Category Archives: Interviews in 5 questions

Russell Thornton reflects on icons, art and imagination

Russell Thornton’s new collection, The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books), was a Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted book. With these poems, Thornton crosses oceans and millennia to explore archetypal themes of ritual, love and loss. His five previous books of poetry are The Fifth Window; A Tunisian Notebook; House Built of Rain (finalist for both the B.C. Book Prize and the ReLit Poetry Award); The Human Shore; and Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the B.C. Book Prize and the Raymond Souster Award). He lives in North Vancouver. Kelly Shepherd interviewed Russell Thornton for The Coastal Spectator.

There are references to icons and oracles throughout this collection. Could these poems be compared to icons? You’ve written stylized saints and Madonna figures, using vibrant colours. But beyond their surface appearances, icons are also windows between worlds, or conduits. Do you think poetry serves this kind of purpose? Or, would you equate the poet’s work with that of the oracle?

I suppose all poems are icons of a kind. If poems succeed, they’re at least partial images of sacred personages or things — and are sacred themselves. Do you know that statement by W.H. Auden? He said that the concern of the imagination was sacred beings and sacred events. If I’m not mistaken, he was commenting on Coleridge’s ideas about Primary and Secondary imagination. In any case, the statement seems right to me. Poems (great poems anyway!) depict sacred beings and ongoing sacred events. They’re icons. You might say that reality itself is a vast conglomeration of icons. Out of an unfathomable welter of energy comes the array of likenesses that we call the world — the iconos. Yes, I agree, icons are windows between worlds; they take us through the eye to where energy is entering into form and the world is being made — and where we’re helping in the making of the world. Yes, poems have similar qualities and operations: they’re verbal window-ways. It’s interesting to me that icon-makers were rigorously trained crafts-persons. They learned how to make good windows. In poetry, I’d use the word craft in its widest possible sense and include in it ideas of oracular facility. But I don’t know that I’d equate many poets with outright oracles. It’s a poet’s purpose to investigate the depths of his or her experience and at the same time explore (or be explored by!) language, and at its most powerful and significant the result, as I say, may allow glimpses of the sacred — as through a window. Still, actual oracular utterance and vision, prophetic truth telling — that’s reserved for the great oracles and very great poets, I’d say, and for Earth itself, as the oracles most often drew energy from specific locales. For me, poetry that simply works finds the extraordinary mostly in the ordinary; if the crafts-person labour that this entails is very roughly equivalent to what oracular activity involves or amounts to, then okay, on a rudimentary level the writing of a decent poem is related to an oracular performance.

I’m interested in the architectural themes in The Hundred Lives. Numerous poems deal specifically with interiors, or enclosed spaces: from domed churches to phone booths, and human mouths, and wounds, to the insides of apples and pomegranates. Can you talk about architecture in these poems, and perhaps about the architecture (the structure, or the construction) of the poems themselves?

I’ve always responded to spatial relationships and form — and to sacred spaces. Such spaces can occur anywhere. As you say, within domed religious structures, within phone booths, within apples. Or on other, invisible levels, within relationships between people. I think one of the primary purposes of poetry is to create verbal spaces, to limit or contract space in this way — in order to set up intimations of infinite expansion. This calls up William Blake, Rumi, et al, of course; it appears to be a fundamental, a creative principle. Maybe all art imitates or re-enacts in miniature some original activity that brought and continues to bring the material universe into being. In any case, I’d say that architecture, if it exists in my poems, follows from this sense of a contraction or withdrawal in order to make a special space. The circumscription, the geometry, would be the words of a poem; the space would contain experience, nameable as my own as well as otherwise.

And yes, the poems in this book have an organization that might be called architectural. I wanted the reader to be able to enter an imaginative structure and see a set of experiences from different perspectives — as if within related spaces in a building. In the first general enclosure (the section of the book titled “With a Greek Pen”) I brought together poems I wrote while living in Greece; the section ends with an elegy for someone I was close to in Greece who suffered a very early death from cancer. Then in “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene,” I looked at love, loss and longing using the characters and plot of the Lazarus story as an imaginative base; Lazarus, Mary, and Jesus are all meant as aspects of the same psyche — the same single interior, you could say. Then in “from Book of the Dark Dove,” I compiled elaborations I wrote on lines from the Song of Songs; this section is the result of my efforts at translation and interpretation, and places the imaginative viewing room in the mythical realm. And then in “Double-Flute”, the final section of the book, I included poems I wrote about someone I was close to in my early twenties, became estranged from, and then learned had died; the poems are personal and represent a final “walking naked” perspective, to use Yeats’s phrase. The collection is meant to be of an architectural piece in this way and is an attempt to say something about romantic love and death.

You may not be recognized primarily as a “nature poet,” per se, yet much of your poetry is about dwelling in and connecting with the natural world. And of course you have been anthologized in the wonderful Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (2009). Would you describe your work as nature poetry or ecopoetry?

I wouldn’t be taken aback if my poetry was called nature poetry or ecopoetry; in a fair bit of my writing, I’m occupied with the natural world. The details I take with me into a poem as I try to write are often those of the natural world as I’ve experienced it. When I face the blank page, more often than not I’ll blacken it with images of the natural world as opposed to, say, popular culture. I’ll follow those images as I am able on the imaginative level. But I write about a number of things; also, I don’t know that I have a clearly formulated message about nature that would fit with the outright eco-poets. I take “nature” to mean not only the earth and its forms of life, powers and processes, but also the male and female in all their manifestations, and the “natural person” within the individual psyche. I can say this (well, quote this): “God save me from thoughts men think in the mind alone,” (W.B. Yeats) and “God save us from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” (William Blake). These statements are touchstones for me. I like the classic Where the Wasteland Ends, in which the author Theodore Roszac asks, “What, after all, is the ecological crisis that now captures so much belated attention but the inevitable extroversion of a blighted psyche?” And I agree with other authors I’ve read who say, essentially, that the recovery of an earlier, deeper human vision that we now know can be attempted in two ways, through deep ecology and through imaginative art. The two may be the same thing. I’d say that the imagination’s function is to correct imbalances that have come about in the psyche, to reconcile artificially imposed polarized elements; it connects the severed halves — inner and outer, self and other, male and female, life and death, human beings and the natural world. The prime elements of imaginative speech, metaphor and symbol, for me are the link, the bridge, the meeting, the marriage, the atonement — reconstructing the world as a unity beyond dualism, and enabling a flow of consciousness in which we experience and know things in full, mentally and physically at once, in a greater, enkindled awareness. Poetry can re-spiritualize nature.

Some of these poems seem to belong in collections of their own. In the future, will we see a book-length publication of Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene? Or a Book of the Dark Dove?

It’s possible, I guess. Both these sections of The Hundred Lives are excerpts from much longer unpublished manuscripts. I might get my nerve up and try to get them between covers. One day anyway.

David Suzuki talks about aging, racism and family

David Suzuki’s work as a scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster has made him one of Canada’s most recognized–and at times controversial– people. Trained as a geneticist, Suzuki found a niche early in his career in making science compelling, and understandable, to everyday people. He has published more than 50 books, including 19 for children. His 30-year career in broadcasting includes developing and hosting CBC’s long running science program Quirks and Quarks and numerous award-winning documentaries. David Suzuki spoke to Stephanie Harrington about his latest, most personal book, Letters to My Grandchildren, for The Coastal Spectator. What follows is is an edited excerpt from their interview.

