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!

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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. 

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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.

Interview with Barbara Langhorst

Allie McFarland interviews Barbara Langhorst

Barbara Langhorst, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning author

Allie McFarland: The USask MFA mentorship program is (as you know) unique in Canada, but what do you think it brings to the program? Or, what do you think about the practice of mentorship more broadly in relation to writing and emerging writers? What does mentorship entail in your mind (both for giving and receiving)?

Barbara Langhorst: The mentorship program in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan is first-rate, in my experience. The mentors bring professional experience as working writers to the students, revealing another dimension of the writing life as it exists outside academia. This year, this is especially obvious, as the Director of the MFA Program (Jeanette Lynes) and several of the mentors in the program have been shortlisted for a variety of Saskatchewan Book Awards.
One of the strongest aspects of mentorship is the connection between generations of writers—the construction of a network of writers and writing that supports both mentors and emerging writers. The mentors have a wide variety of approaches and interests, and help the students develop individualized reading lists that broaden the experience for both parties. As a mentor, I draw on my own experience with my supervisors in grad school, both of whom were very supportive but practical—they advised me to expect a lot from myself, especially about the amount of reading and writing that needed to be done in a limited time, and so I have high expectations for my students, too. However, the relationship in the MFA at the U of S is also beneficial to the mentors, who revisit problems they have dealt with (and some they have not), and learn from their students, as much as the other way around. I have had the great opportunity to work with two brilliant students, and learning how to help them has helped my own writing. 
I have had the enormous good fortune to be mentored by fantastic writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, dennis cooley, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Sandra Birdsell, and Guy Vanderhaeghe, and in all cases the experience was extremely helpful in developing a sense of myself as a writer. Kroetsch and cooley, in particular, tended to say, “You’re the poet,” and give support with relatively little technical advice. As a mentor myself, when some practical advice about craft is expected, I try to leave the work in the writer’s hands as much as possible, only identifying areas that need to be rethought or worked through, rather than offering my own solutions. 

AM: Thinking about the advice from your mentors and your approach to mentoring, what do you consider ‘writing’—the physical act of sitting down and putting new words to page, or do you include the revises / redrafting / editing processes as ‘writing’? And what is the most exciting part about writing to you?

BL: All acts of putting words on the page and moving them around is “writing” to me. Composing the first draft is the most exciting, dangerous type of writing, I find. It jolts the adrenaline like nothing else, especially when I feel like I’m channeling a story that is begging to be told, but it can also be terrifying, because pursuing the wrong intuition, following the wrong choice in plot or character, can mean months of rewriting.
I try to keep the joy of composing when I revise by looking at scenes (or even the novel as a whole) and seeing whether the piece needs to be retold from another perspective or a different point in the action, and by looking at the entire novel as a poem, where pieces can be moved around as I do words in writing poetry. Sometimes I go back, as I did in Want, and completely rewrite several chapters right at the beginning. I also use a headset to dictate sometimes, if I want a new perspective on the work. With Want, when I wasn’t sure about the structure, I wrote out the plot, cut it into scenes, drew the paper slips of scenes from a hat, taped them down in that order, and then cut and pasted the novel into that order, smoothing as I went. In the end, I reordered the book again, but that randomization helped me to see which scenes were necessary and where they needed to be. I also changed the point of view to first person on the third draft of Want, and moved it from present tense to the past. In my current novel, I think I am working much more confidently with the structure—but I do hope that confidence is justified. Time will tell.
Perhaps the form of writing that seems least like real writing is the synopsis, yet I wrote three synopses for Want, and the process showed me the characters’ motivations in ways that I hadn’t realized before. I enjoy responding to editorial suggestions, as they, too, show me the novel in ways that are new. Time at the keyboard is happy time for me—all of it—even when I can’t write as well as I’d like. The goal is to become better, and that only happens by doing.  

AM: Your novel Want was shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award. And your collection of poetry, Restless White Fields, won both the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book award and the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Book award. These are amazing accomplishments, and I’m curious what you think about the role of these types of awards / recognitions in relation to the community aspect of writing that your mentioned earlier? 

BL: I am tremendously grateful for the awards offered in SK and AB…as Doug Barbour at NeWest has often said, being nominated is as much an affirmation as winning. Many good or even great books miss being nominated simply because there are so many good books published, and thus being nominated is a truly heart-lifting gift. I always enjoy attending the awards, and am really looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Many of those nominated this year for the Saskatchewan Book Awards are writers I’ve known and admired for almost twenty years—and many of them are part of the MFA in Writing program at the U of S. It’s fabulous to be among them. SK writers are so generous with their time, energy, humour, and friendship. I would never have written if I hadn’t come to SK, I know that. It’s a phenomenally supportive community.

Interview by Allie McFarland, RVRB editor, co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, and reluctant poet.