About a year ago, I heard about this crazy project: Les 24 heures du roman. On October 24th 2015, 24 francophone authors from around the world were going to write a 24-chapter book in 24 hours while riding on a Via Rail train from Halifax to Toronto. And since the project was going to highlight the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s presence Ontario, the book had to be about Champlain. “That’s nuts!”, I thought.
When I read further, I realized that the organizers were also looking for a few Franco-Ontarian authors that would be interested in taking part. “Hey! I’m a Franco-Ontarian author!”, I thought. And before I knew it, I had applied.
Never in a million years did I think they’d pick me. First, I have never written any books for adults. Second, my application was kind of…well… silly! I wrote a long, rambling essay on the virtues of being able to write on a train even as it travels backwards without feeling nauseous. I’m still not sure what possessed me to apply. This was way out of my comfort zone!
So imagine my surprise when news came that I was one of the 24 authors selected to be writing on the train!
Luckily, I had many months to beef up on my knowledge about Champlain (because, let’s face it, I knew very little) so I read this, and this, and I watched this, and this too. I took notes. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I lost sleep. I took more notes…
October arrived and I got on a plane to Moncton where I would meet the other 23 authors for the very first time. I was excited and… completely terrified. The room was abuzz with nervous energy. Each author presented themselves “AA-style” (My name is ___ and I’m a (Franco-Ontarian/French/Quebec/Acadian/Aboriginal) author). Then came the moment when each author was assigned a theme for their chapter. We all held our breath. My chapter would have to be about the legend of the Gougou – a mystical aboriginal man-eating sea-monster said to live in the Baie des chaleurs area and greatly feared by Champlain. “Yes! I can do this,” I thought. My text would be in the middle of the book, sandwiched between Gracia Couturier‘s chapter about the building of Quebec city and Marie-Josée Martin‘s chapter about an interracial marriage. Good company, to be sure!
The following two days were a whirlwind of meetings in small and large groups to chat about how the book was to come together and how each chapter was to anchor the previous and the following one chronologically. We also got to use material from one another’s chapters. Some borrowed characters, items, created little nods… I was thrilled when Viriginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau and Bertrand Laverdure decided to mention the legend of the Gougou in their own chapters, linking it to mine.
On the 24th, all 24 authors, the organizers, the publisher, a team of researchers, a team of proofreaders, a musician, our very own barista, a Radio-Canada journalist and a documentary crew boarded Via’s Ocean train in Halifax. Spirits were high! Each author got to their cabin and set up what would become their “office” for the length of the experience. Departure was at noon sharp. Absolutely no writing before that. I started writing at 12:01 as the train pulled out of the station!
I could go on for hours describing the experience but let me sum it up to this: it was INTENSE!
My main concerns were:
- I had to write a historically accurate chapter that would keep adult readers interested.
- I had to write it in 12 hours (deadline was at midnight sharp, the rest of the night was for the proofreaders to edit so that the book would be ready by our arrival in Toronto)
- It had to be 2600 words (give or take 200 words).
Another constraint that I hadn’t planned on, soon made itself clear: I had motion sickness! And, no, the irony of this was not lost on me. So I got myself a ginger ale, made the font size larger on my screen and I plowed ahead. At dinnertime I was at 1600 words. Nowhere near to where I had hoped to be or needed to be. Worst yet, I was pretty much done telling my part of the story. What could I do? Chatting with other authors over dinner helped to give me a few ideas and a second wind. I handed in my chapter at 11:50 pm with a word count of 2200 words. I little short, just like me 😉
Sur les traces de Champlain, the book deriving from this extraordinary experience and published by Prise de Parole, will be launched at the Salon du livre de Montréal on November 22nd. It will also be in bookstore by mid-November. A second launch, which I will attend, will take place at the Salon du livre de Toronto on Saturday December 5th at 1pm. I hope to see you there!