A Literary Debut: Exclusive Interview with Toronto Author Elizabeth Wethers on Debut Novel, ‘Words Left Unspoken’

As the Authors at Harbourfront literary series prepares to wrap up for the summer this June, and with the intervening months between it and the Word on the Street book festival in September and the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in October, it’s a worthy time to note how literary Toronto is.

With the biggest public library system in North America, as well as a proliferation of writers from diverse backgrounds who readily identify as Torontonians and who also often write about the city, it’s not surprising that the atmosphere is always ripe for aspiring writers to get their start.

Elizabeth Wethers is one of such writers. A graduate of the University of Toronto with a degree in History and Political Science, Wethers has recently published her debut novel, Words Left Unspoken on the online book and retail giant, Amazon.com. A looping tale of relationships, fate, and consequences, Wethers’ literary debut places her in good company.

But first, a synopsis of the novel.

When young protagonist Liz goes away to summer camp for the first time, she doesn’t realize how much the experience will change her life forever. She meets and befriends James, and after years of shared summers, it becomes inevitable that the two begin to feel like more than just friends.

But this is not your typical girl-meets-boy romance. Words Left Unspoken is a chronicle of a relationship across time . . . but also across shifting realities. The book can rightly be called a trilogy in one volume. But rather than three consecutive stories, the novel takes the pivotal meeting between Liz and James and their subsequent relationship, and splits it into three very different, possible resolutions.

An intriguing take on an age-old genre, this debut work spans countries and years and is an exploration of love, fate, and consequence. For the sake of full disclosure, I have known Elizabeth for a number of years and had a chance to take a sneak peek at Words Left Unspoken even before its publication as an e-book on retail giant Amazon.com. So I wasn’t surprised when I found that she was already shopping it around to publishers and working with a publicist to build buzz for the publication of the novel both here and in South Africa, where she also has family.

Cadence had a chance to sit down with Elizabeth Wethers recently to talk about writing, travelling, literary influences, and Brad Pitt.

So you’re a published writer! How does that feel?

It’s slightly overwhelming. I think in some ways it was almost my tripping stone, that I had to get this book out so that I could actually then focus on other things, other books that I want to do. This one sort of held me back from doing things, so I’m happy now that it’s out there.

And it’s on Amazon.

Yes, it is.

Only the biggest e-book retailer in the world.

It is. It’s on Amazon.com, Amazon.uk, the Italian one, the Dutch one, the French one. I did not know until I looked myself up! It was very exciting. [Laughs]You get a very large ego boost from that.

So how’s it looking—sales-wise—just in general?

It’s looking quite well, for it to be just an e-reader right now. It’s not the big boom like some of the major authors out there, but it has been selling steadily and I’m very happy about that.

Nice. As any published writer will tell you, steady is key!

Exactly. I’m not going to complain!

So, Canada is where you’re from, as well as South Africa—as if you don’t already know!

[Laughs] And a bunch of other countries. My mum and I like to call ourselves “Heinz 57 fruity flavours” because we’re such a mix!

Where are you from? Or “wheres” are you from?

Well, I was born in Canada, but my ancestry is German, English, Irish, French, and South African. Like I said, Heinz 57 fruity flavours! [Laughs.]

Canada has a reputation for accomplished literary giants—we have Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, just to name two—and it’s also known for being a place where everyone comes from everywhere else and kind of becomes Canadian. So the fact that you’re a Canadian writer, the international community already looks at Canada like, “Yeah, you’ve got good stuff.” What do you think that bodes for your future as a writer?

Well, I hope people will be impressed that another Canadian writer is coming to the forefront—hopefully, if I come to the forefront, that is! I mean, I admire different authors. Lucy Maude Montgomery is one of my favourites; Mordecai Richler, I’m a big fan of. So I have looked into how other Canadian authors have done. And so I find that it’s hard to get into the Canadian market because we are such a small market; it’s easier to get into the American side. But I’m very proud of all Canadian authors being able to succeed here, and I hope one day my name will be amongst them. I doubt that I will be among some of the big names that are out there—don’t give me that look! [Laughs.] Maybe I won’t be a super-millionaire or completely famous, but if my books can be out there and people enjoy reading my books as a Canadian author—and this first book is set in Canada, so you do get that hint of Canadian literature. But also I placed the book in different locations in Canada so any reader around the world can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of Algonquin Park,” or “I’ve been there!” And they can relate in some way.

So what inspired you first of all to write a book?

It was just before I went into university; I was at the Toronto International Film Festival with a friend of mine and we . . . well, not we, actually, she wanted to see if we could see any stars, and I said we’re not going to see anyone. We actually ended up seeing quite a few stars, but our big one was Brad Pitt. He actually spoke to us and it was a grand, grand moment. And I said I wasn’t going to scream but, well, everyone else starts screaming and you just somehow find yourself screaming at the same time! So on the train ride home, she said to me, “Liz, write a book. Write a book about us that will become famous, and it’ll turn into a movie. Then we can play ourselves in the movie, and Brad Pitt can be in it, and we can walk down the red carpet.” And I said, “Ok, Anj. I’ll try.” [Laughs.] That summer after first year, the book really took off then. I’d worked on it a bit through first year, but of course I’m focusing on studies. But then it just took off and it just went from there until we got here, so many years later.

As you mentioned, the book is set in various locales and it features, pretty much, Canada! Tell me what made you want to include different places and not, say, one little apartment in Toronto?