In the foreword to Letters to My Grandchildren, you write that you’ve been introducing yourself as an elder for the past several years. Yet accepting that you are in the last part of your life, what you call the “death zone,” has been difficult. What does it mean to you to be an elder, and why did you decide to take on that role?

In our society, where youth and being young is so important, I was very reluctant to take on the role of elder. But the reality is, when you get to a certain age, you can’t deny it any longer. I’ve watched the elders in First Nations communities. They are regarded really as the most important group in the community and often you talk to some of the young political activists and … the elders are a constant reference point to them. As I reflected on that, I realized [that] to be an elder is something you earn by living an entire life and in fact you now owe it to society to share your knowledge. You are the living history of the community. I urge my fellow elders to stop avoiding the word elder and realize it not only confers respect but obligation. I think we’re in a unique position, we’ve lived an entire life, we’re free to speak as we wish. We can draw on our experience to provide lessons to the coming generation.

Also, my (maternal) grandparents came to Canada in 1904 and left in 1946 after they were interned in camps during the Second World War.  My grandparents never spoke English, I never spoke Japanese. We never ever had a conversation. When they left, really important questions I felt were part of my roots were gone. I feel now that I’m an elder, I don’t want to kick the bucket and to have my grandchildren say,  “I wanted to talk to my grandpa about this or that.”

You’ve written more than 50 books, but this has been called your most personal. Each chapter is written as a letter to your six grandchildren, addressing a range of topics from racism to fame to aging. The voice is intimate and conversational; the letters feel as if they should be read aloud. Was this intentional? Who do you hope the book reaches, in terms of audience?

It is a very personal letter to my grandchildren, and I wrote it that way, but it is a book that is for sale, and I hope people, old and young, buy it. I hope it triggers a response in readers to make it a personal thing and an inspection of their own priorities and experiences. It’s up to them to get out of it what they want. I didn’t think of it [as being read aloud], although it is written as if I was talking to my grandchildren. What’s interesting to me is this was a piece of cake to write because it was a like a conversation. In the reading though, it has become a very personal thing.  [In] one segment I was so emotional I couldn’t read it; it was a passage to my mother. Another couple of sections I’ve written to my grandchildren, I choked up in the reading.

It wasn’t challenging to write something personal because my whole life has been an open book. [With] most of my books, the reception is mixed: there are people who hate my guts and they’re going to tear down anything you find, but this one I was really surprised. I gave the June Callwood lecture recently (in Toronto), and people were coming up crying because they were so touched. I have been struck and moved by that response.

One of the most moving aspects of the book for me was reading about your family’s internment during the Second World War in the Slocan Valley, in what is now Valhalla Provincial Park. You’ve described this experience in another interview as bittersweet. It had a devastating effect on your family. Your maternal grandparents decided to leave Canada and return to Japan after the war ended, and your parents, born Canadians, were stripped of their rights, possessions and livelihood. But living in the Slocan Valley allowed you to experience the natural world in a way you hadn’t before. Can you tell us more about how you feel about this period in your life?

As a kid, your parents shield you from what’s going on. It only occurred to me when I was on the train [to the internment camp] that everybody on the train was Japanese. When we got to the camps, I was one of the few kids who couldn’t speak Japanese. I was in one of the oldest Canadian Japanese families at that time. The Japanese kids beat me up all the time because I couldn’t speak Japanese. The result of that is I tried to avoid being around them. I was this loner who spent all this time outside by myself in what is now a magnificent provincial park.

Yeah, I have mixed feelings. My parents were just in their early 30s. It was shattering to them. They were Canadians. As an adult, I feel angry for my parents, but as a kid [I] was torn between my experience with other kids and spending time in this magnificent park. I don’t dwell on the war in this book, but I am very concerned about the issue of racism. When people asked me what shaped my life, I say Pearl Harbour. Up to Pearl Harbour I was just a Canadian kid. Pearl Harbour changed that. I have a knee-jerk response to racism. Two of my grandchildren are Haida, and the most recent one, their grandfather is Metis. They’re going to be hurt by many bigots. I tell them it is the love of family and community that is their shield. Don’t let someone who is ignorant attack you or criticize you or hurt you because they don’t know you. They’re just speaking out of ignorance. I’m trying to get them strong enough so it won’t hurt them. A bigot who hurts you, a person who hates a gay person or woman or Muslim, those people are your enemy. Your role in life is to protest and speak against any example of someone being picked on. They might be the victims now, but you may be the victim in the future.

Your father emerges as an intriguing character in this book. Can you talk more about the influence he had on your life, specifically your love of nature?

My father, he was my hero, he was my mentor. He made me feel I was a pretty important guy. He loved me. But he was very demanding. My dad beat me physically: he spanked me, kicked me. He was a tough guy, but my love for my father overrode everything. The biggest hurt was by words, not by actions. When he was mad at me, he’d threaten to pull me out of school — that was my biggest fear, having my education interrupted. The hard part for me was worshiping my father and realizing he was a human being with all the frailties that come with that. He loved the outdoors. As the eldest son in a family of seven kids, of the eldest son in an immigrant family, he was expected to set an example. For his mother and father, that meant, you’ve got to make money. Dad worked hard his whole life, he loved camping, he loved gardening. He was a real biologist in a way that was far more profound than my biology. He loved fishing but he was constantly being berated by his parents. They’d say, “Why did you go camping with David this weekend? You could have been working.”  That only endeared him to me more. He didn’t care about money. He taught us, just because you have a big house or fancy cars doesn’t mean you’re more important. My earliest memory of fishing was at four years old. He just took me camping. Even in the camps during the war, we weren’t supposed to be fishing, but we’d go off and fish like mad and go camping in the mountains. Thanks to dad, I have a real love for nature. It was just part of who he was.

In this book I talk about my mother. She was a rock in our family. She did it without fanfare. Mum was keeping the family together . . . I say in the book, the most selfless, kindest human being I’ve ever met was my mother. But when she died,  I realized when my sister and my children die, no one will ever know who she was, and she will disappear from human memory. We hear of all these famous people but what about all the millions of people who all they did was struggle to survive? They lived, worked, suffered. I always have to struggle to live up to being like my mother, I have to try to fill her shoes, I have to do it all the time. The kids seem so impressed when someone’s on TV and they become a celebrity but they shouldn’t be. They should put it in its place. Fame of that kind doesn’t interest me at all; it’s what I’m doing now that matters.

In Letters to My Grandchildren, you write: “Acceptance of aging is part of getting older; some call it wisdom. And when we accept what we are, then we define ourselves and no longer care how others see us. Believe me, that is totally liberating and gives power to an elder who is speaking.” Do you feel free of all constraints now?

For me, one of the greatest gifts I received when I still a young man was tenure at UBC. I’d just turned 30 and I got tenure. What that meant was I couldn’t get fired because they didn’t like me. There were people on the board that constantly wanted to fire me, but because I got tenure I didn’t have to worry about it. Way back in the early 80s, the Haida were going and getting arrested. I’d done a film about it and I said to the CBC I’m going to go out there and support them. I was told the CBC will yank you off air. My grandson (Tamo) recently got arrested on Burnaby Mountain but I’m still held back because of the threat of The Nature of Things getting cancelled…

I want people to understand age brings this tremendous freedom from worrying about other people’s influence on you . . . if you say the truth and speak it from your heart and someone is offended that’s their problem, not yours. I don’t worry about pissing someone off; most people still hesitate and worry. You shouldn’t–we’re free from that.

