Author spotlight: Sean Howard

Sean Howard is the author of three collections of poetry, Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009), Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011), and The Photographer’s Last Picture (Gaspereau Press, 2016). His fourth book, Ghost Estates, is due to be published by Gaspereau Press this fall. Howard lives in Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton, and teaches political science at Cape Breton University. In the following, he talks about writing in response to photography and music, life in a lobster-fishing village, his new projects, and more. 

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

I started writing stories very young (around 8); poetry, a little lifetime later (16). I wasn’t so much ‘drawn’ as overwhelmed—rudely awoken, it honestly felt like!—by a visit from the ‘The Angel of Poetry’ (as Paul Celan called Her).

Emily Dickinson wrote: “I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose.” Prose can be a beautiful space, with big, beautiful windows, great views.

But I was suddenly outside… 

In your book The Photographer’s Last Picture (Gaspereau Press, 2016), your poetry responds to photographs from World War I. Do you frequently write poems in response to photographs or other works of art? Are there any other artistic forms that inspire or inform your writing?

In terms of photography, Last Picture was a radical departure: an exhausting (I think successful) experiment I have no intention of repeating! The basic idea was to ‘take’ twenty photographs from that Great Catastrophe and ‘develop’ them, via prose descriptions and reflections, into poetry, necessarily fragmentary ‘broken images’ (to quote the WW1 poet Robert Graves) shattering the falsely ‘clear images’ of that War—‘Death So Noble,’ ‘Forever Young,’ ‘Birth of a Nation,’ etc., etc.— still permeating and perverting much of what passes for ‘Remembrance’. 

I do write occasional poems inspired by music, particularly modern jazz (whose players are consummate ‘dwellers in possibility’).

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

Making a home for nearly 20 years now in my particularly infinite part of Nova Scotia—the breathtaking lobster-fishing village of Main-à-Dieu—has been a blessing beyond my deserving or dreams: dreams which, from early childhood, always did involve somehow living by the sea, where, as one of my first poems said, “all there is to do is listen.” Well, there’s more to do than listen, but listening is perhaps the most crucial part of writing (and reading). “Think with Thy Self,” a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus advises; living here has taught me to listen not to but with my Self.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

My biggest misconception, from my mid-teens to late twenties, was that writing—especially poetry—went or should go hand-in-hand with a self-destructive, suicidally-sacrificial, Dylan Thomas-esque, Icarus lifestyle.

But poetry’s the high (and high-wire)! Other addictions are superfluous, and you need a clear head to listen…

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

My work was rejected for many, many years; but throughout that Night Journey, I was convinced that lots of bad poetry (too easy to listen to) was accepted, lots of good poetry (hard to easily hear) turned down. And I remain convinced that’s true: publication doesn’t prove you’re a poet, rejection doesn’t mean you’re not.

Which isn’t really advice, I admit: but if I had taken their word—No!—for it, my words might have stopped.

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

If you mean what’s great about the writing community, I’ve had the chance to take part in a number of powerful readings, alongside some spellbinding poets (Peter Sanger, Anne Simpson, Basma Kavanagh, Shalan Joudry, many others); received tremendous support and encouragement from friends and colleagues at Cape Breton University; and most magically, found a home with an extraordinarily gifted printer/publisher/editor, Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau Press in Kentville.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Is poetry an innocent pleasure?

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

Try not to listen to myself…

Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you prefer to move around? 

Happiest of all, on-shore, scribbling into a pocket notepad…

Otherwise (wherever), fountain-pen on legal pad…

And at the keyboard? As long as there’s (ambient) music, coffee…

What are you working on right now? 

I have a new collection appearing this autumn (Ghost Estates, Gaspereau Press), so I’m working hard preparing readings. I’m also wading into a new project, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, paying poetic (I hope) tribute to the formidable legacy and radical achievements of Robert Graves, aforementioned master-breaker of false images.

Author spotlight: Cooper Lee Bombardier

Originally from the South Shore of Boston, Cooper Lee Bombardier now lives and writes in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A member of the WFNS, he participates in the Writers in the School program. His writing has appeared in a number of journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The Kenyon ReviewThe RumpusOut MagazineThe Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), and Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction from Transgender Writers (Topside Press, 2017), which won the 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Barbara Gittings Literature Award. He recently talked to us about writing and art, his current projects, and the first time he was paid for his writing. 

