Interview with Carolyn Gray

Özten Shebahkeget interview Carolyn Gray

Carolyn Gray, MFA in Writing alumna, playwright, and editor of Prairie Fire magazine

Carolyn Gray holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan and is the Editor of Prairie Fire magazine. She writes for true crime television, and is published in drama, fiction, and non-fiction. She won the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer and the Manitoba Day Award for Excellence in Archival Research. Other credits include adjunct professor of creative writing and the 2019-2020 Winnipeg Public Library Writer-in-Residence. She has a horror screenplay currently under consideration. Her golden muse Minnie is always at her side.

Özten Shebahkeget: Much of the writer’s job involves the ability to pay attention. How do you pay attention in these turbulent times?

Carolyn Gray: I actually don’t pay attention to the news or I might get worried. I find out everything I need to know at the dinner table from my quarantine pals. They pay attention to the news and they’re far more anxious than I am. My attention in the pandemic is selective. My housie and I have carved out a lot of time to watch a variety of series. I’ll typically be thinking about something a character said or did, and texting her about it throughout the day, raking out motivation. It’s a lot like actor’s prep. Which is nice, as there are no more plays. 

ÖS: What draws you to playwriting opposed to other genres?

CG: When I went to university, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but there were no film classes so theatre was the next best thing. I was obsessed with film noir as a youth, and then Scorsese, that snappy, rhythmic dialogue.  I need to hear words spoken.  I love the theatrical process of getting scenes in draft up on their feet and the words spoken aloud, so the writer can see and hear her work. 

ÖS: Has your role at Prairie Fire influenced your work?

CG: Yes—I am not touching short stories at the moment because there are so many brilliant short story writers. 

ÖS: Since we are both Winnipeggers, I have to ask what you find distinguishing about this city as an artist?

CG: I’m in a long-term relationship with Winnipeg after all these years. We’ve been through a lot of drama. Right now, I’m enjoying how well we know each other and how she just lets me get on with my business and doesn’t bother me. 

ÖS: What was your MFA experience at the University of Saskatchewan like? What tip would you give for incoming students?

CG: I loved my USask experience. Sheri Benning and Jeanette Lynes are both brilliant and supportive. I learned so much. And although they are extremely professional, they are also immensely fun people. My tip would have been, if it weren’t the pandemic, to see if you could get them out for drinks and nachos. Maybe next year?

ÖS: Finally, what have you been working on lately?

CG: I’ve been working on true crime television and screenplay. I’ve produced three screenplays during the pandemic, two of those with a wonderful writing partner.  I thought I was a productive writer before my MFA, but I learned so much about my process in Saskatoon. I haven’t let that slide but consciously exercise those muscles daily. 

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Interview by Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation. She holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg, and joined the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan last fall. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire and CV2 Magazine.

Mapping Empty Space in Sarah de Leeuw’s Where It Hurts

Canada is full of empty places. I was raised in one, a village smackdab in the longitudinal centre of the country and surrounded by dairy farms. My sense was, growing up, that the rest of the country consisted mostly of villages like mine, a feeling supported by the road trips my parents schlepped our family on each summer, east as far as Quebec City, west to visit my grandparents in Saskatoon, or more west and up, up, up to the Yukon. What I remember most about these trips is staring out the car window at hours-long stretches of yellow fields, brown fields, green forest, brown forest, and lots of rocks. I remember highway. And I remember hundreds of “nothing towns” flashing past. 

In Where It Hurts, Sarah de Leeuw stops to take stock of these places. Set in “throw-away spaces” like Belle Island, Ont. and Prince George, B.C., the essays refute suggestions of inconsequence and vacancy (33). Instead, vivid story-snapshots and powerful, pin-pointed detail document colossal loss and violence in a collection centred around the people preyed upon in Canada’s “empty” places.

As harrowing as this documentation may be, Where It Hurts asserts that injustice left unnamed is injustice made invisible, insidious, and unimportant. In “Soft Shouldered,” an essay about the thirty-three missing and murdered Indigenous women of Highway 16, de Leeuw urges that nothing and nowhere areas, like the side of a road outside a remote northern resource town, are exactly the places “worth looking closely at, if only to see what has disappeared, what is missing” (73).

Where It Hurts implicates the reader directly in the text. Whether employing an intimate, second-person point-of-view or addressing a “you” whose subject ranges from ex-husband to Oma, de Leeuw denies the reader the role of bystander. “Take off your undershirt, sweat-stained from almost four hours of snowshoeing along the Skeena River,” begins “Aesop” (91). “Think of any northern city with mills at its heart,” comes the instruction in “Quick-quick. Slow. Slow” (67). “You hurt in places you didn’t know could exist,” aches the collection’s opening, title essay (28).

Each essay is deeply rooted in space and time, from the last row of the shag-carpeted movie theatre during Terrace, B.C.’s biennial film festival, to “the family Y on a Tuesday night, 7:30 p.m. sharp during the high months of winter” in Prince George (63). This positioning works to both map the contents of “empty” locations and use landscape as a visible symbol of unseen turmoil. In “Belle Island Owls,” the end of de Leeuw’s marriage is tied to Belle Park’s landfill which leaks toxins into the surrounding rivers and lakes. “Seven in 1980” connects the eruption of Mount St. Helens to the murders of eleven children by Canadian serial killer Clifford Olson. The asbestos mine in Cassiar, B.C. is the backdrop to the young women whose bodies are “pulled under the currents of northern rivers” in “What Fills Our Lungs” (60). By linking physical geography with de Leeuw’s experiences and observations, Where It Hurts renders abstractions of grief and cruelty grimly tangible.

In the title essay “Where It Hurts,” de Leeuw focusses on “all the strange truths people keep hidden inside them” (8). Flashing through a series of painful anecdotes, the essay exposes some of these truths: “up in the reserves,” boys hang themselves with garden hoses; a young mother nervously allows a stranger named Cowboy to hold her newborn and then, years later, finds Cowboy’s obituary connected to an article on women found murdered along the Highway of Tears; three men in Terrace, B.C., assault, rob, and set on fire an intoxicated homeless man. Uncovering these stories does not bring healing, but it does demand that we stop and take stock of the suffering.

Occasionally, the essays’ disparate images and anecdotes struggle to coalesce into fully realized metaphor, but this collection is more interested in finding and naming what’s been lost in Canada’s forgotten places than interpreting those losses or suggesting solutions. In “Soft Shouldered,” de Leeuw writes, “the sparseness of findings and inquiries has resulted in almost nothing and so nothing has been circulated…So begin with me at the edge. That borderland where pavement ends and soft shoulder begins” (72). 

Where It Hurts is at times brutal in its refusal to look away. However, by studying the toxins seeping from landfills scabbed over, by pulling over to the side of the highway, by noticing the fire and the “smoke hanging in the air containing fragments of a man who has burned to death,” the essays show how in isolated, overlooked spaces, people are similarly ignored and erased (100). With precise and potent essays, Where It Hurts memorializes those who have disappeared too soon from the landscapes they considered home.

Review by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, was released with Turnstone Press in Spring 2020.