Gunnar Ohberg Interviews Kristyn Dunnion

Kristyn Dunnion, author of Stoop City

Gunnar Ohberg: Have you always wanted to be a writer or was there something in particular that drew you to writing?

Kristyn Dunnion: Growing up watching a lot of bad TV in the 1970s, I was heavily influenced by tough chicas like Pinky and Leather Tuscadero (Happy Days), by the Lady Detectives of Charlie’s Angels, etcetera. I wanted to be like them. Writing is something I’ve come to, more and more, as other excitements have fallen away and as my attention span (and ability to sit still!) has grown. I appreciate the solitude of writing and the discipline of playing with language to get things ‘just right’ in a way that’s so different from collaborative theatre or activist/community projects, from other work I’ve done over the years.

GO: Your books cover a wide range of genre: dystopian, domestic drama, murder-mystery thriller, sci-fi fantasy. Does your experience as a writer change depending on the genre? Have you found some genres easier or harder to write than others?

KD: With each new project, I try to stay open, curious about exploring the world of the story. For me that includes style and genre — I’m more concerned with discovering the aesthetic and getting to know the characters, really inhabiting their bodies and dreams, than with categorizing how it will be told. For me, genre is more of an internal discovery than a conscious choice. One exception is short fiction, which I actively pursued with the misguided notion that it would take less time to write. Ha! I spent almost eight years revising some of the stories that ended up in Stoop City(Biblioasis, 2020). Each book is compelling and challenging (to write) in its own way. Each has been driven by an emotional landscape or unanswered question, by stark imagery and sometimes by an audacious character/voice that will not be dislodged from my head, otherwise. 

GO: In addition to writing, you are a performance artist, a former cabaret performer, and have been the bassist for multiple rock bands. Have these creative performances influenced your writing in any way?

KD: Yes! Visual arts, too, are a deeply satisfying medium to balance the two-dimensional world of text. I am happiest in a studio, mucking about, experimenting. I urge writers to balance that part of their life with physicalized movement, with martial arts or dance or something like that. Making music, co-writing songs, working with other artists to stage something, these are all invaluable experiences that help flex creative muscles and teach us new vocabulary, new ways of thinking, communicating, being. I resist the convention of committing to a single modality within the vast artistic universe, or to a single genre in all of literature; categorization like this, which might serve to inspire expertise and deep understanding for some people, feels restrictive to me. 

GO: You’ve also worked in a shelter system since the COVID pandemic began. How has COVID impacted your writing, if at all?

KD: At first, things weren’t too different, in that I was deep into final revisions for Stoop City, which gave me a framework for continuing to write. Launching a book during the pandemic was strange. One of my favourite parts about being an author is travelling and giving public readings, meeting readers and other writers, and that dynamic in-person element was missing. But it’s astounding to have access to online technology that facilitates connection, and those advantages have been pretty cool. The paid work I do outside of writing is so focused on pandemic response and active front line work, which brings its own stressors and challenges. There have been points during the pandemic when I was unable to read for any length of time (I’d switch to short essays and poetry), or felt too despondent to write (I completed two jigsaw puzzles, instead). People say, “Oh, are you going to write about the pandemic?” and I’m like, “No way, so redundant!” I’m working on a sequel to the dystopic Tarry This NightGlean Among the Sheaves explores abundance, reciprocity, alternative concepts of the Divine. For a change, I want to conceive of a possible future which is not in itself terrorizing: the antidote to white supremacy, to patriarchal capitalism.

GO: It’s been noted that punk and heavy metal have some influence in your work. Can you tell us more about that relationship between music and literature for you? Are there particular songs or bands you listen to for inspiration?

KD: Oh, yes, music fuels me. Each book has its own playlist — what I played while writing, that (hopefully) seeps into the text, contaminating readers. I listened to a lot of doom/sludge metal for Tarry This Night, and wrote hymns in the stairwell of my building: creepy! As a bassist, I’m partial to Black Sabbath, the Melvins, Sleep and Bolt Thrower, to name a very few. 

GO: What books were essential to your formation as a writer, and are there any books you’d recommend for any beginning writer?

KD: Books were a lifeline for me as a kid; the public library in town was a safe haven. It’s so subjective, what book (or band) will knock someone’s socks off, and I continue to be astonished by new or new-to-me writers. The stories I remember most vividly from childhood were emotionally devastating, so much so the books were sometimes confiscated until I’d ‘calm down.’ Books that told me about another person’s struggles in their differently-lived life nurtured deep empathy in me as a reader, as a human. This is probably why I write – primarily to express those intimate longings and, secondly, in hopes for some kind of connection, however anonymous it might be.

For a beginning writer, especially, read widely. Read outside your comfort zone: different genres, diverse writers. Listen to authors speak about their work (so much is accessible online now); this is how we learn to talk and think about our own work, and to place it in the context of what has come before, what’s current, whatever will come next.

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Kristyn Dunnion was raised in the southern-most tip of rural Canada and now lives in Toronto. She has authored six books, most recently Stoop City (Biblioasis, 2020), winner of the 2021 ReLit Award for short fiction, and Tarry This Night (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017). Recent work appears in Best Canadian Stories 2020, Toronto 2033 and Orca. A queer performance artist and heavy metal bassist, Dunnion is also a community mental health support worker.

Gunnar Ohberg is a member of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. His poems and short stories have recently been featured in The RacketThe Mark Literary Review, and in media res. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in South Carolina. Sometimes he plays in rock bands.

Brandon Fick Interviews Guy Vanderhaeghe

Guy Vanderhaeghe, author of August Into Winter

Brandon Fick: With your first novel in a decade, August Into Winter, you’ve returned to historical fiction. What sparked your interest in learning and writing about history? Growing up, were you aware of major historical events as they were happening, or interested in your own family’s personal history?

Guy Vanderhaeghe: From a very early age, I was interested in the past. It began with the stories my grandparents told me about their lives, which I drank in. The things they had lived through: prairie fires, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the First World War, the Depression, The Second World War, always seemed richer, more momentous than my own stale existence. These anecdotes prompted me to read history in an attempt to learn more about the world as it existed then.

And yes, even as a child, I was aware of major historical events. Not to make myself sound too precocious, but I was a news nerd at quite a young age. I can recall the world teetering on the verge of nuclear war, sitting at my desk with my classmates listening to the radio as the Russian ships carrying missiles to Cuba approached the United States Navy’s blockade, which was determined to prevent the weapons from landing. Kennedy’s assassination made a huge impression on me. I watched and listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” on television. And so much more, the Hungarian uprising, the Berlin Wall going up, Gary Powers’s spy plane shot down over the U.S.S.R. and the embarrassment that debacle caused the United States. The Cold War and the dread of nuclear annihilation was very much part of my childhood psychology.

BF: What was the impetus to write August Into Winter and what did the research process look like? Having written multiple historical novels over many years, has your research process changed in any way?

GV: The initial impetus was one of those stories I mentioned earlier, which was told to me by my father. Immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, my hometown experienced a string of house break-ins that turned out to have been committed by the son of one of the most prominent families. He killed the RCMP officer who arrested him and fled. A posse was formed by veterans of the First World War, and they went off in pursuit of him. Unlike the character in my novel, Ernie Sickert, the murderer killed himself when he was tracked down, brought to bay, and surrounded. But the actual incident was nothing more than a nudge that got the narrative moving forward, unfurling. The characters in my novel bear virtually no relation to the real-life murderer or to much else that has to do with what I know of the incident. They are pure invention.

I did a lot of research on the Spanish Civil War since one of my characters served there. Aside from conventional histories, I read a lot of first-hand accounts written by veterans of the International Brigade. I used the Winnipeg Tribune as a source for news about the early months of the Second World War because I wanted a sense of what people were thinking when the course of the war was still so uncertain. Unlike us, they didn’t know how it was going to end and capturing that mood of uncertainty was important for the book.