The main thing now is my health. I know I’m in the death zone. I can drop dead any time. As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to be in there and doing what I can. It’s about my grandchildren and what their future is going to be … I can’t imagine a bigger cause than taking to task a prime minister who has wilfully ignored an issue that threatens the survival of Canada, just because he’s got an agenda based on petroleum… To this day he has deliberately ignored the climate and environment in his last budget. It’s absolutely outrageous.

Memoir revisits Red Cross work in Cambodia

Victoria resident Elaine Harvey published her first book of creative nonfiction with the North Saanich firm, Promontory Press , for Encounters on the Front Line. The press describes itself as “a traditional book publisher that doesn’t like the way the traditional industry has gone when it comes to being accessible to new authors.” Harvey describes herself as a “neophyte in the daunting world of publishing.” In looking for a publisher, she “considered everything from DIY to Smashwords to a call for new writers from Penguin Australia.”  The process kept her busy – and waiting — for two years. After hearing repeatedly that the publishing world was in crisis, she chose the collaborative model offered by Promontory because “it was important for me to be involved in the format and cover design of my book.” Harvey recently spoke with Lynne Van Luven about the challenge of wresting a narrative from her own journals and historical events.

Elaine, Encounters on the Front Line, your first book, has been almost half a lifetime in the making. Can you tell me a little about what motivated the young woman who, in 1980, undertook her “quest of the heart” to use her nursing skills for the International Red Cross on the war-wracked border of Cambodia?

My childhood dream was to work in Asia or Africa, having a sense of the world at an early age from my father. Later, nursing became a path that led to Cambodia. I am frequently asked why I was drawn to danger. I’m not particularly brave, but I was drawn to a desire to make a difference, to do something in the world, beyond my own backyard. Something that mattered and it did matter to the Cambodian refugees that we, the front line aid workers, were there. The paradox of this quest is that one gives a great deal in terribly difficult conditions but at the same time receives extraordinary gifts. One gift is a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. It keeps me curious, concerned and I hope humble.

I adjusted quickly to the realities of the refugee camp, having already travelled in the “third world,” but the dramatic death of a teenage girl on my third day at work catapulted me into front-line work. Decades later in writing Encounters on the Front Line I understood better the impact of this kind of work– the witnessing and the vicarious trauma that led to a continuing quest to find my own path, be it a worldly or a spiritual one. Front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.     

Your book is divided into three parts – The Border (1980), Pilgrimage (2007-08) and A Greater Mystery (2009);  to write it you had to assimilate and amalgamate experiences and notes from a 30-year span of time. That must have been a daunting undertaking. What process or techniques did you use to help you organize your material and find a sustaining narrative spine?

Yes, it was daunting. My techniques, if any, or at best learnt along the way, were simple. I transcribed journals to the computer. I didn’t wander from the present tense. I didn’t wander from my lived experience. With writing The Border, memories surfaced that led to the return to Cambodia, which I envisioned as a pilgrimage.

Cambodia was a front line that slipped away into the cluttered sidelines of my life. Years later, years changed, I read from my worn blue and gold journal, a faded Red Cross on its cover: “Do not forget us. Come back.” That was a half a lifetime ago: a haunting call, a subliminal message, and an unresolved question of my heart.

There was the call of the refugee, as well as a deep curiosity about the new Cambodia. I travelled, I volunteered, I met exceptional people and I wrote. The book emerged. The narrative arc may have been as simple (or as complex) as the need to find a thread from my past and bring it into the present. The reveries give glimpses into some existential doubts, conflicts and resolutions that move the story forward.  The transition between 1980 and 2007 was unwieldy. I attempted to fill the gap with ‘the rest of my life’ but the more I tried the less it worked. Only three months after my six months in Cambodia, I went to Africa with the Red Cross, another human and environmental disaster. The narrative arc needed focus so I chose to keep Encounters on the Front Line in Cambodia.

Your subtitle is Cambodia: A Memoir and you have given your readers a timeline, maps and a bibliography to help them understand the importance of the people you are writing about. Your book is a memoir of both your own development and the changes in the country itself. Feelings of both hope and sadness pervade your writing. What is your hope today as you look back on the place that both captured your heart and (to quote one of your co-workers) “punched you in the face”?

My hope for Cambodia, as it would be for any country, is that it will find its place as an equal in the global community. With all the challenges of an emerging economy – poverty, inadequate health care and education, political oppression and corruption – this requires a radical shift in global consciousness. Global disparities aside, I encourage people young or old, to travel, to volunteer, to understand ‘the other’ as more similar than different. I would wish Cambodians the same opportunities.

Cambodia has a pervasive sorrow (mental health data is alarming) though its people can be as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters. The country has a dark history but there is a new generation, educated and concerned about the future. There is hope. My life has its losses and sorrow, yet hope . . . provides the connection to our common humanity.

Can you describe how negotiated the challenging meld of fact, event, emotional experiences and memory in Encounters on the Front Line, with respect to the creative nonfiction credo of telling true stories in a dramatic fashion without straying into fiction? 

Straying into fiction never seemed an option; in fact it didn’t cross my mind. I was not a writer of fiction and was just learning the art of nonfiction. On the other hand, I was perhaps doggedly determined to tell the truth such as I experienced it. I recorded the subjective accounts of those experiences in my journals, not knowing that later in life I would write a book. My responses to the traumatic events I witnessed in a refugee camp were through the lens of direct experience, at times raw, terse or emotional. I was not doing historical research or investigative journalism; facts were difficult to glean in the midst of a disaster zone.

When I returned to Cambodia (2007 to 2009), I read extensively, but more important were my encounters and connections with the people. Cambodians shared their stories with or without an interpreter, on matters light or serious, in a straightforward manner.

“This is the way I hear the Khmer talk, the truth of their lives too hard to bear. Their stories are not embellished. The bare facts are enough.”

To soften the dilemma of nonfiction (do no harm versus telling the truth) was challenging. For the most part, I didn’t construct composite characters but wrote the stories that people willingly told me. I also knew that certain stories associated with past trauma in the Khmer Rouge era had to be told with care.

 You seem to me to be someone torn between activism and authorhood. Do you think of both roles as part of a continuum, two separate impulses or just stages in your own maturation process? 

One role of the writer, particularly in nonfiction, is to inform or educate or inspire a greater understanding of a subject. I’ve tried to understand the paradoxes within my own life and in Encounters on the Front Line, some of the paradoxes within Cambodia:

“I bridge two worlds, as travellers often do. I see both sides, living on this beautiful broken planet, its oceans and earth in danger, its global citizens living lives as scattered as the stars. My anger is under cover, like watching the news with a glassy-eyed stare, my selective filter screening out what I don’t want to hear. I care; I’m indifferent. I’m concerned; I turn a blind eye. I give generously; I hardly give a dol­lar.”

Today it is unlikely that I would work in a high conflict zone, but there are many paths to engagement in a complex world. I aspire to some sort of “activism and author hood.’’ The quest for voice becomes an evolving voice, a journey of reaching out and reaching in, not as separate but as interwoven threads of my life.

