Sheila Dalton, the author of The Girl in the Box, has generously given of her time to answer some questions.
1. How would you summarize The Girl in the Box?
A mute Mayan girl held captive in the Guatemalan jungle is rescued by a psychoanalyst she later kills. The doctor’s lover, Caitlin Shaugnessy, needs answers, and sets out on a turbulent journey to discover what led to the tragedy.
2. What drew you to write about Guatemala and the Mayan tragedy of the 1980’s?
A trip to Guatemala I took with a friend in the seventies, during the Civil War there. We saw many things that affected us deeply, and learned more about the genocide on our return to Canada. Generally, I am interested in other countries and cultures, and I feel empathy for those whose lives are touched by political violence. I also met a young Guatemalan man in Canada who told me about how people were forced to take sides even if they were apolitical, and how many, Maya in particular, were caught in the middle. Though my sympathies still lie with the Maya — the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan government were horrific –this spoke to my distrust of all political “isms”. We have only to look at Communism– so idealistic, so seemingly humane, and yet how destructive in practice, to see how futile they are at solving social ills.
3. How did you do your research? How much time did you spend in Guatemala?
I spent four months in Central America, most of it in Guatemala, in the seventies, then went back in the eighties for a few weeks. My notes from those visits helped, but I also had an author from Guatemala, Caroline Kellems, read the finished manuscript,. She pointed out some mistakes and added some details. I also spoke with Guatemalan immigrants to Canada, and lawyers who worked with refugees.
Other parts of the book also required research. Part of the story is about the state of psychoanalysis in Canada. I needed to delve into that history, which is quite fascinating. Canada was involved in a lot of questionable practices and experiments in psychiatry in those years, even more so than other countries. I also had a very good friend who was an analyst, plus a sister who is a therapist, who helped, and I read a lot.
I’ve had a strong interest in psychoanalysis since my twenties, so it was a pleasure for me to attend a Self-Psychology conference as well as read professional journals I already subscribed to.
Autism and its treatments, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, neural damage, and other psychiatric conditions also had to be researched so that I could present Inez realistically. Most of this was done by reading, but I also had contact with a father of an autistic boy who read the ms.
I needed to know about psychiatric facilities for the criminally insane, so I visited Penetanguishene, plus did research at the library.
Part of the book takes place in Labrador, and I visited there to get a feel for the atmosphere. I have always wanted to go to Labrador, so it was a case of combining research with pleasure. I loved it there, though I’m not a winter person at all!
4. Was there a real person who was the source of your inspiration for Inez, the mute Mayan girl or did you imagine her wholly? If so, how did the character come to life for you?
Inez is entirely imagined. I wish I could tell you exactly how she came to life, but I can’t. Sometimes brain processes can’t be pinned down. I can tell you that she didn’t come in a flash. Her gestation was slow, and she took her final form over a series of first drafts.
5. How do you combine writing with your work in the Toronto Public Library?
Writing while working as a librarian is hard, but not as hard as trying to combine writing with freelance editing, which I did for about ten years. I’ve spent a lot of holidays writing rather than vacationing, and though I made and kept a resolve never to put my writing before my child, I’m afraid I wasn’t so conscientious about friends and family, including my husband. I really had to make sacrifices to pursue writing. But I’ve also had the pleasure of traveling to places that relate to whatever I’m working on. For instance, a few years ago I went to Morocco, and then later Devon, England, and these trips resulted in the historical fiction I’m currently writing, about a young British woman who loses her parents to the Barbary corsairs, who traded in Christian slaves.
But instead of a honeymoon, I went back to Guatemala with a female friend! It’s a long story. I’m just lucky to have an incredibly understanding partner.
6. Who are your favourite authors and why?
I love Karen Connolly because the characters in her fiction, though in extreme situations, are believable and wonderfully drawn. I have many favourite authors, actually, and find more every day. Among Canadians, I also like Alyssa Neal, Pearl Luke, and, yes, Lilian Nattel! These three all write historical fiction, and do it very well. Their styles are subtle, their characters fascinating, and they are all able to weave a spell and take me into fascinating worlds I would otherwise never experience.
7. Is there anything else you’d like to add about The Girl in the Box or your process as a writer?
I wrote the Girl in the Box hoping it would be good enough to qualify as literary fiction, but also have popular appeal. I’m still not sure how well I’ve succeeded, but judging by the reviews on Amazon.com, general readers do seem to like the book. Other links: My book trailer and My website.
Thank you for your time, Sheila!