January 23, 2013

Getting the inside story on Great Lakes novel

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is interesting how personal connections from the past will spark the interest of people, especially when it comes to the myriad of subcultures that thrive outside the mainstream of Canadian society.

Erin publisher Tim Inkster received a manuscript in 2005 for a semi-autobiographical novel called Sailor Girl, by Sheree-Lee Olson, about the adventures of a young woman working in the kitchen of a Great Lakes freighter.

He did not publish it until 2008, but he initially gave it a serious look because he knew about that culture – his father and grandfather had worked on the boats. He is proud of his grandfather, Captain Walter Inkster of Collingwood, who became a friend of Scott Misener while travelling across the Atlantic to deliver a boat to Montreal in 1903. Misener went on to operate a shipping fleet, and that same boat was later named after Inkster.

Shelley Austin, Sheree-Lee Olson and Tim Inkster
Shelley Austin, a member of a book club called the Joyous Erin Wine & Literary Society (JEWLS) was recently looking for ideas for a book event. Elke Inkster of Porcupine's Quill suggested Sailor Girl, and she took an immediate interest because her grandfather had been an engineer for Misener Steamships from 1925 to 1950.

She planned an evening that brought together about 30 women from four local book clubs last Friday at Tintagels Tea Room on Main Street, to meet Sheree-Lee Olson. The event was sponsored by Jim and Audrey Devonshire, owners of Tintagels and the Devonshire Guest House, and by Tim and Elke Inkster of Porcupine's Quill, who also run a small bookstore, located in comfortable surroundings at the back of the Renaissance store in downtown Erin.

When Shelley asked me about covering the event, I was interested not only because of the local aspects, but because my uncle had been a Great Lakes freighter captain. I grew up within earshot of the boats on the Welland Canal, and as a kid found it strange that my uncle Bernard had a job that only allowed him to be home with his wife and children during the winter.

Conditions could be harsh on that edge of society, as Olson discovered over seven summers, working her way through university. She went on to be the Style Editor at The Globe and Mail, and is currently a copy editor for Globe Life.

"I was so thrilled to finally get this book published, after spending twenty years writing it," she said. After many false starts in her 20s, she finally found an opportunity to work all week at her job, and every weekend for four years on the book.

Finishing it in her 40s made it "much more informed by my own experiences in the working world, and by feminist issues, and just trying to honour people whose lives are pretty much invisible...They are an outlier society."

While she had personal experience on the lakes, she found it was necessary to do a lot of research to recapture details about the lifestyle. Some characters were based on real people, others were composites, and others, like Calvin, were inventions. "I made him up because I wished I had Calvin, instead of the other jerks," she said.

She promotes Sailor Girl as having "salty dialogue and gripping description", as a "uniquely Canadian story, one that distills a vanishing part of our heritage", and as a love story in which "a middle class girl finds a deep connection with the unruly young men and toughminded women of the lakes."

The book has had critical acclaim and won a bronze in the 2009 Independent Publisher Book Awards, but sales have been modest, and she describes marketing a book as something of a "crapshoot".
Sailor Girl got a boost with the placing of a "Bookmark" in Port Colborne, at Lock 8 on the Welland Canal, in 2011. Project Bookmark Canada installs plaques bearing selections from notable Canadian works, in the exact locations where scenes are set.

There is also a movie version of Sailor Girl in the works, with Markham Street Films (MSF) planning to start shooting this year. Naturally, Inkster is hoping that goes well, since there's nothing like a successful movie to propel book sales.

MSF describes it as a coming of age story, in which "19-year-old art student rebel Kate McLeod signs on to a Great Lakes freighter and sails off into an unexpected world of stormy, sexy and dangerous adventures."

Olson said that to distill the story, screen writer Johanna Schneller had to "really collapse the book – a whole new treatment that was very visual and very visceral, and really cut out all the boring stuff – it was great."

For more about the author, go to www.sheree-leeolson.com, and for a taste of that Great Lakes shipping culture, go to www.boatnerd.com.