Lorna Crozier talks about love, art and the dead

Lorna Crozier is the award-winning author of 15 previous books of poetry, including Small Mechanics, The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems, and Whetstone. She is also the author of The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things and the memoir Small Beneath the Sky. Crozier is a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada, and she has received four honorary doctorates for her contributions to Canadian literature. Born in Swift Current, she now lives on Vancouver Island. Crozier recently discussed her new book of poems, The Wrong Cat (McLelland & Stewart), with Cornelia Hoogland for The Coastal Spectator.

In a recent interview with Doug Dirks on CBC’s The Homestretch you recounted the story of the poem that became the title poem of the book. Your radio account of a personal event is written in third person in your book, as are most of the poems in The Wrong Cat. What does third person enable, and why not first person?

I chose to write many of the poems in The Wrong Cat in third person because I saw those particular pieces as mini-novels. There are characters, a narrative arc, conflict, dialogue, a setting and a resolution. Although some of the details are autobiographical such as the ending of the title poem, which comes from something my husband Patrick said out loud at a dinner party, the man and woman featured in the poems are fictionalized versions of “real” people. I had a lot of fun writing these and when someone asks me why I don’t write a novel, I’m now going to reply, “I already have.”

Alternately, “Man From Elsewhere,” written in first person, reads like fiction (in the sense of imaginative narration or myth), and packs an emotional and sensual wallop. Such seeming contrasts make me want to understand how you approach “person” as a tool to create, intensify, sustain, and/or subvert the content of your poems.

I started the “Man from Elsewhere” sequence in order to challenge myself. The inspiring question was “How do you write a love poem in a new way?” Before Shakespeare, let alone after, the English language is rich with poems about adoration, heartbreak and loss. What I tried to do was marry my interest in the topic and the form with my fascination with how place influences character. If I’d been born in a landscape different from the dry, light-bombarded grasslands of southwest Saskatchewan, I’d be a different person than I am now, even though I’ve lived on the Rain Coast for over 25 years. The geography, the light, the weather has shaped who I am, how I love and how I deal with loss. Those concerns feel lyrical to me, though the story insists on being there, particularly in the poems that allude to myths, as a kind of undercurrent. The poems are a cry from the heart.

A number of the poems use long line lengths without (I think) becoming prose poems. It’s very hard to resist a compelling enjambment, or is something else at work here?

I explored the prose poem in both my memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, where they work as a kind of punctuation between the prose chapters, and in my last book, The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. In the latter, what I was interested in was the possibilities of the short, lyrical essay. The pieces with long lines in this new book are definitely not prose poems. The structural unit is not the sentence, but the line. The problem for me was not resisting enjambment but maintaining an extended line that doesn’t go slack, that doesn’t sag near the middle. I think I chose this longer reach, which I hope retains its tension and its music, because of the fictional nature of the poems. They come close to prose but they aren’t, that is, if I succeeded. They do a dance between prose and the lyric line.

Lorna, since 1981 and your book, No Longer Two People, co-written with Patrick Lane, your books have included poems that can be read as a celebration of your relationship with Patrick. While you are praised for your animal and vegetable imagery, it’s your playful, sexy, perennial love that I’ve counted on over the course of many books. What is it like to unearth relational uncertainties and foibles, and then shape them into craft? How would you talk about the art of writing one’s intimate relationship?

So much of what I write comes out of my life, my day-to-day experiences with the person who is closest to me, my husband Patrick, whom I’ve been with since 1978. My poems plot a relationship that began when I was thirty and will continue, with any luck, until one of us dies of old age. Even then, for the one who is left, the “marriage” will not end. My poems come from my imaginings, my suppositions, my desires for a better world, but they also come from autobiography, the deepest kind, the daily being-here that sends a tap root from the ground I stand upon into the subconscious stream that flows through our lives and connects us. I have in my mind, too, Evan Boland’s quote, “I want a poem I can grow old in.” How does love change, what does it mean as we age into bodies that betray us in strange, sometimes sad, sometimes funny ways. I’d like to find poems that can hold how we move through life and love, the everyday and the eternal. What remains of desire and passion as we get closer and closer to death? A lot, I hope. How do we find words for it, then?

The dead have always inhabited your poetry, and in poems such as “The Pony” in The Wrong Cat, death appears as an external character. James Hillman has said the dead want us to complete the unfinished aspects of their lives. Do you agree? What do your dead want from you?

Especially for poets, the dead still inhabit the earth. Perhaps they’re the silence where poems begin; perhaps they’re the pause between the lines, the stutter, the lost words. It’s not that the dead want to talk to us, but we want to talk with them. People like my mother and father are rare in literature. Something in me wants to find a place for them in language between the covers of a book. They will live there, then, as they live in me. Poems become prayers to the invisible, to the lost. They’re one way of keeping that near.

Hornby Island poet Cornelia Hoogland‘s sixth book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Relit Award. Hoogland’s new long poem, “Incident Light/Incident Dark,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death. 


Memoir probes domestic life after adoption

Maurice Mierau’s most recent book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Nonfiction in April. In the memoir, the author probes his domestic life after he and his wife adopt two Ukrainian brothers, aged three and five. The book is both unsentimental and passionate, sparked with moments of humour–a must-read. Mierau’s new poetry collection, Autobiographical Fictions, will be published this fall by Palimpsest. His last book of poems, Fear Not, won the ReLit Award in 2009. Mierau is founding editor of The Winnipeg Review, and lives in Winnipeg with his family. He talked recently to Lynne Van Luven about his memoir.

Maurice, I just read Detachment, and I found it to be a really brave book. You are fearless about revealing your own fears and doubts as an adoptive father. What sort of reaction have other parents had to your book?

The reactions have been universally positive. Many people have commended me on my bravery, making me wonder if that isn’t a euphemism for foolishness—though I know they (and you) are sincere! As a poet, I have never had personal feedback from readers other than a few fellow poets coming up to me after events. With Detachment I’ve had emails from all over the country, phone calls, comments at readings, and much of that has come from parents both adoptive and otherwise. Often people tell me stories about how they discovered a family member was adopted, or, if they are adoptive parents, they tell me stories about their own struggle to form a family. The things people reveal to me are frequently intimate family secrets, and I find myself moved by this connection with readers that I’ve never had before.

Most of your readers will know you as a poet. Did you find writing a memoir vastly different from writing poetry, or did you find that certain commonalities pervade both forms?

It was quite a different experience from writing poems for me. I wanted to construct a narrative that would keep people engaged in a story moving forward, rather than a more static, highly literary kind of memoir like Nabokov’s famous one. And since I’m not an epic poet or a novelist, I had no experience writing a book-length narrative, and that was really the challenge. The other challenge was integrating my father’s story of childhood trauma fleeing from Soviet Ukraine with the story of adopting my sons Peter and Bohdan in Ukraine in 2005. Nothing in poetry prepared me for these storytelling problems.

My background as a poet was helpful to me in terms of constructing individual scenes. Lorca said that the poet is the professor of the senses, and while I don’t have tenure the way he did, I do have some notion of how to make a scene vivid. Another thing you learn from poetry is how to bring thematic, imagistic, and other forms of deliberate repetition into a book, so that these elements rhyme in the reader’s mind, not always consciously.

You have now been a father three times over. What has the experience taught you about children’s essential personalities, their differences as unique human beings?

