Launching

Book Launch at The Avalon Theatre, Ottawa
Book Launch at The Avalon Theatre, Ottawa

“September 17: A novel” has just been published by Red Deer Press. It’s my first novel, and I’ve had been doing launches and readings in Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa.

The book is based on true events. I came across the story when I was at an exhibit called The Children’s War in the Imperial War Museum in London, during the fall of 2011. In the exhibit, I saw a photo from 1940 of a group of young boys, about 10 years old, with huge grins on their faces. They were wearing oversized sailor’s hats and waving from the deck of a ship.city-of-benares-survivors-4

I think the caption might have read “Children Back from the Dead.” It went on to explain that the boys had been in a lifeboat for 8 days, after their evacuation ship, the SS City of Benares, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic. I looked again at their faces, at their smiles. I was hooked. I started to read everything I could about these boys and the terrible fate of the SS City of Benares.

I spent many happy hours in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, where there are audiotapes of some of these boys and other survivors. As I listened to their accounts, and as I learned more about the 100 children who were aboard the City of Benares, I knew I needed to tell their story. More than that, I wanted to get as close to them as I could so that I could tell the story from their point of view.

In March of 2012, Tim and I stayed in Salcombe, Devon. We found a perfect cottage by the sea and spent a blissful month writing, walking and immersing ourselves in town life. The photo at the top of this blog site shows the view from my writing desk. It was at that desk that I began the first draft of the book. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll see the book on the desk is “Miracles on the Water” a great resource book about the City of Benares by Tom Nagorski.

As I wrote I realized I wanted to try to capture the story from the children’s perspective. I thought that might be easier to bear, because they didn’t know how horrifying their situation was. For the longest time, the boys thought it was the best adventure in the world. Sitting in the lifeboat one of them asked: “Which would you rather be? Bombed in London or torpedoed in the Atlantic?”

September 17Writing the book is a tangible result of Stepping off the Treadmill. The book happened because I had stepped out of my regular life. I was somewhere else, open to new ideas, new people, new possibilities. It happened because I had the time to be curious, to do research and to fall in love with a group of children.

Now, I am able to share the story. I have been reading segments of the book aloud, and every reading reconnects me with the children. I’m reminded of their bravery, their humour, and their strength. But of course I can’t help but be aware of the enormity of the tragedy, and the loss of so many young lives.

An amazing coincidence happened when I went to Kingston with the book. John Lazarus, one of Canada’s foremost playwrights, came to the launch. He was excited that I had written a book about this almost forgotten piece of history. His uncle, who he is named after, was the deputy radio officer on the City of Benares. His uncle John went down with the ship as he tried to radio for help for the children.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of September 17 goes to the charity Save the Children. Save the Children is the world’s leading independent organization for children, delivering programs and improving children’s lives in approximately 120 countries. Save the Children ensures that the health, education and rights of children are protected worldwide.   For more information visit www.savethechildren.ca

You can find out more about September 17: A Novel at http://www.amandawestlewis.com/#!september-17/cfbh

And of course I’m always happy to do readings…

Staying Off the Treadmill, A 2nd Anniversary

Early morning paddleIt has been two years since Tim and I started off on our “Gap Year for Grown Ups”, two years since I began this blog. At the time, I thought I was taking a year’s leave of absence from my job. An unstructured year of travel was bracketed, I thought, by structure. I had a job, I’d be away for a year, I would go back to the job. As far as life changing adventures go it felt relatively safe.

But travel changes a person and time waits for no man – to use two well-worn clichés. The organization that I was absent from altered so much in my year away that my job became unrecognizable. Life on the road brought me into a different understanding of myself and who, perhaps, I wanted to be. I could not go back to where I’d been before. I began looking for a different treadmill.

Some of the lessons that I have learned in the year since we’ve been home have been harsh. Job hunting when you are a woman of a certain age is painful and soul sucking. “A lifetime of experience” became a negative phrase. The matter of an income weighed heavily as did the lack of independence and personal status. As I frantically tried to step back onto a treadmill, any treadmill, every foray made me question what on earth I was doing.

Set against my anxiety has been my continued freedom. Remaining off the treadmill has given me a chance to be more accessible to family, friends and community. I’ve had time to do a couple of meaningful volunteer projects. I’ve been back in my calligraphy studio, remembering how much I love the shape of letters. I was able to travel to Mexico to visit my mother. I had time to go on a pilgrimage to California with my father’s ashes. I’ve made sure to begin each day with a calm walk down country roads.

Most excitingly, I’ve written a book that will be published this fall — September 17: A Novel. I hadn’t expected that to happen but that’s the great thing about being in freefall – you just don’t know what you’ll find.

“…Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

 Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and bookshelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs…” (Alice in Wonderland)

While I was looking around me, I discovered a story that needed to be written. Like Alice, it came from a picture that I saw on a wall, a picture of a group of 5 little boys, grinning from ear to ear, wearing oversized sailor’s uniforms and waving from the deck of a ship. They had just been rescued after spending 8 days on a lifeboat in the Atlantic. The picture led me to the story, and into writing a novel.

September 17: A Novel is based on true events. It follows a group of children who are being evacuated from England to Canada during the Second World War on The SS City of Benares. Told from the perspective of the children, it is a story about their dreams of a life across the ocean, a life free from bombs, free from fires and death, free from food rationing. When their ship is torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it becomes a story of adventure, survival, loss and incredible bravery. September 17 is published by Red Deer Press. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Save the Children, and I am looking forward to working to help them raise funds for their worthy efforts on behalf of children. I’ll be having book launches in Toronto and Ottawa this October and I hope you’ll join me if you are around.

The boys from Lifeboat 12
The boys from Lifeboat 12

Travelling was very much an Alice in Wonderland adventure for me. But since I have been home, those boys have helped my temperament to become  more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz than Alice.

“What have you learned, Dorothy?”

 “I think that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again l won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there l never really lost it to begin with.” (The Wizard of Oz, MGM 1937)

Looking in my own backyard
Looking in my own backyard

I’ve spent this year paying attention to my own backyard, literally and figuratively. I’ve also been connecting with friends in the theatre community, with the result that I’ve got funding to work at Theatre Direct in Toronto this fall. I’ll be involved with two of their new projects – theatre for the very young (toddlers) and theatre for children with autism spectrum disorder. The latter will pick up on the work that I previously did in Ottawa, and I’m thrilled to be working with Jacqueline Russell from Chicago Children’s Theatre again. It is an exciting and rewarding area for me to be focusing on.

I’ve also begun my own business, The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, dedicated to developing and producing theatre for children and youth.

Ottawa Children's Theatre
Ottawa Children’s Theatre

I’m working with Jan Irwin and Easy Avenue Productions to develop a new theatre piece based on Brian Doyle’s book Up to Low. The Ottawa Children’s Theatre is also going to offer acting classes for kids aged 5 – 15. I’ve got a stellar line up of teachers for the fall, and, I’ve partnered with the Acting Company to operate out of the newly renovated Avalon Theatre in Ottawa’s Glebe. It’s an exciting new venture.

So it would seem that I have accepted that I am not getting back on the treadmill any time soon. To be fair, I’ve lived most of my life as a freelance artist. Working for someone else, for a steady pay cheque with benefits, turns out to have been an aberration. While there are things about that job that I miss terribly, I know I am on the right path. So I am celebrating the 2nd anniversary of this blog fully off the treadmill.