Interview With an Author: B.L. Blanchard

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author B.L. Blanchard and her debut novel, The Peacekeeper
Author B.L. Blanchard and her debut novel, The Peacekeeper. Photo credit: Toufic Tabshouri

B.L. Blanchard is a graduate of the UC Davis creative writing honors program and was a writing fellow at Boston University School of Law. She is a lawyer and enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She is originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan but has lived in California for so long that she can no longer handle cold weather. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and two daughters. The Peacekeeper is her debut novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Peacekeeper?

I got the idea for the main setting of the book, Shikaakwa, when I was driving to work one day and had a vision of a high-rise building with a dreamcatcher built into it like a stained-glass cathedral window. That triggered the idea of what a never-colonized North America might have looked like in the present time.
The inspiration for the plot was somewhat different. I have small children, and at the time I was planning this book, we were watching the Disney movie Zootopia a lot—and it’s a film I really love! A big part of the movie involves two of the characters investigating a missing person (animal), and it functioned as a good way to show different areas of the world. So I took that idea and ran with it!

Are Chibenashi, Ashwiyaa, Dakaasin, Takumwah, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Most of the characters started with a nugget of reality in them, but each one evolved over the course of writing into their own person. Chibenashi and Ashwiyaa’s backstory of being taken away from their family to a group home for their own safety and then growing up with a father in prison is drawn from real life—the same thing happened to my sister and me, though we were much younger than these characters when it happened. Dakaasin is an Advocate, similar to a lawyer in our world, and so am I; her relationship with Chibenashi is based on a letter I read in an advice column years ago. Takumwah, however, is the result of me thinking, “What kind of person would be Chibenashi’s worst nightmare?”

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I can only think of one character who was cut; there was originally another resident of Baawitigong introduced early on who would have become crucial at the end of the book. But, writing is about killing your darlings, and I gave that character’s role to one of the others, which I think ended up working much better. Beyond that, virtually everything in the book was there from the beginning. I tend toward underwriting so most of the major edits I made involved adding to the story, rather than cutting.

The world you’ve created for The Peacekeeper is fascinating! What was your inspiration for a world where North America was never colonized?

The worldbuilding, and the many different ways I could have gone with it, was something I thought about every day for over a year before I wrote a single word: everything from why colonization did not happen to the societal dividing lines to just how technologically developed and globalized the world would be.

I started by first trying to chronologically build out the world, starting from the 15th and 16th centuries and going forward. I was confronted with a bunch of questions. Did that mean that there had never been any contact with Europe, or had colonization been attempted but rebuffed, or there was no attempt to colonize but just trade partnerships… you get the idea. It could have gone in many different directions.

And then there are the ripple effects. For example, if there are no colonies in North America, there was no trans-Atlantic slave trade. How does that impact the history of peoples in Africa and beyond? If there is no colonization in North America, do European nations have the wealth and resources or will to attempt colonization in any other part of the world?

A lot of what I came up with did not make its way into The Peacekeeper, but quite a bit will appear in the next book.

What was your process for envisioning both the smaller village of Baawitigong and the larger metropolis of Shikaakwa? Was one of them easier to imagine than the other?

Virtually every society on Earth seems to have an urban-rural divide, and I wanted that here. Not only would it create some tension in the novel and put Chibenashi in a difficult and unfamiliar environment, it would show how an indigenous society lives in the 21st century in both urban and rural areas. I knew we’d be spending most of the book in Shikaakwa so that was the focus of my worldbuilding time—I had to tear down Chicago and rebuild it from scratch!

The Upper Peninsula, where Baawitigong is located, is still very rural, so that was a lot easier to imagine; I didn’t have to change as much, and many of the things in the Baawitigong scenes are still in practice today: people still dance rice, one of my father’s neighbors raises deer, and you can walk through the streets and woods in the township my family still lives in and find fruits within arm’s reach. Baawitigong is much smaller than its real-world equivalent, Sault Ste. Marie, which has a population of 13,000 on the Michigan side and over 70,000 on the Ontario side.

One of the first things I came up with when building the world was the values that the society would rest on. I settled on three: community, sustainability, and responsibility. From there, I determined that any industrialization would be sustainable. The natural world would be a part of the city, not paved over.