My research process has changed very little over the years, aside from the fact that the internet now supplies a wealth of easily accessed information, which wasn’t true when I wrote The Englishman’s Boy, my first historical novel. I always sift through far more material than ever makes its way into a novel. A fairly comprehensive knowledge gives me a measure of confidence as I write, because I feel I have a solid grip on the times and events that are part of the novel.

BF: Having reread The Englishman’s Boy earlier this year, I was struck by its themes – violence against Indigenous people, reckoning with the past, the dangers of fascism and propaganda – and how they’re even more relevant in 2021. And in an introduction to Timothy Findley’s The Wars, you said “serious historical novels are always as much about the present as about the past they claim to place before our eyes.” Keeping that in mind, what do you think August Into Winter says about today?

GV: For a long time, I’ve been concerned about the rise of the radical right in the United States and in Europe. Those men and women who went to fight for the Spanish Republic, to defend it against the military uprising of General Franco, believed by taking a stand there they could stop the worldwide spread of fascism. They failed, largely because democratic governments refused to aid the Republic, and Italian Fascists and German Nazis were only too eager to help Franco and the fascist Falange. The Second World War was a bloodier reprise of the struggle against totalitarian, anti-democratic movements. What both wars remind us is that human rights and human freedom are never completely assured.

In part, the book was written because I believe that the radical, populist right, as exemplified by men like Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Duda – the list goes on and on – are slowly eroding the hope for a world of international law and individual liberty. August Into Winter asks the question: What is the proper response to a crisis such as this? The storming of the United States Capitol by militiamen was a page out of a book written nearly ninety years ago by Nazi SA storm-troopers. Nevertheless, so-called “respectable” politicians attempt to minimize how dangerous such actions are and they are not being called to account for it by the electorate.

BF: One of the key characters in August Into Winter is Ernie Sickert, described as a “spoiled, narcissistic man-child.” Is he comparable to Addington Gaunt from The Last Crossing, or Michael Dunne from A Good Man, characters who do “bad” things for compelling reasons? Is it a challenge to get inside these deeply flawed characters?

GV: I’ve always been interested in what motivates people to do what they do. The presence of evil in the world reminds us that it has a source, and that source is human beings. Ernie Sickert is probably the character who has given me the greatest challenge to write. At one point, my editor remarked that she felt that he bore many similarities to Donald Trump. When I think about it, she might be right. Sickert is self-pitying, vain, arrogant, childish, dangerously impulsive – and above all, forever the “hero of his own story.” I think to write awful human beings, you need to turn off your self-censor, and not be afraid to go to places that are dark, disgusting, or even terrifying.

BF: Speaking of characters, August Into Winter has a huge cast, each with layered backstories. How do writers not only manage, but do justice to so many characters?

GV: That’s a very hard question to answer and the best advice I can offer is that when you write characters be those characters. Write them from the inside, not the outside. If you do that, they have a habit of occupying the spaces in a novel that belong to them.

BF: How has Canadian literature changed since you began writing? Is there less focus on “writing Canada into being” as there was in the 1970s and 1980s?

GV: I think that the cultural nationalism of those decades is largely a spent force. As far as I can see, younger writers have different preoccupations than writers of my generation. When I was a student, we were seldom taught Canadian books; in literature departments, there was a general assumption that Canadian was another adjective for “second rate.” Writers like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, along with many others, put fiction, poetry, and plays written by Canadians firmly on the world stage.

BF: Do you think your writing style has changed over the years, or can you identify certain “phases” in your writing career?

GV: Looking back, I suppose my preoccupations as a writer have changed. My early work was much more “personal,” more “intimate,” and less concerned with presenting characters in a “social” or “political” context. Structurally, the novels have grown increasingly complex, and the prose is likely simpler than when I was beginning as a writer. When I was young, I was much more enamoured with fancy flourishes and rhetorical fireworks. I hope I’ve moderated and restrained some of that now.

BF: Is there a certain book or short story you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of? Or on the other hand, a work that you wish had turned out differently?

GV: I’m a harsh critic of my own work so I’m not particularly proud of anything I’ve written. I do wish that all my fiction had turned out differently. That is to say, better.

BF: Going back to history, is there a certain historical event or figure that you think is deserving of a new or updated fictional treatment?

GV: As far as I know, nobody has ever written a novel about Leon Trotsky. He is a fascinating character, multi-dimensional, a subject worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.

BF: And finally, if you could sit down with one or two writers in history, who would they be and what would you ask them?

GV: I would ask Chekhov whether he thought he was a better playwright than short story writer. I would ask Philip Roth how it was possible for him to write so well, for so long.

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Guy Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, in 1951. His previous fiction includes A Good ManThe Last CrossingThe Englishman’s BoyThings as They Are (stories), HomesickMy Present AgeMan Descending (stories), and Daddy Lenin and Other Stories. Among the many awards he has received are the Governor General’s Awards (three times); and, for his body of work, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship, the Writers’ Trust Timothy Findley Award, and the Harbourfront Literary Prize. He has received many honours including the Order of Canada.

Brandon Fick grew up in Lanigan, Saskatchewan. He primarily writes fiction and has been published in Polar Expressionsin medias res, and The Society. He received a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College and a B.A. Honours in English from the University of Saskatchewan. Brandon is currently in the MFA in Writing program at the U of S, working on a short story collection exploring masculinity and small town life.

Karen Wood Interviews Merilyn Simonds 

Merilyn Simonds, author of The Holding and The Convict Lover

Karen Wood: Tell me a story about you being or becoming a writer.

Merilyn Simonds: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories. I made them up for my little sister. In Grade Ten, I started a weekly column of school news in the local newspaper. At the same time, I started writing little vignettes. I’d see two people talking and would write a story, adding my own dialogue. At university, I studied journalism, but that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, so I switched to English literature. Ironically, that stopped me in my tracks. We studied novels from a thematic viewpoint and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t have a theme. I guess I’m not a writer.’ I stopped for a decade or more, then when my kids were little, I started writing magazine articles and how-to books. When my marriage ended, I moved to Kingston to work at Harrowsmith, a magazine that espoused the New Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. Kingston had a thriving writing community, and so when I found a cache of letters in my attic, that gave me the confidence to write my first literary non-fiction book, The Convict Lover—the real beginning of my writing life. 

KW: Tell me about that first literary book, how you wrote it.

MS: The Convict Lover was a wonderful first literary book because I was sure no one would want to read it. I was free to bring the story to light in the most authentic, honest, engaging way possible, because my contract was solely with the material. Out of that experience I developed an ethic for literary writing that has served me well. 

KW: Your publications cross multiple genres. On your website you’ve been described as someone who refrains from categorization. Can you speak about that?

MS: The Convict Lover forced me to think through the notion of genre. What was this story? An epistolary novel? Narrative nonfiction? An exposé of Canadian prisons? A penal history? I decided that genre was not something that interested me as a writer. It is of great interest to publishers, to booksellers, and readers—it’s a shorthand way of finding the kind of books you like. But for a writer, genre brings baggage, and for me, the last thing I want when I have a body of material is to wrap chains around it and say, ‘It has to be written like this.’ The Lion In the Room Next Door, for example, was published first as a book of non-fiction stories because it was important to me to signal to the reader that these are stories, but they’re not made up. But it was also published as short stories, as auto-fiction, as memoir, and as a novel. I love the flexibility of the definition of story: a series of events; a fiction.

KW: With categorization there can be porous boundaries between, for example, fact and fiction. As a writer, have you had experiences where that provoked any ethical or moral dilemmas?

