One of my favorite books of all time is The Birth House by Ami McKay. I've read it two times and this is rare thing considering the number of books on my to-read pile! As an avid reader and a book reviewer for the past decade, it's always a dream to interview one of my favorite authors. For a few months now, I've been gushing about The Birth House going from one of the top forty books on the Canada Reads longlist down to one of the top five Canada Reads finalists. I wanted to give my readers my insight so I shared a review I published in a 2007 women's magazine. I don't know how it all came about but somehow I was offered the opportunity to interview Ami McKay (insert squeal here!). I could come up with a kazillion questions but thought Ami must be very busy with the whole Canada Reads thing, so maybe I should keep it to 10 questions. So without further ado, I'm pleased to share my interview with Ami McKay.
Q & A with Ami McKay
1. Your bestselling book The Birth House is a contender in this year's Canada Reads debate. You must be so proud to have one of the top five Canadian books from the past decade! Have you stopped pinching yourself yet?
No! It's quite an honour to be in such tremendous company. The books in the initial top 40 were all amazing reads, so to have my novel make it to the final five was a bit surreal.
2. Aside from your own novel, what book would you recommend from the top 40 Canada Reads 2011 list?
Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin. This is a novel that sings! Unforgettable characters, gorgeous setting, compelling plot - what more could you ask for?
3. You were blessed by the mighty Oprah right from the very start of your career. Do you think the "Oprah Effect" changed you or your writing?
Yes, but not in the way you might think. I was actually a guest on her show six years BEFORE my novel was published. (It was one of those "when bad things happen to good people" episodes and it had nothing to do with writing novels.) I learned a lot from the experience. It gave me the confidence to tell stories my own way, and the courage to send them out into the world for others to read.
4. If you were to give any advice to author wannabes what would it be?
Give yourself permission to write on a regular basis. Don't sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. You have to treat yourself like a writer if you want to be one - make time and space and energy for your craft. No excuses. If you don't take your work seriously, no one else will.
5. How has social media impacted your writing? Do you feel it's hindered or enhanced the process?
It's helped me to connect with readers in ways I never thought possible. I can't tell you how many times an email, facebook message or aptly timed tweet from a reader has made my day! That said, I find that social media can also be terribly distracting. I've learned to "unplug" from time to time in order to maintain my focus on larger projects. It's all about balance.
6. Your Twitter handle is @sideshowami. Where does this moniker comes from?
A few years ago I was commissioned to write a play (Jerome: The Historical Spectacle) for Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company. It was for their "Theatre Off The Grid" series so I set it in the context of a traveling Victorian sideshow. I loved researching the world of sideshow performers and their lives, so when it came time to choose a Twitter handle, I chose @SideshowAmi.
7. You grew up in Indiana but now live in Canada. Did your upbringing reveal a fresh perspective on the maritime community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia?
Actually, my upbringing was one of the things that made Scots Bay feel like home to me. I grew up in a rural community surrounded by farmland and people who lived their lives by the weather, the seasons, and, as Dora says in The Birth House "crops that would keep." Although I lived in Chicago for several years before I moved to Nova Scotia, I think I brought a lot of Hoosier sensibility with me on the journey. The fresh perspective was something this community gave to me. It reminded me of the importance of embracing all the things I'd set aside while I'd lived in the city, all the lessons my mother had taught me while sitting at the kitchen table.
8. Your home has a special connection to the story in "The Birth House". Can you tell us how this came about?
My house was once the birthing house for the community. It was owned in the early 1900's by the local midwife, Mrs.E. Rebecca Steele, a woman who graciously invited young mothers into her home to give birth. She'd care for them and their babies for a week or more before sending them home to their families. Mrs. Steele and the house were the inspiration behind the novel. (For more on the history of the real life birth house of Scots Bay, you can listen to a CBC radio documentary I put together before the novel was written.)
9. So many fans are clamouring for your next book "The Virgin Cure". Do you care to share any teasers?
I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that it's set in New York in the 1870's and it's told through the eyes of a young girl living on the streets of the Lower East Side. The story itself was inspired by the work of my great, great grandmother who was one of the first female physicians in New York. She practiced at the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a clinic that mainly served the families that lived in the slums and crowded tennements of Manhattan.
10. Do you have any plans to bake a groaning cake in the near future?
Any day now, I'd guess. My whole family loves the stuff and the recipe makes great muffins to have with tea. You don't have to wait for a birth to make it. Try baking groaning cake, it's a delicious treat for new mothers, for book club gatherings, or just tea with friends.
The tradition of the groaning cake, or kimbly at (or following) a birth is an ancient one. Wives' tales say that the scent of a groaning cake being baked in the birth house helps to ease the mother's pain. Some say if a mother breaks the eggs while she's aching, her labour won't last as long. Others say that if a family wants prosperity and fertility, the father must pass pieces of the cake to friends and family the first time the mother and baby are "churched" (or the first time they go to a public gathering) after a birth. Many cultures share similar traditions…a special dish, bread, or drink, spiced with cinnamon, all spice, and/or ginger. At one time there was even a "groaning ale" made to go with it.
I made groaning cake the day of my son's home birth and my neighbour brought me "health bread" the day after the birth. This recipe is a combination of the two. It has apple, molasses, orange juice and spices and can really help to see a woman through a long labour, or give her strength after the birth!
2 ½ Cups Flour
2 tsp. Baking powder
½ Cup oil
1 tsp. Baking soda
½ Cup orange juice
2 tsp. Cinnamon
¼ Cup molasses
½ tsp. Ground cloves
1 1/3 Cups sugar
1 ½ cups apple (grated, no skin)
1 tsp. Almond extract
Sift dry ingredients together. Add apple. Beat eggs. Add oil, orange juice, molasses and sugar. Add to dry ingredients. Mix well. Add almond extract. Bake at 350 F. for 35-40 minutes. Makes two 9 X 5 loaves or about 18 muffins.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Canada Reads debates will be hosted by Jian Ghomeshi at the CBC's Canadian Broadcast Centre in Toronto on February 7, 8, and 9, airing at 11 a.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET (2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland).
Check out the Canada Reads updates on the CBC website. You can attend the debates taped in front of a live audience, follow the debates on CBC Radio One or watch the live stream and chat. Find Canada Reads on Facebook and Follow Canada Reads on Twitter.
Wanda Lynne Young