6. FRAN: As a political reporter you had to have met many important people and interviewed them? Can you tell us whom you met as a political reporter and Parliamentary Bureau Chief for United Press International?
The late '70s and early '80s were a very dynamic time in Canadian politics. By the time I arrived, Pierre Trudeau had been in office more than 10 years and he was facing another election. So, by early 1979, barely nine months from journalism school, and still very green around the gills, I found myself covering Trudeau's main Conservative Party adversary, Joe Clark, travelling aboard his campaign plane, and dropping into every city, town and hamlet for political events. Well, in the space of 18 months, Clark had won a minority government from Trudeau and became prime minister, only to lose a parliamentary vote that caused another election. Trudeau returned triumphantly and created a lot of news, energy wars with oil-rich provinces, fighting Quebec's endless threats to separate from Canada and other events. I was fortunate to interview both Clark and Trudeau, and four other prime ministers during my journalism career. And throughout my time on Parliament Hill, I, of course, covered the official visits of many world leaders, including a G8 meeting of industrialized nations.
1. FRAN: Which President of the US did you meet and under what circumstances?
It was Ronald Reagan. I had covered his official visit to Canada, in March 1980, and only weeks before the assassination attempt on his life. But in the summer of 1981, in advance of Trudeau hosting the G8 Conference, I accompanied the prime minister to the White House for a meeting, and that was when I was invited into the Oval Office as part of a small Canadian media pool, where I met the president. Reagan was very warm and friendly to all of us who had entered his office. It was just a fleeting moment, but one I'll never forget.
2. FRAN: Tell everyone about your public relations firm: High Road Communications and your role in the Canadian government.
My role as speechwriter and senior communications officer in two Canadian federal departments occurred before my entry into consulting, and the eventual creation of High Road. After my journalism career ended, in 1982, I joined the federal energy department in a communications role, where I wrote speeches for Energy Minister Jean Chretien (who would later serve as Canada's prime minister for 10 years, from 1993-2003) and his officials. I also wrote an important energy-related address for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was elected in 1984 after Trudeau retired.
High Road was created in 1996, after I had spent more than five years in the PR consulting world with Hill & Knowlton. My partner and I specialized in technology, and worked for many of the largest firms in the world, including Microsoft, NEC, AOL, Lucent, to name a few. Over the past 15 years, my partner and I were responsible for launching hundreds of fine PR careers, many of whom are the best in the business.
3. FRAN: Before writing Upcountry what else have you written?
In the 1980s, I wrote a teleplay for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation but, unfortunately, it was never produced. When I retired from active PR work, in 2004, I began writing again; first it was a stage play called Pirouette, a story based on the life and times of Pierre Trudeau. I'd like that play to get produced some day, because one man on a stage (like the plays involving Harry Truman, Mark Twain, etc) is very compelling and enjoyable for audiences. Later, my wife Shelley and I collaborated on a romantic comedy entitled Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, before we tackled a script for a very serious drama called The Last Carousel. (The Last Carousel became Upcountry, my novel).
4. FRAN: How did you develop the characters in this book?
When we were planning what became The Last Carousel, Shelley and I set about creating the story first and then went about populating it with interesting players. In particular, we wanted our main characters--Jane Schumacher and her sister Joanne Lowry--to be complex and troubled, since their lives had not been easy growing up in northern New York. At the same time, since we pick up their story when they're both 39, they had been estranged for many years, and we wanted to document what had happened to them since they were teenagers. Thus, they had to be intelligent and interesting, a couple of women that readers could come to like and love. Other characters, such as our sheriff (Brian Boychuk), the girls' father (Hubie Schumacher), or Jane's love interest (Roberto Alvarez), and even our motel owner (Matt Booker) are based on an amalgamation of many people we've known over the years. Character creation is a very enjoyable yet difficult exercise. A writer's first responsibility is to be read, and that's why we tried to make these people real and believable.
5. FRAN: The issue of spousal abuse is on the news and an important issue: Joanne, Jane’s sister lived with Denny for too long and withstood his verbal and physical abuse: What made you create this character and allow her to withstand the abuse for so long?