MS: Absolutely. To me fact and fiction are not two sides of a coin, but a continuum. The telephone book is extreme non-fiction. Conventional biography is closely tied to facts, but as you move into towards the centre of the continuum, through memoir, interpretive biography, personal essays, the prose becomes more subjective, more informed by the writer and their memory. At the centre is a grey area, where as one reviewer of The Convict Lover said, fact and fiction meet and fornicate. At the opposite end of the continuum is speculative fiction. 

To me, it’s a question of readers’ expectations. I had to figure out how to write The Convict Lover, how to deal with the gaps in the story. I wanted to be frank with the reader about those decisions, so I wrote an Author’s Note. I think an Author’s Note is vital, especially for experimental work. And so with The Convict Lover, I said everything in italics in the letters was drawn directly from the letters, the letters had not been changed at all, no characters had been invented, all characters actually lived, etc. However, the dialogue between the characters was invented and the emotions and feelings of the characters were surmised from circumstances. I think readers are sophisticated. As long as they know what’s going on, they willingly fall into a book. 

KW: Can you speak to what is delightful for you about writing?

MS: Writing is hard, but it never feels onerous. The moment when the words fall into place and they actually say what you want them to say—well, it is profoundly satisfying. There’s an ecstasy to writing that I don’t get anywhere else, which is probably what keeps me at it. The feeling has to do with story, and all the elements of story, but equally if not more so, it has to do with language. Sentence structure is heartrate, right? You’re designing sentences to control the reader’s heartrate. There’s nothing more elemental than that.

One of the things that keeps me in this work is that I’m pushed back to kindergarten with every new project. Every body of material is new, and every body of material requires its own form. Every book thrusts me right back into a position of not knowing, and I think not-knowing is about the most exciting place to be. A writer is, in some respects, always a newbie, even though you do become adept at revision and the deep mechanics of writing, of making sentences. You learn how to dismantle something knowing that you will make it better, without being afraid that by taking it apart you’re going to wreck it. 

KW: Do you have a routine? And if so, what is it?

MS: I work well within a routine. I like to get up with the sun. I go right to my desk and work. Take a break, exercise and then go back to work. Have lunch. Normally I can manage about six hours of creative work. I write my first draft long-hand. I use a spiral-bound notebook. I only write on the right-hand side of the page. As I’m writing, I go back to the left side of the pages and make notes like, ‘Introduce George here.’ That first draft is really an exploration of the limits of the story. Some call it the ‘puke draft’. I call it the donné draft—the gift. From that, I write the first draft into the computer, print it, work it over in longhand, then go back to the computer, make those changes, and print it out, work it over.

In the afternoons I edit, make notes, take care of business, until about 3 or 4 pm. In the evenings I usually read. The last thing before bed, I review what I wrote that day. I always stop in the middle: I never end my writing day by finishing a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter. I always stop mid-thought. I read that little last bit over, and all through the night my brain is working on it so that when I get up in the morning, I have something to grab onto to get started again.

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Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Merilyn Simonds grew up in Brasil, where she acquired a taste for the fabulous. She published her first book in 1979 at the age of 29. She is now the author of 19 published books, including the novel The Holding, a New York Times Book Review Editors’  

Choice, and the creative nonfiction classic, The Convict Lover. In 2017, Project Bookmark Canada installed a plaque to honour the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape. Her 20th —Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay—will be published in spring 2022.    

With roots in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, Karen Wood is an MFA student whose writing is informed by years of research and community practice, and fueled by a commitment to address gendered violence. New to the world of creative writing, Karen continues to be delighted by the extraordinary capacity of artistic expression to create space for social and political engagement, activism, and change.   

Aliza Prodaniuk Interviews Gail Bowen

Gail Bowen, author of the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series

Aliza Prodaniuk: What drew you to the mystery genre? When did you begin to take your writing seriously?

Gail Bowen: I came to writing late. I was in my mid-forties when I got asked to write a lighthearted piece for Prairie Books. It was fun! The fellow who was the publisher liked it enough to suggest that Ron Marken and I write a book. We called the book The Love Letters of George and Adelaide, 1919. It ultimately became a play called Dancing in Poppies that Prince Edward came to see, which was very exciting. After that, I was bit by the writing bug.

In graduate school, my summer reading list was always mysteries. I thought to myself, “I’d like to write a mystery,” one that was set in Saskatchewan and captured the local flavour. That was very important to me. It was also important to create a main character that reflected myself: someone who lived in Saskatchewan, someone middle-aged and ageing, someone with a family, not a superwoman, but an academic like me. That’s really how things started. 

AP: Do you pre-plan your writing? Or do you write by the seat of your pants?

GB: The first chapter is very important for me in setting up my story. It takes me forever to write the first chapter. My latest book, An Image in the Lake, took me three months to get through the first chapter. However, when I get the first chapter done, I know where I’m going. There are always surprises along the way, and that’s the joy of writing. But at that point, I have a good idea of what will happen in the book. That first chapter never gets easier for me. Twenty books in, and I still think, “What if I can’t pull the rabbit out of the hat this time?” Luckily, even though the writing hasn’t become easier, with experience, I can tell when I’m doing something that isn’t working. 

AP: Congratulations on your recent publication. An Image in the Lake is the 20th novel in the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series. How did you get here? How do you keep such a long series healthy and fresh?

GB: As I said before, I made several decisions early on that have helped keep things going and keep my readers and me interested. I get an awful lot of mail about the books — I’m grateful for it, and I answer everyone, even the cranky ones — and I think the biggest thing that people continue to care about is Joanne, the protagonist, and her family. Joanne is very approachable. She is not extraordinary in any way. She is every woman. Because she has aged throughout the series, many readers have gone through their middle ages with her and can identify with her experiences.

Joanne keeps me coming back to the series, too. People are like onions; the more time you spend peeling and peeling away their layers, the closer you get to what that person is. That’s the exciting part for me. Joanne constantly surprises me, even after all this time! 

If it ever becomes a chore, then I’ll stop. I think we’ve all read series that have gone on too long, and you can tell that the writer hates the story and their protagonist. I’ve gotten so much out of these books. Six of them have been made into movies, and we got to go to Toronto and be part of that process. We have had so many travels and met so many people, and now they are being made into audiobooks. The series has been so good to me that I’m not going to let it go on too long and be terrible at the end. I’m noticing now that I’m starting to put proper endings on the novels that would be satisfying just in case it’s the last one. I don’t leave anyone hanging. 

AP: What advice would you give to emerging writers?

GB: Take a great deal of time developing your protagonist and getting to know them. The time you put into pre-writing is well worth the effort. It will save you from making an awful lot of mistakes along the way or from simply running out of gas. 

The other thing is, no matter what kind of book you are writing, get your money’s worth out of secondary characters. They can do so much for you. They can keep the interest up so that you’re not totally plot-driven in your narrative. 

Learn about pacing novels. That’s really important, too. Periods of actions and reflection are equally important, and you will want to learn how to balance them. 

Write every day and never leave your work in a bad place! That’s the most important thing I can say. 

AP: What’s next for Gail Bowen?

GB: I just got through chapter one of my next book, and I’m feeling really happy with it. After Christmas, I will be participating in a program through the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild that provides writing advice to rural areas where it’s not readily available. In November, I will also be giving a lecture on Canadian Literature at Marburg University in Germany. So, I will be very busy in the coming months. 

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Gail Bowen is a prolific author, playwright and teacher. Her best-known works are the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series of mystery novels, all of which are set in Saskatchewan. The twenty novels in the series have received national and international acclaim for their realistic, continually evolving heroine and examinations of contemporary social issues ranging from child prostitution to feminism, racism and domestic abuse. Six books in the series have been successfully adapted for an international television audience. Among her numerous writing awards are a lifetime achievement award from the Crime Writers of Canada and the Distinguished Canadian Award from the University of Regina and the Lifelong Learning Centre. Readers’ Digest has called her Canada’s best mystery novelist. She is also a playwright, specializing in children’s literature, and has adapted a number of classic works such as Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast for the stage and radio. In 2018, she was awarded the Grand Master Award of Crime Writers of Canada, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.

