November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Melanie Fishbane On “Maud,” A YA Novel About L.M. Montgomery’s Teen Years

Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

L.M. Montgomery’s books continue to fascinate readers all over the globe, as evidenced by the multiple adaptations of her famous “Anne of Green Gables” series. For the first time ever, the author’s teen years have inspired a young adult novel by Montgomery scholar Melanie Fishbane. SLJ chats with her about her research process, the new Netflix Anne adaptation, and fandom.

What inspired you to write Maud?

I’ve been reading and studying the life and work of L.M. Montgomery most of my life and had done an M.A. in history focusing specifically on historical biographies for children and teens (in that case, it was books on Joan of Arc), so when I was approached with the idea of writing a young adult novel based on Montgomery’s teen years, it was the perfect [synergy] of everything I loved. This was also a story that had never been told, and it felt important to show a side of Montgomery that many people hadn’t seen and bring her writing and work to a new generation.

Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?

I read practically everything I could on Montgomery and her times, including her journals and autobiography, The Alpine Path. A book that was particularly helpful was Francis Bolger’s The Years Before Anne.

And then I played in the various archives, traveling to the places Montgomery had lived, specifically all over Prince Edward Island, Prince Albert, and Saskatchewan, as well as Leaskdale and Norval, Ontario. On the Island, I visited the homestead where she lived with her grandparents, and interviewed Montgomery’s family, who were gracious with their stories, and I toured Park Corner (where her Campbell cousins lived) and Ingleside (her grandfather’s home).

I also spent time in the archives. The L.M. Montgomery Institute has the original letters Montgomery had written to her best friend growing up, Pensie MacNeill. In Prince Albert, I spoke with the archivists at the Prince Albert Historical Society, who allowed me to look through everything they had. A colleague also helped me by tracking down, through some old homestead records at the University Archives Special Collection, University of Saskatchewan, where Montgomery’s friends, Laura and Will, lived. Then we drove around with a local historian who pointed out the old parts of the town, such as where the high school once stood, and visited the cemetery where Montgomery’s father and stepfather and a few of her friends are buried. I also dove into the L.M. Montgomery Collection Archives and Special Collection at the University of Guelph, where I read Montgomery’s journal and perused her photographs and personal library.

There must have been so many things that you had to leave out because of the wealth of information. How did you choose what to include and what to cut?

That was probably one of the most challenging parts of writing this book, because there was so much, and with Montgomery, there’s always more to discover. When I first started writing, I realized that I had to stick to the writings about this period of her life; that helped a little bit and kept the research focused. I also tried to figure out the family tree to determine who might become a more pivotal character during this time in her life, and inevitably, because it is so large, many didn’t make it into the book. In the end, it became about what was best for the story I was telling, and that meant that certain things that I would have liked to include didn’t stay or never made it in.

maud book coverMany of the themes that ran through L.M. Montgomery’s books—passion for writing, women’s place in the world, wanting to belong—are evident in your novel based on her life. Why do you think these themes are relevant to today’s teens?

This is so relevant because young women are getting confusing messages about what is expected of them and what would be practical vs. going after a creative passion, like writing. The sad thing is that women are still fighting for their place in the world. In the West there is some improvements, women have more choice than before, but many women with families are expected to juggle career and motherhood. In January, I attended the Woman’s March in Toronto, and it was incredible to be part of a peaceful protest demonstrating how much we need to be taken seriously. Montgomery’s books show the intricate network of women and community, how women had to function in a system that didn’t value them. To those young women who demonstrated, and those who feel that they aren’t being heard, these themes would certainly resonate today.

And teens also need to feel like they belong somewhere. The reason I like writing for this age group is because I remember how unsure I was about everything, how I questioned and never quite felt like I fit in my community, high school, anywhere. I don’t think it has changed that much.

Are you excited for the upcoming Netflix adaptation of Anne?

Well, I have actually seen most of the new series on CBC in Canada (last episode airs next week—cannot wait! But then I’ll be sad it’s over). I got to attend the world premiere at TIFF; it was very exciting. Maybe because I’ve written Maud, I find myself much more sympathetic to adaptations—although I’ve always been fascinated by why someone might choose to make certain decisions, take characters in a certain direction.

Like many “Anne” fans, I grew up with the Kevin Sullivan version, but that was 30 years ago, and it is time for Montgomery’s works to get some attention and maybe a reinvention. (I would love to see her other books get made into movies.) The writers of the Anne series have done their homework (there are times where I’m sure certain elements have been inspired by Montgomery’s journals). They explore the subtext of many of Montgomery’s novels, providing a lot of room for character growth and discussion. And it has been a long time since I’ve watched something about Anne Shirley and wondered what was going to happen next! There’s something simply delightful in this.

What’s also amazing is that audiences can choose what adaptation they might like. Since 1919 there have been adaptations of the novel. Now we have two because there was the movie that aired on PBS during Thanksgiving, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, which gives another interpretation of the text, perhaps a more kid/family friendly direction.

What do you think L.M. Montgomery would have thought about her current fandom?

I’m always wary of putting thoughts into Montgomery’s head, because we can never truly know. But if I look at how much she loved the latest technology, how she was an avid photographer, and how she kept a journal with explicit instructions to be published after her death, perhaps she would be delighted that her books had lived on, that Anne of Green Gables has never been out of print, and that there are conferences where people talk about her. She would have loved the vintage quotes online (maybe put one in her scrapbook as a memento) and, I suspect, the Pinterest homages to her world—she would make some of these herself. She might also have enjoyed talking with her fans on Twitter, as she always enjoyed writing to them. I think she would be slightly perplexed by YouTube videos of Megan Follows (as Anne) and Jonathan Crombie’s (as Gilbert Blythe) love story because that was always secondary to what she was writing about, and amused by the fan fiction because it was reminiscent to how she would interact with the books she loved. But, as I said, we can never truly know.

What advice would you give other aspiring authors?

Write every day. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself and the process. If it is something you truly want to do, then read a lot and stay true to your story. Also, find other writers who like to write the same things you do so you can talk about what you’re writing about and share stories. But the main thing is to write.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a couple of projects: two essays (one on Montgomery and one on Almanzo Wilder) and a YA novel about a young woman who reluctantly is forced into the political spotlight.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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