It’s taught me that children, like adults, don’t have essential personalities: they are all different. Without being flippant, children need love and empathy in order to become loving, empathetic adults. Empathy involves the intelligence and the imagination as well as emotion, and I have often failed to enter imaginatively into the lives of my children; Detachment shows me struggling to make that entrance. I feel my failure most keenly with my oldest son, Jeremy. Perhaps that means I’m a better father now, at least on some days.

There is a growing list of books about adoption, which is wonderful because it provides a fine resource and because it has moved “being adopted” out of the closet to a certain extent.  Do you think adopted children still face the same stigmas they did 30 or 40 years ago?

Absolutely not. No one, at least in my experience, questions adoption as a way to form a family now, not in a school context and certainly not in the community where we live. I think that’s a normal Canadian experience. There has been a generational shift that probably accompanies the increased acceptance of non-traditional families, including same-sex ones, and also books and media exposure that show adoptive families as part of mainstream society.

One of the most moving parts of the memoir is the way your Ukraine-born sons’ trauma echoes that of your own father’s past. Has that history, and the unfolding of recent events in Ukraine, further strengthened your extended family’s bonds?  

Yes, I think it has with my father in particular. My dad, as the book describes, struggles to articulate his own feelings about being a war refugee and an orphan early in his life, but he does see the parallels between his life and my sons’.

As for recent events, they are depressing and a testimony to the unwillingness of Russia to allow Ukrainians to live in a country with a healthy economy and the rule of law in place. Fortunately the boys are from western Ukraine, near Lviv, and far from the war in the east. We plan to visit soon, so they can meet at least part of their birth families.

Planet Earth continues to bolster local poetry scene

What better way to mark April as Poetry Month than to talk about Planet Earth Poetry? Known to its devotees as PEP, the series is one of the most influential poetry-reading successes in Canada. Planet Earth sponsors a wide range of established and emerging poets. It has bolstered many a flagging poetic spirit and fostered a number of lyrical spin-off events in Victoria. PEP’s roots lie in the Mocambopo reading series started in 1995; the irrepressible Wendy Morton was its third host/organizer. In 2007, the series moved to its current location at 1633 Hillside Avenue, just across the street from Bolen Books. Except for a summer hiatus, you can find poets and listeners gathered at 7:30 p.m. every Friday, where “words are most important.” Famous for its well-run open mic, Planet Earth functions as “a launching pad for the energies of writers and poets established and not.” In September, Daniel G. Scott will take over as host and artistic director for the series from new Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer, who has directed the series since 2009.  Scott, who will soon be retiring as a professor in the School of Child & Youth Care at the University of Victoria, has long been involved in the arts and has published two books of poetry (Black Onion and Terrains). Blomer has three published poetry books: As if a Raven, The Book of Places and a broken mirror, fallen leaf. She is also co-editor of Poems from Planet Earth. Both recently talked with Lynne Van Luven about their aspirations for Planet Earth and poetry in general. 

Yvonne and Daniel, you are both community-engaged poets, if I can put it that way. Yvonne, can you comment on the coffee/poetry scene in Victoria over the past few years?

I think over the past three years or so, more cafes have been opening their doors to readings. Tongues of Fire is celebrating its tenth year in 2015, so spoken word has gained a lot of energy. Think of the literary events happening on Vancouver Island just in the past four months: WordsThaw in March, The Creative Nonfiction Collective’s conference April 24 through 26, the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo April 30 to May 3  . . . The youth poetry slam Victorious Voices was just held, not to mention Planet Earth Poetry every week, and we have readings at Munro’s and Russell Books.  Cafes are plugging into the enthusiasm of writers to launch their books or do readings. Hillside Coffee and Tea’s owners Nataliya Kapitanova  and Michael Kowalewich are superb supporters of PEP.

Daniel, can you talk about your area of academic focus and how you got to publishing poetry from there? (I know your sister is Quebec author Gail Scott.)

Actually, academics are the accident. I got an 8.8 GPA in my master’s work and somebody said I should go on to do a PhD.  I thought, “That sounds interesting,” and studied the work of narrative in our lives. I came up with the word “narraturgy,” that never really went anywhere. But before I came back to academic studies in 1991, I spent over a decade in professional theatre, including three years as theatre artist-in-residence and summer youth theatre at the University of New Brunswick. I also worked for over a decade for the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, leading and developing youth programs and training youth workers. I’ve been an actor, done radio and print journalism, and written poetry for years.  It’s all congruent for me.

Yvonne, you have been engaged with the writing community since you were a student. You have carried on that work through motherhood, further education (an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia), and now you are engaged in your own teaching career and have a four-year stint as poet laureate. Does all this seem like “part of the same thing” to you?

Yes, I do think it is all within the same field, as say, a family GP might see patients, work with student doctors, have hospital hours, look over records and assign follow-up appointments. The key thing for me is the writing, and then all the other things just go with it. Teaching certainly does–you learn from the engagement from different writers’ works but also from your students. It’s just a part of me to support everything. I always say yes to students, tell them to keep on writing. I sometimes long to be like PD James’s Scotland Yard poet Adam Dalgliesh, who writes poetry between solving crimes, but does not feel the need to promote himself  [Here, Scott interjects, to remind Blomer that “Dalgleish is a fictional character.”] I long for quiet time . . .  but I also feel it is important to support literary arts in any way that I can. My work is a flow of something larger that moves towards readers and thinkers.

The world is filled with violence and disaster.  Many people’s lives are chaotic. How do you answer philistines who say, “How can poetry help us?”

Daniel:  One of the pluses of poetry is that it gives you a way to draw near to things indirectly. There is such uncertainly and confusion in the world, we need voices prepared to go into emotional territory, but to make sense of it intellectually. That’s why I am so drawn to Jan Zwicky’s combination of poetry with philosophy.

Yvonne: Engaging those afraid of poetry, and helping them feel something shows how poetry connects us . . . as a new poet laureate, I feel less sure of how poetry can measurably help, but I want poetry to change the path we are on by making us all think, by drawing action from thought.

Talk a bit more, both of you, about your hopes and dreams for poetry in Victoria.

Yvonne:  Through Planet Earth and other public events, I hope that poetry will reach more people, change their relationship to it, that they can move from feeling lost and confused or even scared when they hear a poem to being engaged emotionally. I held an event at the Art Gallery of Victoria last week . . . and for the first time some of the regular gallery visitors experienced how poetry gave an alternate way of engaging with art. At Victorious Voices this month, someone commented on how important it is to come out and LISTEN. If no one is listening, then communication fails. I just want to draw more people into the intimate conversations poetry creates.

Daniel and Yvonne: And we would like the Planet Earth website to become more of a hub. We’ve applied for a B.C. Arts Council grant for the first time this year, so we can professionalize and pay some of our workers a small stipend, and pay the poets a standard rate of $125 an appearance. I think we are starting to build a listening audience. It’s exciting that people are starting to realize that hearing poetry read aloud changes what it is. People have forgotten it comes from an oral tradition.

Editor-writer recognized for cultural work

Third-generation British Columbia resident Betty Keller will receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence at the B.C. Book Prizes gala on April 25. Keller, who has edited almost a hundred books about British Columbia in her 40-year editing career, is an award-winning author herself, with biographies of such cultural figures as Pauline Johnson and Ernest Thompson Seton. Her book on Pauline Johnson (Douglas & McIntyre, 1982) won the Canadian Biography Medal. She co-authored Skookum Tugs (Harbour, 2002), which won the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 2003, and co-authored A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour, 2004), which won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize in 2005.