Aliza Prodaniuk lives in Hamilton, Ontario and is a current graduate student in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. She has had recent work appear in East by Northeast Literary Magazine & The River Volta Review of Books.

Interview with Waubgeshig Rice

Özten Shebahkeget Interviews Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice, author of Moon of the Crusted Snow and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation.

Özten Shebahkeget: What are you currently reading, and what are some of the books that have influenced you?

Waubgeshig Rice: I recently started a podcast with my friend Jennifer David called “Storykeepers” that focuses on literature by Indigenous authors, so I’m doing a lot of reading and re-reading for that. Our next episode features Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, so I’m giving that another look. Otherwise, I’m chipping away at a re-read of Stephen King’s The Stand just for fun. As for the books that have influenced me, there are so many, but if I was to highlight the books I read as a teenager that changed my life, I have to mention Keeper n’ Me by Richard Wagamese, Tracks by Louise Erdrich, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King, The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, and Ravensong by Lee Maracle. There are so many more, too!

ÖS: What does your writing routine look like?

WR: It’s been pretty varied due to the pandemic and how it’s affected our life at home. For most of the school year, our older son was in class physically. So I’d take him to school, and then write for the rest of the morning, take a break for lunch, and then write in the afternoon until he was home. But for our most recent lockdown in Ontario, schools here in Sudbury went online in March, so he’s been at home since and I’ve been helping him with his schooling. So I moved most of my writing to the evening when both of our kids (we have a one-year-old son as well) were in bed. I’ve always tried to be adaptable and flexible with my writing routine, and the pandemic has been a good test of that!

ÖS: You were a journalist for a number of years with CBC before moving on to fiction. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a writer? Do they change as you hop genres?

WR: I feel my responsibilities first and foremost are to the people who share stories with me, and to the cultures and communities they come from. When I worked as a journalist, I always saw myself simply as a conduit for the real-life experiences of others. I was there to help them share their stories with wider audiences. And now that I work primarily as an author of fiction, a lot of the stories are inspired, influenced, and informed by my Anishinaabe heritage and community. So my responsibility is to my people, if I’m going to write about Anishinaabe experience in fiction. That means respecting culture and history, and sharing stories in a respectful and meaningful way. I need to be aware of my limited perspective, and the permissions around sharing certain details, specifically about culture. For me, I don’t think those responsibilities change much as I move across genres and formats. I always have to be accountable to the communities I inhabit and participate in, because they’re what influence just about everything I write.

ÖS: You’re currently working on the sequel to your novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow. How has the writing process been compared to MCS?

WR: I wrote Moon of the Crusted Snow while I was working as a full-time TV reporter for CBC in Ottawa, so most of that writing happened in the early mornings, evenings and on weekends. It was basically a spring to get as much written as possible in those short windows! I was fortunately able to take a couple leaves of absence for a couple months at a time to really finish it up. But that process was entirely different from my current work on the sequel. My family and I now live in Sudbury, and I left my job at CBC here in May of last year to focus primarily on my career as an author. That’s really when the heavy lifting for the next part of the story began. I was able to spend my daytime hours developing and researching the story, and I’ve never really had that full-time opportunity before. It definitely hasn’t felt like a frantic or rushed process. It’s been nice to be able to take my time and let the story unfold naturally. After spending most of the rest of last year dreaming up and plotting out the story, I started writing out the manuscript. I just finished the first draft, and I’m excited to begin the revision process.

ÖS: What drew you to apocalyptic fiction?

WR: Initially it was reading classic books in the genre back when I was in high school. In Grade 12 English class we read Brave New WorldFahrenheit 4511984, and more. I was really drawn to the speculative imaginings of life after the end of our current world. I saw those stories as commentary on the flaws and detriments of our current society, and just how bad things can get if we don’t live in a good way. But also around the same time, I had a conversation with my grandmother on the rez about how Anishinaabeg (and all Indigenous people) have already survived the end of the world. She reminded me about our people’s history on the shores of Georgian Bay and how our ancestors were displaced from our homelands, which were then exploited for capitalism. It’s a perspective and knowledge of history that really reminded me of the resilience of Indigenous people, and how our modern stories are all basically post-apocalyptic. That really inspired me to try to capture that experience in literature, which a lot of other Indigenous authors like Louise Erdrich and Cherie Dimaline have done expertly.

ÖS: Do you pre-plan your writing? Or do you write by the seat of your pants?

WR: I pre-plan almost everything! I always write a story outline and character profiles before I write the actual manuscript. I also make pretty detailed notes of some of the elements I want to include in the story, no matter how minor or seemingly mundane. That all helps me build the world the characters inhabit before jumping in to explore it myself as the writer of the story. I write a lot of the imagery that I imagine in my head, so I sometimes create visual references too, whether that’s taking photos on my own, or finding images and representations of what I want to write about online. Even though I do a lot of meticulous planning, I still approach the actual writing process with a pretty open mind. I let the story do what it needs to, even if it deviates from some of that original planning. I think writers really have to be flexible and allow stories to unfold organically. In that sense, all that pre-planning can be a good foundation or guideline. All that to say, it’s important to remember to have fun! 

ÖS: Who do you write for besides yourself? And what do you want readers to take from your work?

WR: I write for anyone who wants to read. I just want to create a compelling story that a reader can connect with. All I want them to take from my work is that it comes from a writer who is trying to do their best, who stays true to themselves and their background. It’s important for me to be as genuine and candid as possible in my writing, and I hope that comes through. I also hope they learn something, and that my writing potentially opens their eyes to new experiences or stories, regardless of their cultural background.

ÖS: Where would you like your writing to go next?

WR: Well, after spending so much time in recent years working on post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings, I would like to write something a little lighter! I have some ideas for funnier stories I’d like to explore. We’ll see how that goes once I’m done with all the revisions to the sequel of Moon of the Crusted Snow. I’d also like to gain more experience with screenwriting. It seems like a wide and exciting world with a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. But at the end of the day, I’m just really thankful for any writing opportunity that I have. I’m very fortunate to have ended up on this path. It’s a dream come true!

*

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent most of his journalism career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a video journalist and radio host. He left CBC in 2020 to focus on his literary career. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.

Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.

Interview with Catherine Hunter

Özten Shebahkeget interviews Catherine Hunter

black and white photo of Catherine Hunter
Catherine Hunter, professor at the University of Winnipeg and author of St. Boniface Elegies.

Catherine Hunter is a writer who teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Her books include the poetry collection St. Boniface Elegies (Signature, 2019, winner of the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry; also short-listed for the Governor General’s award for poetry and the High Plains Book Award for poetry); the poetry collection Latent Heat (Signature, 1997, winner of the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award); the historical novel After Light (Signature, 2015, shortlisted for the High Plains Book Award for Fiction and four Manitoba Books Awards); and several literary mysteries with the Ravenstone line of Turnstone Press. Her most recent publication is the short story “Calling You” in Prairie Fire (Spring 2020).

Özten Shebahkeget: What advice would you give to yourself as an emerging writer?

Catherine Hunter: Leave that guy. Leave him right now. 

ÖS: Has the pandemic had an effect on your writing practice? If yes, how so?

CH: Because teaching online is so time consuming, the pandemic effectively eliminated my writing practice for the first year. I hope to be able to resume it soon.

ÖS: You have served in the past as the acting chair of the Sociology department at the University of Winnipeg. I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between sociology and creative writing.

