Author spotlight: Carol Bruneau

Carol Bruneau is an active member of the WFNS and the author of seven books. Her debut novel, Purple for the Sky (Cormorant Books), won the 2001 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Her most recent book, A Bird on Every Tree (Vagrant Press), was a finalist for the 2018 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. She has a new novel, A Circle on the Surface, coming out this fall. In the following post, she talks about writing, what she loves about living in Nova Scotia, and her new projects.

(Author photo by Bruce Erskine)

How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular? 

I started writing when I was seven, at the beginning of grade two—as soon as it dawned that you could connect words on paper and have them mean something. I was already hooked on stories long before I learned to read. Growing up in a house with lots of books, when I was small my dad took me every Saturday to Halifax’s old Memorial Library, where we’d stock up. Then he’d read to me. Our favourites were the grimmest Grimm’s fairy tales and the unabridged Pinocchio, never ever the Disney versions, the darker and scarier the better. These were a balance, I guess, to the Babar and Tim and Ginger books I later, begrudgingly, read on my own.

Fiction was and always has been my first love, which is kind of funny because both my parents preferred non-fiction, my dad especially, when he wasn’t reading to me. I inherited his love of history, not quite with his reverence for ‘facts’ but because of its multitudinous stories and all their possibilities. Though my mom was mostly drawn to reading biographies and other ‘true’ stories, coming from a big Cape Breton family she passed on to me, unbeknownst to her, an awe for the way people tell stories to solidify memories and make sense of the world. It was my mom who noticed and encouraged my earliest attempts at writing and first planted the seed that I might become a writer—though for her this meant being a journalist.

There were no fiction writers in our neighbourhood or our milieu, none any of us knew about, anyway. But the area where I grew up—near the Dingle, on the Northwest Arm—was loaded with fictional inspiration. Parts of Thomas Raddall’s novel Hangman’s Beach were set just down the hill from us on Deadman’s island and in Melville Cove. When I read this book in grade ten I thought I’d died and gone to some kind of heaven. But my sense of the magical connections between reading, writing and familiar places came much earlier, in grade five, when my mom and my aunts and my grandmother—all huge L.M. Montgomery fans—started me reading the Anne books. The summer between grade five and six I amused myself daily by scribbling my first attempt at a ‘novel,’ a childish mash-up of an Anne-ish girl character set in the Dingle woods. What can I say? Making stories up has always been part of my life and what I love to do.

What do you think is changing in fiction these days?

I’m pretty sure we all have shorter attention spans these days, accustomed as we are to scrolling, surfing and losing ourselves in social media. It gets harder all the time to immerse ourselves, or let ourselves be immersed, in novels, especially lengthy novels. It’s easy to succumb to readerly ADHD when deep reading requires an equally deep commitment of time and effort. Oddly, despite knowing the rewards of escaping into the world of a great novel, I think our busyness often compels us to put aside pleasurable, leisurely reading for ‘purpose’-driven, work-driven material. To me there’s nothing more satisfying than being inside a big, juicy novel. However, I think in a nod to our busyness, sometimes tight writing (and editing) get sacrificed to repetition and re-hashes in long novels, things normally seen as flaws that must be intended to jog lame memories and help overwhelmed brains keep track of plots. Given the calibre and celebrity of the writers I’m thinking of here, these flaws have to be deliberate. But to me they cause frustration and even a dumbing-down that might be undermining the novel form. The ‘good’ thing is that flabby, sprawling novels make the short story’s brevity increasingly attractive. As long as fiction has readers, this is great news for short story writers. I’m the most un-trendy writer on the planet, but if I were to identify a change? I’d say the short story is the form whose time has come.

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

Everything. It’s where I grew up, it’s where I longed to be when I lived elsewhere, it’s the place I always want to come home to. I love its land- and seascapes in all their variety, so much variety packed into one small province. I love the way the air smells sharply of the sea in April, and I love how, in Nova Scotia, the ‘rule’ of six degrees of separation is a crazy-ass understatement: I love knowing how we are all somehow connected, for better or worse.

I love that I can drive downtown in ten minutes and in even less time be surrounded by woodsy wilderness. I love the beach, I love those blue and white days we get in January. I love how Nova Scotians are or can be tough, resilient and resourceful, and how our values are less inclined to be those of people in more, ahem, mainstream places. (If this sounds smug, it’s not really meant to.) I love how we’re a province with a ridiculously high number of fiercely creative people, writers, artists, musicians.

I love the fact that living most of my years in the same community, where many of the people are ones I’ve known all my life, provides a share in a collective memory pool. The wonder and the comforts of this rootedness make growing old and facing changes quite okay. Above all it’s this continuous sense of community we have here that makes it not just acceptable but fine knowing we’re each just a speck on the globe, among a gazillion other specks, each and every one of us with an identity and a story to tell. Only in Nova Scotia are things so peachy, it’s occasionally tempting to think. But I’m not that much of a bubble-head to imagine we don’t have our ugly aspects too.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?

It’s probably the vague, spacey notion that writers are ‘special’, in the sense that our writing somehow writes itself, that we don’t struggle with our words, or put in crazy long hours, that we’re content living on air. These ideas must stem from the misnomer that we do everything we do for fun, the corollary being that, therefore, it’s okay not to pay us. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Stick with it. Have faith in your stories and in your characters. Listen to what your characters have to tell you. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t censor your characters. Just write. The first draft or two or three, you are telling yourself the story. The following drafts are your opportunity to tell the story the way your characters want you to tell it—and the way your reader will want to read it. Don’t get too attached to what you write. Be willing to look at it from various angles. Above all, don’t give up. There’s nothing more defeating than a good story left half-written. Remember that the best writing is rewriting. Write like you have no tomorrow but a present that’s without end.

What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?

Quick, easy access to excellent libraries and communities of other writers. Grocery stores where complete strangers tell you some of the wildest stuff. 

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Scarfing down cashews, lots of cashews, as my favourite method of procrastination. The cashews must be salted. Unsalted ones are unacceptable. 

What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

I ride with it. I do other things that are more fun and easier than writing: bake, dig in the garden, go for dog walks. I try to be patient, try not to cave to the nasty restlessness that not-writing inflicts. I try to remind myself that we all need fallow, fodder-gathering times, and times when some of us need to step away from text entirely. Then I look at visual art and let myself be energized or inspired simply by enjoying and marvelling at work I could never hope to do. To sum up: I take a vacation from words. Then, usually, the hunger to be writing returns in pretty quick order.

What are you working on right now? 

Having just finished the final edits on a novel coming out this fall, I’ve begun writing a new novel and am in the midst of a piece of flash fiction for an anthology of writers’ responses to Group of Seven paintings. My little story is based on Arthur Lismer’s ‘Sackville River’, on view now at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.  

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? 

A geologist. Or maybe a painter.

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Recommended Experience Levels

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) recommends that participants in any given workshop have similar levels of creative writing and / or publication experience. This ensures that each participant gets value from the workshop⁠ and is presented with information, strategies, and skills that suit their career stage. The “Recommended experience level” section of each workshop description refers to the following definitions used by WFNS.

  • New writers: those with less than two years’ creative writing experience and/or no short-form publications (e.g., short stories, personal essays, or poems in literary magazines, journals, anthologies, or chapbooks).
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