Our new blog series “Author Q&A” pulls back the curtain on the historical writing process, introducing local authors and hearing how their stories featuring aspects of British Columbia’s history were inspired.
This week, Monica Miller of Caitlin Press sits down with Susan Smith-Josephy the author of “Cataline”. You can read more about the book or purchase a copy online.
Where did you get the idea for a book about Jean “Cataline” Caux?
I had read about Cataline in some of the older local magazines and loved the descriptions of his personality quirks, so I thought it would be something I could read up on some more for my own interest. At the time, I couldn’t find any book written specifically on him, though he was mentioned in numerous collections of stories. So I started collecting those, and checking with archives and museums, and my pile of paper and my computer file on him got bigger and bigger.
I loved the Imbert Orchard oral histories (recorded in the 1950s and 1960s for CBC radio) which included tales of Cataline, and especially the Henry Castillou interview, so I got the transcriptions of those. Then, Trelle Morrow did a short book on Cataline using his own collection of some archival documents which I found so interesting. So, finally, as with all my projects, I thought “oh maybe I should put all of this information in a book.”
Each chapter is robust, setting the stage for the time period and detailing events that shaped the province, including gold rushes, telegraph lines, and railways. How long have you been working on the book?
My book ‘Lillian Alling: the journey home’ came out in October of 2011, so I’m thinking I started researching in earnest on the Cataline book the next year. I guess eight years on and off. I’m what I call an ‘over-researcher.’ I gather so much information, go off on tangents, have other projects on the go, take time to read and reflect, go on trips, procrastinate, worry about how much information I gather and what I’m going to do with it.
I was so fortunate to have met Irene Bjerky, C’eyxkn, who was so generous with information about her research on Jean Caux and her genealogoical connection to him through her great-great-grandmother Amelia York. (Amelia York, C’eyxkn, was a well-known basketmaker and mother to two of Cataline’s children. Irene is a member of the Yale First Nation, a boilermaker, and a former commercial fisher.)
By the time all the elements of the book came together, it took a long time. It was a cumulation of the right information, the right way to get the story across, learning about Irene Bjerky’s connection to Cataline and coming across her historical and family work, culling down a huge manuscript with the help and strict guidance of a very good editor, and having a publisher who was willing to steer me through all of that. I can’t give enough thanks to Irene, my editor Betty Keller, and to publisher Vici Johnstone and all of the professional and creative people who work at Caitlin Press.
There are surprisingly few records about Jean Caux. What kind of research did you do when seeking the story of Jean “Cataline” Caux?
So many records are created when a person writes something down. Some professions and lives lend themselves to research found in archives, museums, and libraries. Others are more about stories, oral history, archaeology, and other means of transmitting historical information. As Cataline did not write in English—though he could sign his name—we have to rely on others to tell his story.
So although my first instinct was to go to the genealogical websites, traditional archives and libraries, I realized that I would have to try and imagine who Cataline was through the words of others. That’s why I read journals of packers and others during the time period to try and get a picture of not only how others viewed him, but how he viewed himself. It was so interesting to read and hear people’s words about him, and to create a story that way.
Besides Cataline’s own words telling his story, were there any other (possibly elusive) information, photographs, or details that you were seeking when conducting your research?
For me, although I love the historical research and context, it’s all about the people. There are a few things I wish I knew more about, and perhaps a reader somewhere could help out. I wish I knew more about his brother, Pierre. We know they travelled to North America together and worked as packers together until the early 1870s, but after that so far I have found no trace of him. It’s possible he died, or moved somewhere else, or went back to France. I think Caux’s family history in France would be fascinating. Although this book focuses on Cataline’s time in British Columbia, there is some interest in France about Jean “Cataline” Caux so perhaps those connections will be able to discover his parents, or if he had any other siblings.
Is there anything in this book that you think will surprise readers?
I think that people may be surprised to find out that the anecdotes and folk tales about Jean Caux are true. My favourite story about Cataline is the “blowa da bugga” (blow the bugle) story from when he was contracted to work with the Yukon Field Force. It took a bit of digging and research but I found out why he was so frustrated and why he gave such a funny and sarcastic response to a ridiculous question. I think his quick wit and humour got him through lots of situations like that.
Susan Smith-Josephy is a writer, researcher and genealogist. She trained as a journalist at Langara College and has worked for a number of small town newspapers in BC. She has a degree in History from SFU, and is passionate about BC History. She lives in Quesnel, British Columbia. Lillian Alling: The Journey Home is her first book.