Q & A with Call of the Sea author, Amanda Labonté

The discipline of writing fantasy and supernatural fiction has always fascinated me. An author in these genres has to convince a reader of events, characters, and situations that the reader knows cannot be real.

This seems like an extraordinary challenge. It’s far from straightforward to convince a reader to believe in events that can and do occur, let alone those that don’t. Adding known impossibilities to the burden of literary proof takes a great deal of guts and imagination. I admire the ambition, the focus, and the steadfastness of writers who work in the fantasy genre.

One particularly fine example is Amanda Labonté, whose recent novel, Call of the Sea, was published by Engen Books.


When I first read Amanda’s fiction, I was struck by how well she had interwoven timeless-seeming folklore and legend into thoroughly modern settings. Her protagonist is Alex who comes under suspicion when his twin brother disappears over the side of their fishing boat. His search for his brother, combined with his need to clear his name, sees him plunge into a world of magic and mermen lore.

Q1: One quality in Call of the Sea is that rather than disrupting the atmosphere of mermaids, mermen, siren calls and ancient songs, the taut and contemporary passages actually heighten the magic, partly through contrast, partly by anchoring the overall experience in a world we know. Was it a conscious decision to write a ‘modern’ fantasy with ancient, folkloric elements?

Amanda Labonté: In many ways, this is the only way I could have written this story. I toyed with setting the story in the past, but the story really dragged. Once I moved it up to the here and now, the story flowed much better and the motivations of the characters made a lot more sense to me, making them easier to write. Since Call of the Sea was my first book, getting the story out was the most important part of the writing process. As for the fantasy elements, incorporating mermaid mythology felt really natural. The setting really lends itself to the idea that there’s more under the waves than we can possible comprehend and I felt like this mythology made sense with this setting.

Q2: Connected to the above, would you ever set anything in an entirely fantasy world? How might the challenges differ?

Amanda Labonté: If the right idea struck me, I would definitely consider setting a story in an entirely fantasy world. It would have some interesting creative challenges because world building is its own special skill set. The biggest issue would be making the world relatable. Even when a reader hasn’t been to a particular city or town, there’s a preconceived idea of what that place is like because it’s part of our collective conscious. Whereas an entirely made-up world doesn’t have that built in awareness. At the same time, stories like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are timeless, so it’s something I would like try in the future.

Q3: The richness of the mythology in Call of the Sea is very striking. It seems there must have been a great amount of working out the folkloric details in advance, and the sheer discipline is impressive. How much of this is imagination, how much research? Which parts do you, as writer, find most exciting?

Amanda Labonté: The fun thing about writing a fantasy story set in Newfoundland is that there’s an appreciation for the paranormal and supernatural. I grew up with the idea that you leave bread on your doorstep at night in order to appease the fairies. Since I grew up around these kinds of stories, I think that made creating my own mythology a lot easier. I really jumped into researching sea creatures like mermaids and sirens but I was less interested in how they were supposed to look or act – that’s what I took from my own imagination – and much more interested in what elements I could take that would make their existence as believable to my characters as the fairy stories were to me. In the end, the use of music was one of the key elements of the mythology that I highlighted in my story.

Q4: The setting is Newfoundland, your home, and in particular an aspect of Newfoundland culture that resounds strongly to people who were raised in Newfoundland and Labrador i.e. in the beginning in which the brothers are taking part in the food fishery. What did it mean to you to start the story here? I’m thinking particularly of the thematic underlay of a young man going missing, apparently being swallowed by the sea – does this have more resonance post moratorium?

Amanda Labonté: The circumstances at the start of the book are definitely something I thought a lot about. In many ways, the fictional Clad’s Cove is very much affected by the same issues plaguing most rural parts of Newfoundland. The transition from a fishing based economy after the moratorium of the 1990s meant that many communities had to seek out new ways of making a living. Many communities turned to tourism with mixed results. Alex, the main character, and his brothers are growing up in an environment and lifestyle that they love, but that likely won’t be able to support them as adults. In many ways that makes the setting a little bittersweet.

Q5: Connected to the above, is there an inherent sadness is setting a Newfoundland fantasy at sea. Do you, and do you think your readers, associate the ocean with loss or at least yearning?

Amanda Labonté: The sea is both the most beautiful and most terrible setting imaginable. I love to look at it, especially when I visit the Cape Shore where the story is set. But at the same time, the ocean is terrifying. Not only because of all the tragedies that have taken place, but because it has so much potential to take away. Yet, for Newfoundlanders, being able to see the ocean is very comforting. Being landlocked can be a very uncomfortable feeling when you are used to seeing water on a daily basis. This juxtaposition is something I still find really interesting and I’ve experienced both feelings myself.