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

I’ve written in some manner since I first had language. I’ve thought of my writing as an actual creative practice since the early 1990s and chose to focus on my writing as my central creative outlet and my profession over eight years ago. As long as I can remember I’ve written and made visual art to record my experiences and observations in the world; to attempt to understand them and make meaning from them. I’ve written to see queer and trans embodiment like mine in print when I haven’t seen stories that reflect mine out in the world. For some time, I thought that I would need to write fiction to tackle the subjects most compelling to me, but interestingly, the closer things were to my actual life in fiction when I was an MFA student the more unbelievable they came off to my cohort. Then I took a nonfiction course with Tom Bissell in 2011 and he really opened my mind to how much space there was for creative nonfiction to be as weird as I needed it to be. I accepted that most of the projects I was focused on at that time were about my pivotal life experiences anyway and leaned into the craft and concerns and controversies of nonfiction. Now that my first book—a memoir—is nearly complete, I find writing fiction to feel like a vacation from scrutinizing every personal failure and joy of the past and trying to render it into a piece of art.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

My misconception? Probably that things shouldn’t take me as long as they do.

Others’ misconceptions about being a writer? I’d say that people often think a “writer’s life” should look a certain way. It doesn’t. A writer does the work of writing: they write, submit work, get rejected, get published, write, teach, etc. Some do it full time because they have the resources available to them to do so, others squeeze their writing time in on the subway to work and back home again, or in the wee hours while the children are asleep. There is no one way to be a writer, and the most important thing is doing the work.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

It’s not a sexy answer: write and read a lot. Take your writing seriously by scheduling your writing time every week and stick to it. Volume and consistency and doing the work is key. 

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a visual artist. Do you see connections between your two practices?

Absolutely, although my visual art practice has been somewhat backburnered while I am busy with two book projects. But coming back to visual art always feels like an opening up of brainspace and consciousness for me, in fact, it can feel rather meditative. It is a great place to go creatively if I am feeling particularly bogged down in my writing. I have some visual projects that I’d like to tackle sometime in the near future. 

Do you workshop your material with other writers? Do you have a writing group? 

I do workshop with others, but I do so very selectively, because I know myself well enough at this point to see when lots of feedback becomes a distraction or another form of procrastination for me in certain projects. I recently was in a week-long creative nonfiction workshop lead by the great public intellectual Sarah Schulman at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and what is always great about working with Sarah, aside from the fact that she is an incredible and generous teacher, is how she intentionally selects her workshop attendees. She brings together a high caliber of thinking and writing ability and life experiences in her workshops. I got to get feedback on a nascent piece, just notes really, and was able to produce almost 20 pages of work that week, which for me feels huge.

I am not currently in a writing group. I am, however, in the process of trying to form a small writers’ group that would serve more as a social support and accountability group. As I mentioned, getting tons of feedback is not always what I need, and furthermore, I teach, so I always have a boatload of student work to comment on, which is very time consuming because I take it very seriously and put a lot of energy into the feedback process. What is more useful to me in an ongoing capacity is to have other serious writers to strategize, process, and share advice with, as well as to set goals and help hold each other accountable. Writing is a lonely process, furthermore, no one is sitting out there tapping a foot and making you do the work. Supporting each other around these parts is crucial. 

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

I’m a real come-from-away (although my ancestors have been in Nova Scotia at least since the early 1600s) so I am still a newcomer and still trying to learn about readings and meet other writers. The writers I’ve met so far have been incredibly generous and welcoming to me, for which I am enormously grateful. 

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

I spent an inordinate amount of time over the winter watching series after series of “Nordic Noir” style murder mysteries on Netflix. 

Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like? 

Yes, it was late 1997 and I’d recently finished a six-week spoken word tour of the US with Sister Spit, the legendary punk feminist group founded by Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson. Twelve of us travelled in two vans, sleeping shoulder to shoulder in sleeping bags on the floors of strangers across the country, performing every night in a different city or driving through the night between gigs. Any money made from our gigs went to gas and paying for us to eat one meal per day. I’d quit my three cooking jobs and sublet out my San Francisco room to go. I sold chapbook zines at shows to make coffee and beer money. Weeks after the tour ended, Michelle handed me an envelope with $80 in cash and I was thrilled. “We get paid?” I shouted, as it never occurred to me that we’d get anything other than the incredible life experience that such a shoe-string, punk rock tour would bestow. 

Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you prefer to move around? 

Right now, I mostly write at my desk in the tiny home office I share with my wife. However, with the glut of new construction overpowering the North End, and the insistent jackhammering of shale and bedrock happening from 7 am to 5:30 pm each day, I am interested in finding a good café to work at.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m taking a short break from my first memoir to work on a collected works manuscript which is comprised of essays on my experiences of living in a transgender body that I’ve had published in various places over the past 20 years. I’m also working on a YA novel idea, and plan to come back to the final push on the memoir early September.

