We recently had the chance to ask Bernadette Calonego a few questions about herself and her writing process. Bernadette is a foreign correspondent, freelance writer and novelist. She was born and raised in Switzerland and now lives near Vancouver, British Columbia.
Bernadette’s novels were originally published in German before being translated into English by AmazonCrossing. Her most recent novel, The Stranger on the Ice, debuts this week. Her previously published English titles include Stormy Cove (2016), Under Dark Waters (2015) and The Zurich Conspiracy (2012).
Sin-CW: What was the inspiration for your latest book, The Stranger on the Ice? Tell us a little about the story.
Bernadette Calonego: I like to set my murder mysteries in remote Canadian landscapes, preferably in the North. These barren, isolated areas fascinate me and captivate my imagination. In The Stranger on the Ice, Valerie Blaine, a tour guide from British Columbia, takes a group to Inuvik, a small Inuit town near the Arctic Ocean. It is in that area that her mother died 30 years ago on a snowmobile expedition with her husband, Valerie’s father, a Canadian hockey legend. Valerie and her twin brothers were never told exactly how their mother died. Her death has always been shrouded in mystery. Equally mysterious is the very recent death of a young woman who was found just before Valerie’s arrival, near Inuvik on the ice road, a frozen runway that crosses the mighty Mackenzie River. Both deaths turn Valerie Blaine’s Arctic journey into a precarious search for the truth. She is helped by Clem Hardeven, a ruggedly handsome Northerner who has fled from his own past to Inuvik where he mingles with local Inuvialuit and Dene First Nations. Clem feels responsible not only for the upkeep of the ice road, but increasingly for Valerie’s safety as she attempts to unearth hidden secrets in this unforgiving vast frozen space.
What is it about the Arctic that made you want to set your book there? Have you ever been to the Arctic?
I caught the Arctic fever when I travelled through the famous Northwest Passage on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. At the time I was working as a foreign correspondent for European media and I had always devoured books about Arctic expeditions in the past. Such a lot of drama and suspense! Two years after my first Arctic voyage, I made the same trip as my main character, Valerie Blaine, and her tourist flock. I drove the Dempster Highway in late winter, stayed in Inuvik and travelled on the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk, where I reached the frozen Beaufort Sea. The Arctic is a place like no other on Earth. Life there is always a matter of survival, and many people have perished in this hostile, but incredibly beautiful environment. The Arctic has a strong pull, and the region attracts tough, independent and colourful characters. I also admire the Inuvialuit, as the natives in the Western Arctic call themselves. I like to think that they are the true adventurers of the ice-cold North.
Your novels are published in German first, and then translated for the English market. How did that come about?
I used to live in Switzerland and started writing in German. The first of my five murder mysteries were published by a German publisher. Eighteen years ago, I emigrated to Canada. My books caught the eye of the publisher AmazonCrossing in Seattle and they started translating my novels and publishing them. I work very closely with my translator, Gerald Chapple, and I feel very lucky to have his cooperation and support.
I have thought about writing in English but German is actually my mother tongue and I feel much more versed in German. But let’s never say never. Maybe one day I will write in English, too.
Do your characters come first, or do the stories (i.e., were the characters looking for a story or vice versa?)
Actually, I would say the locations come first. Then I think about what kind of characters would live in such places. My main character is always a woman—be it a photographer (as in Stormy Cove) or a lawyer or an event marketing specialist—and she acts as an amateur sleuth. Sometimes I’m inspired by actual events, which doesn’t mean the same events will occur in my crime novels. But they help me to create a certain atmosphere, or mood, circumstances, possibilities. Often the main character is raised in a different corner of Canada and travels to a remote area. Hence there are the options for culture clash, tensions, misunderstandings, but also attraction of opposites.
Imagine you’ve been kidnapped or trapped by a natural disaster. Which of your own characters (from any work) would you want to rescue you? Why?
Valerie Blaine, the heroine of The Stranger on the Ice, would be my favourite candidate. As a tour guide, she has to keep her clients safe and she has to be prepared for all kinds of dangerous situations. She is not afraid of travelling with people to the Arctic, a potentially hazardous or hostile area, with risks of extreme cold, sudden changes in weather and dangerous roads. She is resourceful and knows how to act fast and in a professional way. I have to say, I admire her tremendously.
Describe your current writing workspace(s).
