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Interview: May 14, 2010

Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name, Ben Farmer’s EVANGELINE chronicles a young woman’s decade-long search for her fiancé, from whom she was separated during the Acadian exodus in 1755 from present-day Nova Scotia to Louisiana. In this interview with’s Eileen Zimmerman Nicol, Farmer explains what he finds appealing about Longfellow’s poem, and discusses the challenges he faced in taking liberties with the narrative without conflicting with his source material, as well as with historical fact. He also elaborates on the strengths and weaknesses of his main characters, describes his lengthy and painstaking editing process, and shares details about the two novels he’s currently working on. At the opening of the book, Evangeline carefully avoids situations where she might be swept away by her passion for Gabriel, preferring to wait until they are married. How did you investigate the mores of the times?

Ben Farmer: The Acadians frowned on kissing, so even Evangeline and Gabriel’s restrained scene in the orchard contains some adventurous moments for Grand Pré. The Acadians’ scruples are meant to be contrasted by the callous behavior depicted throughout much of the sparsely settled frontiers of the New World. Most of the Acadians wind up settling north and south of New Orleans, but my narrative carried Gabriel and his companions through New Orleans to show the diversity of settlement these people might have been exposed to. My research began in contemporary nonfiction, but as I wrote, I found myself increasingly relying on sources from or nearly from the first half of the 18th century, and I found myself impressed more by the pragmatism than the prudishness.

BRC: You mention in the acknowledgments that the project took longer than you anticipated. Why?

BF: Editing EVANGELINE, which I describe below, took a while longer than anticipated. It was about a year and a half before I had a working draft, and about that long again to refine it. It was impossible to prepare for how difficult it would become to declare EVANGELINE finished and ready for the printer. Overlook kindly allowed me to continue working my way through drafts until I was closer to satisfied.

BRC: After Evangeline and Gabriel, Felican, the priest who becomes Evangeline’s guardian, and Bernard, the trapper who accompanies them down south to search for Gabriel, are the two most fleshed-out characters. Were they real people, or did you make them up? What purpose do you feel they serve in the narrative?

BF: Felician is a character in Longfellow’s poem. Bernard is my creation. They are Evangeline’s reluctant guardians, and the scenes that revolve around them hopefully advance the readers’ understanding of Evangeline from perspectives other than her own, while creating characters deep enough to have their own desires and designs on the novel. They don’t serve a single purpose in the novel, but considering them as a single entity, Felician and Bernard are further evidence of men not getting what they want from Evangeline.

BRC: From the start, Evangeline is headstrong and determined, not letting people’s opinions of her stop her from her dream of finding Gabriel. She spends a lot of time fending off the unwanted advances of various men she meets, from strangers to companions. How does this add to the view we have of her?

BF: When thinking about what might propel a person across years in search of a love she has yet to know, I imagined that such a journey would require a character with a great deal of self-confidence, physical courage, and one who is intellectually and emotionally independent.

Evangeline is beautiful, and this --- like her confidence, loyalty, and self-awareness --- changes somewhat in its expression, perhaps, but is largely undiminished by age or deprivation in exile. This is another factor in her continued isolation from her Acadian contemporaries.

BRC: How does Gabriel change from the beginning of the novel to the end? Do you see him as a victim of circumstance?

BF: I hope Gabriel’s character remains consistent in several ways throughout the novel: he shies from taking control, he prefers to leave the burden of decision with his father, and then, when it becomes his own, he believes that he acts poorly. Gabriel is a reluctant and unconfident adult, who finds himself withdrawing to a solitary existence in the swamp, despite his marriage to Anna in the latter stages of the novel. This, as is the case with most of the major events of Gabriel’s life, is suggested by another, Anna. Gabriel marries her reluctantly, guilted into sheltering his child under the public assumption that it is his dead best friend’s. Still, Gabriel is not merely a victim of circumstance. There are examples --- in Evangeline, Philippe, and Alexander --- of those who sculpt better lives out of equally difficult conditions.

BRC: Do you believe a pretty young woman would go through as much trouble and time today to find her fiance?

BF: Yes, I hope that she would. I believe contemporary people go through different, but significant, hurdles in pursuit of a loved one. And if they don’t, I believe they should.

BRC: You’re not afraid to pepper your prose with words that might send the average reader to the dictionary, like “berserker” and “animadvert.” Is this a reaction against the “dumbing down” of much contemporary fiction?

BF: Thank you for the compliment, but I feel like I kept the language plain. I have never been fond of repetition, and that probably leads to some variation with the vocabulary. That is not necessarily a good thing, as straightforward is usually best, and it is easily possible to distort a meaning by reaching for a thesaurus. Because of the material, I do use some terminology that is antiquated, but, acting on advice from my editors, tried to discreetly attach explanations.