Author spotlight: Sarah Sawler

Sarah Sawler is an award-winning journalist and the author of three books, 100 Things You Don’t Know About Nova Scotia (Nimbus Publishing, 2016), 100 Things You Don’t Know About Atlantic Canada (for Kids) (Nimbus Publishing, 2018), and Be Prepared! The Frankie MacDonald Guide to Life, the Weather, and Everything, which she wrote in collaboration with Frankie MacDonald (Nimbus Publishing, 2018). In the following post, she talks about her love of books, why she doesn’t believe in writer’s block, guilty pleasures, and more.

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

I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. My mom is a book lover and was a librarian, so there was never any shortage of reading material around the house. Once I learned to read, my interest in writing just grew organically from there. I loved stories, mainly fiction, and I was enthralled by the idea of creating my own worlds, and characters to inhabit them. 

When I look back at my childhood, I think there were a few formative moments that really put the idea of being a writer in my head. The first was probably the summer I read the Emily of New Moonbooks. Our family had an old farmhouse in Petitcodiac, and there were a bunch of old copies of L.M. Montgomery books there. I remember really identifying with Emily and her desire to be a writer.

Budge Wilson also had a significant role in all this. My elementary school had a creative writing contest, with winners from each class. The prize was lunch in the library with Budge Wilson, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I remember her reading my story and telling me what she liked about it. I don’t remember the specifics of the story or what she said, but I do remember her words making me feel like maybe I could be an author someday. It was probably just a small moment for Budge, but it was a big one for me!

Over the years, I kept writing and writing. I took Enriched English in high school (in NB), which focused less on grammar (sorry to my copy-editors) and more on creative writing. Then I went on to get an English degree (the university career counsellor asked me what I was interested in, and I said “books,” and that was that).

In university, I worked at Woozles, and when I graduated, I got married, we bought a house, had kids, etc., and bills needed to be paid. I took a job at an insurance company, hated it, tried a job at another insurance company, still hated it, and managed to escape just after my now six-year-old was born. I got the leg up from my neighbour, Sheila Blair-Reid, who used to own Metro Guide Publishing. She taught me how to pitch magazines, and connected me with a few of the local ones. While I was on mat leave, I started pitching magazines, and developing a relationship with a few editors, in particular Trevor Adams at Halifax Magazine and Dawn Chafe at Atlantic Business Magazine. I also got a couple of web writing clients around the same time, and by the time mat leave was over, I was able to write full time.

I’ve been lucky to have Trevor as a mentor over the last few years—I consider his mentorship my unofficial journalism degree. I’ll get to that non-fiction part when I answer the next question.

In addition to being the author of several books, you have extensive experience in journalism. Did you find the shift to writing books challenging? Did your background in journalism help you in this experience? 

It’s funny, because my shift to books was almost accidental. I feel incredibly lucky, because it’s the culmination of a dream that I’ve had since I was a kid, and it only happened the way it did because one of my Halifax Magazine articles took off. I wrote an article called “50 Things You Don’t Know About Nova Scotia,” and it went, well, we’ll call it Nova Scotia Viral. It occurred to me that if there’s that much interest in a listicle on the topic, there would probably be interest in a book. I also wanted to flesh out my research around some of the facts in the article, so it just made sense to pitch it to a publisher. 

So I did—I pitched Nimbus Publishing, and they took on the project. For me, the shift from articles to books was pretty simple overall—this first book was basically a series of 100 articles, so I used the same skill set.

I’ve written two non-fiction books since then, and have another one on submission. But I also have a few fiction ideas, and those are next on my list. 

Your latest book, Be Prepared: The Frankie MacDonald Guide to Life, the Weather, and Everything, was a collaborative project. How did you find working on a book with someone else?

This one was definitely a shift for me! I’m a freelancer, so I’m on my own most of the time—I don’t really have the opportunity to collaborate very often. I was also collaborating with someone who had a much bigger stake in the project than me—after all, it’s Frankie’s life! So for both of those reasons, my first objective was to really get to know Frankie, and then figure out a way of collaborating that worked for both of us.

In the end, our collaboration was a very organic one—Frankie provided a timeline of major life events and accomplishments, and I interviewed Frankie and some of the important people in his life. Then I compiled all the information, figured out what the book would look like, and started writing the biography component. I sent Frankie a lot of clarifying questions on Twitter, and he sent me his answers back the same way. Then Frankie and I passed the drafts back and forth, with Frankie letting me know when I needed to correct something, until that piece was done.

For the weather component, I sent Frankie a list of weather questions I thought kids would be curious about, and he answered them. I added details by doing my own research as well. Overall though, it was a great collaboration. I just had to go with the flow.

