Lezlie Lowe is a Halifax-based freelance journalist, broadcaster, and author who has an abiding fascination with flipping on the lights above society’s unexamined everyday. She is the author of two books: No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs and The Volunteers: How Halifax Women Won the Second World War. She has been a finalist and multiple winner at the Radio Television Digital News Association Awards, the Atlantic Journalism Awards, the Canadian Association of Journalists Awards, and the Atlantic Book Awards. She has taught journalism at the University of King’s College since 2003. (Photo Credit: Riley Smith)
In the introduction to your latest book, The Volunteers: How Halifax Women Won the Second World War, you say “[n]one” of the folks you interviewed for this book “dared declare the volunteer work they’d done was something important” and that “[n]o one tells these women’s stories.” Why did you want to tell this story?
I like a challenge? I also write a lot in my journalism practice about things that we think of as one thing but that, with a little digging, reveal themselves to be different things entirely. With The Volunteers, it took very little scrutiny to determine that the work of these women made a material difference to Halifax, and, I would argue, the entire Canadian War effort (hence the provocative subtitle: How Halifax Women Won the Second World War). But there was another revelation, for me, too — the parallels between these women’s motivations and work, and their entirely inadequate valuing, and the circumstances of women’s volunteer work today.
The Halifax Municipal Archives earns a special shoutout in your acknowledgements and the book features a number of photos from the Nova Scotia Archives. Archival research may not be very glamorous, but I’m sure it’s quite important for projects like this one. Do you have a particular strategy for combing through old records and materials or do you simply embrace the rabbit trails and see where they take you?
Embrace the rabbit trails! Worst case scenario, as a researcher, you wind up spending an enjoyable afternoon peeling through cool stuff. Best case scenario, you find material that elevates your narrative. And that counts even when nothing concrete from a particular research dive goes into the book. It all informs your work and boosts your authorial knowledge. (A side note: there are so many stories in archives waiting to be ferreted out. You can pick any random box or file and just go at it. Len & Cub: A Queer History is a great recent example of a wonderful book that came to being from an archives inquiry.)
Your first book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs was published in 2018. As a nonbinary person, I’m acutely aware of the politics surrounding public washrooms, but I’m curious, what was the moment that made you go “Okay, you know what? Someone needs to write a book about this topic, and that someone needs to be me.”
I call public bathrooms the itch I can’t scratch. But that’s not so much about me, it’s about public bathrooms. They are these places in our society that hold representations of so many of our beliefs and neuroses and structures and mores and values. You see all of it coming together in public bathrooms (even, in fact, when public bathroom are not in places where they objectively should be). So, to me, public bathrooms are the perfect topic for a book. I had written about public bathrooms a lot in my journalism practice, so when I decided to complete an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at King’s, No Place to Go became my core project. (There’s so much left, too. Like, I could write an entire other book about public bathrooms.)
No Place to Go and The Volunteers contain a mix of statistics, interviews, historical context, and anecdotes about yourself, your children, and your grandmother Marie. What’s your approach to including personal or family details in your work?
My interest in public bathrooms as a bellwether for equity in cities was sparked for me when I had young children. I recognized that my relationship to my city, Halifax, changed when I was suddenly in charge of navigating parks and busses and downtown streets with my kids, who had different bathroom needs than me. It was like: when did I become a person who carries spare Strawberry Shortcake underwear in her backpack and always knows where the closest public bathroom is?! I used that recognition as a leaping off point for No Place to Go.
With The Volunteers, I hadn’t ever intended to include my grandparents in the book, even though I knew that they had met at a dance at the North End Services Canteen, one of the first volunteer organizations set up and run by women in Halifax during the war. I’m not against weaving in personal detail; I wasn’t going to write about my grandmother Marie as a volunteer because I had no clue if she was a volunteer. But then I realized that absence of understanding hammered home a significant point. Marie was the closest person in my life, and I literally never asked her about her experiences during the war. And that’s because women, I understood implicitly from the ways we, as a society, talk about what it means to contribute to war, didn’t really have war stories.
While both books cover serious subject matter, I frequently found myself chuckling as I read. Could you talk about the role of humour in your writing?
This will be perhaps a deeply dissatisfying answer, but… I try, as much as possible, when I am writing, to match my everyday conversational tone. That includes a significant amount of outrage, in both books, and humour. So, it’s not that I try to be funny in my writing, but I definitely lean in to absurdity and humour in the everyday. Maybe I’m just a funny person…?
In addition to being an author, you’re also an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. What are some articles, interviews, or coverage you’re particularly proud of?
Oooph! That’s tough. I feel like I haven’t written anything journalistically meaty in so long because the last several years have been dedicated to teaching and to writing two books. But I can point to a radio documentary that I created called “The Other Side of the Fist,” and a pair of pieces I wrote for The Coast: “Before the murder and after, the life of Tyler Richards” and “Halifax’s drinking problem” (which might be the basis of a new book; maybe).
In a previous Author Spotlight, I asked Becca Babcock about her decision to engage with real life events through a fictional lens, and I’d like to flip that question around on you. What do you think long-form journalism and creative non-fiction books can do that novels can’t? Why is it important for you to tell factual rather than fictional stories?
I think that the work of writing nonfiction and making it engaging is such highly creative work. You need to employ all the techniques of good fictional narrative — character, dialogue, conflict, voice, tone, scene, setting, structure, plus, you can only pull from what you know is true. It’s challenging. And it’s important because nonfiction tells us about ourselves in some of the same ways that fiction can. I think ultimately fiction and creative nonfiction are sides of the same coin, but I also think this reflection from nonfiction author Elissa Washuta, (brought to my attention in a lecture by King’s Creative Nonfiction MFA director Kim Pittaway) is accurate: fiction is about plot; nonfiction is about insight.
You grew up in Dartmouth and now live in Halifax. How has Nova Scotia shaped your writing career?
I don’t think there’s a direct relationship between my work and my home, except to say that it’s helped me immensely to be in, grow in, and work in such a good place. Like, Nova Scotia is a good place, you know. I don’t mean flawless. I mean fundamentally. People are caring and kind. The ocean is right there. All the time. There it is. I think that’s helped me feel grounded as a writer, and as a human.
As an instructor at King’s working with journalism and creative writing students, what excites you about the next generation of reporters and storytellers?
So many good stories! You know, I teach because I choose to. And I choose to because I get to create relationships with young writers who have energy and creativity and such kick-ass stories to tell.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin