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Sheila Peters on The Taste of Ashes

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The Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters

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About The Taste of Ashes 

Book Club Buddy: What do you think readers will find most notable about this book?

Sheila Peters: I’m very happy with the way the structure of the book works to weave together three characters’ stories in a way that compels readers to find their way through some of the more difficult events to a place of hope and reconciliation.

BCB: Who do you feel is the most memorable character in your book, and why? 

Sheila Peters: Father Àlvaro Ruiz snuck up on me as I was writing The Taste of Ashes. I am not Catholic and am more than uncomfortable with much of the church’s teachings. But I am fascinated with the way people of amazing diversity and beliefs negotiate their way through all that and make themselves a place within it. As Àlvaro struggles to do this, he finds links with his Mayan heritage and that of our own First Nations communities – links that Catholic missionaries may have forged on the surface, but connections that have roots in a much older indigenous spirituality linked to the land itself.

BCB: Which of the relationships between characters most interests you, and why?

Sheila Peters: Isabel and her daughter Janna have a very rocky relationship – and Janna has good reasons for being upset with her mother. And if her mother knew what Janna was doing, she’d be upset too. I was very interested in finding a way to portray the ways in which families wax hot and cold with each other – at times they want more than anything to be reconciled; at other times they are just plain irritated by each other’s behaviour. So often it’s what we do to try to reconcile that drives us further apart. I think I have succeeded in portraying this kind of relationship. 

BCB: Have you acquired any good anecdotes surrounding this book? 

Sheila Peters: I was with a group meeting with human rights activists who were investigating the murder of Bishop Gerardi (an important human rights activist) in Guatemala City. We were led through the church, down a corridor, across a garage and into a small room. It was as we were talking about the investigation that I looked out through the open door of the room to see a photo of Gerardi and a small shrine on the wall of the garage and realized that we had just walked across the site of his murder. The mundane facts of the cracked tiles on the floor, the light coming through the open door, the sound of birds outside all made the reality of what had happened there suddenly very real.

There were other instances of this as I travelled through Guatemala meeting with people who had lost whole families in the civil war there, a woman pointing to a place where her village used to be, a man showing us where they’d thrown his uncle’s body in the river – these were all very moving events.

BCB: Did researching and writing this book teach you anything or influence your thinking in any way?

Sheila Peters: One of the most wonderful things about writing is the way in which people open their hearts to you. My research gave me respect for the Catholics who are working hard to make their church more tolerant of the diverse nature of people’s faith and sexuality and less tolerant of the behaviour of some priests. It increased my respect for those who fight in dangerous situations for social justice. And it made me realize that sometimes it is the most dysfunctional families that are best equipped to dig in during crises and really support each other. 

BCB: What is one of your favourite lines or passages in the book, and why?

Sheila Peters: Isabel has three children – Jason, Trevor and Janna – each by a different father. In this passage, she is driving with Trevor, the child easiest to love, to Vancouver for a reconciliation with Janna. I love hiking but get nervous on very steep terrain – that fear gave me the perfect image to describe Isabel’s frame of mind on the journey south.

Trevor’s T-shirt stretched over the broad back and a line of paler skin showed on his neck where she’d trimmed his hair. On one ear, the studs they’d teased him about when he first got them glittered. Years ago now. Janna still living at home, happy when her brothers dropped by, all of them friends. Trevor and Jason swapping music, talking cars, electronics. Going fishing. 

Isabel looked up at the cliffs rising on the other side of the river and tried to imagine herself a mountain sheep on the tiny paths Trevor had pointed out to her. If a sheep could keep an eye on her kids in that terrain, she ought to be able to negotiate her way through the next few days. 

I used a similar hiking image when Father Walter, Àlvaro’s sometime mentor, encouraged Àlvaro to keep faith.

A voice called them in for lunch and Álvaro helped Walter to his feet. On the slow walk to the dining room, Walter told him about an old Carrier Indian who thought the priest needed a little instruction about love in marriage. It comes, he said, and it goes. Like the creeks in high places. You’re climbing right alongside one, drinking from it now and then, splashing it on your face to cool you down. Then it disappears. Where there was water, there’s nothing but a little spill of rocks and maybe a trace of dried mud. Your dog, he’s no help. He runs off whenever he sniffs out a patch of grass or snow to cool his feet. He probably knows exactly where that stream went, and he figures you do too. After all, you’re the boss. So you keep going, not wanting your dog to catch on to your foolishness. Then, a few hundred yards further up, for no reason you can figure, there’s water again and maybe a dipper. You take a drink and keep going.”

BCB: Can you suggest one question readers might find interesting to discuss, concerning you, your writing in general, or this book?

Sheila Peters: Do children need to know the truth about their families, even it’s a very difficult truth?

Photo of Sheila Peters author of The Taste of AshesAbout Sheila Peters

BCB: What charms you?

Sheila Peters: The way my brand new grandson quivers all over when he’s excited. Oh, for that energy, that intensity!

BCB: Where do you feel most comfortable, and why?

Sheila Peters: Lying on my very comfortable couch, reading a very good book. These days, I try to forgo the cookies that would make it perfect.  

BCB: What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?

Sheila Peters: I don’t have a clothes dryer – never have. I love the smell of laundry fresh off the line.

BCB: What’s the best decision you’ve ever made, and why?

Sheila Peters: Staying in Smithers instead of going to UBC to do my Masters in English (I did my Masters later, somewhere else) – I found a life partner and a wonderfully creative and supportive community. I also grew to love winter – a great time for writing.

BCB: In addition to writing, what else are you passionate about?

Sheila Peters: Reading, of course. Literary fiction, mysteries, travel writing, good journalism. I live in the mountains and I love hiking, snowshoeing – that wonderful feeling when you emerge from the trees into the high alpine – not much beats that feeling.

BCB: What is your creative process?

Sheila Peters: I worked with the wonderful writer, the late L.R. Wright, many years ago and was delighted when she described her process – beginning with a place, a character, an event and not worrying about where you might end up. Just write and see what happens. It’s what I do and I’ve stopped worrying about it. Imagine going for a hike with a dog; while most folks stick to the trail, the dog circles around, dekes off into the bush, chases its nose after a rabbit or a bear, comes back, and heads off again. Well, when I’m writing, I’m that dog. I get there, but I cover a lot of ground in the process.

BCB: Is there any new or established author whom you feel deserves more attention, and what is it that strikes you about his or her work?

Sheila Peters: Earlier this year, I read Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis.  She is an amazing writer – the stories should be bleak – they are about abandoned and widowed men, lonely people and sorrow, lives that are stuck and messed up. But somehow they’re upbeat – the characters are so strong and there’s always one extraordinary person coming along to shake things up. She lives in Victoria now… a real crackerjack.

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