Dr. Shannon Risk is an associate professor in the Department of History at Niagara University. Shannon sat down with Fulbright Canada to talk about her second novel, The Madame. In an interview with Fulbright Canada, Dr. Risk discussed her latest work about the adventures of a time-travelling historian, and about her Fulbright experience (2008-2009).
Fulbright Canada: Congratulations on your new book, this if very exciting! Can you give us a summary on what your second novel, The Madame, is all about?
Dr. Shannon Risk: Thank you! The novel is about a time traveling historian who, perhaps, sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong. She has been studying a clairvoyant woman from the late 1800s and early 1900s named Madame Gravari. The historian notes that, at first, the Madame seems to travel with itinerant curiosity shows across the northern United States. But then, somehow, the Madame finds her way towards more sophisticated clientele – socialites in search of unusual entertainment. The historian is able to track the Madame up to this point, but when the American stock market crashes, the Madame disappears. The historian then stumbles across a magical chair that transports her back to the 1920s, and into a family of sisters who have ties to the Madame. It is at this point where things go horribly wrong.
FC: Where did the idea for this book come about? Had you always planned on writing fiction on the side of your academic career?
SR: Yes, I have always written or told stories for family and friends. My earliest memories are of concocting simple stories and creating matching artwork to show my mother, who, to date, is still editing my work! I also have memories of regaling my fellow girl scouts at camp at night with scary stories. Though this is only my second piece of published fiction, I have been writing fiction on the side for quite a long time.
FC: What is the connection for you between your writing and your academic work? How is your research reflected in The Madame?
SR: That’s a great question. As an historian, one adheres to many specific guidelines about writing, research, and ethics. I have a lot of curiosity, which suits my role as an historian. Historians must be creative in how they approach their subject, how they pursue sources, and how they write – no one wants to read a dry history paper! But with fiction, while there are still rules and structure needs to be followed, I can be even more inventive in my writing. Creating fiction, I think, is a lot more difficult than most people realize. The story doesn’t just come to me immediately. Writing academic history and historical fiction at the same timed requires fortitude, respect for your sources, and respect for your readers.
FC: What else are you working on now, either in your academic work, or as an author?
SR: At this point, I am working on revising the research I conducted for my dissertation. The challenge is to take a subject, in this case, a comparative history of the Maine and New Brunswick women’s suffrage movements and broaden it for a wider audience. Regrettably, for an historian, I will probably have to cut down those lengthy footnotes, where historians just love to dish a bit further on the topic! As for fiction, I am currently working on my next novel. It’s still in my head, at the moment, but a friend of mine sparked an idea that has grown.
FC: Now let’s talk a bit about your Fulbright experience and how that came about for you. Can you recall what led you to apply for the award?
SR: I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Maine, working Marli Weiner, and I was taking a lot of trips over the border to New Brunswick to study the Canadian side of the women’s push for voting rights. Two historians who could help me the most were teaching at the University of New Brunswick: Gail Campbell and Linda Kealey. I had much more information about the Maine side of the movement and wanted to make sure that the New Brunswickers got their fair representation in the dissertation. Plus, the two universities shared a history graduate student conference every year, and that allowed me to build friendships with fellow graduate students at UNB. They assisted me with research, and provided me a more nuanced understanding of certain issues in Canadian history. On top of that, the University of Maine has some outstanding 'Canadianists' (I worked specifically with Scott See, Robert Babcock, Ray Pelletier, and Jacques Ferland during my M.A. and Ph.D. work). Each influenced me in my early graduate career and ignited my interest in studying comparative or cross-border history of Canada and the United States. All of this came together with the Canada-U.S. Fulbright Program.
FC: Can you tell me a bit about your experience in New Brunswick and how that contributed to your work?