I do set it primarily in Canada and an aspect of Ireland as well. It had to be about—well, the main character’s name is Elizabeth, so it is loosely based on me, but it’s no longer me. The main character has taken a life of her own. The locations I put in—especially in Algonquin Park and when she’s up in Northern Ontario—I spent many happy years at the cottage there. And that’s where I wrote most of the book, sitting in front of the lake, just suddenly being inspired. I find different areas in Canada very inspiring. We have so many beautiful areas, and I notice that a lot of books happen on the East Coast so I thought, Okay, let’s just keep it central to where I’m from, what I know. Let’s not branch way too far out yet. Maybe in another book I’ll write about some exotic place, but I like Canada! And a lot of people enjoy coming to Canada, and it’s very dear to my heart.

Now, to the book itself. The format is a bit unusual.

Yes, it is three stories. It was not originally going to be three stories; the middle story was going to be it. And then it lay fallow for a while, and then my character started saying, you’re not done! And then I wrote the third part, and then I wrote the first part. It just happened that way. I’m not exactly sure what my thinking was at the time, but now I find that the story is a little more clear as to what I wanted to convey and what the characters have definitely wanted to convey.

The way it is, it’s almost like a literary mystery, because you’re kind of making the reader figure out what’s going on, figure out which one of these happened.

[Laughs] Yes, I do try and do that, but the whole idea of the book is that she meets him when she’s a child and she grows old with him, in many different ways. But it’s very much a journey of life, and you’re not always sure as to what’s going to happen, and I wanted to keep it that way. Somebody said that I should have more character development, but I said, “You don’t fall in love with somebody right away, generally. It takes time to get to know them, and then you start to love them, and then you start to appreciate them for who they are.” That is why I created it so that you meet her when she’s young; then you meet her at different times for each story—she starts young, then she starts middle, then she starts old. So I have to admit, it’s books like this that bother me the most! [Laughs] I was like, “Let my readers have it that way!” That’s generally the way I remember the book the best, is that book that kept me wondering at the end of it. It annoys me . . . and it inspires me and it thrills me!

And at the end of the day you’re going to do the same thing to your readers.

Exactly! [Laughs] If I must suffer, so must you!

It’s often said that every author’s first novel has elements of the author’s own life. Would you say this is true of your book?

Yes, there are aspects of myself in there that are very true, more so in events that happened, people that I met that inspired me; like some people could come up to me and say, “Oh, I’m James, I’m Brent,” because I know people with that name. But it’s like, no, because it’s no longer one person. They became different people. With me and Anjna—my best friend’s name was Anjna—and so the way I described them is loosely based on us. But as I said, it’s more the events that happened. Well, when she’s older, of course I’m not dying, I’m not dead! So [the realism] is more things from her childhood, different conversations I had with my mom of things she told me that I did when I was little. And I thought, it’s good to add that hint of reality, and then people in their 40s can say, I’ve seen my children do stuff like that as well.

Speaking of your family, how are they taking it?

My mum and dad have been wonderful; they’ve been very supportive of all my writing. My mum and dad are extremely supportive. My parents always said when I was younger that I was a natural storyteller. I would create little plays in grades 1 and 2 when I would give everyone a part, and if they couldn’t remember their line, I would know their line. I would be the director, I would be the screenplay artist, I was the main person.

You were the dictator, you mean.

You know me too well. Nicely, nicely of course.

So, benevolent dictator!

[Laughs] So my mum and dad have been very supportive. My family down in South Africa, they’ve bought the book—a lot—and they’ve been cheering me on. My immediate family? They’re a little concerned. It’s not a conventional job of nine-to-five with a steady salary, but I know that they just want me to be safe and happy, and [know] that I will be taken care of. But, especially my friends, they are all cheering me on, and it’s very gratifying. I’m very honoured that I have such wonderful people in my life, to help me along.

You know, speaking of it now being a nine-to-five job, you’re going really hard on being a writer. You’re already planning the second book—I’ve been stalking you on Twitter, so I know.

Thank you!

You already have a publicist, so you’re really going hard on this.

I am. I’m working on a second book. It hopefully will be out by the end of the year, I’m finishing it up right now, and I’m going to be starting a third book, a non-fiction this time, in October hopefully, in South Africa. So it is a very exciting time for me. There are other books still sitting, laying fallow for now; I will go back and write a little bit. So it’s never like I’m working on just one book. I’m working on, like, six at a time. One will come to the forefront and I’ll work on it a little bit more. And then I’ll lose my inspiration, literally, and I’ll think, Oh, no, I can work on this guy because now I know how to work with him! And so my process is organized mayhem, but I like it that way. And nine-to-five—I don’t think I could ever actually do a nine-to-five job, especially with writing. I mean, I’ve heard of authors who get up and dress in a suit and go into their office every morning; I could not do that. My inspiration hits at very random times: midnight to 4 a.m. I could be writing in the middle of the day; I could wake up—and I have to admit, I love Blackberry because it has a little writing pad; so if I come to a stoplight, I am extremely bad. I will sit there writing every little thought that I have had. So my inspiration hits anywhere and everywhere . . .

So as a first time writer, what would you say that you’re working towards?

I would like my writing to eventually become a career where I will have more money come in so I can be a little bit more stable, and then I would be able to write other books as well. I think all authors say they want to touch the reader in some way, and in some way I do. I think this book will touch people in a very personal way; I think my other books I have planned will touch people in another way. I don’t want to be a one-genre type of writer. I want to be a renaissance woman. I want to write about everything. I have a couple of children’s books I’m working on, and I need illustrators for them—so if anyone who’s an illustrator is reading this, please get in contact with me! [Laughs.]

 

Elizabeth Wethers’ novel is available here as an e-book, with plans in the works to publish it in physical format. To give you a spoiler alert, Brad Pitt doesn’t make an appearance in Words Left Unspoken, but there are plenty of other reasons to pick up this debut coming from a talented young voice in Canadian literature.

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