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

For starters, the ocean! But I also love my community, particularly my writing community. I’ve met so many wonderful people through my work, and I love living in a small city where I run into them regularly.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Keep writing and keep reading! Find other writers and hang out with them! Spend time developing your craft. But more than anything, be willing to take advice and accept criticism. When I look back, it’s the tough times that made me a better writer. It was the magazine editor who made me re-write my article, the writing mentor who told me that all my characters sounded like “slightly different versions of the same schmuck,” and the book editor who asked me to delete a giant chunk of my book because it didn’t add to the story.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Currently, Vandal Doughnuts.

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

I don’t really believe in writer’s block (a controversial stance, probably). Writing is work. It happens to be work I enjoy, but it’s still work. If you’re a professional writer, you don’t just stop writing because you’re uninspired. You get up most days, and sit at the keyboard, and put words on the screen. Sometimes they flow out of your fingers, and sometimes it’s a slog, but you still write.

On the days when I don’t feel inspired (which is often!) I just sit down and push through, even if the first couple paragraphs are garbage. I can always cut them or change them later. 

What are you working on right now? 

Right now, I have a non-fiction middle grade book on submission. I’m also revising a picture book, developing an idea for a middle grade graphic novel, and doing research for a utopic middle grade trilogy! 

Author spotlight: John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger is the author of three books of poetry, including Hummingbird (Palimpsest Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2013 Raymond Souster Award. His latest title is The Book of Festus (Palimpsest Press, 2015), and he has a new collection, The Mean Game, due to be published by Palimpsest Press next year. In the following, he talks to us about taking the writing chair even when you don’t feel like it, travel poems, and what he loves about Nova Scotia.

(Author photo: Jeremy McCormack)  

What do you love about Nova Scotia? 

The ocean! The smell and constant low roar of the ocean.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

That you can/should only write when you’re inspired. There’s this idea that writers, especially poets, are Keats-like willowy creatures who wait at the edge of a forest for nightingales to write about. From my experience inspiration does come, but you have to sit in the chair and try first. You have to sit in the chair even when it’s inconvenient, when you’ve been invited out to do something funner, when you’re tired, when you’re hungover, when you have a head cold, when you’re out of coffee or cigars or Red Bull, when the cat is howling, when your girlfriend is mad at you, when the TV is too loud next door, when your phone is blowing up with texts. You have to sit in that chair even when it seems like a terrible idea, and stay there for thirty years.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read. Foster a deep hunger for reading. It’s shockingly easy to tell if a writer has not read very much. The lines lack density, allusion, and freshness. I don’t think there’s any writer I love who hasn’t been obsessed with reading.

While you grew up in Nova Scotia, you’ve moved around and travelled quite a bit. What role does travel play in your writing? 

I love setting poems in “foreign” places. My second book, Hummingbird, is set in Mexico and India. I have a long poem called “Smog Mother” about a day in Bangkok. I think the criteria for a good travel poem is the same as for any good poem. The context of the “strange” place can be used, but should not be allowed to do any of the heavy-lifting of the poem. Better to avoid that tone which says it’s neat to be in a neat place. The language must always be fresh, and the images surprise. For example, Neruda’s “Heights of Macchu Picchu” is full of awe, but he avoids the uncomfortable (Facebook-selfie-esque) ego moment, where the audience is intended to take note of what a wonderful life the poet has. Instead Neruda explores the limits of his own heart, and the heart of humankind—and gives voice to the oppressed masses, and many other things!

What’s your guilty pleasure?

This week: the Bourne movies. I have a terrible lack of discretion when it comes to movies. I love the terrible ones (all by M. Night Shyamalan) and also the “boring” ones (Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”!).

In addition to being a writer, you also teach writing. Do you see a connection between the practice of writing and the practice of teaching? 

Definitely. If the teacher allows for class discussion, she must think on her feet, which can be a very creative process. If she allows space for students to influence the trajectory of the class, this can also be creative. And both teaching and writing involve a kind of performance and exchange. However, teaching has an unavoidable power dynamic, and is of course didactic, both of which are better to steer away from with writing.

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

I write through it. I leave it up to future-John to figure out what is good and bad and just try to darken the page every day.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer? 

I hope I would be an artist of some kind. I’m happy to be lucky enough—in so many ways—to be able to spend my time making art. If it wasn’t poetry, I might write novels. I also like painting and drawing. Or filmmaking. Or photography. Or land art. Something! If I wasn’t making art—if the part of my brain that loves to make stuff was, for example, damaged in a train crash—maybe I could finally commit to teaching? I’ve always been close to universities, putting one adjunct toe into the academic ocean. But that might not work because my desire to teach (English lit/poetry/essays) is shackled to my creative life (writing poems/essays). I’d hate to slog through work that doesn’t rivet me, though I know that’s what 99% of the world has to do! I guess whatever type of work it was, I’d try to become obsessive about it and find a way to enjoy it.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m revising my next poetry collection, The Mean Game, which comes out with Palimpsest Press next spring (2019). Palimpsest said yes to it a few years ago, and I haven’t thought about it much since then. Two weeks ago I received a message from Palimpsest editor Jim Johnstone saying it’s time to send him the ms for edits, and my heart jumped into my mouth. I think anyone who has published a book knows this feeling. Are the poems actually ready? I don’t know! I wrote the first of them ten years ago, and the idea of it as a collection came at the 2010 Banff Writing Studio. I’ve written half of the ms since then, and most of it has been published. But their age, and their having been published, makes it tricky to revise them. They seem concrete already! So I have been wrestling with these poems, trying to be true to my original intentions, updating and sharpening as I go.

