Questions and Answers
A Short Interview with
Paul Côté and Constantina Mitchell,
authors of Winter Passage, ISBN 1-933016-19-1
It’s rather unusual for two people to write a novel together. How did that happen?
That’s something we are asked frequently. Paul and I have been writing together for many years. Until recently, we were both professors at universities in Washington, D.C. During that time, we co-authored a number of articles dealing with literary criticism. One of our sabbatical projects took the form of a book that explores the craft of writing through the analysis of works by major twentieth-century authors of France and Quebec. We’ve also collaborated on translating four books from French into English. After analyzing other people’s novels for so long, we decided the time had come for us to take the plunge and write our own.
A writing partnership must have its special challenges; turf wars, egos getting in the way, etc. How do you deal with these issues?
We really don’t a have set method. Our first step is to get the feel for a basic story line. Then, we individually write sections of an initial draft. Once we both have something on paper, we then critique and edit it together. And, that’s when the real work begins. Our eventual finished product is miles away from our starting point.
We’ve each published independently and therefore have our own approach. But when we collaborate, the end result is a blend of us both. When we don’t agree on a particular aspect of the text it usually means there’s a problem that needs to be solved. So, we thrash it out and together come up with something that neither of us would have thought of on our own. This usually happens at a joint session in front of the computer screen. We take turns at the keyboard or, as we call it, “sitting in the pilot’s seat”.
Turf wars? Well, we rarely have an all-out siege. There’s an occasional skirmish. Our goal is to produce the best work possible, so we put the egos in a drawer temporarily and are usually still on speaking terms by the time happy hour rolls around. We’ve managed to stay married through it all.
What made you want to write a novel about eighteenth-century Quebec?
We’ve shared a love affair with the eighteenth century for as long as we can remember. It’s just a fascinating era, from every point of view; historically, politically and artistically. Quebec holds a special place in our collective mindscape. Before assuming our faculty positions in Washington, D.C., we’d lived in Montreal for eleven years. Much of our academic research has been devoted to the literature and culture of Quebec. In fact, working on Winter Passage made us so nostalgic that we returned and now (again) reside in Montreal.
What really triggered this novel was a visual image. I was asked, by the editor of an academic journal, to write a review of a non-fictional work dealing with slavery under the French regime in the New World. There was a short paragraph that described how an Indian slave was executed in effigy for a violent crime he had committed. I thought it would make a great opening for a movie or novel.
Now that you’ve finished the book, can you imagine it also being done as a movie?
Absolutely. Actually, the film script came first. We planned to write it together, but I trotted off to Greece with my sister for a couple of weeks to work on a joint visual art and poetry project, and Paul got so excited about the film script that he wrote a first draft without me. We used that for the basis of the novel. Naturally, since a novel is a totally different medium than a film, we focused extensively on descriptive detail and introduced more characters and subplots into the narrative. Subsequently, Paul revisited his film script in light of the direction the novel took. So far, the film script has placed well in several screenwriting competitions.
The book covers a lot more than the execution you mentioned as your starting point. Is the story based entirely on fact?
Some of the events in Winter Passage actually took place. But, we reworked and molded them into a much larger story; a story that questions the human condition. We did extensive research on colonial life because we wanted to make the descriptions as historically accurate as possible. We even went to Bordeaux and took a short course in wine-making because one of the characters we created is a Baron who doubles as a vintner near Saint Emilion. And, we walked the streets of the historic district of Quebec City, where most of the novel’s action takes place. You might say that history is a backdrop to the saga of love, murder, and bondage that emerged from all of this. We explore the question of slavery on many levels. The real, physical phenomenon of slavery functions as a metaphor for the bondage of memory and the imprisonment of the heart.
Have you been influenced or inspired by other writers?
In the course of our academic careers, we’ve read and analyzed the works of so many authors that it would be impossible not to be influenced, be it consciously or unconsciously, by some of them. In a way, writing for us is a personal expression that becomes a means of entering into dialogue with other literary voices.
How long did it take to complete Winter Passage?
It took us about four years. Don’t forget that we were both teaching full-time and writing articles about literature as well. It was difficult to set aside large blocks of time for serious concentration, which is essential to the creative process. It’s like entering into another world. Although hugely rewarding, writing is, without doubt, a long and difficult endeavor.
Getting something down on paper is embryonic, it’s only a beginning. You can’t just write the first thing that pops into your head and think that you’re finished. Every word is important. We wanted to give this novel poetic resonance. Our philosophy is that a novel shouldn’t be an unconnected series of actions and events that the reader is supposed to put together in some sort of spontaneous way. It needs structure and attention to the smallest detail. That’s why we spent so much time on Winter Passage, even so much as reading the manuscript aloud.
Is there a sequel to Winter Passage on the horizon?
You bet. It may be a sequel, or perhaps something different. We’re getting our ideas together now. And even though it’s still tough work, we’re both addicted. Writing is what we love to do most…well, almost. So, please stay tuned.
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