CH: I don’t really see much of a relationship there. My role in Sociology was completely administrative. I worked with the UW sociologists for two years, and learned a lot from them in conversations and by occasionally observing their classes or reading their articles. I learned a little bit about many different topics: the history of medicine, attitudes toward mental health, patterns of immigration, labour and museums, the evolving role of the family, the impact of public policy on health and safety (very interesting to think about during these pandemic days), and a bit of theory. Sociologists at the UW are vitally concerned with human rights and achieving equality in terms of economic security, health, and well being. It’s an honourable intellectual field. But it’s not my field. I was raised by radical activists who were deeply engaged in social justice issues, so those themes have always been present in my thinking and therefore in my writing. But what I’m doing isn’t sociology, or philosophy, or politics, or cultural studies, or theory. It’s art. 

ÖS: You have been teaching creative writing at the University of Winnipeg since 1991. What has brought you joy during your time at UW? Do you find teaching aids your own practice?

CH: I don’t think teaching aids my own writing practice at all. In fact, it is a huge impediment because it eats up all my time. But teaching is not about me. It is about the students. 

I had the great good fortune of an excellent education, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to spend years sharing seminar rooms with some of the best literary minds in the country. I’ve spent most of my life reading and writing and have studied a phenomenal amount of fascinating poetry and fiction, as well as literary theory and criticism in English. So, it’s only right that I should share what I’ve learned with others. As a teacher I try to encourage those who appreciate language and poems and story-telling, and to show them new avenues of exploration. It’s not just a job. It’s a service, passing along knowledge and skills from one human being to another, through the centuries. (That’s what you want to defund, Conservatives?) Mainly, I encourage all students to read more. If you had asked what advice would I give to an emerging writer other than myself, I would have said, first, read. But to be more specific, read deeply in the genres you’re writing in and read widely in other genres. Study the sentences. How are they made? What do they do? Read nonfiction to learn about different landscapes and climates, different types of sport and religion and science, different modes of travel. Learn the vocabulary of sailing and surgery and sorcery and silver mining. 

For those talented students who respect the power of language and read deeply and are working hard to make poems and stories, I provide a space where they can experiment and meet other artists, a space where it’s not only okay to make art, it’s actually required. And for those students who don’t appreciate language very much, or for those who stumble into creative writing class by accident, with the mistaken notion that it’s easy, I provide examples of beautiful, intelligent, moving literature, often tailored to their particular interests. I point out the skills the writers used and encourage the students to make poems or stories of their own. I enjoy working with those inexperienced students just as much as I like working with the literary stars. To see somebody learn something new, to try a new skill and get results, is a source of joy. It could be a student figuring out that revising a sentence can make it stronger, discovering a new author they love, or realizing the artistic value of the legends their grandparents told them, or it could be a student winning a scholarship, getting published, or moving on to graduate school. All of those moments are occasions for joy.

I remember when I first applied to work here many years ago, I said in my letter that I strongly believe that all people, regardless of talent, can learn to express themselves more effectively, and I still believe that. Everyone can learn to think more creatively too. You don’t have to be a published author to benefit from becoming more articulate and leading a more creative life.

ÖS: What does your revision process look like when it comes to poetry? How do you know when a poem is finished? 

CH: I keep a lot of notes. Mostly they are just jottings—sentences, jokes, descriptions of things I see, phrases that come to mind. These are scattered throughout a few different notebooks. I guess this is the pre-composition stage, rather than the revision stage, but it all seems like one long process to me. Once in a while a note will strike something in me, and I’ll start to expand on it. If it begins to spark new ideas or to draw other fragments toward it—there are usually connections to be made among the seemingly random fragments—I start to see the shape of the thing. Then I suppose the remaining work could be called revision. In revision, I try to define that shape more carefully. I’ll find a movement that makes sense (maybe from image to image or from question to question or through certain shifts in attitude or perspective, or just changing the subject). I’ll also try to find the form—for example, if it seems to be falling into couplets, I’ll try to turn it all into couplets just to see if that works or not. (I have one fairly long poem that began as a sestina and then I turned it into a series of sonnets. Eventually it became a free verse poem in five stanzas, but I can still see the traces of the sestina and the sonnets in there.) Maybe that kind of formal experimentation is revision. Maybe it’s just getting to know the poem. I’ll also try to get rid of redundancies, clarify vagueness, find more accurate words, read the thing out loud to listen to the rhythms and the sounds of the vowels and consonants, play with the line breaks, delete parts that seem out of place or irrelevant. I don’t think I ever consider a poem finished until someone gives me a deadline, and then, on the deadline date, it’s finished. I realize this is probably useless as writing advice. My revision process when it comes to fiction is much more intentional. 

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

CH: I’ve been working on some short stories, playing with structure and perspective, trying to braid or splice different story lines together. One of these stories, “Calling You,” was published in Prairie Fire last year (Spring 2020). The themes I’m working with are mainly illness, death, and grief. My husband suffered a long, debilitating illness and died about two years ago (that was when you were in my creative research class, Özten). In the wake of those experiences, I’m trying to look at the ways they affect our consciousness. The eerie gaps in time, the forgetting and misplacing of things, the mistakes, the hauntingly strange effects on the imagination (which I can’t yet describe)—all those human reactions to shock and loss. I want to try to recreate these effects in the narrative structure somehow. Since we’re approaching the end of the teaching year, I hope to resume those attempts again soon. 

*

Interview by Özten Shebahkeget. 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.

Interview with Allie McFarland

Erin Hiebert interviews Allie McFarland

Allie McFarland, MFA in Writing alum and author of the novel Disappearing in Reverse

Allie McFarland is a bi, white settler originally from Calgary, AB on Treaty 7 territory. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of English, and is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Disappearing in Reverse is her full-length debut.

Erin Hiebert: What does your current literary practice look like? This could be day to day or how you conceive of and carry out larger projects.

Allie McFarland: It depends on the project, but typically I write short scenes to discover my characters, then figure out how those scenes work together, or what different orders of the scenes accomplish and what story(ies) they tell. For example, for my thesis, I knew the basic premise—a young, educated woman (older than a child) had an eating disorder—and I knew that I did not want to either appropriate the experience of an eating disorder or provide instructions on how to have one, but instead convey the severity of eating disorders and the impact they have beyond the afflicted person. For this, I knew I had to first establish the main character and her close relationships (so that readers would actually care). I wrote Part One more or less at the same time, but not chronologically—the first scene I actually wrote appears about half-way into Part One. Once I had a bunch of scenes written, I printed them out, moved them around, and looked for a flow that made sense for the progression of the story. I then had to edit out redundancies and fix references depending on where the scenes would now appear versus when I had written them. I basically followed this method for each subsequent ‘Part’ and then filled in narrative gaps at the end.

EH: What are the ongoing preoccupations that drive your work?

AM: Thematically, I always return to food and family/interpersonal relationships. Artistically, I have a drive toward merging form and content as closely as possible, which for me results in the collapsing of genre distinctions.

EH: While reading about your thesis work, I was particularly interested in this dismantling of genre and the hybrid nature of your novel(la). Can you speak towards this instinct? Is there a larger question or ethics at play, or is this what the project demanded?

As mentioned above, I strive for a merging of form and content, so that each demands the other (almost like a chicken/egg scenario). For me, poetry always feels closer to the character, like the barrier of narrative and the pretenses of sentences have been stripped away, so I find that characters experiencing emotional turmoil express themselves in poetic thought. This idea took form for me with a previous manuscript, an excerpt of which was published as a chapbook titled Marianne’s Daughters by Loft on Eighth. This manuscript follows three daughters as they each individually face personal crises and are brought together. Most is written in first person, but at the times where they are under the most stress, each daughter’s perspective shifts, so one daughter falls into second-person narration while her twin goes into third person and the youngest daughter falls into third-person verse. The changes in narration indicate the differences between the characters, while also pointing to their shared tendency to distance themselves from the established first-person narration. So, yes, my rejection of traditional form is a marker of my work generally, but also something that is required and dictated by the individual pieces I work on.