There are more people writing than ever before, which probably accounts for any perceived “dumbing down” in contemporary fiction. In my unsubstantiated opinion, there is as probably as much good writing, and as many good writers, as ever. It is significantly easier to get your words in public, however, and the scrutiny writing is subjected to before being published should be increasing, not decreasing, especially as technology renders old and new books both more accessible. I’m fond of the saying, “Any book is a child’s book, if the child can read.” People can take a certain responsibility over their own education fairly quickly, given satisfaction conditions otherwise. I believe an interested mind will see around contemporary babble if given a chance, especially if our culture --- and our parents --- help out by not assuming that something being widespread is a sign of its quality.

BRC: Did you ever feel constrained by historical facts when you were writing this tale? Or did you feel free to elaborate or perhaps even prevaricate?

BF: As I said above, I tried to write a novel that didn’t disagree with either poem or my sense of recorded history, with the fiction confining itself to the narrow strip of overlap between. I did feel free to prevaricate, and did so consciously at least one time. The Young Men dried up in New France around the beginning of the 18th century, but I wanted to include them as a contrast to teeming New England militia, as representative of the difference in how England and France controlled their North American colonies.

BRC: Your story spans 13 years. How did you decide which events to bring to life? Tell us about the challenges of holding a reader’s interest throughout such a long passage of time.

BF: This was difficult. In Evangeline and Gabriel, I have two characters who want pretty much the same thing for a long time. I was challenged to find new ways to express this without becoming repetitive or overly systematic. I began my writing thinking, ‘What can I include?’ (both in terms of events in the lives of my characters and events in history that might shape some of their decisions) and by the end of the editing process instead thought, What do I need to include? Ultimately, I felt that much of what I wanted to include muddied rather than illuminated my characters. By this I mean to say that in a novel, it is often the way a character does something once often becomes more than a sum of their actions in terms of expressing their personality. If Evangeline was placed in a situation that might remind her of Gabriel, and she instead thinks of someone else, or moves on without reflection, then that scene might show more about her character than if I mentioned that she missed Gabriel. Which I do plenty.

BRC: What virtues was Longfellow celebrating in his poem? Are they different from the ones you chose to emphasize? If so, why?

BF: The piousness of Evangeline and her embodiment of the consistency of women are often mentioned as virtues Longfellow was celebrating in his poem. I didn’t create an Evangeline with the sense of propriety evident in Longfellow’s poem, as this disagreed with my notion of the sort of personality well-suited to traversing the colonial frontier. I did keep Evangeline involved with the church in Grand Pré, and though propriety and piety are often seen as related behaviors, I tried to separate them in her.

Longfellow extolled the peace and prosperity of a peasant life, and echoes of this might be seen in Basil, and others of my characters who avoid towns for fear of the turmoil those more densely settled areas bring. I find in both poem and novel an appreciation of unwavering individual scruples in the face of tyrannical and unsympathetic behavior on the part of bureaucratic empires.

BRC: Were you tempted to “update” the tale for modern readers? If you feel you did, what parts are examples of this? Was it hard to work with material over 200 years old?

BF: It took a certain liberty in writing a book in English about French speakers. Here, I was fortunate that both the original telling of the tale I use as the backbone for my novel, Longfellow’s Evangeline, and prominent retellings, including Voorhies’ ACADIAN REMINISCES, are also in English. I suspect the French embarrassment over having supplied little assistance to the Acadians (prior and subsequent to their deportation) resulted in light treatment of the Acadians both in French historical records and in the fiction of a people poised on the brink of a national pride movement. Of course, that is an opinion. Easier to prove is that the English suppressed their documentation of the massive deportation, which would have required a mountain of paperwork, detailing ships and men that were used to remove thousands from their homes.

I believe the rhythm of the dialogue is not period appropriate --- though the vocabulary is --- and this was a conscious concession to the modern audience that I hope to interest. I would say I attempted to have the characters speak a bit more casually, which I hoped allowed a contemporary reader more clarity regarding the characters’ wants and personalities.

BRC: How did you edit your work? How many drafts were there before you were satisfied?

BF: Much of my editing began after I had completed what I considered the first section of the book, which ends after Evangeline’s thwarted visit to the harbor. I was fortunate to have a number of eyes on the manuscript throughout. Generally speaking, drafts were passed through my editor, Aaron, and then after addressing his comments (as he was the one compensated, albeit lightly, for honing the roughest edges), I passed the edited material to my brother and father, who applied a finer brush.

I had a working draft after about a year and a half, and then edited from there, though the book’s length continued to grow for several months before I started paring away in earnest.

BRC: What’s next for you as a novelist. Do you want to continue writing historical fiction?

BF: I have plans for my next two books, the first of which I might call historical fiction (though I would not refer to EVANGELINE as such) and the latter of which is a work of fiction in a contemporary setting. RIEL takes place late in the 19th century and revolves around the leader of the Northwest Rebellion. So I hope to write novels set in the past as well as novels set in contemporary times.

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