Dr. Elizabeth Epperly is having a pretty good few weeks. Last week, the LMMI celebrated its 25th anniversary, she is going to be a Keynote Speaker at the L.M. Montgomery and Reading conference in June, and this week she has a brand new picture book that she co-created with her sister and illustrator, Carolyn Epperly, Summer in the Land of Anne.
You're all invited to the launch of on May 2nd at the Faculty Lounge, University of UPEI at 7pm.
Today, Betsy and Carolyn talk about writing and creating the world of Montgomery together and get a sneak peek of the highly anticipated, "Betsy Talk."
Melanie Fishbane (MF): Your keynote talk is about the “Alembic of Fiction.” Can you describe for our readers what this means and how it applies to Montgomery’s work?
Elizabeth Epperly (EE): The real focus for my talk is TIME, and what passages in the (autobiographical) Emily series suggest, to me, about how Montgomery conceived of and transformed her experiences of time. An “alembic” is literally a device for distilling and is thus metaphorically a device for transforming one thing into another. I borrowed the phrase “alembic of fiction” from Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, who used it in their introduction to the fifth volume of the Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery (2004). Their metaphor seems especially appropriate for Montgomery since she was so adept at writing, in fiction, alternative versions of her own story.
MF: You’ve been part of the LMMI’s creation and have been a keynote speaker a number of times. How will speaking at this conference be different for you?
EE: As founder of the LMMI, and as an on-going board member and supporter, I have enjoyed so many aspects of our studying and celebrating Montgomery. There always seem to be new things to discover in her works because we have to be ready – culturally or individually – to be able to see them. While I was rummaging through my notebooks for ideas, I re-discovered (inexplicably stuck to the back of a current notebook!) a review my mother had sent me, in 1990, of a book about “mastering time.” When I hunted up the book and read it, it struck me that this theory about time is exactly what Montgomery’s Emily had to learn as a writer. So, preparing for this conference has helped me discover something already there in Montgomery that I was not ready to see before. How exciting is that?! I feel I am bringing my late mother to the conference with me in a new way.
MF: How was the creation process of writing a picture book different than writing your other work? Do you approach it in the same way?
EE: The writing process for this story was unlike anything else I have written. Succinct is the goal; evocative, the hope.Text and pictures need to work together seamlessly. My other print-form works spend more time explaining and proving or persuading. This picture-book story grew from the first line: “Mama, don’t go!” which was something I often said to our mother. I had no idea where it was going and when the first draft was completed, I started all over again. Each of the numerous times rewriting it, I was trying to get at the real story I wanted to tell: of Elspeth realizing what imagining and writing/reading can mean. I knew Carolyn would create pictures that make the written story live fully.
MF: What was it like working on this creative endeavour with your sister?
EE: I love Carolyn’s art. We both love Montgomery even though our ways of seeing are so different. I wrote the story, seeing it in my mind but not with actual pictures fixed in my head. Using the text, Carolyn and I each made a list of what we thought should be illustrated; we worked to agree on a final list. But even though we agreed on what would be illustrated, I did not know exactly what Carolyn would create. I’m always a little in awe of her creative process, and I am so happy with the results: her shapes and colours bowl me over!
MF: What is your favourite thing about working with Montgomery?
EE: The surprise of where she will take me next – and what that will teach me about her, myself, and the world.
MF: Thank you, Betsy. Now to hear about the other side of the creative process, the illustrations. Carolyn, what were some of the creative and artistic decisions you made based on Betsy’s text?
Carolyn Epperly (CE): When I photograph something, it is always with a painting in mind. Either as source material or an entirely complete image ready to paint, my personal photographs are a significant part of my creative process. Twenty-five years ago this year our mother, who helped establish our life-long love affair with Montgomery and the Island, was ill. Betsy had the idea of a collaboration to engage her imagination. With my oldest daughter (who was ten at the time), I journeyed to the Island and photographed Keely in every Montgomery location. Although the project faded when our mother recovered, I kept these images and ideas close to me over the years. Because of this trek in 1993, I had already painted many PEI scenes. This lovely story, however, created these illustrations. I merely recorded what I envisioned as I read it.
MF: Part of the fun of being an illustrator is having a story that plays with the text, but also has a few things that are specific to the story the illustrations are trying to tell. What little gems can we expect in this picture book?
CE: There are 3 illustrations that leapt to mind when I read this question. The first is my sepia-colored painting of a black and white photograph of Maud that hangs in the front hall of Green Gables. I wanted to make it fit more with the time in which it was taken when photographers used sepia (rich brown) tones in their developing. As the image ages, the tones deepen. I wanted that feeling for this image. Both of the next illustrations are from the same location, the beautiful Macneill property. Chipmunks fascinate and delight me so I wanted to paint them in a playful way. In the painting you must look closely to see the three I have partially hidden.
The fact that the house itself had been destroyed proved a challenge. Fortunately, a model had been created of it. I had some idea of its elevation. How, though, do you paint a house and still convey that it is not there? I chose to make it translucent; you see the fields, gardens, and hills as if you were looking through a gray filter. This way I hoped to present a ghost house as would be imagined by the family.
MF: What was your favourite thing about working with your sister on Montgomery?
CE: My favourite thing about this entire project was having an opportunity to be in close contact with my sister. You have to understand that she is charismatic, brilliant, and cute as a button, a thoroughly disgusting person. She is so compelling and interesting that she is in great demand and is therefore extremely busy. This wonderful project made it possible for me to actually speak with her without being the pesky big sister. A truly great.