Don answers questions about Brothers in Arms: The Siege of Louisbourg
You’ve written several novels, but all of them have been contemporary stories set in modern times. Why did you choose
to write a historical novel?
DON: Many years earlier, I took my wife and daughters to see the
restored fortress at Louisbourg (a quarter of the buildings and fortifications demolished in 1758 have been rebuilt), and
I was captivated by the sight of history coming alive. Walking along those streets, moving through the buildings, and listening
to guides in authentic costumes describing what it was like to live there left an indelible impression on me. It was a harsh
environment in the 1700s, and I began to wonder what it would be like to be a young person struggling to make a life for himself
or herself in that place at that time.
QUESTION: A lot of years passed before you started the book. What
happened that made you begin writing it?
DON: My agent at the time, Marie Campbell, told me about Scholastic’s
I Am Canada series, and I suddenly realized that the fall of Louisbourg would be a terrific focus for a novel in
QUESTION: So your intention was to describe the fall of the fortress?
The main thrust of each novel in the series is the recounting of a significant battle, but as I’ve said a number
of times before, stories are never about events. They’re always about how people are affected by those events,
so I first had to decide who my main character would be.
Why did you choose a soldier? Why not a private citizen?
DON: Two reasons. First, I
thought that having the reader see the action through the eyes of a soldier would heighten the story’s drama. Second,
the purpose of each of Scholastic’s I Am Canada novels is to share the backstory and facts related to a particular
battle, and a soldier involved in the conflict would have firsthand knowledge of the action surrounding the attack that a
private citizen would not.
QUESTION: Was it hard putting yourself in the
mind of that character?
DON: Yes and no. The hard part was making sure I understood the particular constraints of the time
QUESTION: What did you do to ensure you understood
DON: I read many, many books and spoke to leading authorities about Louisbourg. And I revisited
the fortress so I could immerse myself in the environment and get a sense of the physical space. Looking at pictures and maps
was helpful, but actually walking around and inside the restored structures was ideal in terms of helping me orient myself
in that time period.
QUESTION: Were there any books in particular that you found most helpful?
Without question, the absolute best resource was the book Endgame 1758: The Promise, the Glory, and the Despair
of Louisbourg’s Last Decade, written by A.J.B. Johnston. In fact, on multiple occasions, I consulted with Mr. Johnston
about the validity and accuracy of the choices I was making in telling my story. I doubt there’s a person alive who
knows more about Louisbourg in the 18th century than he does.
When I asked if it was hard putting yourself in the mind of your main character, you said yes and no. How
was it not hard?
DON: Although the time period was very different from that of the books I usually write, I believe
there’s a universality in the way young people view the world. I’ve given presentations to teenagers as far away
as Vietnam, and when I’ve had the opportunity to interact with them, I’ve discovered that despite their different
geographical locations and cultures (and even languages), teenagers everywhere share many of the same dreams, the same concerns,
the same fears. So I put myself in the role of that 18th century soldier and began envisioning what his dreams
and concerns might be, and I realized almost immediately that he would be focused on his future and the person he hoped to
share it with. That’s why Sébastien’s relationship with Marie-Claire acts as the backdrop against which
everything else unfolds.
QUESTION: Sébastien’s friendship with Guillaume also plays an important role in the
story, doesn’t it?
DON: Absolutely. In any armed forces, regardless of the time period or country being defended, camaraderie
plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of the actions of its enlisted members. In no other endeavour do people depend so
much on those around them, so it was no surprise to me when Guillaume entered the story.
QUESTION: You framed
your story around an actual event, so I assume that most of the characters in it are real people who lived in Louisbourg at
that time. Were Sébastien and Guillaume real people?
DON: Most of the characters in the novel
are real, but Sébastien, Guillaume, Marie-Claire, and a handful of others are not. However, after completing the first
draft of the manuscript, I returned to research materials to fact-check my details, and I learned that a 33-year-old man named
Charles-Gabriel- Sébastien de l’Espérance lived at Louisbourg in 1758. I found that coincidence more than
a little surprising, and I have no idea how it happened.
QUESTION: Of all
the things you learned while researching the siege of Louisbourg, was there anything in particular that stood out?
The one detail that resonated most strongly with me was the willingness of Louisbourg’s leaders to sacrifice
every man, woman, and child in the town when the governor’s war council initially refused to accept the terms of surrender
that the British had given them. Their determination to fight to the death rather than suffer indignity says so much about
the value the French placed on honour. When I learned about the war council’s last-minute change of heart, I felt that
the events around that moment held the same sense of heightened drama we see so often in contemporary edge-of-your-seat thrillers.
The difference, of course, was that this was real life, and these were real people whose lives hung in the balance and were
spared only at the very last moment.
QUESTION: Is that why you chose to build your entire story around
DON: Yes. Long before I began writing my first draft, I knew immediately that Brothers in Arms
would not only begin and end with it but also return to it midway. No author, whether writing fiction or fact, could ignore
the extraordinary dramatic tension of that experience.
QUESTION: Do you
think you’ll ever write another historical novel?
DON: When it comes to the creative process,
I’ve learned never to say never. However, I’m much more comfortable writing from a contemporary perspective, so
I don’t see myself writing another historical novel any time soon.