ALU Book Club: Interview with June Hutton, author of Two Gun & Sun

July 20, 2016

How frequently do you wish you could ask the author of the book you're reading questions about what's going on? Well, we're uniquely privileged readers here at All Lit Up, because we got to do just that with June Hutton, author of our July Book Club pick,  Two-Gun & Sun (Caitlin Press)! If you listened to last week's  staff discussion, you'll know that we all fixated on June's use of turn-of-the-century technology in the book, as well as her rich cast of characters – both fictional and historical. Check out June's answers below (hint: she interviews as well as she writes, that is to say, very well) – and if you need a primer on Two-Gun, don't miss our  summary from week one.

Photo of June Hutton by Janet Baxter.

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How frequently do you wish you could ask the author of the book you're reading questions about what's going on? Well, we're uniquely privileged readers here at All Lit Up, because we got to do just that with June Hutton, author of our July Book Club pick,  Two-Gun & Sun (Caitlin Press)! If you listened to last week's staff discussion, you'll know that we all fixated on June's use of turn-of-the-century technology in the book, as well as her rich cast of characters – both fictional and historical. Check out June's answers below (hint: she interviews as well as she writes, that is to say, very well) – and if you need a primer on Two-Gun, don't miss our summary from week one.

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ALU: The detail that you go into with regards to specific technologies of the period in which Two-Gun is set is astounding. How much research did it take to learn the machinations of things like the printing press, the Zeppelin, and agricultural marvels like solar panels and irrigation systems? Did you take any liberties with your depictions?

June Hutton: Every liberty I take (hint: that means I take plenty) has its roots in fact. I used to operate a printing press, a newer offset, so I had some idea of the printing process. However, Lila would have been using an offset press, which is a much older style of equipment. And I wanted it to be huge, to fill a room. I did a lot of research online and in libraries and determined that such a beast existed (a Goss 4-deck Straightline Newspaper Letterpress) but it was too big. I also wanted it to be web-fed, in other words, to print from a large roll of paper. I interviewed a pressman who used to work on letterpresses, to learn some of the finer details, and I toured the Ho Sun Hing Printing shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown just before it closed a couple of years ago, to get the atmosphere right. Also, I used to work as a reporter at The Whitehorse Star, and its press shook the walls and floors and desks when it got rolling at the end of each news day. From all of this I had Lila’s uncle cobble together a unique letterpress, so that he could build what he needed, and so could I. No such press exists, but parts of it do. 

abelpifre_printingpress

Creating the secret garden in Lousetown was more writing fun than I thought possible. I was a member of Vancouver’s Still Creek Community Garden in its inaugural year, so I had learned a bit about irrigation systems and plant nutrition, but Lousetown would have to salvage what it could from its surroundings, and so I took a stroll in my mind and came up with bicycles, bathroom sinks and stolen radiators, and then plucked up from my imagination whatever was lying about for planters: rubber boots and women’s bloomers, for instance. The wackier, the better, was my rule of thumb. And by the way, Two-Gun Cohen really did do time in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where he worked in the prison vegetable garden. I’ll bet you thought I made that one up. 

Those solar dishes pop up twice in the novel. In the first instance Vincent uses a solar dish to power his printing press. I got the idea from the French inventor Augustin Mouchot, whose assistant Abel Pifre demonstrated a solar-powered steam-engine printing press way back in 1882. I was struck by the fact that it looked futuristic at the same time that it looked antique, and it generated steam power which got the steampunk in me all excited. I was particularly taken by this information: "Despite cloudy conditions that day, the machine printed 500 copies per hour of Le Journal du Soleil, a newspaper written specially for the demonstration." It would do just fine in foggy Lousetown. The main difference between the two machines was that the 1882 model was fairly small whereas Vincent's goes right through the roof, which is where he placed the solar dish. In the second instance I have Vincent place a similar solar dish in Lousetown's garden to add a boost of power to what the bicycles provide, because why not? I don't know if anyone has ever used one in a garden, but I thought it would be perfect in Lousetown's. 