Author spotlight: Theresa Meuse

Theresa Meuse is an author, educator, and adviser. She is the author of The Sharing Circle (Nimbus Publishing, 2003) and L’nu’k: The People (Nimbus Publishing, 2016). She has also contributed to volumes 1 and 2 of The Mi’kmaq Anthology (Pottersfield Press, 1997 and 2011). Her newest book, The Gathering, is forthcoming with Nimbus. In the following post she talks about writing, her passion for Aboriginal crafts, her work as an educator, and more.

How long have you been writing? 

I have been playing with words most of my writing and reading life, 50+ years, but never realized those words would be shared someday with others. The very first writing that I allowed others to read, would have been a true story I wrote about a Chief burying some pre-contact Aboriginal remains, that was published in The Mi’kmaq Anthology (Pottersfield Press, 1997), edited by the Late Elder Rita Joe and Lesley Choyce.

What drew you to writing in general, and writing for children in particular? 

I always liked writing poems and lyrics and to satisfy my ego in my early twenties, I paid to have my very first poem published in the ???? My interest in writing for children came when our son was starting school in 1997. When his teacher knew I was a Mi’kmaw person, she would have me present cultural education to the class. It was show & tell sessions that allowed the children to learn in a way that let them touch and see how things are made, i.e., eagle feather, talking stick, dream catcher, medicine pouch, etc. Not long after I decided to come up with another way to educate. I sat at my computer and began typing stories about the show & tell items. Using word perfect 5.1 and clip art, I started to create a paper story to go along with the teachings. This was well received by the children and they ended up becoming the manuscripts for my first published book, The Sharing Circle (Nimbus Publishing, 2003), which is still in print.

In addition to being a writer, you are also an educator. Do you see a connection between the practice of writing and the practice of teaching? 

I have come to learn that my writings seem to focus on educating. That was my goal from the very beginning and it still remains my focus. When I do a book launch or reading, I always have a display of items for people to view. I believe it helps make the teachings real to those who may be learning about it for the first time, or who want to learn more.

What do you love about living Nova Scotia? 

Nova Scotia’s history, pre and post European contact, is very extensive. As a Mik’maw person, I am very proud to be a descendent of our ancestors who showed great strength, had a wonderful vision and, lived a unique wholistic approach to life. Although challenges have been many over the centuries, it is nice to see the positive growth that is happening and more acceptance to our culture. The recognition given to welcoming others to Mi’kma’ki makes me smile.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

“No, I am not rich like Stephen King”? This is the statement I start with when I speak to students in the schools. It’s a great ice breaker. I also learned that many people, particularly students, think writing is hard and they are not good enough to have anything published.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Keep all your writings, even if it is just words or a sentence or two. Put them in a shoe box or some kind of container and put them in your closet. Even students who write essays or poems in school, keep them too. One never knows, when someday down the road, 5, 10, 20 years from now, those writings could become the inspiration of a book. Writing is made much easier today because of the computer, especially spell check and grammar checking. And, don’t worry about these type of things, as the publishing company provides for an editor and designer of your book. Just think about your concept, what message you want to share and begin writing or recording it.

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

Having been born and raised in a Mi’kmaw community and then living off-reserve in Nova Scotia, I think has contributed to my books being well received by people, especially the school system. Also, being close to the city of Halifax allows me to pop into my publishing company as needed.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

I can’t say I have a guilty pleasure, but I do like to create Aboriginal crafts. I can go for days and weeks creating all kinds of things from medicine pouches, dream catchers, medicine wheels, key chains, etc. When I do this, things like house work, laundry and cooking become less important but it doesn’t make me feel guilty. The guilty part could be that I don’t and can’t sell these the things I make. People will ask to buy things and I can’t do it. The things I make are made from the heart, so when they are to be passed on, it has to be given from the heart. So, just because I can’t sell something though doesn’t mean I won’t give it. 

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

Take a break. Could last one day or several weeks. I just accept that writer’s block has crept in and move on to others things. For me, most of my writings don’t involved deadlines so, that is helpful and helps to prevent stress during a writer’s block. 

What are you reading right now? 

