Most Christmas romances, while they may have some serious undercurrents, are more focused on providing the ultimate cozy, seasonal comfort reading. Susan Fox’s Sail Away with Me is not one of those books. While it does take place over the holidays, beginning in late fall and concluding in the new year, this romance between bookseller Iris Yakimura and popular musician Julian Blake uses the season as both thematic backdrop and complication, as opposed to a central element. It’s a wise choice on the part of Fox, whose latest hero is dealing with a very painful past—Julian is a survivor of sexual abuse, and his return to tiny Destiny Island brings back horrible memories. Yet he finds solace in his friendship-turned-romance with the shy, deeply kind Iris. We talked to Fox about creating the world of Blue Moon Harbor, tackling a serious subject in the context of a holiday romance and the importance of The Tao of Pooh.
Sail Away with Me was finished right as the #MeToo movement picked up steam—what was that experience like for you?
I’m glad that #MeToo has taken off, and I was already very aware of the issues when I started writing Sail Away With Me. I’d previously written about a widowed heroine who survived domestic physical and sexual abuse in Love Me Tender. I’d read Canadian hockey player Theo Fleury’s Playing With Fire, where he talked about being abused by his junior hockey coach. I followed the firing of prestigious Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi and his trial on charges of sexual assault. I was aware of the high incidence of sexual assault and harassment of vulnerable people, the disincentives for reporting it and the way society has enabled powerful people to continue getting away with abuse. I knew in the first Blue Moon Harbor book, Fly Away With Me, that Bart Jelinek was an abuser and one day would get his comeuppance.
Now, with #MeToo, I’m encouraged to see that more victims are feeling empowered to come forward, and also to see more sexual predators being exposed and sanctioned for their actions.
Like Iris, you’re an introvert, which can be a challenge for a successful author. How do you approach promoting your work and deal with going to events?
Like Iris, even though I’m shy I do like people and I’m interested in them. Many of the coping tools she uses are borrowed from me—like focusing on the other person rather than on myself. I’ve learned how to deal fairly well with most social situations. I avoid cocktail parties (my definition of hell!), but I’m okay with presenting workshops and doing readings. In November, for example, I was one of two panelists at Vancouver Public Library for a presentation on “Diversity in the Modern Love Story.”
Social activities are taxing for me, though. They drain me, and I then need to retreat to a nice safe, quiet space to recharge.
In terms of promo, I’m happy to do the introvert-oriented things like sending books to reader events, emailing a newsletter and posting on Facebook.
The shadow of Japanese-Canadian internment during WWII hangs over this book, as Iris’ family members were among those imprisoned. What types of research did you do for this aspect of Sail Away with Me, and what led you to include it in the novel?
I’d never even heard of the internment camps until I took a sociology course at the University of Victoria in the 1970s. I was appalled, and over the years did some more reading—books like Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris. When I started the Blue Moon Harbor series, I chose the Gulf Islands for my setting in part because of their very diverse history: Indigenous Canadians, immigrants from all over the world including Japan, fishermen, hippies, artists and big-city escapees. In the first book, when I created Dreamspinner bookstore and wanted an island family to run it, I decided more or less randomly that the family would be the Yakimuras, and Iris, the shy bookseller, would become friends with the heroines of Fly Away With Me and Come Home With Me. As I developed Iris’ character, I knew she needed her own romance, so I started brainstorming Sail Away With Me.
If the family (on her dad’s side) had been on Destiny Island since the late 1800s, of course, they would have been victims of Canada’s horrendous treatment of Japanese Canadians during WWI and WWII. So I had to do more research to get the facts right, and then reflect on how that history might have affected Iris’s family and herself. Then I had to decide how much of that to include in the book, and I thought it was important enough in these troubled times to play a significant part. For example, here’s Iris talking with Julian:
“We carry the wound of the internment camp, even though it happened to our ancestors and not to us. We are also aware something similar could happen again. That affects us. It’s part of the reason we keep our heads down and try to be respectable, contributing citizens who don’t make waves.”
“Jesus. You don’t really think it could happen again?”
“Julian, I want to believe in the good in people, but I see a world where people are hated and attacked, even killed, for their religion, the color of the skin, or their sexual orientation. Even their gender. Yes, horrible things can happen when people get scared.”
What made you decide to pair Iris, who you always knew would have her own story, with Julian?
Julian, too, has been there from the first book, when the heroine of Fly Away with Me saw him onstage, singing and playing the guitar. She thought of him as a “tarnished angel.” Obviously, a man like that had a backstory and deserved his own love story. As I delved into Julian’s backstory (which included being sexually abused as a child), I realized how complex he was, and what a fascinating combination of dark and light. A man who gave so much, yet didn’t believe he deserved love. Who better to pair him with than Iris, the woman her friends refer to as an “old soul”? Though she has her own frailties, she’s serene, at peace with herself, introspective, perceptive and wise. I knew Julian could learn from Iris and begin to heal, and I knew that with his support and love she could find a greater internal strength than she’d ever believed herself capable of.
How do you structure a whole island in your head? Have you drawn a map? Or does it just build out naturally as the series goes on?
I used a real Gulf Island, Salt Spring near Victoria, as a general model, but Destiny is much smaller and less developed. From there, I created what I needed for each story, keeping notes and making sure to be consistent. I’m not much of an artist, so I didn’t even try to make a map.
I was delighted when Julian asks Iris to recommend him a book, and she chooses The Tao of Pooh. When did you first encounter that book, and what made you decide that it would be Iris’ pick for Julian?
I discovered Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh fairly soon after it was published, probably in the mid-eighties. I’m not sure if a friend introduced it to me, or if it was vice versa, but I know we both enjoyed it. That book sent me back to read Winnie-the-Pooh again, which is always a pleasure. So then, many years later, when I thought about Iris’s philosophy of life—which she refers to as a “constantly developing spirituality”—it reminded me of Hoff’s book. I read it again —and Pooh as well ☺—and realized what a good fit both stories were for Iris and Julian’s relationship. In a way, The Tao of Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh and Sail Away With Me might be said to have the same theme: discover and respect your inner nature.
Did any real-life musicians inspire Julian? What type of music do you hear in your head when writing him?
In terms of appearance, I have a photo of Keith Urban dressed all in black, and that’s exactly the way I see Julian. In terms of musical style, no, there was no specific musician. I imagine Julian’s style as being kind of a mix of folk and rock, soulful and a bit angsty. His songs aren’t formulaic, and they tell stories. Like “From Dust a Rose,” based on Iris’s grandparents’ love story (which started in an internment camp). And “Your Reality,” about Julian’s father’s struggle to recover after a horrible accident.
Sail Away with Me takes place during the holidays, but is far less focused on Christmas trappings and events during many other seasonal romances. Was this in response to the darkness and emotion of Julian’s storyline, or did you have other reasons for writing a more holiday-adjacent book?
Partly, it was that the story needed a longish timeline. Neither Iris nor Julian are the type of people who’d leap into an emotionally intimate relationship over the short span of a holiday season. I wrote that kind of story in “Blue Moon Harbor Christmas” in Winter Wishes, and I think it worked for that couple because they’d known each other years before and had a child together. But Iris and Julian were strangers, reserved people, and needed time to develop a friendship and to learn that they could trust each other, so I started their story at the end of October and let it build through the autumn. And then when Julian did reveal his secret and publicly “out” his abuser in the middle of December, that was such a difficult, meaningful, stressful step for him, Iris, his family and their friends, that it just couldn’t be a normal Christmas. On the other hand, it does turn out to be a more emotional, loving Christmas than Julian has ever before experienced.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Sail Away with Me.
Author photo by BK Studio Photography.