Q6: What other genres are you working with at the moment?

Amanda Labonté: I am currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Supernatural Causes. It’s very different from Call of the Sea in many ways in that it’s a vampire driven medical mystery series – all things that I had no idea I was interested in until the idea came to me. Like Call of the Sea though, I think Supernatural Causes is very character driven. I’ve really enjoyed trying something completely different.

I am also working on the sequel to Call of the SeaReturn to the Sea – which is also a great experience as it allows me to continue following the characters as they experience new, exciting circumstances.

Q7: In terms of reaching your market what special challenges, and indeed opportunities, are there for the fantasy writer?

Amanda Labonté: The thing about fantasy readers is that, if they like what you write, they want to see more of your work. They are voracious readers and they often reach out to authors, letting you know directly what they think of your novels. That means there are a lot of opportunity to sell your books directly at conventions and signings, but also through word of mouth since fantasy readers are quick to recommend books to each other. That can put some pressure on the writer, because you don’t want to disappoint a reader you feel like you know, but it’s also very rewarding.



Paul Butler – update on a new novel

Thanks for this, Susan!

Reading Recommendations

Paul Butler was previously promoted on Reading Recommendations in Sept. 2014 and Jan. 2015. He’s back now to tell us about a new novel that’s been published.

The Widow’s Fire
by Paul F. Butler
Published by Inanna Publication

The Widow’s Fire explores the shadow side of Jane Austen’s final novel Persuasion, disrupting its happy ending and throwing moral certainties off balance. We join the action close to the moment when Austen draws away for the last time and discretely gives an overview of the oncoming marriage between heroine Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. This, it transpires in The Widow’s Fire, is merely the beginning of a journey. Soon dark undercurrents disturb the order and symmetry of Austen’s world. The gothic flavor of the period, usually satirized by Austen, begins to assert itself. Characters far below the notice of Anne, a baronet’s daughter, have agendas of their own…

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The Widow’s Fire Update

Dear HB Creativity Clients and Friends,

In the coming months, I will be traveling to promote The Widow’s Fire, a novel exploring the shadow side of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. I hope to see some of you at the events listed below!

The Widow's Fire


Toronto: Inanna Publication’s spring book launch at Glad Day Bookshop, Church Street, Toronto, between 6:00-8:30pm, May 24. Full line-up: Sky Curtis, author of Flush; Lucy E.M. Black, author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Ursula Pflug, author of Mountain, Paul Butler, author of The Widow’s Fire, and Sonia Saikaley, author of A Pink Samurai’s House. With special guest jazz pianist Patrick Hewan.

New Brunswick

Fredericton: Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, University of New Brunswick, presentation, Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation in Historical Fiction, June 10

Reading (with Mary Corkery and Sky Curtis) at Westminster Books, Fredericton, 4:00-5:30pm., June 12


Edmonton: Reading at Audrey’s Books, June 27, 7.00 pm.

Lethbridge: Reading at Word on the Street, September 23, time TBA

British Columbia

Vancouver: Spoken Ink Reading (with Susan McCaslin) at Deer Lake Gallery, Burnaby, June 20, 8 – 9:30 pm

California, USA

Presenter, Jane Austen Society of North America, annual conference, Huntington Beach, October 5 – October 8. Presentation title: Updating Jane Austen’s Morality in 21st Century Fiction (time TBA).

I am continuing to accept very small numbers of clients for the online course, but places will be limited.

The Widow’s Fire update


Upcoming Events for The Widow’s Fire (2017)

  • May 24, Glad Day Books, 499 Church Street, Toronto, Inanna Spring Book Launch, 6 – 8.30 pm
  • Race, Gender & Sexual Orientation in Historical Fiction presentation at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs CCWWP Conference, Fredericton, June 9 -11 (time TBA)
  • June 12, Westminster Books, Fredericton, reading, 4 – 5:30. pm.
  • June 27, Audrey’s Books, Edmonton, reading, 7.00. pm.
  • September 23, Word on the Street, Lethbridge, Alberta, reading, time TBA.
  • 2017 JASNA AGM, Huntington Beach, California, Jane Austen in Paradise: Intimations of Immortality, presentation: Updating Jane’s Morality in 21st Century Fiction October 5 – 8.

More events will be added as they are arranged.

