North to Benjamin can’t really be separated from its fabled setting, Dawson City in the Yukon.
But I didn’t get a chance to visit until 2012, when I spent a week travelling in the Yukon sponsored by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre… and on that trip, I only spent a single day in Dawson. But like so many others, I was astonished by the physical beauty of the land and rivers, and the openness of the people I met.
I managed to get back to Dawson in the spring of 2014 as writer in residence at the Berton House, which is run by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.
Those three months were magical: some of the brightest, sunniest days I’ve ever seen; a passage from short-light winter to nearly 24-hour summer sunshine; a lovely mixture of time set aside for writing and time for exploring and engaging with the community.
I also got to share all of that with my wife, Suzanne Evans, whose enthusiasm for the place and the people was infectious.
But I didn’t go to Dawson with the intention of writing North to Benjamin. My primary goal was to finish a young adult pterodactyl-goes-to-high-school novel. I also had, in the quiet back of my mind, a thought about an adult novel in which a troubled woman goes north to re-make her life. In Dawson I took a lot of notes about the setting and played with voice and character, and photographed everything I saw, the place is so photogenic… and read as deeply as I could about the area and history. The Berton House library is a terrific resource for that. Locals were extremely generous in showing us what they knew and loved of the area. We also walked and walked and walked, every trail we could find, practically, and let the place sink into our marrow, as much as possible in the three quick months we were there.
Then it was over. My regular life resumed in Ottawa, I continued my teaching through the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and there was the issue of getting the pterodactyl novel launched into the world.
But at some point in all of that regular busyness it occurred to me that the protagonist of my Yukon novel, if there was to be a northern novel at all, should be a young person, perhaps dragged north by a troubled woman – maybe a mother. Just before our trip to the Yukon in the spring of 2014 I came across a book of Ansel Adams’ photographs with a lovely forward which mentioned, among other things, that when Adams was fairly young he had been struck, perhaps we could say transcendentally, by the wildness and beauty of mountains, and that that sense of beauty stayed with him throughout his magnificent career. I don’t want to suggest that my character, Edgar, will turn into Ansel Adams, or any kind of brilliant photographer. But I was reminded that children do sometimes grow into amazing adults, and I decided to give Edgar a camera. And — why not make Edgar amazing in a quiet way, even while putting him in an almost impossible situation with his mother?
So at some point I just knew in my bones that the story had to be Edgar’s, and that he had to be unusual and vulnerable and silently resilient, too. The setting was already part of me, so it became a matter of writing as if I were Edgar, and seeing where the story would go.
Benjamin, the dog he bonds with, is modeled after a dear friend’s aged Great Pyrenees (not actually a Newfoundland, like Benjamin) we had met on another trip, to Anchorage and other parts Alaskan, some years before.