With a smile on my face and perhaps could be my guilty pleasure, is Jude Deveaux romance novels. My daughter and I have collected them over the years and they are still fun to read over and over. 

What are you working on right now? 

I am working with Nimbus Publishing on my next book, The Gathering, which we hope will be out this fall. I am also, hoping to develop some Aboriginal resources that will also be viewed as other ways to learn about Aboriginal culture. This is what I like about our Mi’kmaw culture, it never ends.

Author spotlight: Marjorie Simmins

Marjorie Simmins is the author of two books of non-fiction, Coastal Lives (Pottersfield Press, 2014) and Year of the Horse (Pottersfield Press, 2016). A freelance journalist, she has published across Canada with major daily newspapers, as well as numerous magazines, such as Halifax MagazineProgressUnited Church Observer, Atlantic Books Today, and Saltscapes. In the following post, she talks about the writing life, teaching, and what participants can expect from her upcoming workshop, Writing the Stories of Our Lives.  

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

It’s hard to remember when I didn’t write. I wrote letters from six or seven on (thousands over a lifetime, mostly to family, still on-going), and started journals at age 12 (at least 25 hard-bound journals in as many years). I published my first professional article in 1990 and have been a working journalist and teacher ever since. It was a natural transition from letter and journal writing, to personal essays. It took no time at all to understand that the pronoun “I” had greatest interest and biggest heart if connected to “we,” or the universal experience. I loved the idea of talking to the world and sharing experiences and thoughts. As for what I call my “straight journalism” (hard news), it seemed easiest to start my career writing about what I knew and loved. So I jumped in with commercial and sport fishing; commercial and sailing boats; horses; city and country life; etc. Confidence gained, I went on to become a generalist journalist. But I am always happiest writing essays or profiles, because they help me to puzzle out the world, and my emotional and intellectual terrain.

In addition to being a writer, you also teach writing. Do you see a connection between the practice of writing and the practice of teaching? 

Teaching is an eye-opening experience. I learn so much every time I have the privilege of talking with people about writing and communications. I find that a teacher needs to be emotionally nimble and observant when leading a group of people in discussions about writing generally, and personal stories particularly. I most often teach memoir writing. When you talk about the stories of people’s lives, you have to be respectful and kind, and hope—insist—others are as well. You also need to keep everyone on track. I am interactive and always seek to give people enough to have an epiphany or two about their project, but I still want to get through my own teaching agenda. So a balancing act, really. The connections I see between the practices of writing and teaching are: practice makes you better; writing feeds teaching because you are constantly learning more about your craft; and teaching writers is a two-way learning process.

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

I love Nova Scotia dearly. I love its crazy weather and generous, heart-full people. I love having settler history all around me, and learning more about Atlantic Canada’s First Nations. I love my horse and writer communities here. I enjoy every region in this province: industrial Cape Breton; the Cape Breton Highlands; enchanting Mabou, Port Hood, Inverness, and every coastal community along Route 19; the Annapolis Valley; the South Shore; the North Shore, with its wonderful farms and strong writing community; the Truro/Old Barns area, with its gorgeous historic barns, silos, the Agricultural College, and horse farms, modest and lavish; and hugely, the entire coastal area of Southwest Nova, which includes Yarmouth and the French-speaking district of Clare, and cosy, cosmopolitan, charming Halifax, which I wear like my favourite jean jacket, whenever we spend time there. I love the art of the region, and the music of the region. I am in awe of my Acadian friends and their ability to sing-song their ancestors for eight to 10 generations back, and their many life and homemaking skills. I love the food here in NS, and the wines, and the rums. Think I’ve covered it all now!

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

That a writer can wait until the Muse comes along with an idea. Real (professional/committed) writers write every day, and often, all day (or night, whatever works for you). Another misconception might be the glory and excitement of it all. 🙂 Very little glory and money, and not a lot of excitement, either. Of course there are wonderful moments, and some years, even, that are much more satisfying and productive than others. You gotta love your own company. And you gotta love—or be taken with—your own visions of this world, or others. You have to enjoy seeing word after word stretch across the page. Similarly, you have to be ruthless when it comes to editing. Overall, divas need not apply. Writing will humble you nearly every day of your life.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write. Read. Watch movies. Think about what genre really grabs you—and why. Write and read more. Try new stuff. Try a new genre. Fail. Fail again. Try again.

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

Working at home with my husband, Silver Donald Cameron, who is one of the finest stylists this country or any other one has ever produced. The steps on the staircase between our offices are worn with footsteps back and forth.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I like sweets too much. A batch of homemade brownies is good, or that Nova Scotia speciality, “Hoof-prints” ice cream. I also read “trash” magazines, as I am fascinated by other people’s lives, along with fashion and lifestyles.