I would definitely have to use the plural here because I travel a lot and I write in different locations. In Newfoundland, where I spend almost every summer and fall, I work in the home of a fisherman, in an annex of the house, a bright room painted entirely in white. I’m sitting in an armchair, with a laptop on my knees, and with a view of a wood pile, a shed and the tundra.
On the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia where I spend the winter and spring, I have a very large, cozy room in the basement, where I sit beside a gas fireplace, again in an armchair with my laptop on my knees. The view is so beautiful from that house, extending over the bay and the mountains, that it can be, at times, distracting, which is why I dive into the basement.
What’s your current writing project? How do you feel about it right this minute?
I like Stephen King’s approach of not revealing too much about his next writing project. I’m a quadruple Scorpio and very secretive (smile). But I can give you the location of my next crime story: Labrador. The Great Big Land, as it is called.
How do I feel about it? Initially dwarfed by the challenge, as always, which is probably not a bad thing. Later, once I have shaped the story in my mind, excitement will set in. But generally speaking and contrary to what a lot of people think, writing is hard work.
Do you remember what sparked the idea for any of your stories? Tell us about one.
I wrote my murder mystery Stormy Cove after I had spent several summers in a tiny fishing community in Northern Newfoundland. This is a remote, rather isolated area with a very different way of life. In that particular region, over a span of some 20 years, several people had disappeared without a trace. Shortly after Stormy Cove was published, a mother of two daughters vanished without a trace in St. Anthony and she still hasn’t been found. For the police, it is a suspicious disappearance. It feels so eerie and shocking when such a tragedy, such a crime happens in real life and so close to home.
Do you belong to any writer’s groups or communities? Do you think these types of social interactions are important for writers?
I’m a member of Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters in Crime – Canada West. The exchange with other (crime) writers has become more important to me than it was a few years ago. I’m still in the process of finding out how I can benefit from these writer’s groups and I have met some really interesting, open and helpful women writers in small circles and I’m looking forward to this kind of meeting again.
Which one of your characters is the most like you? The least?
All my heroines have a core that is essentially me. However, they also have aspects that are totally different from mine. So, in my crime novels, they live through many of my experiences, they are strong and vulnerable at the same time, they are curious and adventurous but they also have their flaws which makes them human.
And which one is the least like me? The criminals in my books, I would hope!
Have you written any series characters? What’s their appeal for you?
No, I haven’t. I like to start every book from scratch. I find it more exciting for me as a writer to have totally new characters every time. But then again, never say never. Maybe I will feel inspired to write a series one day.
Do you remember the first story you wrote? Tell us about it.
I don’t remember my first story but I remember my first published story. I was eleven years old, and a local newspaper printed a fairy tale that I had written. It was about a king and his three daughters. I was very proud and I still have a copy of the page.
Have you had to deal with bad reviews? How do you manage them?
Bad reviews are a staple of every writer, I think. I read them because often you can learn from them in one way or another. And I tell myself that a bad review is still better than no review. I have also realized that reviews are very subjective, and it can be almost funny that what one reader really loves can be a no-no for another reader.
Once, a reviewer criticized me for mentioning salami (??!!) about 20 times in my first book, The Zurich Conspiracy. Initially I got upset about this weird and inaccurate comment but in the meantime it has become a good anecdote!
Are there certain themes that keep coming up in your work? If so, is it intentional, or something that just happens?
In almost all of my books, a woman travels to a place or an area that is unknown to her. She encounters interesting or dangerous people and finds herself in situations that require courage and astuteness. This kind of adventure is also a journey to the unknown in herself. When I think about it, it is something that I like to do myself, too: Explore unknown territories, meet people whom I never would have met and reinvent myself in foreign places. It can be daunting, but it is definitely also energizing.
Are you a planner/outliner/architect or a pantser/gardener/discovery writer?
I don’t know what you would call me actually (a discovery writer?) but let’s say that I usually start with a location and with some ideas about who the main character is, her profession and the reason for her trip to a particular area. At the beginning, I don’t know who the perpetrator of the crime will be, how many people the leading lady will encounter, what exactly she would do there and what the outcome of the story will be. I get inspired by the writing process: the ideas pop up as I advance through the story. I could never have all these ideas at the beginning, before starting the act of writing. This process works for me because it fits with my personality and that way I never get bored. Again and again, I surprise myself with twists and turns, and the characters transform themselves in totally unexpected ways. The “downside” is that at the end, I have to rewrite part of the first half of my book because it doesn’t match the ending. But this doesn’t bother me at all.
