For Helena Al-Khoury, life as an immigrant has been full of loneliness and despair. On the long road that has taken her from her family home in the Lebanon to the bustling port of Liverpool, the slums of Chicago, and finally to the Canadian wilderness, the struggle to overcome heartbreak, loss and cruel hardship has taken a heavy toll. Now, at last, with the constant support of Joe, her devoted lover, she has developed into a strong, independent woman.
When unexpected circumstances take her back across the Atlantic to England, Helena is offered the chance to take over the family business, and to become a success in her own right. Yet with her love far away on another continent, she feels torn apart. Soon the tragedies of the past and the challenges of the future threaten to overwhelm her.
Helen researched her books meticulously and thought carefully about how to make them interesting to a wide range of readers. Here she talks about the gestation of The Lemon Tree which links Merseyside in the United Kingdom with Edmonton, Helen’s adopted home in Canada.
“You ask me what my techniques are in historical research. There goes the trained mind! I have a mind almost completely uninformed by formal teaching, so I have always invented my own systems, no matter what I am doing. I occasionally reinvent the wheel, of course!
“I lived with Wallace Helena for five years, through two previous books, while I sought for a way of using her. She was sparked simply by the newspaper headlines regarding the war in Lebanon. I had, of course, read a fair amount about the Middle East and now about the horrors of the Christian massacres under the Turks and Druze. So, to confirm [the background to] this knowledge , I read Philip Hitti’s The Near East in History, an excellent book.
“Then, I had to think how to set the book in Liverpool, to please my publishers, and I hit on the soap industry. Soap firms were marvellous in giving me information about their companies and how they began – and there are many hippie books on soap-making at home.
“And all the time, I was picking up bits from other books to strengthen my idea of Wallace. I knew Chicago had many Lebanese millionaires, who had been refugees of the massacre, but who took their money back to Beirut – and made it, incidentally, the banking centre of the Middle East. But Chicago was too easy to sustain the kind of hardship that would make a really strong woman. Hence, the idea of bringing her to Edmonton, a place which she could not easily leave. I literally learned the history of Edmonton from scratch.
“There comes a point when you close all the books you have read and start to write, to see what comes. I have a Safeway’s bag into which I drop cuttings and small books on the subject I have in mind, and a bit of bookshelf to hold the bigger tomes, and when I am ready to seriously start writing, I take everything out and see what I have.”