Keller is also the author of Pender Harbour Cowboy (Touchwood, 2000), a biography of BC fisherman/novelist Bertrand Sinclair, as well as a tongue-in-cheek history of Vancouver, On the Shady Side (Horsdal and Schubart, 1986), a history of the Sunshine Coast, and a novel set in Vancouver, Better the Devil You Know (Caitlin Press, 2001). Her most recent book, A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury and Trial by Newspaper (Caitlin, 2010), is also set in Vancouver.

Keller began her career as a high school drama and English teacher in 1963, then worked as a faculty associate in education at Simon Fraser University and as a sessional lecturer in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. When she “retired” to the Sunshine Coast in 1980, she took up a whole new career as founder and producer of the Festival of the Written Arts (1983 to 1994). In addition, she co-founded the SunCoast Writers Forge and the Sunshine Coast Writers-in-Residence Program. Countless writers cite her support and mentorship as essential to their careers. Keller recently discussed her career with Lynne Van Luven.

Betty, congratulations on your award. Can you talk a little about your response when you heard the news?

I was thoroughly overwhelmed. I also feel a bit guilty to be accepting an award for doing something that is ample reward in itself.

You have been both a writer and an editor simultaneously for so many years. Can you describe the different joys and challenges of each role?

I am a substantive rather than a copy editor, so I am generally called in to work on manuscripts that have “substantive” or basic problems. In my first reading of a manuscript, I ask myself whether it communicates the message that the author was attempting to communicate. Is the information or the story line accessible to the reader? Do I have to reread sentences and/or check back fifty pages to find the beginning of the author’s argument in order to understand what he has to say in later chapters? Since lack of accessibility almost always depends on structural problems, I then have to isolate the spine of the work and help the author to reorganize the material attached to that spine so that the reader can move easily from concept to concept or, in the case of most fiction, from event to event. So structure comes first, but it’s always a joy to begin an edit job and realize that, although the manuscript may have problems, it already has “good bones.” So then it’s a matter of looking at the author’s style. While it is vitally important to nurture the writer’s style, sometimes a unique presentation can overwhelm the lines of communication to the reader, so here the editor has to walk the fine line between nurturing style and promoting communication. Then comes grammar and syntax and usage and punctuation, areas where a distressing number of writers have little or no knowledge whatsoever, so I experience pure joy when I edit a manuscript in which the author obviously understands parallelism and restrictive clauses and hasn’t even dangled modifiers!

When I am writing, I have to wear both my editing and creating hats, and then the pleasure comes not in the initial writing but in the rewriting and revising until I get the effect I am striving for—or at least as close to it as I can get before a great editor comes along and gives me the final nudge in the right direction! But that, as Hugh MacLennan (Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes) once wrote to his student Marian Engel (Bear, Lunatic Villages, The Tattooed Woman), is what a writer’s life is like. (See Dear Marian, Dear Hugh, University of Ottawa Press, 1995.)

What has been the most interesting change in the publishing world, in your opinion, within your years of engagement?

For most writers I think the answer to that question would be the introduction of ebooks and downloading and Kindles and all the technological changes in book publishing in the last 20 years. But for me it was the initial introduction of the personal computer. The pure joy of simply deleting or moving a passage instead of typing it all over again is impossible to describe to those who never composed a book on a typewriter. As one who literally cut and pasted her first seven books, I think that a computer is a lovely, lovely thing indeed.

When you relax, and just read for pleasure (you are so busy, I am not sure you do that!), what authors do you turn to?

These days at least 80 per cent of my reading is manuscripts, and I have to admit that reading for pleasure has become an indulgence I reserve for trips by ferry or plane and for holiday visits to my sons and their families in the U.S. and U.K. My Saturday mornings, however, are always devoted to newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, and my bedtime reading begins with The New Yorker (even though the punctuation style is maddening!) and extends to “must read” books recommended by friends. These are usually non-fiction in the environmental/political category.

Can you tell us about the power of writers’ festivals and writers in residency, with respect to the creation and recreation of writers?

When we created the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt in 1983, our original goal had been to provide a forum for writers to talk to writers, but we decided to welcome readers as well because it allowed us to introduce more Canadian writers to the reading public—and also because it made better financial sense! However, in my years at the helm of the festival it was always a pleasure to see the number of novice writers in the audiences taking notes and absorbing inspiration, and this was the stimulus behind the festival society’s introduction of the writers-in-residence programs that we ran from 1987 to 1994. Our goal was not to “make” writers but instead to help writers find their voices. But critiquing by a professional writer is only part of the benefit of such programs; there is also invaluable input from the other members of the class and in the informal discussions of writing techniques and problems that occur between classes.

In the last 20 years I have moved my own teaching to very small classes—three is my preferred size—that meet on a weekly basis for eight or 10 weeks. This format allows in-class time for a thorough exploration of each member’s work, and the limited term means that writers (and I) can take a writing “breather” before signing on for another term. The intensity of the sessions also means that everyone in the group is completely focused on finding his/her voice and on overcoming writing problems in a limited period of time.  

Mother’s loss to dementia inspires personal essay collection

Edmonton writer Myrl Coulter uses the personal essay to explore the passage of time and the loss of her mother to a rare form of dementia.  Her book, A Year of Days, is published by University of Alberta Press, which is fitting as Coulter has a PhD from the U of A, where she taught English for eight years. Coulter recently talked online with Lynne Van Luven about her new book and the personal essay. She will be in Victoria for the Creative NonFiction Collective’s 11th annual conference, April 24 to 26. 

Myrl, perhaps because I have a father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, my favorite chapter in your book is “Death by Dementia,” in which you trace the way Primary Progressive Aphasia robbed your mother of her words and, eventually, her life. Can you talk a little more about how you regard the connection between language and personality?

Of course, the connection between language and personality is intimate. One of the primary ways personality develops is through language. My mother, like everyone, had her own language patterns and quirks. As she deteriorated, she lost her nouns and then her verbs and eventually her entire sentence structure. But even at the end, her unique language personality was still there. One phrase I particularly remember is “boy, oh boy,” a vague saying she used all her life. In her last years, she came to rely on it when she was no longer able to string words together in a sentence. Whenever I heard her say “boy, oh boy,” it took me back and I’d think about the different times I’d heard her use that phrase over the years.

Beyond language, personality is also evident in non-verbal ways. When dementia progresses and language skills deteriorate, body language is still visible. Much of my mom’s personality was present even when many of her words were gone. I knew she was still in there, just by the shrug of her shoulders or the look on her face.

Because your book is organized into 15 personal essays that explore the passing of a calendar year, readers might think you wrote the book in a year. How much time passed between your eulogy for your mother’s funeral and the final publication of A Year of Days? I guess what I am asking is how long did it take you to be able to write about your mother as a person no longer physically present?

Considering the slow process of traditional book publishing, this one came together quickly – it was less than four years from my mother’s funeral to publication. After writing the eulogy, I knew I needed to write more about her. But in the year after her death, I read much more than I wrote. I read books about emotion and loneliness and holidays and the human brain. I doodled around the internet a lot. I spent time in libraries and coffee shops. I walked miles and miles.

