Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Q&A with Heather Camlot




Heather Camlot is the author of the new middle grade book The Prisoner and the Writer, which focuses on the Dreyfus Affair in France around the turn of the 20th century. It involved antisemitism directed against French Captain Alfred Dreyfus and the role of writer Émile Zola in defending Dreyfus. Camlot's other books include the middle grade novel Clutch. She lives in Toronto.


Q: What inspired you to write The Prisoner and the Writer?


A: The story of Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola has fascinated me since I was a teenager. I used to watch classic movies late at night on television and one of those nights had The Life of Émile Zola.


I’m sure I had no idea who he was at the time, but I watched the movie anyway and I was just blown away by the part about the Dreyfus Affair. As a Jewish kid growing up in Montreal, the story struck a chord.  


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I love, love, love research! I have a French copy of J’Accuse…! that I had bought decades ago, so I reread that for starters. I also pored over Five Years of My Life: The Diary of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and read a great number of biographies and nonfiction books about France and the Dreyfus Affair, as well as newspaper and magazine articles from the time and select websites.


So much surprised me…on the negative side, how the real criminals were never punished and how the Army only publicly acknowledged that Alfred Dreyfus was framed in 1995; on the positive side, how the story of the Dreyfus Affair exploded around the world and how people from every corner of the globe rallied around these men.

Q: What do you think Sophie Casson’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Sophie’s illustrations beautifully capture the heart and soul of the story, drawing readers further in with her striking use of light and color and clearly reminding them that this is a story about real people, places, and events. I am in awe of how she transformed the words into a powerful visual narrative.


Q: The events you write about occurred 125 years ago--what themes do you think remain important today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: There are many themes that remain important today: antisemitism and prejudice, power and corruption, truth and justice. The year 2021 was the most antisemitic in the past decade. We see people being accused of crimes because of their religion, skin colour, gender, etc.


As I wrote in the book, The Prisoner and the Writer is a reminder that we must stand up and speak out, even when others stay silent.


I also hope readers finish with an understanding that the information they hear, see, and read in the media and even from the people around them may be biased, one-sided, and that they may need to do some digging to get a more full and accurate account of a story to make up their own opinions.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I feel like I am always working on 20 things at once! Right now, I am working on a middle-grade verse novel, a picture book about climate change and a couple of nonfiction pitches.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: January 13, 2023, is the 125th anniversary of the publication of J’Accuse…! in the French newspaper L’Aurore, one of, if not the most powerful front page in the history of journalism. I really hope readers embrace the story of Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola and are moved by their fight for truth and justice.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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