Instant Hook Writing Contest Results

I’m delighted to announce the winners and runners up of the 2016-17 Instant Hook Writing Contest. It was a very strong year indeed with over a hundred entries. A sincere thank you to all entrants for taking part and sharing their works-in-progress.

Winner: Bianca Lakoseljac (Ontario) Where the Sidewalk Ends

This entry grips the reader immediately as a romantically-involved couple encounter a street artist at sunset and the reader senses a gulf opening up between them. The story promises to reveal a great deal about the all the characters, and a touch of mysticism is very persuasively suggested through a heightened sensory awareness. Subtle, compelling, and economical, this is a thoroughly accomplished piece of writing.

Two runners-up (in alphabetical order):

Lea Storry (Alberta)  Me, You and Here

This very assured opening places the reader inside a relationship between a woman and man who must wait out a storm while on a canoeing expedition. The strength of the writer’s voice is particularly impressive as the protagonist claims reader intimacy to great effect. We feel a complex, layered past and well-delineated lines of conflict deep in the fabric of the prose.

Shawna Troke-Leukert (Newfoundland and Labrador) Forgive

This opening reveals a highly impressive mastery of plot as a woman entrusted with the care of a minor sees catastrophe unfold. The author effectively brings many crucial story elements —  very high stakes, dread of the future, just enough backstory — into play in the opening 300 words. There is a great deal going on but we experience it all properly without feeling that we’ve been told.

NOTE: There were many very worthy pieces of work which did not make the final shortlist. A short adjudication was written for each of the entries. Feel free to ask for this should you wish to receive this feedback.


Upcoming Events

The Widow's Fire

Events for The Widow’s Fire (2017)

  • June 12, Westminster Books, Fredericton, reading, 4 – 5:30. pm.
  • June 27, Audrey’s Books, Edmonton, reading, 7.00. pm.
  • September 23rd, Word on the Street, Lethbridge, Alberta, reading, time TBA.
  • 2017 JASNA AGM, Huntington Beach, California, Jane Austen in Paradise: Intimations of Immortality, presentation: Updating Jane’s Morality in 21st Century Fiction October 5 – 8.

More events will be added as they are arranged. See “About” page.

Quick update for the Instant Hook Writing Contest: large numbers of entries have slowed the adjudication process, but I will have notified a winner and runners up before the end of March. Many thanks for your patience!



Placed-Based Crime: Q & A with Susan M. Toy

Setting is often one of the most fascinating aspects of a crime novel. Sherlock Holmes would not have been the same without London, its hansom cabs, its street gangs, and its sharp division between the capital’s east and west ends. More recently, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels shoulder the history of Edinburgh, with its pubs, its narrow streets, and its seedy antiquity living on into the 21st century.

Anne Cleeves’s Jimmy Perez novels exemplify another kind of place-based crime fiction. Most of us in the English-speaking world have heard of Shetland, but very few people have set foot on the northern Scottish Isle. Placing a story in a location that is real yet quite remote has both advantages and challenges for the author.

This issue is the natural starting point for a Q & A with Canadian-born author Susan M. Toy, whose racy and compelling novel, Island in the Clouds, I’ve recently had the immense pleasure to read.

Island in the Clouds is part of Susan’s Bequia Perspectives series. A second novel, One Woman’s Island, is also set in the not-so-well-known Caribbean island where Susan has  resided for much of her life.


Question: I find it intriguing the way that you set up Bequia in the prologue as an island where the ex-pat populations of various countries converge and create a society of mysterious characters with shady pasts, “bogus German barons” etc. Is this, the ability to create a landscape half fictional, half real, one of the advantages of writing about a place you know well but not so many others do?

Susan’s Answer. Interesting question. Structurally, that Prologue began life as Chapter 2 in the novel. An editor suggested that placement brought the story to a halt and I should cut it completely, but I felt readers needed some backstory and information about a place they likely would not have heard about before, and I didn’t think I could weave all that seamlessly into the story. My decision to make this the prologue went against the advice of a couple of other writers and editors I consulted, but my main editor agreed with this decision so I went ahead and beefed up the information even more. Only one reviewer has taken me to task so far for including what she considered to be too long a prologue. As for your question … since moving to Bequia in 1996 I’ve always been a big booster of the place, although my love for it is now more bitter-sweet with the passing of time, and as more of the reality of life in “paradise” reveals itself. There is a great deal that’s fictional in my writing, but so much has gone on here over the years and we’ve met so many real-life “characters” that it’s difficult, and often not necessary, to make up stories. (In fact, I often say when I hear about something unbelievable that’s happened, “I just can’t make that up!”) So I guess I walk a fine line between revealing too much that’s factual, thereby angering people involved, and making up too much, and having those who know Bequia claim, “That’s not how it is!” Aritha van Herk once said in a workshop that “the best writers are translators rather than inventors,” so while I do need to “imagine” a Bequia that in many ways doesn’t completely exist, I still feel it’s my duty to use the backdrop I have here, to “translate” Bequia, and make my story as realistic as possible, for the sake of my readers.