If this were a real world, Baawitigong would be the more likely place for a metropolis, as it is the ancestral home of the Anishinaabe, and Shikaakwa is far more likely to be a small town. But I thought keeping the small town and large city in the same places as their real-world equivalents would make the world more accessible.

Several booksellers have listed The Peacekeeper as the first book in The Good Lands series. And at the end of the novel, Chibenashi seems to be entering a new chapter in his life. Will readers be able to follow him on his journey? What are your plans for the series?

At the moment, no! The next book in the series is sort of a mirror image of this one: rather than being set in a never-colonized North America, it is set at the same time in a Europe that never had colonies. We get to see what Britain might look like in the 21st century if it had never had the British Empire.

I would love to write more about these characters, but at the moment, I have no immediate plans. I have a nugget of an idea for a book focusing on Takumwah and Dakaasin, and I hope I can develop it further.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I always have multiple books going at once, so I’m currently reading: Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

That’s going to be very difficult. In no particular order, five of my favorite authors are Blake Crouch, Louise Erdrich, Liane Moriarty, Julia Walton, and N.K. Jemisin.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

This is a long game. Writing is a craft that takes a long time to master and requires a lot of feedback from others. I made the decision to seriously pursue writing when I was 19. I was just shy of 38 when my first novel was published. Life happened, and I spent a lot of years not being able to write or even read. Even when I did have the time, it still took a lot of false starts with other stories, and two failed manuscripts, to get to the point of being able to do this professionally.
So if you’re an aspiring writer, know that this will take a lot of time and dedication, and that you may have to squeeze it in between other things in your life. And it’s so worth it!

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I had so many! If we judge it based on the one I reread the most, it was a Babysitter’s Club book called Stacey’s Emergency, which I read so many times the cover fell off. I was one of those kids who started reading adult books very young, and I read Jurassic Park multiple times before I was a teenager.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

They don’t need to know that I read Hollywood Wives when I was, like, 11.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Now we’re getting really personal! Don’t tell anyone but I’ve never been able to finish Jane Eyre.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The Unsinkable Greta James by Jennifer E. Smith. Gorgeous cover and a great read.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The summer between my first and second years of college, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out. I was pretty lost at the time; I was already toying with changing my major from pre-med (I was washing out) to something else, but I wasn’t sure what to do, either in college or with the rest of my life. When I read that 800-page book in a day and a half, I thought, “Books are what I love. Writing books is what I want to do. What am I doing studying anything else?” And so I changed my major, my GPA went up, and I was able to spend a year studying abroad in the UK, a year which really changed my life.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

S, by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Imagine you found a book in the library that contained hundreds of margin notes from two people who passed it back and forth to each other, and stuck between the pages are various notes, postcards, and other things? That’s what this book is: layers of storytelling between the book itself, the notes, and the additional material stuck between the pages. It’s a love story, a puzzle, and a tribute to the magic of books.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I have two! For the shock value of a twist: Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy. Unlike in most thrillers, the big twist comes about 1/3 of the way through the book, and I didn’t remotely see it coming. I had to stop and revisit the book up to that point.
For the experience: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. That book has stuck with me for over 15 years. It’s as fresh in my mind now as it was the day I read it (and yes, I read it in a single day). I was so immersed in the world, the characters, and the deeper themes of colonialism I wish I could experience that book for the first time again.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I don’t get to watch much TV, but I absolutely loved Midnight Mass on Netflix. The writing, the acting, the setting, it was all phenomenal. But what really stood out to me was how well-developed all of the characters were. It’s only seven episodes, but by the end, I felt like I knew the entire history of the town. I also had a very clear picture of what the last 50 years or so had been like for two of the main characters—all without any of it being shown onscreen.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

With my husband and daughters exploring a new city.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Question: Are any of the objects in the homes of the characters drawn from real life?
Answer: Yes, the dreamcatcher mentioned in the first chapter with a design that looks like a spiral galaxy is based on a real one my dad made. And in Dakaasin’s apartment, she has a photograph of the binesi (thunderbird) outlined in lighting hanging over her fireplace—that is a real photograph that my late uncle, Jim O’Neill, took over Lake Michigan during a storm. He was a professional photographer, and it was his signature piece.

What are you working on now?

I just turned in the second book in The Good Lands to my editor. In addition to that, I’ve been working on a historical fiction novel inspired by a real event that occurred in 1970s Moscow.

Book cover for The Peacekeeper
The Peacekeeper
Blanchard, B. L.