The essay “Wearing Black” came first, inspired by the eulogy. I took it to the Banff Centre’s Writing With Style workshop in the spring of 2012. Then I began to see a structural shape, so I wrote out a Table of Contents and a plan, which I used to apply again to the Banff Centre. I was accepted into the Wired Writing Studio, where I had the great good fortune to work with Charlotte Gill. After that, it didn’t take me long to write the first draft, less than a year.

The days in my book come from the cycle of a single year, but I go to many different years in these essays. The title refers to the days that come around year after year. As time goes by, we experience those days differently, with hope and anticipation when we’re younger, with nostalgia and yearning as we get older.

You talk about visiting your mother and watching her sitting silently, staring at her hands. You write, “I tried to imagine my brain leaking words, tried to feel what it would be like to have the lake of my vocabulary draining a paragraph or two at a time through some unseen puncture in my head.” You say the questions you asked yourself about your mother’s loss of language made you afraid. Can you talk a little more about what you meant by that?

That’s a big one. Fear like that is hard to manage because it’s not rational. When a dementia-related condition strikes a family member, irrational fear is almost inevitable. And it increases as the patient deteriorates. Mine has abated now because I’ve realized that I’m not my mother, that she had her destiny and I have mine. But while I watched her language skills disintegrate, I felt vulnerable to her fate, especially because Alzheimer’s had already claimed my aunt, my mother’s older sister. Every time I hesitated in a sentence or had to search my brain for a word I couldn’t find, I’d think, “Oh crap this is it. It’s started. I’m a goner.” It got so bad that I mentioned it to my doctor. When I told her I was worried about my brain, she said, “Well, Myrl, you are writing books. I think you’re okay for now.” I’m deeply grateful for that simple rational statement. It was, and is, so calming.

As my parents age, I have been reading dozens of books about the aging process, about the loss of capacity induced by dementia-like illness, and I have been thinking a lot about the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Did your family ever discuss that incredibly potent topic during your mother’s decline?

No. Not once. Never even thought about it. My mother denied her diagnosis vehemently, so that would have been an impossible conversation for our family. Still, I’ve followed assisted suicide cases closely, especially the Gillian Bennett story last summer. I admire how she and her family handled their situation. But every case is different because every family has its own dynamics. There is no blueprint here, no step-by-step prescriptive we can apply generally. That’s what’s so hard about these dementia conditions. Families have to find their own way through the maze. Dementia care options must be made more elastic, more adaptable to individual cases, and perhaps most of all, more available when needed. Families need choices. Our health and geriatric care system isn’t where it yet needs to be in this area.

I am interested to learn aspects of the personal essay drew you to it, as a vehicle of grieving for your mother. More precisely, how does the process we now call life-writing, wherein one explores a private dilemma, evolve into the creation of polished essays which move beyond the purely personal into ruminations one can share publicly?

The purely personal is diary-writing, journal-keeping: it’s therapy, a helpful tool long prescribed by counsellors and psychologists. This kind of writing is good for healing and recovery, but not for publication.

Personal life-writing for publication is the result of craft. It takes work, research and time. The successful personal essay has resonance, is driven by curiosity, a need to discover, a quest for connection. It expands beyond the writer’s life, examines social and cultural contexts, creates links readers can identify with. My first book is a memoir, but I wrote each of its chapters as personal essays that would build a memoir story. In this one, I wanted to avoid the memoir shape, so I set out to use as many different versions of the personal essay as I could. It’s such a flexible form to work in. If it were a visual art form, it would be classified as multi-media because personal essays use many different elements and take on a wide variety of structures. Some chapters in A Year of Days are linear and others are braided. Some build to revelations that came during the writing flow. Others follow questions I had in my head. The opening essay is a taxonomic exercise that illustrates the impossibility of categorizing emotions. The next is a straightforward travel story. One is a process essay shaped loosely as a recipe; another is about the many ways to cross a bridge. Some are anecdotal and some have lyric qualities (I hope). For each one, I picked a topic and usually ended up writing about it and something else. That’s the beauty of the personal essay – it’s not bound by the topic or the self. Its movement is outward.

Robertson talks reviews, novels and life post-Wallflowers

Eliza Robertson’s debut collection of short stories, Wallflowers (Hamish Hamilton), has been praised in Canada, across the Atlantic and in the United States, with The New York Times calling it captivating. In recent years Robertson, a B.C.-born graduate of the University of Victoria, won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the piece “We Walked on Water,” was a finalist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize and earned a MA in prose fiction from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Prize Scholarship. In the midst of completing her PhD in the U.K., Robertson talks to The Coastal Spectator’s Erin Anderson about delving into novel-writing and plotting out her next steps.

It is unusual I feel for a short story collection to get as much press as Wallflowers. The book has received many favourable reviews–what have been some of your favourite reviews or turns of phrase used to describe your writing? 

Well, I like when reviewers acknowledge its darker places…but also when they use adjectives like “weird.” The stories function on both levels. Probably my favourite review came from Stinging Fly, which is a journal in Ireland. I don’t remember the words the reviewer used, but she was the only one to mention the stylistic exploration. Some of the stories can be frustrating to read if you’re not someone who likes denser prose. I suppose she acknowledged that readers will have to work for a few of these stories, and that that is okay.

Some reviewers of Wallflowers made note of the collection’s diversity. What was your approach to curating the book? Were there stories that didn’t make the cut? Which story or stories do you feel best reflect where you want to go as a writer?

Its diversity reflects how much I wanted to try new things at the time… which I still do, though it may be less obvious in the writing now. There were a few stories that did not make the cut, yes. Similarly, I thought about removing a few stories that did make the cut, but ultimately they stayed in. It’s been interesting to watch– some reviewers’ least favourite stories are other peoples’ (and occasionally my own) favourites… and some of my personal least favourites have been picked up as the strongest. It’s reassuring, in a way, to know you can never please everyone with a book like this. I’m not sure if any of them specifically point to where I am headed as a writer–I don’t know where I am headed as a writer myself. But the final story, “We Walked on Water”, is one of my favourites. 

You had a novel ready at the same time as Wallflowers. How did the short story collection end up being your first release? It seems like novels still run the market so to speak–do you agree? What do you see as the differences between novels and short stories as both a reader as a writer–other than length?

A first draft of the novel had been written, but it was nowhere near ready. (Can you tell I have had trouble with the transition from story to novel writing?) I think my agent wanted to wait for the novel to be more fully formed, but then I won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and she thought it savvy to capitalize on that attention… So she sent out the story manuscript before the novel was ready. In fact, neither of my publishers had seen a lick of it before they agreed to buy it. (But nor would they buy the story collection without promise of a novel to follow.)

Yes, they do still run the market, unfortunately. Every time a story collection does well, the commentary seems to begin or end on the exclamation, “and it’s a story collection!”

As for the difference between the two forms… well– I think stories can be a lot more playful. They can shape-shift between forms and styles and voices more easily than a novel can, which is why I love them. They can also be launched from the momentum of a single moment, whereas a novel needs slower build up. I don’t know if I have gotten the hang of it yet.

You are the midst of your PhD right now, part of which is writing a novel. Are you finding time to write outside of that commitment?

The PhD is a creative-critical hybrid, so it involves writing a novel as well as critical research, which keeps me pretty busy. On top of that, I am redrafting a different novel (which was sold alongside Wallflowers in the two-book deal) and teaching an undergraduate course.