Question: I was impressed by many lines describing Bequia, particularly touches like, “The sky was already eye-piercing, clear blue”..You capture the beauty of the place and those things you find irresistible. You describe Bequia in your prologue as “late bloomer” in the competitive Caribbean tourist industry and this gives a retro feel to the place. But despite your explanation of the phrase, “Island in the Clouds,” you are careful not to romanticize. There is light and shade, good and bad. I think I read somewhere that you like the island to be a character in the novel, and this comes across. Can you expand on that?

Susan’s Answer. Before this first novel was published, I was working with an established author who mentored me while I wrote the third book in this series. At the time, I suggested my idea to him that the island itself was a character, and he said, “Impossible! The setting can never be a character.” I didn’t disagree with him at the time, but then thought of many books I had read in which setting WAS very important, to the point of becoming a character. I’ve taken this idea a little further by writing my series of “Bequia Perspectives novels” in a way that Bequia has become the thread, or character, if you will, that ties the series together. Each novel is told from a different perspective (and the third novel will be told from several different perspectives). While Bequia is the same island in each book, the place means something different to all the characters – as it does indeed in real life to the various people who live here and visit.

There are people we’ve met during our years on the island who still believe this is the most wonderful place in the world. There are others who, due to various experiences, have had their blinders lifted and see Bequia in a very different light. I’ve tried to represent the island with “warts and all” in an effort to be realistic rather than romantic. For the most part, readers and reviewers have responded positively about the way I’ve depicted the place and its people. Those who have complained I was inaccurate have actually had far different experiences with this place, so they can’t or won’t accept my depiction of Bequia. I heard from a friend that one ex-pat woman said she felt my treatment of the police in the book was all wrong and very unfair … until she was robbed and had to deal with those same police. Suddenly, she was claiming I was extremely accurate. What I write about the police in Island in the Clouds is all based on personal experience, right down to the constable, supposedly investigating a robbery at our house, asking whether I had any John Grisham novels on my shelves. As if! I wanted to say to him!

Question: Your plot grips the reader straightaway as your protagonist, Geoff, finds the dead body of Sarah, an acquaintance, in a swimming pool, and then becomes the chief suspect. Even while we’re propelled forward by the story, you manage to create a rich sense of place and a layered backstory. Did you find this difficult to achieve?

Susan’s Answer: Beginning to write this first novel was a total surprise to me. I’d had a run-in with someone on the island and was fuming, so to burn off that steam, I took a pad of paper and pen to our neighbour’s house, sat next to their pool and “saw” a body floating in the water. I began writing and the story flowed out of me. That first draft was easy to write, but I went through many more drafts after that first, and the MS was beta-read by friends on Bequia as well as others I still knew in the book business. The layering of details and story line development, even new characters added to the plot, were all slowly incorporated as part of the process of editing and rewriting the novel – this took me ten years to complete. In the meantime, I was also writing the next three novels in the quartet, so not only could I see how to best tell the story of this first novel, I had a good idea of where I was going with all four stories, and how to tie it together as a series.

Question: Geoff is very real, along with a shady past of his own and believable desires and feelings. How did you find writing from the point of view of a man?

Susan’s Answer: It was never intentional! When I began writing by the pool, a man’s voice was narrating the story in my head, and I went with that. My partner is a property manager in real life, so while he is NOT Geoff, many of Geoff’s experiences in the novel are stories Dennis has told me about his job and those crazy encounters and situations that happen all the time. We’ve come to call them ‘A Bequia Moment’. Dennis will now often come home from working around the island and say, “Wait until you hear what happened today! You could put this in your next book.” So I never lack material. My second novel, One Woman’s Island, is narrated by a woman; this novel is very much my own story and experience of living on Bequia. I don’t think I ever consciously decided though to write from a man’s POV in the first novel. It’s just what came out of my head and onto the paper that seemed most suitable for my purposes at the time.

For more information about Susan, her novels, and her blog, visit: