I had the pleasure of meeting Christopher Cevasco at the 2015 Historical Novel Society (HNS) conference in Denver. At that time, Christopher’s era of interest was Early Medieval, but I later learned that his literary interests are quite diverse and eclectic. During the following year’s conference in Oxford, Christopher’s story, “The Happy Island”, was short-listed for the 2016 HNS Short Story Contest. The story is set in the 1800s and deals with Shanawdithit, the last surviving member of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland.
“The Happy Island” was selected to appear in an anthology titled Distant Echoes, published by Corazon books, which will be released on September 25, 2017.
I’m particularly interested in this story given than I’m from Canada, and exploring Newfoundland (also known as The Rock) has been on my bucket list for ages. It’s the only Atlantic province I haven’t been to. I look forward to experiencing this rocky, wild island through Christopher’s story.
In the meantime, Christopher has stopped by to chat about his inspiration and research for “The Happy Island”. Welcome Christopher…
You write fiction inspired by history, but your many credits include a touch of horror or fantastical. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Christopher: Yes, more often than not, I’m drawn to history when I write, so most of my stories are set in the past. Most of the time I also find my stories taking a decidedly dark or weird turn, such that when the story is finished it feels more like dark fantasy or horror than anything else. I think this is probably because I’m less drawn to the stories of people’s interaction with other people than I am to people’s interaction with some intangible force such as mortality or inner demons or spirituality (or the lack thereof). I’m interested in exploring characters who are struggling to find their own place in the world or who are undergoing a crisis of faith or conscience or who seek to reconcile themselves to seemingly overwhelming obstacles or crushing defeat or great loss. All or most of these subjects tend to get a bit dark. Which is not to say my stories don’t also feature hope or beauty or joy, but the end result is more likely to find a home in a venue publishing dark fiction.
Your story in the anthology is about the woman Shanawdithit, the last surviving member of the Beothuk people from Newfoundland. What inspired you to write this story?
Christopher: I was inspired by the true personal story of Shanawdithit. Although it ultimately contributed to their collective demise, her people remained fiercely true to their cultural ideals, passively and sometimes actively resisting assimilation in a way that helped preserve their historical legacy. Because of Shanawdithit’s own personal strengths and contributions, particularly the drawings of scenes and artifacts and geography she made in her final years, we know more about the Beothuk today than we do about many other indigenous North American cultures that went extinct after contact with Europeans or with other encroaching indigenous peoples.
Tell us about some of the research that went into writing Shanawdithit’s story.
Christopher: My most important resource was the body of preserved sketches mentioned above–drawings made by Shanawdithit’s own hand–which provide an important insight into the way her mind worked, those things that were important to her, etc. I was already familiar with some indigenous Arctic cultures, particularly with the extinct Tuniit/Dorset people who thrived in Greenland and elsewhere before being displaced by the Inuit and to a lesser extent with the Sámi culture as it existed in northern Norway during the 11th century; I’ve written stories and novels featuring both. But this was the first time I’d written anything about the Beothuk, so I also needed to educate myself on what was known of their culture through various archaeological studies. To add realistic color to my scenes of Beothuk life, I also made a careful study of the flora and fauna of Newfoundland as it would have existed in the early 19th century. Then, for my story’s bizarre but true coda, I found I had to educate myself on the particular types of bombs being dropped on specific locations at specific times during the London Blitz!
Historical fiction often reflects the commonalities between the modern world and the past. Is this true for your story, and if so, what are the themes that reflect the present?
Christopher: The struggle to preserve cultural identity is one of the important themes in my story and is something that continues to take many forms today. We see it in questions about cultural appropriation of traditions, fashion, and symbols, in the wholesale destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, in the resistance against ongoing construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the U.S., and in the efforts to preserve vanishing regional languages and dialects such as Irish Gaelic and Genoese, to name just a handful.
How does your setting influence your character?
Christopher: The Beothuk changed to adapt to the loss of their coastal environment when the European settlers on Newfoundland pushed them inland. The food they ate changed, their ceremonies and traditions and forms of construction had to change; all of these changes brought with them an unavoidable change in perspective and mindset. On a more personal level, Shanawdithit lived the first part of her life in a more natural setting among her own people and the final years of her life in a more Euro-centric domestic setting. Forced to navigate her way between these worlds both constrained the choices available to her and allowed her opportunities to creatively adapt. She never gave up on her own culture entirely and seemed to find subtle ways of asserting her selfhood even when utterly isolated from her origins; I wanted to illuminate this inner strength and resourcefulness in my story.
About DISTANT ECHOES
Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.
A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.
Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.
This selection of winning and shortlisted stories from recent Historical Novel Society writing awards includes “The House of Wild Beasts” by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014), “Salt” by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award) and “Fire on the Water” by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award).
If you enjoyed this interview and wish to hear about another contributor to Distant Echoes and their inspiration, check out my author spotlight:
Christopher M. Cevasco writes fiction inspired by history. He is a 2006 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a 2007 graduate of Taos Toolbox. Chris was also the founding editor of the award-winning PARADOX: THE MAGAZINE OF HISTORICAL AND SPECULATIVE FICTION from 2003 to 2009. His own short fiction has appeared in such venues as NIGHTMARE MAGAZINE, BLACK STATIC, and the Prime Books anthologies SHADES OF BLUE AND GRAY: GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL WAR and ZOMBIES: SHAMBLING THROUGH THE AGES. He is seeking representation for a recently completed novel of murder and political mayhem in Viking-ravaged England as well as for both a psychological thriller about Lady Godiva and a novel of English resistance and rebellion in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. After eleven years living in Brooklyn, NY, Chris and his wife now live in Myrtle Beach, SC, with their two children. For more about Chris, please visit www.christophermcevasco.com.