 

ALU: Speaking of research, how did you come to know so much about your titular characters, Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen and Sun Yat-Sen? Did you always intend for them to be part of the book, or did their inclusion come later?

JH: Morris Cohen and Sun Yat-sen were there from the start. I was touring a museum in Cumberland BC when I saw an article that said the two men had met in Canada, and I thought: Wow, what a story. When later research advised me that Cohen made the whole thing up, and was a cheat, gambler and thief, too, I was initially devastated. There went my story, I said. Then I thought: Wait a minute, that IS a story. And if he could make things up and have them appear as the truth in newspapers and books (from China to Canada, as it turns out), then I saw no reason I couldn’t do the same. As I say in my acknowledgements, my story does not try to untangle the real from the imagined, but in the true spirit of fiction, revels in the snarls and contributes a few more in the process.

 

ALU: Tell us a bit about your chosen setting of Black Mountain. Is it based on a real place? How did you contrast the various places in your book?

JH: Black Mountain was inspired by the turn-of-the-century coal mining settings of Cumberland and Nanaimo BC, while the name of the shanty settlement of Lousetown is borrowed from the area of Dawson City, Yukon, where that town’s women of the saloon once lived. I contrasted the grime and soot of coal towns with the lush, garden settings and orchards surrounding Nelson in BC’s Kootenay region, where I used to live. Nelson was pretty, an Eden of sorts, but Lila’s life there was restricted. Black Mountain was contaminated and gritty, a hell on many levels, with the exception of the Lousetown garden, but it allowed her some freedom, especially from her overbearing father. So each setting in turn contained a contrast. Also, Black Mountain was in a desolate location, so the constant references to larger settings such as Montreal, Paris and Shanghai underscored this and, I felt, gave a magical feel to the reminiscences.

 

ALU: We noticed that you have a very interesting writing style: Two-Gun is written in the first person (Lila’s perspective) but using both “materials” – newspapers, invitations, notices and other print media – and operatic motifs to carry the story forward. Tell us more about it.

JH: Lila is all alone with few people to talk to, so it seemed natural she would find herself recording her thoughts as well as news items in her reporter’s notebooks. In this way she comes to narrate the story. The notebooks become as much diary as record of news, and the lines blur between them. Are invitations and the imprint of her name the subject of news, or are they hints of personal longing? I liked the ambiguity, and the trouble she gets into as a result. The operatic motif seemed a natural for the story, highly dramatic, a mix of love and action, and it injected a playful tone into what would have otherwise been a dark story. The print media itself brings in such great texture, too. I wanted readers to feel the roughness of the surfaces, so I was delighted when Vici Johnstone, publisher of Caitlin Press, chose ragged edged paper for the book, and French flaps for the cover. It makes for a perfect package for such a story.  

 

ALU: How did you develop Lila as a character? Were you reluctant or ecstatic to end her story the way it did? Where would you imagine Lila to be now? 

JH: Initially I had a great deal of trouble writing about Lila. My first novel, Underground, was written from the perspective of a man and I suppose I’d gotten used to it. In trying to write like a woman (which you would think would be easy) I found I had her giggling and fussing away – it was just plain awful. So I put her in a pair of coveralls and workboots and then she snapped out of it. I could even dress her up once in a while, too. I had that ending in place from the start and then one of my readers, hereafter known as The Husband, said, oh you don’t want that, it’s a cliche, so I took it out. After I had developed the operatic themes some more I realized that highly dramatic was the point, and I put it back in. Any reluctance I’d had in the past disappeared with each revision and by the time I had that ending fixed I was ecstatic, I was cheering for her. (The Husband read the finished, published product, and agreed it was the right ending.) I firmly believe that wherever Lila is now, she is recording the events of the world around her, and hand-cranking a table-top press.

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Many thanks to June Hutton for her detailed answers on Two-Gun – we're feeling this book more than ever. To catch up on our book club happenings, click here.


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