Interview with R.J. Harlick, author of Silver Totem of Shame

Interview with R.J. Harlick, author of Silver Totem of Shame thumbnail

Interview with R.J. Harlick, author of Silver Totem of Shame

Posted on August 5 by R.J. Harlick
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R.J. Harlick is currently touring western Canada talking about and reading from her new book Silver Totem of Shame. We were able to grab her attention for a few minutes and have her talk to us about her book, her research and her most memorable response from a reader.

Tell us about your book

I’m very excited about my new book, Silver Totem of Shame, the 6th in the Meg Harris mystery series.  I had great fun doing the research and writing it.  In this book I try something a bit different. While Meg is setting out to solve a murder and the mystery surrounding it, another story unfolds. A Haida carver sets out to depict an ancient story of shame and betrayal on a totem pole.
In this book, Meg takes on a new adventure, travelling with her husband, Eric Odjik, to the west coast of Canada.  While staying in Vancouver she stumbles upon the murder scene of a young Haida carver.  She discovers a disturbing connection between the adoptive mother of this young man and her husband.  This prompts them to fly to Haida Gwaii, the mystical land of the Haida, in search of the boy’s killer and his long lost family.  There she unravels a story of shame and betrayal the reach back to when the Haida ruled the seas.

How did you come up with the title

All the titles in the Meg Harris mystery series have a colour. So the difficult part was coming up with a colour for this Haida Gwaii book. I’d already used blue and green, two obvious choices, in previous titles.
While I was exploring the many channels and islands and the ancient Haida villages that make up Gwaii Haanas National Park, I realized there was another colour equally prevalent, silver. Those ancient totem poles that remain have weathered to a rich silvery sheen. Beaches comprising mainly grey stone line many of the coves. The skies and hence the seas are often silvery grey from the heavy cloud cover.  So silver seemed the perfect choice.
Integral to the narrative is the carving of a totem pole. So I felt totem should be part of the title.  The crests being depicted on the pole tell an ancient story that brought shame to the clan and its chief.
And so the title Silver Totem of Shame was born.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work and why you felt compelled to explore it.

Like the other five books in the Meg Harris mystery series, Silver Totem of Shame is about more than solving murder.  In each book as part of the story telling I explore the culture of a First Nation and issues facing its people today.  In this 6th Meg Harris mystery I explore Haida culture and most specifically Haida art as it is conveyed through totem pole carving and the impact Iron Men had on the once mightly Haida nation.

The overarching theme is one of exploring how events of the past come to haunt and determine the events of the present.  This is conveyed at several levels in the book. All of us are affected and shaped by what went on before us. Meg, her husband and the other characters in the book are no different.  None of us lives in isolation.

How did you research your book?

I imagine I could probably find most of what I need for my books on the Internet, but I’m one of those writers that can’t write about a place unless I have actually stepped where my protagonist will step and see and hear what she will see and hear.  I have found through experience that by being there I learn so much more.

After sending Meg to Baffin Island in Arctic Blue Death, because it was a place I always wanted to visit, I decided that every other book in the series would take place away from Meg’s Quebec home and in a different Canadian wilderness.  

So when it came time to write the 6th mystery, I decided Meg should travel to Haida Gwaii, another place I have always wanted to visit. I first learned of these mist shrouded islands when my father would speak of his time spent there one summer, when as a student he worked in a logging camp.  Back then they were called the Queen Charlotte Islands.

During my week long visit I spoke with many people who helped give me better insight into life on Haida Gwaii, its policing and its culture. I spent four days travelling via zodiac through Gwaii Haanas National Park getting to know its rich natural world and its ancient Haida one. I also spent long hours exploring the many exhibits at the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Linagaay. I feel Silver Totem of Shame is richer for it.   

But I didn’t rely solely on this visit for my research. I also used the Internet extensively and several books that helped me better understand the rich artistic world of the Haida.  And to ensure that I reflect the Haida culture as accurately as I can, I consulted with several members of the community, including the elders at the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program.

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

I love my fans and I adore hearing from them. They make the long, lonely hours spent writing all that worthwhile.  I enjoy getting to know fans over coffee, meeting them at store signings, library readings and conferences. I enjoy exchanging postings on Facebook and am always thrilled when a reader likes my R.J. Harlick Meg Harris Mysteries page.  In preparation for the release of Silver Totem of Shame I sent out notices to all those who have contacted me over the years. And was delighted to learn that several had pre-ordered their copies months ago.

But I suppose the person who stands out the most is the fan who drove several hours to meet me at a recent American book festival. She had discovered A Green Place for Dying at her library. She liked it so much she went back for the rest of the books in the series. Since they weren’t readily available in her library system she had them brought in through inter-library loan from libraries all over the States. She came to the book festival specifically to meet me and to buy my books so I could sign them.  I will always treasure meeting her and her little dog and look forward to continuing our dialogue via email.

R.J. Harlick

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014
R.J. Harlick photo

R.J. Harlick

R.J. Harlick’s love for Canada’s untamed wilds is the inspiration for the Meg Harris mystery series. The fourth in the series, Arctic Blue Death, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel. R.J. Harlick divides her time between Ottawa and west Quebec.