I can’t tell you too much about either novel yet, as they’re both remain embryonic. (The new one because it is new, the old one as an effect of its redrafting.) You see, I spent an intensive three months changing everything about it–point of view, structure, chronology, the characters’ ages, names… and I am awaiting my editor’s feedback. It is sitting in a quiet mental box until then.

Essentially, it’s about a girl trying to friend her friend in Vancouver. But I can’t divulge too much beyond that.

What are your plans post-PhD? Do you think you will stay in Europe or return to Canada? Are you hoping to focus entirely on writing or do you plan to keep up some kind of day job, teaching perhaps?

I have no idea! I miss Canada, though. I could see myself living in Montreal or Vancouver. Equally, I’ve always wanted to try living in the U.S…. not forever, but one or two years might be fun. In my ideal world, I would live 1/4 of the year in Canada, 1/4 of the year in the UK, 1/4 of the year in northern California… or New York, cliché as it is… and 1/4 of the year in the south of France.

Of course I would love to focus on writing, but that’s not likely if I hope to maintain an income. Even if I did have the luxury to write full-time, I am not sure it’s ideal. I think I like writing more when I have a distraction. That distraction could be teaching–I am doing that now. But in many ways I would prefer to do something completely unrelated to literature. Like film production or work for some open office space with bean bag chairs.

Writers, publishers and booksellers unite for Read Local

In April, 23 publishers, 300 authors, 50 bookstores and 40 libraries will unite to celebrate the talent of British Columbia’s writers. Events for Read Local B.C. will take place throughout the province until April 22—from Victoria to Vancouver, Tofino to Fernie, Williams Lake to Haida Gwaii. It’s an initiative of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., which works to support the long-term health and success of B.C.-owned and controlled publishers. Hannalora Leavitt spoke to the association’s executive director, Margaret Reynolds, about the province’s extraordinary depth of writing talent.

When I first looked at the press release for Read Local B.C., my first thought was wow, what a great, grass-roots approach—getting writers, booksellers and publishers out there face-to-face with readers. Can you tell me about the initiative and how it came about?

There were two influences. One was that last year we did an event at the Legislature called B.C. Book Day. We had our publishers there in the rotunda of the Legislature buildings. The MLAs and their staff were invited to come down to meet with us. We gave away books, and it was a huge success. The Lieutenant-Governor was there as well. There was real excitement and buzz in the building. But, it was a private event. Then we wondered, how can we roll this out a little more so that it engages the public as well as our representatives in Victoria?

Simultaneously the booksellers who were actually at that event came to us and shared that they’d just returned from a conference in the States. There’s quite an active, independent booksellers’ community in the States. They’ve done some very successful campaigns that focused on their importance in the community and the importance of local publishing. We had some discussions about how we might work together on a campaign that focused on the local, whether it’s the local bookseller or the local writer or the local publisher. That’s how it came together.

B.C. Book Day 2015 will take place on April 22 in Victoria. So we backed it up and we’re doing three weeks of author interviews and events in stores and libraries. We want to give it a wider attendance and awareness.

How it has been received by the publishing industry?

When you look at what the festivals are doing in this province, they are hugely successful. Last year the [Vancouver] Writers Festival completely sold out. Every year they seem to do better and better. The Sunshine Coast Festival is hugely successful. [There’s] one in Shuswap; another one in Victoria on the Island. There’s definitely a lot of interest from the public and the writers are out there.

One of the challenges in our industry is to get the word out about what we do. We don’t have a lot of media any more. We have social media which is definitely helpful but we don’t have the traditional newspaper, radio and television that we used to have to support us in getting the word out about books. Now we have to be a bit more creative about how we do that. Read Local is probably one of the ways we can get the word out but the writers festivals are another way. We really want to see those festivals continue.

There’s a confluence of effects of libraries and booksellers and publishers and writers that has helped to create an industry and to generate interest in local writers. That has been sustained, but I think it’s somewhat threatened when you don’t have a way of getting the word out about events. We do our best, but it’s definitely a challenge.

There are so many events planned throughout the province. Can you talk about the creativity that has gone into that process? Of course we expect events in major centres, but could you share some of the more remote events scheduled during Read Local B.C.?

As part of the campaign we wanted to ensure that authors throughout the province are recognized, and that both small towns and large cities can participate in the festivities. The event farthest from our headquarters is in Haida Gwaii at the Masset Maritime Museum. Our Stories Behind the Stories features local authors storytelling and readings, in partnership with Literacy Haida Gwaii. There’s a Poetry Picnic at Tofino’s Botanical Gardens or an afternoon at The Book Nook with author Bruce Burrows at Cafe Guido in Port Hardy as well.

Two Read Local B.C. events of note taking place in the Lower Mainland are North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Public Library’s hosting of Secrets, Booze & Rebellion: Vancouver’s Unknown History, and Fishing for Tales held at the Pacific Angler, where two celebrated authors will deliver a unique perspective on the ocean, its wildlife, and the people who work on its waves. The campaign includes events in Victoria, such as On The Road and Poetry Without Borders. Both feature a range of talented and award-winning writers, and we’re very much looking forward to these flagship events in the city. Check out the events calendar.

Is there a way to measure the success of this initiative? Or, is it a matter of just doing it?

In a sense it is just give it a try because we’ve never done this before, not on this kind of scale where there are events taking place all over the province. If you’re just measuring by sales, it’s pretty much impossible to know whether it’s related to this campaign. We can certainly measure books going out. Our publishers can measure that. Gathering the information is a complex matter. We are going to try to measure orders from the booksellers over the course of the event and the subsequent months.

A terrific outcome of this campaign is if we could introduce books that half the people didn’t know about, books that have been published here by people who live down the street and the public didn’t even know. You never know who you’re touching when you do an interview or bring a person to town. But if you don’t do it, then people won’t know. I’d like to emphasize how positive a campaign this is. This is about the kind of creativity that goes on, both on the writing and on the publishing end in this province.

I’ve always understood that B.C. is the most well-read, literate region of Canada. But does that necessarily translate into a healthy industry? Today we hear so much about the demise of the print book because of digital technologies. In your role as executive director of the association, could you share what the industry looks like from your perspective?

Historically it has definitely created an environment where it is possible to publish books here. We’re far away from the centres of publishing: Toronto and New York. We have the largest English-language publishing community outside Toronto and within Canada. Library-book circulation is also one of the highest in the country. For the longest time, we had the most independent book sellers in the country, and I think we’re still pretty good. That end of things has changed, but historically that kind of symbiosis, readers who are interested in reading about where they live and where they come from, created this environment where it was possible to publish regional books or literary books about where we are. The industry really started in the early 1960s and over the years we now have magnificent children’s publishers, a scholarly press and lots of trade publishers.

Overall, I would say that the state of the industry is pretty buoyant right now in B.C. We’ve got a lot of great publishers doing really good publishing, highly professional, award-winning type publishing. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges in our industry. The retail market is complex and difficult right now.

The indie bookstores are getting, I think, more aggressive, more engaged and are rising to the occasion. They can see how important they are on the one hand and how difficult it is coping in cities like Vancouver where there are so few indie booksellers.

I can see some good things on the horizon, but it’s still a pretty challenging industry. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. However, that said, I think we have a very strong community here, a lot of it focused around our association. There is a lot of co-operation, energy and creativity within the organization, which has led to initiatives like Read Local B.C.

Hanna Leavitt is a Victoria writer. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from UVic.