Victoria resident Alicia Priest’s new memoir, A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist (Harbour Publishing, 251 Pages, $32.95) is both exciting and informative. She will be launching the book on Wednesday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bard and Banker, 1022 Government Street. Priest recently talked to Lynne Van Luven about the research that went into her move from short-form journalism to the book format. Most readers will have seen Priest’s frequent byline in publications such as The Globe and Mail, The Georgia Strait and Vancouver Magazine, but she’s risen to the challenge of a book with her usual professionalism.
You have so much experience as a newspaper, radio and magazine reporter — over 25 years — and the gratification that comes with constant publication. Was it difficult to “settle down” and focus on one topic for a book?
At first it was, not the topic so much as the organization and stamina. But once I’d completed the first three or four chapters, the book had me by the throat. I was possessed and couldn’t stop writing. The chapters just flowed. But, as always, writing is re-writing. I was grateful for the extended time.
Alicia, I found your memoir really engrossing, and I am glad you were able to tell this family story. In the process of doing so, how did your emotional connection to or assessment of your father change?
If anything, it confirmed my suspicions that my dad was a deeply troubled man well before the silver heist. He likely was an unhappy boy. What I saw as a child was his affectionate, playful and clever nature, which was part of him too. He suffered as well but the wounds were self-inflicted and made at our expense. I always loved him.
Memoir requires the interplay of both research and memory. Can you talk a little about how that worked for A Rock Fell on the Moon?
A lot of research went into the book, both delving into historical, forensic and legal archives and research through interviews. I had more than 900 pages of the official RCMP file to go through, about a third of it redacted. As well, I had more than 300 personal letters to read. And several books and articles. My plan was to do all the research first and then concentrate on weaving my memories in and out with the documented facts. I took creative license in relating certain scenes that I knew about but for which I was not present. For the most part ,that is how the book came together but not completely, do check here and read the whole case. Not surprisingly, there were hiccups, stalls, and last minute discoveries. For instance, well into the writing I learned that the lawyer who represented my father at the 1963 preliminary hearing was living in Vancouver and recollected him and the event clearly. Of course, he had to be interviewed.
I have to confess that as I read your memoir, I found my sympathies shifting between your parents, but in the end, I felt your mother put up with a lot and that your father was one of those dangerous charismatic men whose constitution might not be suited to domesticity. Is it unduly intrusive to ask how you ended up feeling about the marriage, once you had the book finished?
They never should have married. They were inherently mismatched. But I understand why they did. For my mother, it was a form of rebellion against her Mennonite upbringing and for my father, well, she was a dream come true. And, hell, they were infatuated with each other, which we know is a form of temporary insanity. My dad put out many red flags – his brooding, anti-social nature, his antipathy for cities, the fact that not one of his friends or relatives attended their wedding – which my mother ignored. She had a naïve belief that her love would bring out his better qualities and suppress his bad. Many women did during that era. And they did not know each other well – only six months through correspondence and four months in person.
I learned a great deal about Keno Hill, the Yukon Territory and silver mining from your memoir. So few Canadians have the background you have. Looking back, how do you think your northern childhood shaped you as a person?
My childhood gave me so much: a passion for the natural world, for animals, for reading and writing, for music, for stillness, and the ability to amuse myself without TV, radio or telephone. I was and am never bored.