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Saint John stars on the literary landscape with Silver Salts
May 06, 2008

Mount Allison professor’s debut novel sets the scene in the Port City’s 1920s silent film industry, with author’s appearances in Saint John on May 8 and official launch in Sackville, May 14.

SACKVILLE, NB — Mark Blagrave’s novel first began when he discovered that a silent film had been further silenced. In fact, no copies of the film, Blue Water — the inspiration for his novel Silver Salts — seemed to exist. Blagrave found the mystery surrounding the film’s disappearance intriguing and so he began work on a novel that centres on this lost film and the silent films stars of the time.

The “silent ladies” of the early 20th century silent film era speak in Silver Salts, the first novel by Blagrave, an English and drama professor at Mount Allison University. Published by Toronto’s Cormorant Books, Silver Salts is the first full-length literary novel to be set in early 20th century Saint John, New Brunswick, with the city’s celebrated silent film industry as its backdrop.

Mark Blagrave will be reading from Silver Salts at a number of upcoming events, including the Canterbury Tales Literary Festival in Saint John on Thursday, May 8 (Saint John Free Public Library, Market Square at 3:30 p.m.) and at an official launch and reading at his alma mater on Wednesday, May 14 at 4:30 p.m. in the Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University campus. The Sackville launch and reading is sponsored by Mount Allison’s department of English Literatures, Tidewater Books, and Cormorant Books. Copies of Silver Salts, named for the chemical process used to produce films in the early 20th century, will be for sale at the launch and in bookstores.

Silver Salts is the story of a young New Brunswick woman’s struggles to establish an identity for herself in an age when mass destruction, mass production, and the mechanical reproduction of sound and image all threaten to make that impossible. Lillie Dempster believes her fortune is about to be made when she is hired as a stand-in double for silent screen star Norma Shearer in a film being shot in Saint John. What she can’t foresee is that the movie will be pulled from circulation and its existence denied, all on the orders of one-time Saint John resident and the now famous Louis B. Mayer. As a result, Lillie will spend the next ten years trying to emerge from Norma’s shadow.

Mark Blagrave says that work on the novel began when he came upon a reference to the making of the silent film Blue Water, which also took place in Saint John in the early 1920s. Although the film featured Norma Shearer, none of the star’s standard biographies mentioned it, and no copies have survived. The silencing of the already silent film led Mark to invent circumstances around the historical record and to create a silenced character who would be given a chance to tell her story.

While Saint John has been home to many writers, and has been featured in their work from time to time, Blagrave believes that Silver Salts is the first literary novel to feature early 20th century Saint John, a city he believes has not yet figured as much as it should in the country’s literary fiction. Lillie’s relationship with her much more powerful double, and the fact that the double has the power because Lillie gives it to her, may have something to say about our experiences as a nation, he says.

Mark Blagrave was born and raised in Ontario before finding his true home in New Brunswick. His short stories have been published regularly in leading Canadian literary journals, including The New Quarterly and Fiddlehead, and his plays have been produced professionally and in university theatres. Mark now lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he is a professor of English at Mount Allison University. Silver Salts is his first novel.


For further information please contact Sheila Hawks, Cormorant Publishing,, ( or the Communications Office, Mount Allison University, tel: (506) 364-2600.

Photo caption: Mount Allison English professor Mark Blagrave’s debut novel Silver Salts sets the scene in Saint John’s early 20th century silent film industry. Mark, shown here in Sackville’s historic Vogue Theatre, will read at a public launch in Sackville on May 14 in the Owens Art Gallery.

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