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

Very rarely happens. If it does, then I try to re-focus on the aspect of the story/book/article that had me excited to write about a certain subject or person in the first place. 

What are you working on right now? 

After two non-fiction books, I just finished my first novel. It took a year of my life and was one of the hardest bits of writing I have ever done. I learned a ton. It will be fun to teach a writing course after this experience. 

What can participants in your upcoming memoir workshop expect? 

To have some fun, I hope!  Memoir is a serious business in some ways, but there’s also lots of opportunity for fun and laughter with the genre, as so many gifted writers show us. Even the most tragic subject needs moments of lightness to keep the reader from straying. What I really love to see with these workshops is for a person to arrive with an idea, tweak and re-assess it with any new knowledge or tips or support they receive, and leave ready to write, or re-write, or even make an entirely new start, that suits heart and mind better. Collectively, the groups always turn out to be stellar, so individuals learn from each other, and sometimes even stay in touch or form writing groups of their own. Come prepared for magic, I’d say. If you can find your subject, your structure, and your motivation to write a life story—you’re off and writing.

Author spotlight: Anne Simpson

Anne Simpson is the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Her collection Loop won the prestigious Griffin Prize in 2004. She has a new collection of poetry, Strange Attractor, due out in 2019, and a new novel coming out the following year. In the following post, she talks about her beginnings as a writer, what she likes about living in Nova Scotia, and what participants can expect from her fall workshop, Discovering Strangeness: An Exploration of Wild Poetry.

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

I’ve been writing since I was a child, when I’d make little “books” with illustrations. I was also a voracious reader, as most writers are—how can we be writers otherwise? To tell the truth, I always thought I’d be an artist, because I also paint. I studied Fine Arts at what is now OCAD University in Toronto. I’m visual, so that helps me to “film” what I imagine. If an event is clear to me in my imagination, then it’s easy to put it in words, in a novel, for instance. But if things are cloudy—if I can’t see them, then it’s much more difficult to put it in words.

I was drawn to working much more intently as a writer after I came to Nova Scotia many years ago. At the time, with small children, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had an inkling that it had to do with writing, but I wasn’t sure how it could be done when being a mother was so consuming. Then I read about a writer living in New Hampshire. She wanted to write, and she simply decided to get rid of all distractions and do it. She got rid of her television, and she wrote. I thought to myself, “I could do that.” New Hampshire seemed similar to Nova Scotia, and if a writer could do her work there, I could do it in Antigonish. In the times when I wasn’t with the kids (mornings and naptimes), I wrote short stories and poems. I used the brief snatches of time that I had very well; I was much better then at time management than I am now. When the kids grew up, I started on my first novel, since the longer form requires more time.

I love fiction and poetry, but they are like the sun and the moon—vastly different. To write a novel, you have to immerse yourself in a world, and you are still involved in that world as you go to the grocery store or the bank, whether you’re writing or not. I’ve finished a third novel that took about ten years, given all the revision, and I’m still not done. But I’m already imagining the next one, which will be set centuries ago in New Brunswick. Poetry is utterly different. It’s as if I am working another part of my brain. I try to drive through the ideas in the poem by way of the images. For instance, I recently worked on a sequence having to do with the test that was often given to people suspected of having dementia. That particular test gave me the structure to imagine a woman being asked questions, and of having her answer the questions. Yet even these two forms—fiction and poetry—are not enough. I love the form of the essay too, especially when I can wind in and out of a kind of thinking that allows me a lot of scope.

In addition to being a writer, you also teach writing. Do you see a connection between the practice of writing and the practice of teaching? 

I really love teaching. I have worked at St. Francis Xavier University, teaching literature courses and creative writing courses, but what I really enjoy is teaching informally. It’s partly because I don’t like marking! I like working with people around a kitchen table, or a table in a library or church basement. I’ve been working with a small group of poets in Ontario twice a year for about five years, and this does give my own writing impetus. Something happens in my own work through the stimulation of these informal workshops. And mentoring on a one-to-one basis is really exciting for me too; I just finished working with someone in Ontario who had a Chalmers Professional Development grant, which allowed her to work with a mentor. Her interest in learning helped me to explore new avenues too. The two occasions when I was a mentor for the Writers Federation of NS were also invaluable.