EH: Who are your literary parents, and how have they guided your work?

AM: Aritha van Herk is a mentor and friend whose work has guided my own. I love her books for their stories and attention to form and content. For example, her novel No Fixed Address begins as a traditional novel, but is then interrupted by “notes” that are written in second person and provide an outside perspective that engages with the thematic elements of the work while remaining inside the story—effectively creating a character for the reader to embody inside the text. She also writes outside of and in-between genres, with much of her work being considered ‘ficto-criticism’ or ‘geofictionaire’ (texts which collapse non-fiction into fiction and theory).

Barbara Langhorst is another mentor who helped in the first drafts of my thesis during the mentorship portion of the USask MFA, but she went above and beyond for me. After our official mentorship ended, Barbara agreed to keep reading drafts and giving me feedback right up to my defence. Not only is she a great editor, but she is also skilled in poetry and prose. It was amazing to work with someone who writes across genres. Her book of poetry, Restless White Fields, is beautiful and tragic, and the way the poems are displayed on the pages reflect the content inside them (i.e. a poem about grief is circular, repeating, progressing, but always looping back). And her fiction is funny! It deals with difficult family and social issues, but uses humour to do so. In Want, Delphine orders a new kitchen—the most beautiful kitchen she’s ever wanted—without telling her husband, and in the middle of agonising over her impulsiveness, her brother comes to town convinced that the world is ending and the only way to survive will be to live off the grid. The story shares a lot of the same themes that I work with, but Barbara Langhorst is funny, and that’s something I’m still working on.

Another literary parent, someone I’ve never met, is Robert Kroetsch. His words circle me—stories and poems ensnaring and teaching me. He was prolific, so he’s written something for every occasion. Want to learn how to incorporate different details to serve plot? Check out A Likely Story. Looking for hilarious magic realism? What the Crow Said. Or do you want something self-aware, somewhere between poetry and prose? The Hornbooks of Rita K. I love his books and essays because they are both enjoyable and informative—every book is a lesson on some aspect(s) of writing, but you don’t need to be a writer to delight in the stories or language.

EH: You are also the co-founder and editor of The Anti-Languorous Project which also has a hybrid nature with the various online, print, and sound editions. Can you talk a little bit about how these elements coalesce under the antilang banner? Are there distinct challenges for each or does it feel in service to the singular project?

AM: The ALP is at its heart a project, and so the hybrid nature makes sense. We want to engage with writing, reading, and publishing in as many diverse forms as we can, and, by using the technology available to us, share the Project with as many people as possible. Of course, each aspect has its own challenges, a main one for soundbite being that recorded works are more difficult to edit. More general challenges include time and financial restraints, but those are not specific to our project, except that our resources are spread across various mediums rather than being focused on a singular publication. However, now that we are more established, we are looking at ways to expand, so that The ALP becomes even more collaborative with different people involved in the different publications, broader types of writing being shared (such as our recent addition of Good. Short. Reviews), and with a reconfiguration of soundbite.

EH: Finally, any new projects you would like to tell us about?

AM: Not a new project, but an old one that I’ve been spending time with, is my novel(la) Disappearing in Reverse. This manuscript was published by the University of Calgary Press’s Brave and Brilliant series, and it is, in a lot of ways, the younger sister to Pretty Delicate—not that the characters or content are continuous, but stylistically. Written in short, first-person scenes, I compiled it in much the same way as I did my thesis: I wrote scenes and then figured out what order they went in and what needed to be added to flesh out the story. This process continued for a while, as I completely rearranged the scenes between drafts with the publisher and was guided in what needed to be added by my fabulous editor, Naomi Lewis. Disappearing in Reverse came out September 2020! [Editors’ note: You can find and buy Disappearing in Reverse here.]

Interview by Erin Hiebert, whose work has appeared online and in print. Her chapbook, Save Our Crowns, was published by Anstruther Press in 2018. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry. She lives in Saskatoon.

Interview with Nicole Haldoupis

Tea Gerbeza interviews Nicole Haldoupis

A woman, author Nicole Haldoupis, stands in front of a white, planked wall for a portrait.
Nicole Haldoupis, MFA in Writing alumnus and author of the upcoming novel Tiny Ruins

Nicole Haldoupis is the editor of Grain magazine and untethered, the co-founder of Applebeard Editions, the author of Tiny Ruins forthcoming with Radiant Press, and a University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing alumnus. 

Tea Gerbeza: Your forthcoming book, Tiny Ruins, is a novel comprised of linked flash fiction stories. What about the genre of flash fiction do you find delightful? What do you find most challenging?

Nicole Haldoupis: Flash fiction—which has many names, such as microfiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and short-shorts, among others—allows you to zero in on brief moments. You can do so much in a really small space, and it’s fun to see how much you can pack into a micro story of, say, 200 to 500 words. I love how satisfying it is to go from writing a first draft—which may or may not be awful—to chipping away and polishing it up to make a shiny little story. At a certain point, you realize that you really don’t need as much as you think you do—which is true for any form, but is particularly important in flash fiction—and that you don’t need to spell everything out for the reader. Much of what you cut and erase remains between what’s left on the page and what can still be felt in the blank spaces, if you leave just enough. 

Plot can be challenging in flash fiction, as you essentially have to fit a full story with a beginning, middle, and end in a page or two. I started working on Tiny Ruins in 2014 as my MFA in Writing thesis project, and my mentor for the project was the amazing Dave Margoshes, who would occasionally give me feedback such as, “Nicole, this story doesn’t have an ending.” Succeeding at creating a plot in this small space is a really good feeling. Not every single story in Tiny Ruins has a beginning, middle, and end, but I think most of them do. A micro story without a plot is sometimes referred to as a vignette, and these often work as literary portraits of a moment or image that don’t necessarily need to have much movement. 

Some of the pieces in Tiny Ruins cross over into prose poetry territory, as the line between the two forms is blurred. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which—for example, visually, if a piece has dialogue and paragraph breaks, it’s probably a flash story—but sometimes if you’re looking at a block of text that kind of seems like a story but also reads like it could be a poem, how can you possibly tell if it’s a prose poem or a flash fiction story? I like to think I know the answer, but I’m not sure if anyone really does. I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting and pushing the boundaries and blending the forms and seeing what I could do with them. 

TG: How does your job as an editor inspire your writing and impact your writing practice? Does the way you approach ordering the pieces for a magazine help you in structuring your own book? Or do you have a whole different approach?

NH: I think it’s really valuable to read what is being created and submitted to publications in CanLit today as a way of helping you see things you like and don’t like in your own work (and in the way you approach submitting to magazines and anthologies). My experience with ordering magazine pieces definitely helped with the initial ordering of pieces in Tiny Ruins. Trying to figure out what works together thematically, what creates a nice contrast when placed next to other pieces, what flows well and what doesn’t is a fun puzzle to solve. I usually do this in collaboration with others, but for Tiny Ruins it was just me, and I’m really bad at making decisions, so it was quite hard. I’ve since changed the order entirely and decided to structure the manuscript chronologically, as the story follows two sisters growing up, and I think it makes more sense this way. This is of course an entirely different process than ordering pieces in an issue of Grain, for example, as the pieces in a literary magazine aren’t part of the same story (but can, and often do, still link thematically to others in the issue). 

TG: What part of the MFA in Writing program was the most beneficial for you? Is there something you learned while completing the program that still influences the way you approach your writing practice? Did talking about your work critically in the defence change the way you view your writing now? 

