Patricia Zick of Author-Wednesday interviews Margaret Kell Virany whose books include A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void, the love story of an English young woman and a Canadian young man set during World War I. Kathleen’s Cariole Ride is set during the same time period.
Q. How do you envision yourself in this role of writing romantic historical books based on your life and that of your parents?
A. Lover of life, language and literature. Note-taker, journalist, editor, author. I write. Little things turn me on, like scraps of paper in a keepsake box and the memory of strawberry socials, harvest suppers and silver teas. The act of being a witness, a record-keeper, a storyteller, and the one who remembers has always excited me. I feel like I am part of a wider community. My ideal is to help others “see eternity in a grain of sand” (William Blake) and gain access to the best truth we have. As the historian, Sallustius said in 4 A.D, “What happened is what always happens.”
Q. I love that. It’s very poetic, which is very fitting based on your style of writing. Do all your books have a common theme or thread?
A. Yes. Love is my theme. It comes in various specialties: the romantic love of a young couple, parental love, filial love, family bonds, charity, love for other human beings, and the all-embracing divine love brought to earth and presented as an ideal by the Gospels. For me, it was a personal pilgrimage of going home to my parents after finding their love letters had been left in a keepsake box, surely for some purpose.
Q. What a wonderful and powerful perspective. Why has it been so important to explore this theme of love?
A. If people don’t get or give enough love they go searching for it, and a good book can be their voyage. When I was coming of age in the fifties, it was still a bit of an anomaly for a woman who had children to work outside the home. Women like my mother came out of a world, both deprived and romantic, that had untold, inestimable influence on the direction of children, husbands, and society. Such love practices inspired the line, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” (William Ross Wallace, 19th century Indiana poet)
Q. That’s a perfect quote to express what you’ve done in your writing. What’s the best thing said about one of your books by a reviewer?
A. “Virany’s account of their (her parents’) adventures … is riveting. (She) has the natural gifts of a born storyteller who keeps you caring about the characters no matter where they are. When the Kells finally return to civilization the pace of the narrative doesn’t flag.” From a review by Ellen Tanner Marsh, New York Times bestselling author.
Q. I’d be very proud of that review as well. Very nice and I’m sure rewarding. How did you choose the title, A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void?
A. In my years spent studying English literature at the University of Toronto, I noticed certain things about classics. I wanted to do things that would identify my memoir as that category of book. Fortuitously my family name, Kell, is the same as that of the most famous manuscript of ancient western civilization, The Book of Kells. Millions of tourists go to look at it in Dublin each year, so it would have a familiar ring even for those who couldn’t pin it down. Beginning the title with “A Book of …” gave it a serious, nonfiction tone. My literary background also led me to load my title with words that had multiple meanings and associations which would give clues to the type of content inside. My parents lived their married life as if it were a book. There is an ancient concept of life being one’s “book of days.” For dates and events, I leaned on my parents’ daily diaries. The title could also refer to the Bible, the book that most guided my ancestors and parents. I hit the jackpot, I felt, when I disovered that the root of the name Kells was, according to some scholarship, a synonym for all Celts or Kelts, the dominant tribe who inhabited the region north of the Mediterranean Sea in 500 B.C. This was generic; anyone with a name with the Kell prefix is one of the tribe so the word should have wide appeal. Another meaning for “kell” was a hair net or covering and that was an appropriate symbol for my upbringing as a minister’s daughter. My title might make people think it was a family history, which it partly was, at least for the most recent four generations.
Q. That’s fascinating. I’m always interested in the creative process, so how did you decide to write this book?
A. I wanted to write it as a romantic novel while sticking rigorously to the facts as I knew them or was able to reconstruct them by careful logic. It should have a beginning, middle, climax and end but these should not be superimposed. They should emerge from what I could find out; the story must be allowed to tell itself. It was a test to see whether the literary structures I had been taught really worked. I had to discipline myself not to make things up. I already had on my hands a self-described knight and lady who had rubbed shoulders with real prime ministers and princes. They courted and treated each other accordingly. I did not have to manufacture their raw emotions because I had their seventy-two authentic love letters from the 1920s. I had been blessed by a bonanza in a keepsake box; I just had to call forth my muses to elicit it and do it justice.
Here is a beautiful quote I just received as a comment on my “About” page of my blog. “Memories are a nursery where children who are growing old play with their broken toys. Kells is an extraordinary book, presenting the extraordinary story of extraordinary people living in extraordinary times.” John W. Bienko
Q. That is lovely. I’m so glad you stopped by today, Margaret. Yours is a unique story and one worth telling. Won’t you tell us more about yourself?
A. About Margaret Kell Virany: Born on a farm on the northern fringe of Toronto, I got a degree in English Language & Literature and married my Varsity heart throb. Early employment was at the Toronto Telegram, Maclean-Hunter and freelancing for the Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, Montreal Star, and Montreal Gazette. My most fun jobs were as professional public relations secretary first of the Montreal YMCA and then of the Toronto YMCA, and as a program organizer of CBC-TV’s first live nationally televised conference The Real World of Woman (1961). Following a move to Canada’s capital region, I became editor/co-owner of the weekly newspaper in my home town of Aylmer, QC and had the busiest, best career of a lifetime. Upon discovering the keepsake box full of love letters, journals and photos my parents left, I published A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void. It records my family’s lives and my uneasy coming of age as a minister’s daughter. Then I wrote Kathleen’s ariole Ride recounting my parents’ transatlantic courtship and adventures living on a Cree reserve in the north. At the 2012 Centennial Conference honoring the literary critic, Northrop Frye, I learned that my notes of his lectures would be among those posted on the fryeblog, available for public download. This success brought me back to the day when I dropped out of college for a year and learned shorthand on my very first job, as a receptionist at the ‘Tely’.
Thank you for dropping in. This blog for all lovers of life and language aims to be useful and entertaining. Topics vary from how to build a canoe to how my mom moved from “prince to preacher and fog to bog” as a war bride after world war one. Author’s tips are offered by word and writing advice by example.
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