very short period of time. I wanted to ‘document’ that evolution and could do that quite clearly within a historical context.
I stopped this story before the internet became ubiquitous.
LINKS – CA Amazon – https://amzn.to/2q0iEeL