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 B.A. Thomas-Peters the author of “The Kissing Fence”— a work of historical fiction. You can read more about the book or purchase a copy online.
The Kissing Fence includes two narratives, one in present day and one in the past, during the 1950s and 60s. Starting at the beginning—where did you get the idea for your book?
The idea, which became the opening scene of the novel, came from an incident that happened while riding my bicycle in Stanley Park, Vancouver. An owl tried to steal my hat and headlight off my head. Instinctively I reached up and caught hold of my hat and the owl’s leg. It was dark and I suddenly found myself travelling downhill at some speed, unable to see. Moments later I was thrown from the bike and lay, unhurt, in the bushes. It made me think, “Why didn’t I just let go of the hat?” It was worth only a few dollars, but I was prepared to put myself in jeopardy to keep it. Later I began thinking about why people hold on to objects, money, beliefs, relationships, when it puts them at risk of moral, legal or physical harm.
As a result of this line of thinking I wanted to explore a modern issue about greed / materialism, and the destruction of community and values that can occur with it, especially in this era of unbridled capitalism, misinformation and political corruption.
The modern day plot was being formed when I realized it needed a contrasting back-story, from which my protagonist emerges and against which his motives can be seen for their corrosive impact on him and those around him. The mid-twentieth century storyline involving the Doukhobors was perfect for this, although as I researched, I realized their story was too powerful and relevant to today’s society to remain a mere back-story.
While the modern narrative is about the accepted western values of our time such as individualism, opportunity, materialism and self-reliance, the Doukhobor heritage is about community, obligation to others, dedication to values, steadfastness and selflessness. The gap between them is plain. In The Kissing Fence, I use the Doukhobors (specifically, the Sons of Freedom) to both put in stark relief the values of today, and also lay out the challenge they experienced being true to their values, and holding on to their history.
The historical storyline involving the Doukhobors is very much a living history; it took place a relatively short time ago but still impacts the survivors, their family, and community. What kind of research did you do for the Doukhobor storyline?
The field research included visiting Doukhobor sites in the province—in and around Grand Forks, Castlegar, Brilliant, Perry Siding, Krestova, New Denver. I conducted and recorded interviews with Doukhobor leadership and representatives of both Orthodox Doukhobors and Freedomites, one of whom met me at the New Denver Dormitory, and showed me around the site and told me stories of how it operated when he was there.
I also interviewed others who, as children, were incarcerated in New Denver, and also several who managed to evade capture for all or part of the period. While in New Denver I discovered statements made by a number of the mothers of those children taken in the raid on Krestova in 1955 that became known as Operation Snatch, which is a scene in the novel. The actions of the RCMP, the reaction of families and the children is described in horrifying detail.
In visiting the homes of some of those who were the children of New Denver, I was informed of the culture of the times, the confusing misinformation and political struggles within the community, the pain of constant misrepresentation of their community and beliefs, and the injustice they feel even now. They also spoke of the divisions that occurred between groups, friends and families, and how these divisions endured.
I undertook hundreds of hours of research in libraries, and acquiring books to understand the faith, history and motivation of these people. This included reviewing the Doukhobor archives in the Special Collections library at UBC. The internet provided a number of TV documentary films, hundreds of news clippings, genealogical websites, privately supported historical webpages that also included poetry, pictures, and cultural events.
I also researched the history of Doukhobors in Russia, the circumstances of their arrival in Canada, and what happened after their arrival. This brought me into contact with the work and political efforts of Leo Tolstoy, who supported the Doukhobors in Russia and helped negotiate and pay for the passage of 7500 Doukhobors to Canada in 1899. His literature, especially his last novel Resurrection is intimately connected with the character and religious beliefs of the Doukhobors, and this led me to read several Tolstoy biographies.
In 2004, the BC provincial government issued a “statement of regret” to the New Denver survivors. Then in 2018, there was discussion about issuing a formal apology, but it did not come to fruition. In speaking with survivors of the New Denver Dormitory, what was it like (for you) to hear about the injustices that have not been formally recognized?
There is agony of several kinds about this and it was transmitted with great subtlety to me when talking about it. My sense is that Doukhobor people cannot now allow themselves to get hopeful of an apology after so many disappointments. Tragically, there was nearly an apology of sorts a few years before 2018, which came to nothing. It failed because the divided community of Doukhobors could not agree on compensation or form of commemoration. This is an irony (and an agony) because it revealed the old divisions and allowed the BC government to slip away unnoticed. Each time it fails, it gets less likely. I think it is a distant hope now.
What was one of the most difficult parts of writing The Kissing Fence, and why?
Two aspects of The Kissing Fence were especially taxing. The most difficult was trying to be true to the stories entrusted to me by those who endured the experience. I was constantly in fear of misrepresenting those wonderful and generous people in some way.
The second aspect that was challenging was writing a story that would keep readers turning the pages, when my protagonist was so unlikeable! As it turned out, the story is enough to hold the reader and I need not have worried, but my concern about it explains why the book has the feel of a mystery or thriller and has variation in pace. There was no other way I could see of keeping the reader engaged.
Without giving the plot away, is there anything that you think will surprise readers in The Kissing Fence, and what do you hope they take away from the novel?
I think some will be surprised that there is more to Doukhobors than nudity and setting fires. They may also realize there are good reasons for Doukhobors to have profound suspicion of government of all kinds.
But this book is not simply about the Doukhobors. It is a story of how we become what we are, from generations ago; how our sense of self and place in the world can be corrupted with the destruction of lineage and continuity. We see this plainly enough among displaced peoples and Aboriginal cultures around the world, but it is true of all of us. If we look carefully we can find that thread, drawn through years, decades, and generations before us, which influences the choices we make everyday.
Western society nurtures the entitlement of acting in our own interests, and accepts the manipulation of truth as a fact of life. It has become child’s play to resist the influence of expectation that might be imposed on us by what is right and wrong. Without the burden of moral expectations or the consideration of others, financial and material success is possible, and perhaps even more likely, but what do we become? Along with this ‘success’ comes the risk of profound human failure, loss and confusion of an existential kind.
The question of this book is, what does it take to see this kind of failure coming and avert the disaster of existential crisis? What stops us from letting go of what we think is important, in favour of what is important? I want readers to take those questions away with them.
B.A. Thomas-Peter is Canadian but lived in the UK as a teenager and eventually trained there as a Clinical Psychologist. His work focused on providing help to children, adults with mental health difficulties and the families of the elderly in need of care, before moving into the field of forensic psychiatry. He spent eleven years as Honorary Professor of Psychology at Birmingham University before moving to Oxford as Director of the Regional Forensic Psychiatry service. In 2010 he returned to Canada as Provincial Executive Director of Forensic Psychiatry for BC.
Thomas-Peter has published in many anthologies and peer-reviewed journals. He has been a regular contributor to international academic conferences and has contributed to the development of the Forensic Psychology profession in Australia and the UK. He currently lives on an island on the west coast of Canada, runs a small consultancy and spends most of his time writing.