April 25, 2014

Linda Little's Grist -- Guest Post and {Giveaway}

Writing Women

Grist is new departure for me in that for the first time I have a female protagonist. Of course we know gender is a fundamental marker in creating a character but my experience of this, especially in working with historical fiction, was profound. In my two previous novels, Strong Hollow (2001) and Scotch River (2006) I had male protagonists who skirted the margins of society. Both of these men lived with a great deal of silence and solitude and worked to manage loneliness. For me, my characters are formed in that space between what a character knows and feels and is, and what that character expresses in words. It is in this silent gap that I come to know them. I strive to bring my reader into this gap (between their realities and their expression) to meet them. What became shockingly clear to me over the course of writing Grist was how profoundly, culturally different men’s silence is from women’s silence.

Penelope MacLaughlin, my protagonist, is also unlike my previous protagonists in that she is not a naturally solitary person. She does not have a personality that nudges her towards the path that leads to loneliness. She is not gregarious or ebullient but she quietly seeks company, community, and belonging. She knows the best things in life are shared joys and sorrows. She knows long-term happiness, meaning, fulfillment are the products of family and community life. Silence, loneliness and isolation are thrust upon her; they are not of her own making.

In our culture silence is interpreted very differently for men and women. There is a notion of the “strong, silent type” but this idea is attached to men—to powerful, often contextually moral men. A silent woman most often simply disappears. The struggle to overcome our own fears and insecurities is the greatest struggle. Yes, BUT. In Grist, with Penelope, I was forced to work with the other struggles that can be too easily glossed over by the maxims and motivational slogans of fridge magnet philosophy. Sometimes we need to change more than our minds or our attitudes to change the world. Silence is forced on to Penelope; her voice is silenced by the absence of a listener. Her husband, to whom she owes a socially required loyalty, will not hear her in either a literal or figurative sense. Her position in the community is defined by her roles at home. She is cut off at all paths. Looking at the position of women 100 years ago offers us enough distance to see how completely we can silence wide segments of our population by simply dismissing, turning a deaf ear, diverting our attention. Yes, the world is a much more hospitable place for women in the developed west now than it was. But look at how blithely the population at large accepted the conditions we once lived under. We do not have to
lift our eyes very far off the page to see how many people still live under the conditions that, with the distance of one small century, we now recognize as intolerably unjust. Let’s not forget all the Rosa Parkses who sat down to gain no hearing at all but were simply tossed off the bus and into the gutter. Speaking doesn’t just require a voice, it also presumes an ear. It is not enough to tell stories of the residential schools for instance, there must be a reception for these truths.

Writing Penelope was an experiential exercise in marginalization. This sounds pretty fancy. It didn’t feel fancy. Look, she said. She how easy it was for a woman to fall out, to fall away, to be cut out of society. The character of Nettle, who lives on her own on the outside the 19th century social safety net of neighbourliness, makes a scant living managing a sort of rudimentary clearinghouse for packages moving up and down the coach road. She is a repository for rumour, prejudice, and slander. She is thought by some to be a witch or to have second sight. The more practical say, “A woman alone—how do you think she lives?” In the end Penelope tells us: “she died from a body and soul worn through and worn out with work, age, and loneliness. She died from the burden of other people’s secrets, of living a cautionary tale, of flouting the rules.” She is always in the background as a warning to women who step outside society’s dictated bounds. The few options for the poor and solitary woman are clear. Although Penelope’s miller husband, Ewan, is largely silent and certainly eccentric, his gifts are admired 
and mythologized by society. No such latitude is given to women.

Writing female characters is complex in very different ways from writing male characters. Penelope brought me down a long, twisty and difficult road. But in the end I’m glad she did.

About the book
Publication Date: April 15, 2014
Roseway Publishing
Paperback; 234p
ISBN 13: 9781552665992

“This is the story of how you were loved,” Penelope MacLaughlin whispers to her granddaughter.

Penelope MacLaughlin marries a miller and gradually discovers he is not as she imagined. Nonetheless she remains determined to make the best of life at the lonely mill up the Gunn Brook as she struggles to build a home around her husband’s eccentricities. His increasing absence leaves Penelope to run the mill herself, providing her with a living but also destroying the people she loves most. Penelope struggles with loss and isolation, and suffers the gradual erosion of her sense of self. A series of betrayals leaves her with nothing but the mill and her determination to save her grandchildren from their disturbed father. While she can prepare her grandsons for independence, her granddaughter is too young and so receives the greater gift: the story that made them all.

Praise for Grist
“An epic story by a gifted writer. There are moments in Linda Little’s Grist that are breathtaking in both thought and lyricism.” — Donna Morrissey, author of The Deception of Livvy Higgs

“Linda Little lays bare the hard joys, grit and heartache of women’s lives in the rural Maritimes before and during the Great War. Her writing is exquisite. Gripping, gorgeously imagined and positively haunting, Grist is a tour de force—a novel not just to like but to love. I couldn’t put it down.” — Carol Bruneau, author of Glass Voices and Purple for Sky

Buy the Book
Fernwood Publishing

About the Author
Linda Little lives and writes in the north shore village of River John. Originally from the Ottawa Valley mill town of Hawkesbury, she lived in Kingston and St. John’s before moving to Nova Scotia in 1987.

Linda has two award-winning novels, Strong Hollow and Scotch River. She has published short stories in many reviews and anthologies, including The Antigonish Review, Descant, Matrix, The Journey Prize Anthology, and The Penguin Book of Short Stories by Canadian Women.

In addition to writing, Linda teaches at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and is also involved with River John’s annual literary festival, Read by the Sea.

For more information visit Linda Little’s website.

Visit other blogs on the tour--Tour Schedule
Twitter Hashtag: #GristTour

Read my review of Grist here

Follow the instructions on the Rafflecopter form below to enter for a chance to win a paperback copy of Grist by Linda Little! (Open to U.S./Canada)
a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. The perspective you bring to this piece about change taking more than the will to speak out is very resonant with me. Also, the thoughts raised by your post are very evocative of George Eliot's work to sing the unsung stories of women doing their best to make an impact on a world that doesn't provide a convenient venue for service or meaningful participation in life for many women (e.g. most obviously Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch).

    1. Thank you for your terrific comments (I read yours on Carol Strickland's post as well)! It's great to have some eloquent conversation here. By the way, I love George Eliot's books.

      If you haven't already, you should read my review of Grist at my main blog (link is above in post). I absolutely loved this book.

      Good luck in the giveaways!

  2. A real thought-provoking post. Two of Ms.Little's statements particularly resonated with me: "the best things in life are shared joys and sorrows" and "a voice is silenced by the absence of a listener"
    I'm looking forward to reading this novel.

  3. Thank you for the insights into a writer's thoughts. I had not previously considered the cultural difference between men’s silence and women’s silence but, of course it is very large. You've given me something to think about.
    I've been looking forward to Grist since I first saw the cover with the woman's image on it. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  4. A wonderful post that makes me want to read this book. Sounds like a wonderful character study of a strong woman.

  5. This post was fascinating and the novel sounds unique and memorable since this type of profound story interests me greatly. A wonderful giveaway and feature. thanks for this chance. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com


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