After writing three children’s books, Victoria author Penny Chamberlain is unveiling her first adult novel about a mysterious malady affecting the girls in a small town.
On Oct. 15, Chamberlain’s Songs from a Small Town (in a Minor Key) arrives on bookstore shelves. Three days later Chamberlain will present a live-streamed reading from Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria.
The story is inspired by a true case of sudden mass hysteria in the town of Le Roy, New York, in 2011, in which 14 high school students exhibited involuntary and impaired movement and speech, later diagnosed as conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness. Chamberlain said she started work on her book shortly after reading about the incident.
“What intrigued me was how the town reacted to it, not just the thing itself. What people would do,” Chamberlain said. “Whether some people would be afraid and want to move away, some people would be curious and want to go and look at them and kind of gawk at them.”
While the town in Songs from a Small Town is never named and could represent “any small town,” Chamberlain said she sees the story taking place in the Fraser Valley, with her memories of growing up in Nanaimo also influencing her vision.
Chamberlain also drew from her professional experience while writing the book. She recently retired from a 30-year career as a physiotherapist at Victoria General Hospital, a hospital she said handles a lot of neurological cases.
“I’ve had lots of different patients so you do see how it affects the person themselves but also the family around them and how they try and cope with something that’s scary and the unknown,” she said. “Having a little bit of the medical background, that was helpful when I was researching this.”
In order to illustrate the impact the illness has on the townspeople, Songs from a Small Town is told through the points of view of 12 characters. Chamberlain said the book is about all the different ways people approach a challenge.
“Some people would take advantage of it and some people are afraid, their go-to response is fear, some people it’s kind of titillating,” she said. “It’s just the variability in humanity [when] faced with the same thing.”
WHAT’S ON … Penny Chamberlain presents a live-streamed reading from Songs from a Small Town (in a Minor Key) from Hermann’s Jazz Club on Oct. 18 at 1:30 p.m. For tickets to the event or to view the live stream, click here.