SR: As a graduate student at the University of Maine, I mentioned that my dissertation was heavily infused with sources from the Maine suffragists, but I needed to find more sources for the suffragists from New Brunswick. During my trips up to New Brunswick, and meeting and working with outstanding archivists and scholars there, I was convinced that, in order to properly represent the New Brunswick side, and look for cross-border interaction in the region, I really needed to immerse myself in the academic culture in the province. I had to learn some new ways of viewing sources, too. Maine and New Brunswick suffragists didn’t always go about things in the same way, and different kinds of sources were saved in archives in Maine and New Brunswick. Even the act of physically living in the environment where these suffragists engaged their government in a debate over women’s political participation over a hundred years earlier helped me pull this history together. Traveling to places within the province also allowed me to better understand my sources. For example, I worked with librarians in Woodstock, Saint John, and Sackville to piece together both the suffrage work done there, but also the backgrounds of the male and female suffragists themselves – because there were men who were supportive of the women’s vote, just as there were women who were against it. I wanted to understand the dynamics of the debate better, and the only way to do that, is to dive into the sources and the environment where these debates took place.
FC: How has being a Fulbright grantee impacted you, either personally, or professionally?
SR: The Fulbright experience added to my confidence as an academic professional, and, after my Fulbright year in New Brunswick, the relationship did not end. As an alumnae, I have found that Fulbright keeps in touch through e-newsletters, annual meetings, and through the mail, and I can keep up with all that Fulbrighters, not only in Canada and the U.S., but throughout the world are up to. After I graduated and began a new position, one of my first roles as an assistant professor of history at Niagara University was that of Fulbright Program Advisor for my campus. Soon, the local chapter of the Fulbright Association was asking me to speak at their biannual conferences, held in the Western Pennsylvania and Western New York academic communities. Now I serve on the board for that chapter, and I speak to students at other campuses about my Fulbright experience, and why Fulbright might be right for them as well. Our chapter just recently complete an Outreach, Mentoring, and Enrichment grant, which allowed us to put together academic and cultural programming in our region for visiting international Fulbrighters. My part in the grant was to teach visiting Fulbrighters about the rich progressive history of Western New York, and we visited historic sites. This Fulbright experience has been so rewarding to me, to inspire students to dream about how they can, through travel with Fulbright, encourage international dialogue on many important issues, just as Senator Fulbright envisioned.
FC: Why do you feel that it is important to be sending students and scholars on exchange between Canada and the US?
SR: Any good American studying Canada, whether it’s through history or another field, understands that Canada is our number one trading partner and has been for quite some time. Beyond economics, we share many cultural attributes and priorities. We share natural resources, national interests, and a fondness for each other’s cultures. Our indigenous peoples have traversed these lands for thousands of years. Certainly our cross-border relationship has strains and negotiations, but on a personal level, I have found that our bond is a strong one. I think this bond, this ability to engage in cross-border dialogue is crucial to our future. The Fulbright program has been instrumental in shaping this dialogue by sending its most creative and enthusiastic students and scholars over borders, real and imagined, to get at the heart of things. These students and scholars are the ones who will shape national and international policies, and they will do it through constructive and peaceful arbitrations. Senator Fulbright lived in a time of war, just as we do now, and he hoped that such a program would help negate a need for war. And though we still have war, I think the Fulbright program has been a significant influence in finding other solutions to world problems. We so clearly need to continue these efforts.
FC: Why has your Fulbright been something you have decided to stay connected to?
SR: There are many scholarly programs that send academics abroad, but Fulbright seems to have a much more personal touch. When I came to Canada as a Fulbrighter, the Fulbright Canada folks invited us all to Ottawa for a weekend of wonderful events. They take great pains in planning the events and clearly dedicate a lot of heart to it. And that welcome feeling extended throughout my stay in New Brunswick. I have made unforgettable friends during my Fulbright experience, and I think, in so many respects, the experience continues. Only now, I am often able to play the role of mentor, which is so rewarding as well.
FC: Is there anything else you would like to say?
SR: More broadly, I would encourage people to never stop learning all they can about the world around them. We have so many more options when it comes to getting information about the world, and many of these options can be limited in their viewpoint. Part of learning about the world is getting out into it, transcending what the pundits have to say and finding out for yourself what is really happening. Learning about the world, traveling, exposing yourself to people different than you is what adds richness to our lives in a way that nothing else can.