Do you think there were early influences as a reader that have guided the stories you create as a writer? What were they?
As a child, I loved to read adventure stories. My favourites were books like Ivanhoe, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Leather Stocking Tales (in the German version of course). I read the books by the German author Karl May about the Wild West and the Orient. But I also was crazy about love stories with a lot of drama, jealousy, betrayal and redemption. I treasured stories in exotic places and I hijacked my brothers’ and my parents’ books and read them all. Another source of immense pleasure were the dark fairy tales written by the Grimm brothers and other such writers, and the old German and Swiss legends that sometimes were so eerie that I couldn’t sleep afterwards.
Adventure, exotic places and the darkness of human nature all reappear in my crime novels.
Do you think the place where you live (or somewhere you have lived) influences what you write? In what way?
Canada is a country with vast areas of wilderness, places where you still feel the pioneer spirit, a stomping ground for adventurers. On the Sunshine Coast where I spend my winters, bears and cougars walk through your backyard and the wilderness is at arm’s length. Northern Newfoundland is tundra and rocks: rugged, barren, wild, with unpredictable weather. It can be harsh for people to live there. When you go for a walk with the dog, you can encounter a moose bull or a lynx. Danger always lurks around the corner. People can disappear without a trace. That’s where my imagination runs wild.
What’s the most challenging thing about being a writer in 2018? What’s the best thing?
Speaking for myself, the challenge is to give yourself enough time to finish a book. Enough time for reading and doing research. This is a fast-paced world with urgent demands coming from the market. But a book takes a certain time to hatch. Otherwise you run the danger of repeating yourself and producing rubber stamps.
The best thing is to see the seemingly indestructible fascination and the enduring success created by books, despite the internet, despite the prevalent short attention span, despite the competing distractions and the lack of relaxation time.
Do you prefer music, silence, or some other noise in the background when you write?
Silence. Silence. Silence. I get easily distracted by noise and sounds. After having written a few pages, I like to walk around in my house like a zombie—and please, don’t talk to me then! I’m still totally immersed in my book and need to think things over.
Many writers also put their creativity to use in ways other than writing. Do you consider yourself a “creative person?” What other creative outlets do you have?
I’m a hobby photographer, I love to take good pictures, usually of landscapes and my travels, which I post on Facebook or Instagram or on my website www.bernadettecalonego.com. I learned to create glass dishes with a technique called glass fusion and would love to do more of it in the future. I have done some abstract painting and I’m involved in finding creative ways to help a local animal rescue group.
Tell us about your other works, projects, publications, and what’s on the horizon next. This is the shameless self-promotion portion of the interview.
I have written six books so far, and four of them have been translated into English. My first mystery novel The Zurich Conspiracy is set in Switzerland and centers around murders of some top managers of a Swiss company and around a young, curious, hardworking woman in event marketing. In Under Dark Waters, a Swiss historian travels to British Columbia and the Northwest Territories to find out why her husband had perished in Canada in a suspicious seaplane crash. In Stormy Cove, a photographer from Vancouver gets a mysterious assignment in Northern Newfoundland where she hears about a woman who disappeared without a trace and a girl who was found in a strange grave. I have also finished a manuscript about a lawyer from Vancouver who returns to her home town in Northern British Columbia where a horrible crime had been committed. As mentioned earlier, the location of my next crime novel will be Labrador in Canada. At the same time, a publisher has sent me a contract for a travel guide about Newfoundland and Labrador. I have some interesting travels ahead of me, for sure!
What question do you wish you’d be asked in an interview, but it never seems to come up? Ask it and tell us your answer.
Question: Which book by another author would you like to have written?
Answer: Late Nights on Air by the Canadian writer Elizabeth Hay. This book has all the ingredients that I enjoy: It is set in Northern Canada (Yellowknife), there is adventure (canoe trip on the wild Thelon river); there is historical reference (the Berger Inquiry) and tragedy (the deaths by starvation of three men in the tundra). There are unusual but very credible and immensely fascinating characters, a modern love triangle and many stories within the story, surprising twists and sometimes a very unassuming but captivating sense of humour. Quite suspenseful—and it is not even a crime story!!!
Bernadette Calonego’s website is www.bernadettecalonego.com