Published on November 13th, 2013 | by Chloe
Ask An Author: Elizabeth Stewart
Meet author Elizabeth Stewart author of The Lynching of Louie Sam. Inspired by the true story of the lynching of Louie Sam, a young aboriginal teenager in 1884. Recently acknowledged as a historical injustice by Washington State, this novel is a must read for historical fiction lovers. We asked her a few questions and she answered!
Q: What made you want to write this particular story?
I was actually commissioned by Annick Press to write this story, so they brought it to me, rather than me pitching it to them. But I already knew about the murder of Louie Sam at the hands of an American lynch mob that crossed into Canada, and I leapt at the chance to tell the story for young readers. I was outraged by the injustice committed by the leaders of the lynch mob, who framed an innocent 14 year-old First Nations boy for a murder they themselves committed. They got away with lynching him because of the prevailing racism of the time, but by telling the true story about what happened, we hoped to achieve at least a small measure of justice for Louie Sam, his family and the Stolo Nation. I can’t say that I always enjoyed the process of writing of this book. In fact, it was horrible to write about the actual hanging, and wrenching to put deplorably racist statements into characters’ mouths — many of which I took directly from firsthand accounts from the time — but I always knew it was an important story to tell.
Q: How much of your book is based on a real story?
Almost all of the events in the book actually happened, but the lead character from whose point of view the novel is written, 15 year-old George Gillies, is very much fictionalized. When he was an elderly man in the 1940s, the real George Gillies gave a newspaper interview in which he more or less defended the actions of the lynch mob. But in the novel, my George comes to see the leaders of the mob for the villains they were, and tries to seek justice for Louie Sam. I wrote an afterward at the end of the book that explains which parts of the novel are true, and which are fictionalized.
Q: How did you do research for your book?
I did lots of reading to research this book! I started with two scholarly articles that have been written on the subject, and also found firsthand accounts, such as newspaper interviews from the 1940s with George Gillies and Pete Harkness, who followed the lynch mob as teenagers and witnessed the death of Louie Sam. I was amazed to go online and find a census (a record of everyone who lived in the area) for 1884 that listed most of the key characters, including the members of George Gillies and Pete Harkness’ families, along with their dates and places of birth. That’s how I know that George’s family came to the Washington territory from Scotland via England, and that Pete’s family came from Michigan.
Q: Any tips for young authors?
It’s often said that anyone interested in writing should start by reading. I think this is very good advice, especially since reading lots of different books helps a writer figure out what kind of stories she or he likes best, and therefore what he or she would be happiest writing. But I think it’s equally important for aspiring authors to write and write and write, without worrying about how good their stories are or whether anyone will be interested in publishing them. The more we write, the better we get at self-critiquing, and that, to me, is a very important skill for a writer to develop.
We wanted to thank Elizabeth for her insightful answers and candidness. If you have a chance, this book is a must read.