Joanne, in many ways, is a typical victim of spousal abuse. Many women in her situation suffer silently. They come to believe their husband's words, that they're worthless and, indeed, unworthy of love and respect. They find themselves caught in an impossibly horrid life from which they cannot escape. People say, 'why didn't she just leave her husband?' Well, as we tried to dramatize in Upcountry, it's not that easy. They feel physically threatened. They're fearful for their lives and the lives of their children. As you may know, Upcountry is based on a true situation that I became aware of more than nine years ago. The situation faced by Joanne, and the horrible dilemma confronting Jane, was based on a real-life event, although we went much further -- in dramatic terms -- with Upcountry than my real-life sisters did. In the case of Joanne, I give much of the credit of her characterization to Shelley, who was a marriage and family therapist for 15 years. Shelley helped many troubled women over the years, and from her experiences, came Joanne.
6. Fran: After so many years Jane and Joanne finally bonded- Jane finally came full circle with her father too: Tell our readers what caused the rift between them to start?
From the beginning, readers of Upcountry discover that Jane Schumacher, at age 39, is a tough, savvy, sarcastic and often profane woman. She's on a mission to get her boss elected president of the United States. But her personality was developed many years before as a teenager growing up in northern New York. Even then, she was a curious, knowledge-seeking young woman, and it was then that she concluded that her father was not a strong-willed man. In Jane's eyes, he took too much abuse from his shrewish wife, Donna, and that created a lack of respect for the Vietnam veteran. In addition, Hubie never stepped in and stopped Donna from controlling the lives of Jane and her sister, and that was the basis of their relationship for many years. It was only after the life-altering events after their fateful Thanksgiving dinner that Jane and her dad signed a truce.
7. Fran: What role did her mother play and how?
The twins' late mother, Donna, played a central role in Jane's life, before and after she went to her grave at the age of 50 from cancer. Donna was a very troubled woman herself, and led a life filled with regrets. We meet Donna in various stages of her life, but the most important scene, in our view, was when she was a college student determined to get her degree and enter medical school. She wanted to be somebody, and to be independent. But events intervened, and she found herself pregnant with twins and living in some godforsaken town near the Adirondacks. As a result, she never recovered from that experience, and often took out her anger on her husband, and on Jane in particular, who, unlike Joanne, decided not to put up with her judgemental and cruel mother. It seems Donna blamed not only Hubie for her sorry lot in life, but her daughter as well. She was never a real mother in so many ways, and it's sad.
8. Fran: Her close relationship in the past with the country sheriff was very dramatic. What part did their friendship play in his investigation?
Jane and Brian (the sheriff) were high school sweethearts. In Brian's opinion, it seemed destined that they'd spend their lives together. But Jane abruptly alters that plan and, at age 18, leaves town for good, leaving a despondent Brian behind. Without contact, they go about their lives for the next 20 years; she as a journalist and then press secretary to the governor of New York, and he as a police officer. Following the events of Thanksgiving night, Brian takes the investigation personally. Perhaps due to his relationship with Hubie, perhaps because of his past affection for Jane, Brian is determined to see this through. Though they hadn't seen each other for many years, it is clear that their lives had been closely intertwined. They have a history together.
9. FRAN: Why did Matt help them? What happens when someone betrays his trust?
Matt is a kind and considerate motel owner who comes to girls rescue in a number of ways. There is something about the twins that made him want to help. Having lived a tough, grinding lifestyle for many years, and perhaps seeing a few parallels in their collective lives, Matt throws caution to the wind and comes to their aid. But he quickly discovers that someone close to him, jealous of his brief relationship with the twins, betrays both him and the sisters. This episode enabled us to bring an exciting journey to a close. But it's clear that Matt is central to Upcountry's theme of redemption and rebirth, giving Joanne in particular an opportunity to realize her potential as a human being.
10. FRAN: Roberto is a wonderful character that is loyal to Jane and proves it throughout the story and at the end . Why does he remain true to her and her family throughout the novel?
Roberto Alvarez is, above all, a very patient man. As Jane's lover and companion, Roberto is both smitten and sometimes traumatized by her. An Argentine immigrant, who had endured his share of prejudice, Roberto is a handsome and successful New York lawyer, who probably could have his pick of women in the Big Apple. Even as he is mistreated by Jane, and often, he sticks by her, especially when he discovers she's in trouble. Why? Not only because of her stunning looks, which are important to him. No, it's more than that for Roberto. I think he loves her for her strength, determination and intelligence, although he often questions why. By the end, he discovers what Jane is truly made of, and is determined to help her and her family.