Jen Powley is a prairie girl living in Canada’s ocean playground. Since moving to Halifax in 2001, she has held jobs at the Independent Living Resource Centre (now Independent Living Nova Scotia) and the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities. Realizing she could not engineer the type of societal change she wanted, Powley returned to school earning her Master’s of Urban Planning at Dalhousie University, and then worked for five years at the Ecology Action Centre. Losing her voice due to her multiple sclerosis, Powley recognized the presentations the job required were no longer feasible so she returned to the University of King’s College to pursue her Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction.
In May 2017, Powley released her first book, a memoir Just Jen (Roseway), winner of the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award (Non-Fiction). Her second book, Sounds Like a Halifax Adventure, will be launched virtually on Tuesday, June 16 at 7 pm. (See the invite below.)
In this Q&A, Powley talks about her books and her advocacy for people with physical disabilities.
Your first book Just Jen is a tour de force, allowing the reader a glimpse of what it is like not only to live, but to thrive, with multiple sclerosis. Was this a book you needed to write?
I don’t think I needed to write it, but I think it needed to be written. I think the public needed to hear what it’s like to have a disability. It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself, though of course there is some of that. But it’s about getting on with life. I am very lucky to have parents who continue to support me. I wonder what people with disabilities could accomplish if government supported us to a greater degree.
If Just Jen is a book that needed to be written, is Sounds Like a Halifax Adventure the book you’ve always wanted to write?
I didn’t always want to write Sounds Like. It started as a gift for my partner, Tom. It grew from there.
You take a novel approach to this book by paying attention to sounds. Why sound? Why not another sense (say touch or taste)?
I picked sound because it is important to Tom and it made me think about it a lot. It is also the one sense I have not affected by my multiple sclerosis, so it made sense to write about sound.
The other thing totally crazy about this new book is that it can have an ending unique to each reader. Do I have that right? How did you manage that?
I formulated the book based on the books where you could choose your own path I read when I was a kid. I wanted to make some major changes to the genre. I wrote in third person, not second like those books used to write. I also wanted the choices to not lead up to a quote-unquote “correct” ending but wanted the choices to be like life where the smallest choices can determine the path you take, so it might just be a matter of whether you turn right or left as you leave the building, not whether you choose to die for some other character’s plan.
What is the process of writing like for you? Has it changed since you wrote Just Jen?
For this book, I wrote mainly what came into my head. For Just Jen I had thought about most of the scenes and was merely re-creating them based on previous events.
Why did you decide to self publish this book?
I decided to self-publish because the book didn’t fit the criteria of what other book publishers accept. I was taught to always read what a publisher accepts. I didn’t find anyone accepting interactive adult fiction. I didn’t want to be the publisher, but I wanted the book to get out into the world.
Tell me about the launch party. When and where is it?
The virtual launch is on Tuesday, June 16, 7 pm on Zoom. All are welcome.
Meeting ID: 577 316 0199
How can people get a copy of your book?
What’s next for you Jen? Do you have another book percolating?
I am working on getting 24-hour attendant care for people with physical disabilities with Independent Living Nova Scotia approved by the province. Until January, when a proposal for a living situation for four adults with disabilities was approved for a two-year pilot, the only thing in Nova Scotia for adults with physical disabilities who needed round-the-clock care was to live in a long-term care facility, i.e. a nursing home. I don’t think that is right. Why shouldn’t I be able to have my boyfriend stay overnight? At the moment, I have no book ideas percolating.
– questions by Marilyn Smulders