NH: Defending my MFA thesis was an eye-opening experience for me. I’m an anxious person and going into the defence was terrifying. However, I am also one of those people who left their defence saying, “Actually, that was pretty fun”—because it was! I don’t know if I did a good job or anything like that, as defending a creative thesis is complicated in the first place, but talking about Tiny Ruins with my defence committee (a roomful of people who read my manuscript closely and came up with thoughtful comments and questions) helped me in many ways. It helped me realize that the defence and the whole MFA program itself was a rare and valuable experience that I was extremely privileged to have. It helped me acknowledge that I made this thing and it’s not “wrong” because I made it and it can be whatever I want it to be. I needed to learn to be able to talk about the manuscript from an academic perspective. People gave suggestions to help me improve it, but overall everyone involved was there to support me and was on my team. They wanted to help me to make my manuscript better and for it to succeed. I learned that I really didn’t have that much to be afraid of after all.

TG: From my understanding of the genre, flash fiction preoccupies itself with moments. Is there a specific place you draw inspiration from for your stories? Any obsessions that you just can’t shake? Where does the story start for you?  

NH: A lot of my flash stories take place in a schoolyard, and for me it is a specific schoolyard—the one behind my elementary school in the east end of Toronto. I find if I sit down to write but don’t know where to start, that schoolyard is often a good place to go back to as it’s a setting rich in stories for me. Some specific spots that appear in Tiny Ruins are inspired by this place, such as the mulberry bush (which was the go-to schoolyard wedding venue), the dumpsters by the far end of the tracks, the grass hill/ice slide, the portables, the sandbox, etc. 

There are several instances of poop in the book—kids pooping their pants, falling in poop, getting poop in their hair. I guess I’m also preoccupied with cats—there is a cat named Sean who appears throughout the collection—and weird and funny things kids do and say and how they experience life. 

During the more recent phases of writing and editing Tiny Ruins, I’ve also been interested in queerness and bi/pansexuality, bi-erasure, suppressing queerness, heteronormativity, and queerphobia, the microaggressions that stem from them, and the effect all this has on young girls. As someone who didn’t take the opportunity to embrace my queerness for a big portion of my life, these ideas have been preoccupations for me lately! 

Interview by Tea Gerbeza, current MFA in Writing candidate, poet, and paper quilling artist. Tea also holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Regina. You can find Tea’s work in The Society, Spring, and Poetry Is Dead, among others. Her poems won an Honourable Mention in the 2019 Short Grain Contest.

Interview with Beverley Brenna

Hope Houston interviews Beverley Brenna

A woman, author Beverley Brenna, poses for a portrait.
Beverley Brenna, mentor for the MFA in Writing and prolific author of children’s literature (Photo courtesy of David Stobbe/StobbePhoto.ca)

Beverley Brenna has previously published over a dozen titles for young people, including her “Wild Orchid” series that placed on the 2015 Governor General’s shortlist for children’s literature, won a Dolly Gray award, and earned a Printz Honor. She has two new titles coming out this spring with Red Deer Press—one creative non-fiction picture book called The Girl with the Cat and one middle-grade novel dealing with grief and loss called Because of That Crow. For more information, visit Beverley’s website.

Hope Houston: You’ve said that you began your writing journey as a poet and later transitioned to writing for children and younger readerships. What inspired this transition?

Beverley Brenna: I had been writing poetry since I was seven, and I enjoyed the process of creation. Finding an audience for my early poetry wasn’t easy, however, so when I was a child, and into my teens, writing for myself was my primary purpose. As I grew older, I published a few single poems for adults and received some audience opportunities through radio broadcasting, but the publications weren’t constant. As part of my B.Ed. program, I took a children’s literature class where I read some brilliant literary work for young people, and I began to wonder if perhaps I might try my hand in that direction. The books I admired most were presented for middle-years or young-adult age groups, and they inspired me to move towards this kind of narrative writing as a potential target. 

HH: There is sometimes an assumption that writing for children is easy or at least easier than writing for adults. What is your response to this? Do you find parallels between writing for either readerships? Does either offer unique challenges?

BB: I suggest that writing for any audience involves a similar process and a similar kind of workmanship—with equal expectations for quality. Bad writing for children is easier than good writing… but then, bad writing for any age group is probably similarly breezy. One of the particular challenges in writing for younger readers is that we need to occupy a kind of split perspective: adult writers rendering children and the experience of childhood—we are not just looking back; we’re avoiding any kind of long-distance, sentimental, or didactic lens, and actually going into the authentic landscape of childhood through our characters. 

HH: You are currently auditing Sheri Benning’s class on creative nonfiction, and you are in the midst of exploring an interesting history on a particular candy. Would you mind telling us more about that project? 

BB: I’m so grateful to be experiencing this class! Writers learn so much from every course, workshop, presentation, and conversation we have about writing, as well as from additional reading and extended writing practice in any form and genres. My draft picture book emerging from this class is currently called A Chocolate Love Letter: The Story of the New Cuban Lunch Chocolate Bar. When I drafted it for one of Sheri’s assignments, I’d been editing a creative non-fiction picture book by Kathy Stinson called The Girl Who Loved Giraffes, about the world’s first giraffologist (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2020). As part of editing Stinson’s work, I began thinking about how interesting these sorts of biographies can be, and wondering why we don’t have more child-friendly biographies of prairie people. My husband brought home some of the “revived” Cuban Lunch bars, and I began wondering about who’d bought the trademark… and then realizing that this could be an interesting project for someone. And then I thought that perhaps that someone could be me! So, I cold-called a phone number I found on a website and was suddenly on the line with Crystal Westergaard! She was very receptive to my questions and the idea of the picture book. And the story has evolved from there!

Here’s a quick synopsis: This is the true story of the Cuban Lunch chocolate bar and the contemporary Canadian entrepreneur who now owns the trademark. Becoming a chocolatier isn’t easy, but Crystal Westergaard thinks there’s no problem that can’t be solved. She’s faced almost insurmountable challenges with prairie strength, and she’s now delighted to be inspiring Western Canada with millions of chocolate bars and the memories that accompany them. Reminiscent of other narrative non-fiction picture books such as Kathy Stinson’s two picture books based on the life of Joshua Bell, Helaine Becker’s Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs (Kids Can Press) and Andrew Larsen’s The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie (Owlkids Books), this 32-page picture book manuscript highlights Canadian history through a story contextualized in our food industry. 

HH: You’ve mentioned you are interviewing individuals for this project. Sharing a story and working collaboratively to get that story can require a unique negotiation not always present in other genres. Can you describe your experience with this? 

BB: I think it’s true that any writing based in reality involves some sort of negotiation with “the truth” in order to make a story reader-worthy. This results in the importance of research for telling any story not fully our own, and, even when delineating the context for rendering our own experiences, good research is key. 

Research for biography involving real people adds another dimension when these people are available for conversations that heighten our understanding (where subjects say, for example, “That’s not the way it really happened”) alongside activating our critical consciousness of what makes a good story (“Too much detail will slow us down or bury the theme”). It seems to me that when I write fiction, I’m often writing my way in to a situation or scene—adding events and character traits in order to create a desired effect. It seems to me that when I write non-fiction, I’m actually doing the opposite—writing my way out of a cacophony of possibilities, carving away from a compilation of accumulated facts in order to see the actual story emerge. 

HH: You’ve worked as a mentor and/or a supervisor on a variety of creative theses with the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. What has your experience been with the program? Has mentoring/supervising impacted your own writing?

BB: I’m delighted with the opportunities offered to graduate students through the MFA program and admire the way it assists developing writers through a wide-angle on a variety of genres, and then a close-up regarding a thesis choice. 

I think that any kind of teaching expands creative possibilities through preparation and delivery. As graduate students in the MFA program bump up against challenges and related questions about craft, my own investigative work is catalysed to seek answers. As I suggest some of those ideas to students, I am constantly calibrating this learning with my own writing—how might a particular practice work for me? In a way, my writing is in the petri dish alongside my student’s—and I think both should see a reaction over the course of a mentorship or supervision. 

HH: What does your typical writing routine look like? Do you have a particular writing space? 

BB: When I’m involved in a new book-length project, I tend to spend a lot of time on it initially, until a complete first draft is done. This might mean four months of three- to four-hour daily entries for a children’s novel, during a term in which I’m not teaching. Once I have a finished draft, I’m able to step back, take it up in parts, and revise my way through on a less-obsessive schedule. Probably because I don’t have a great memory for details, I need to work fast at first, much like doing watercolour when the advice to a painter might be, “Plan like a tortoise, paint like a hare.” Except in my case, I’m essentially painting like a hare first, and then doing the planning (What’s the plot? What’s the theme?) and doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard through revision. I don’t generally plan the components of longer works in any great detail ahead of time—I need to write my way in, and I do that by becoming engaged in a key character and writing from their perspective. 

I’ve been working lately on middle-grade novels, and my typical output on a new manuscript is five to eight good pages a day, conceptualized as short, individual chapters in a book where the end product could involve twenty-five to thirty-five chapters. Before I leave my desk, I write the first paragraph of the next chapter, so that it can sit in my subconscious until tomorrow and brew a little bit before I actually get to writing it. 

HH: What other practices (artistic, culinary, athletic) feed your writing practice?

BB: Introductory painting classes have helped me begin to conceptualize the creative process through the lens of a different art form. They’ve also heightened my visual memory—although this is still one of my weakest skills. I don’t generally “see” any images when I read, and when I write, I need to locate the action on landscapes/in houses that I know well, because if it’s an invented setting, I won’t remember it by the next chapter. Walking, biking, Zumba classes are fabulous for clearing the mind but also for nourishing epiphanies. I can enter a Zumba class with a literary challenge in mind, and then—presto—a solution comes to me (sometimes in mid-air). 

HH: What consideration are important when writing children’s literature?

BB: I think that stories really can change the world. It’s important to me that children’s authors take this seriously, and think about how books can become windows and mirrors where children see themselves and others… otherwise, why read? It’s also important to me that writers take seriously the challenge to “get it right.” This means, “Do the research.” This also means recognizing our individual limitations, as in, “Am I the best one to be telling this story?” And, finally, it means conducting some market research. “What’s out there? Am I re-inventing the wheel?”

 My research into children’s literature shows some serious gaps in the kinds of offerings available, and I hope that the promise of what Eliza Dresang calls Radical Change in children’s literature evolves into even better opportunities in years to come for enriching children’s connections to self, the world, and other texts, through deep responses to great, dynamic characters and current, captivating themes. 

I encourage anyone interested in writing picture books (or books for children in any other form) to go and read some—read a lot! And, in particular, read contemporary ones. There’s a cart of 135 picture books, all published in Canada in 2017, sitting just inside the Education Library, purchased, thanks to a SSHRC Insight Grant, as part of one of my ongoing research studies. Feel free to come by and enjoy! But as you read, make sure you’re “reading them like a writer!” Think about how the author and illustrator are achieving the effects they achieve! 

HH: Writing can be a solitary practice. In what ways do you foster community in your own writing projects or process?

BB: As a University of Saskatchewan faculty member, I’m part of the U of S Speakers’ Bureau, and this assists me in doing school visits where I can share aspects of my work and see children’s responses. My husband is also a writer, and I share much of my work with him for his feedback (always incredibly wise). I’ve been fortunate in doing a couple of Canadian book tours, sponsored by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and the TD Bank, and in this way try to keep in touch with the sensibilities of my intended audiences. Every time I meet a new audience, I think to myself, “Oh! So that’s what they’re like!” and it totally changes the content of what I’m working on. 

HH: What element of craft do you feel most challenged by in your work?

BB: Plot. If someone installed me into an office where the only way out was to create a feasible plot chart, in advance of any preliminary writing or character study, I would be lost forever.

HH: Which of your works to date has been the most challenging to write? Why?

BB: All of the rejected manuscripts that aren’t yet published. They sit in a big, green plastic bin and taunt me with memories of the number of hours I’ve spent on them. But I’m not finished with them! Not yet! 

Interview by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB and American transplant to the Canadian prairie. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. You can find Hope on Twitter

Interview with Alissa York

Kate O’Gorman interviews Alissa York

A woman, novelist Alissa York, stands beside a field of grain and an empty road.
Alissa York, mentor for the MFA in Writing and instructor at the Humber School for Writers

Novelist Alissa York teaches creative writing at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and recently became Program Coordinator of the well-respected program. Alissa has been a long-time mentor, inspiring and guiding emerging writers at The Banff Centre, Sage Hill Writing Experience, and most recently at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2019, she was paired with MFA in Writing student Kate O’Gorman in a mentorship experience that Kate describes as “foundational and beyond expectation.”

Kate O’Gorman: How does being a mentor influence or impact your own writing?

Alissa York: It’s extremely helpful for my own writing. I’m constantly reading work that keeps me alive to the process. It reminds me how important process is. It also requires that I articulate what I know [about craft] much more clearly than I would otherwise. It’s all beneficial to my own writing and it has the built-in bonus of spending time, either virtually or actually, with people who are deeply engaged with writing and reading. They are my people. There’s a good symbiotic relationship between the two.

KO: In a nutshell, what is your advice to emerging writers?

AY: My nutshell advice:Don’t expect the apple pie when you’ve just planted the seed. I see so many people shut themselves down, looking for perfection, when it’s not yet time for perfection. Imagine an Olympic gymnast trying to do that final routine while she’s still developing. Writing well is as hard as Olympic gymnastics. Value every step of the learning. And read. Read, read, read.

KO: Who are some of your own mentors? Which authors inspire you?

AY: Toni Morrison. I love Sebastian Barry, an Irish novelist. Tim Winton—I love his work. Who else…? Oh, Flannery O’Connor. I think they show tremendous originality and boldness in their writing, as well as courage and liveliness.

KO: Who are you reading now?

AY: I recently read Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, which is an incredible novel. Marina Endicott’s new novel, The Difference, is so good. Rawi Hage’s most recent novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, is great too. They’re all very different. I also loved A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey.

KO: What is your writing practice?

AY: I usually write early in the morning for about three or four hours. I do my first draft writing in longhand—it’s how I started to write, and I’ve always preferred it. Then, in the afternoon, I might transfer the first draft onto the page. That’s when I’ll do my first edits.

KO: Why do you write? What keeps you writing?

AY: For the work itself. Early on I would have characterized it as story ideas, ideas that come to me that seem to want to be put on the page. Now, over many years of writing practice, I would stay it’s still that. Novels come in pieces. They present themselves and request to be shared. But it’s also become one of the main ways that I find, and make, meaning in life. Writing is more interesting that almost anything, and more difficult.

KO: Of all your characters, do you have a favourite? Why?

AY: Maybe Dorrie from Effigy. Probably because, in some ways, she’s the most mysterious to me. I love how completely consumed and sustained she is by her work.

Alissa York is the author of Any Given Power, Mercy, Effigy (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller prize), Fauna, and The Naturalist. In 2018, she received the Rogers Trust Engel Findley Award in recognition of her contribution to Canadian literature.

Interview by Kate O’Gorman. Kate lives and writes on the Canadian prairies, where she is currently completing an MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her work has appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and Release Any Words Stuck Inside of You II.