Stephanie T. Vaillant 2016-01-19 17:35:34
When she’s not geeking out about new cataloguing software, Stephanie T. Vaillant is writing stories she doesn’t share with anyone—that is, until her story “A Silent Promise” won our first Archives Short Fiction Contest. Vaillant is a graduate of Queen’s University and holds a MLIS from the University of Western Ontario. She completed an archival internship at Puke Ariki and District Libraries in New Zealand before serving as the archivist for the Town of Peace River, Alberta, Canada. She currently works as a cataloguing and digitization archivist at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, which allows her to combine her life-long passion for theater with her professional aspirations—and still leaves her time to write. We talked with Vaillant about the inspiration behind her winning story and the real-life stories she encounters in the archives. SAA: How did the idea for “A Silent Promise” come to you? SV: A few years ago I was at one of my niece’s dance competitions. It was held in an old 1920s theater with photographs and trading cards of previous performers tacked haphazardly to the walls. I almost missed my niece dance because I was standing there forever thinking, “how tragic that these people are stuck here fading, completely unknown. I wonder what happened to them. I wonder who they are. I wonder what they would say if they knew their photographs were still here like this.” It’s a thought that often crosses my mind when I’m accessioning and processing collections. A few weeks before the short fiction competition was announced, I read an article in Performance! (published by the SAA Performing Arts Roundtable) that mentioned ballerinas and gas lamps in passing. It piqued my curiosity and I began researching the historical hazards of performing with gas lighting, coming across such tragic figures as Clara Webster and Emma Livry in the process. I was jarred by how the press at the time portrayed their deaths as sensational romantic occurrences, and wondered how the subjects of these articles would have reacted had they still been around to comment. These two ideas were combined with a joke someone made about an archive being haunted and the ironic fact that my old prom dress is the exact same color as the Gaylord acid-free boxes. SAA: What was your reaction when you learned that you won the Archives Short Fiction Contest? SV: Joyously stunned. I am notoriously shy with my creative writing and had challenged myself to work up the courage to enter a writing contest this year. Managing to press the send button on my entry form was setting a personal best as it was. Winning was a wonderful early Christmas present. I’m glad I picked up the phone when they called to tell me—I almost let it go because I didn’t recognize the area code. But then I thought, “Well, I’m on lunch. It won’t hurt me to be nice to a telemarketer for a few minutes.” SAA: You mention in your bio your passion for theater as well as the archives. How does your perspective and engagement in one area inform the other? SV: The lesson I apply most in my archival work is to view holdings as parts of peoples’ lives instead of collections of things united by a mandate. Like the butler who has no lines and appears in a single scene in a production, the unknown man in the back of an accessioned photograph also has a name and life story, even if he cannot tell me about it. While theater practitioners strive to realistically portray how a character’s life experiences and past decisions affect their actions in a particular moment, archives preserve the physical manifestations of those moments as they occur in real life. If these human experiences weren’t so important, archives wouldn’t preserve the evidence of them, and nobody would undertake such massive efforts to attempt to reproduce them realistically on stage; we certainly wouldn’t find it impressive when they succeeded in doing so. SAA: Have you uncovered any real-life mysteries in the archives or do you have a favorite story from the archives? SV: While working as an intern at Puke Ariki and District Libraries in New Zealand, I uncovered a number of scandalous court cases that had been hiding away in the Supreme Court records for hundreds of years. I wrote up synopses of all of my favorites. You can read them online at http://pukeariki.com/Heritage-Collections/Taranaki-Scandals. While I have to give a shout-out to the falsely accused carrot thief and the lady of twenty-four who sued a man over fear of becoming a spinster, my absolute favorite case involved a gentleman by the name of Ebenezer Thorne. Thorne had four wives during his lifetime, and unlike most men of his day, who waited for death to take one wife before pursuing another, Thorne was married to two women at the same time on two separate occasions. He cleverly managed this ruse by switching countries every once in a while, developing an alias (complete with fictitious parents) and changing his profession with each change of place. At one point he was an author. In his next marriage he posed as a book reviewer, and gave all his own works (which were published under a different alias) glowing reviews. By the time he died, Thorne was the owner of three estates by marriage. He is buried to this day under an alias with a fake birthdate on his gravestone.
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