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

There is much to be said for living off the beaten track. I have time to think and work. But it’s not just that; Nova Scotia is a paradise. I hike, cycle, run, and kayak, and I have lots of friends who do the same thing. There is nothing like going out to Pomquet Beach on a midsummer morning and having a quick swim. This is really the place where I became a writer. When I started to write seriously, I knew that it was partly because of the place where I found myself. Nova Scotia taught me a lot about inventiveness, not just resilience. You have to be innovative if you want to live here. You don’t have everything at your fingertips. And for me—and for my writing—this is a very good thing. I don’t want to live in a suburb or in an apartment building in a city; I want to live in the woods where I can see water glinting through the trees.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

I think that those who don’t write haven’t got a clear sense of what it entails. Writing a book, from beginning to end, is just plain hard work. There are the gifts, when a poem is given to you out of the blue, or when you write a chapter in one fell swoop, but there is also the day-to-day work in the rock quarry of making a manuscript. I learned how to weightlift when I was having trouble with a novel, and now, when I deadlift, I think of that novel, and how it felt easier to weightlift than it did to revise it. The mental focus needed to do both is similar. And many days I’d still rather deadlift than write.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

I think every aspiring writer should learn how to do deadlifts. I’m not serious, but it helps to have something you can turn to that doesn’t have to do with writing. Anyone who wants to see something through to fruition will probably do all right as a writer, because two of the greatest assets are discipline and patience. But the third asset is the ability to go for broke, to take risks, to have courage.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

When I go someplace outside Nova Scotia and I’m wandering the streets, I love eating a hot dog at a hot dog stand. 

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

I do something kind of foolish when I have writer’s block. I keep writing, but I go around and around in circles because I don’t know what I want to write. I should just stop writing and go walk the beach with my dog and sometimes—no, often—I do.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer? 

This year I was asked if I wanted to be a personal trainer. There was a voice inside: “Sure, okay—I could do that.” The thought was as compelling as running off to join the circus. I had to laugh at myself for that thirty seconds of wanting to ditch the writing, because I could never ditch the writing.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m writing a book of essays right now, and my essays are a hodgepodge of different things. But the essay form allows me to think things through in a way that nothing else can. We are so fortunate to have Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia, because they publish essays, among many other things. My essays have found a home there; and it’s a wonderful fit.

What can participants in your upcoming poetry workshop expect?

This will be a four-session workshop next fall called “Discovering Strangeness: An Exploration of Wild Poetry” to be held in Antigonish. Really, it’s a workshop about discovering and exploring poetry in terms of its wildness—and how to make poems wilder. The participants will use mapping to think about what they’re writing, and invent forms to shape new work. Through de-familiarizing themselves with a way of writing they’ve grown comfortable with, splicing other writing into it, and cutting and shaping poems in ways they might not have considered, they can find what they didn’t know they wanted to say. It’ll be a lot of fun to do.

Author spotlight: Jaime Forsythe

Jaime Forsythe is the author of two collections of poetry, Sympathy Loophole (Mansfield Press, 2012) and I Heard Something (Anvil Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in publications across Canada including This MagazineThe PuritanMatrix, and Lemon Hound. In the following post, she answers our questions about writing, her work as a mentor, what she loves about life in Nova Scotia, and more.

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

I’ve felt compelled to write for as far back as I can remember, filling tiny spiral notebooks, Hilroy scribblers, and photocopied zines. As an older teenager/young adult, I was obsessed with short stories and thought that was the form I most wanted to write in and figure out. During my graduate degree, I had to take a workshop in a genre outside of my primary genre (which was fiction) as a graduation requirement. I warily took a poetry workshop and was like: oh. OH. Maybe all my plotless short stories were actually trying to be poems. I still love reading fiction, but poetry is the form that resonates with me as a writer, and that I feel most excited about continuing to explore and push myself in. 

In addition to being a writer, you have also worked as a mentor as part of the WFNS mentorship program. Do you find that mentorship is an activity that feeds or informs your approach to writing?  

Yes! I loved working in the mentorship program, and I no doubt learned as much, if not more, from the writers I was paired with as they learned from me. I find it really helpful to have to articulate aspects of craft, or pinpoint what makes a piece work or not work, in a way that is clear and useful to another person. It helps me to be more precise about my own goals and philosophies. I’ve also facilitated writing workshops for teens, younger children, and university students, and in all of these cases I come away from different kinds of in-depth conversations about writing feeling refreshed and motivated.

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

I love that I live downtown, but can be at Point Pleasant Park in five minutes, where I can walk in the trees for an hour and both my dog and kid can wear themselves out. I love being close to lakes and the ocean, and that a 45-minute drive takes me to visit my relatives in the small community where my mom grew up, Cheverie, right on the Minas Basin, where my family spends a lot of time in the summer. Also: lupins, Moon Mist, lots of art and music weirdos.  

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

That being a writer means writing full-time. Most writers I know juggle multiple roles and jobs; I will never make a living from writing poetry and that’s OK.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

I recommend reading lots, both within and outside of your comfort zone. Connect with other like-minded writers, in-real-life if possible. Give yourself space and time to experiment. Take and consider criticism that resonates with you, and discard what doesn’t. 

Where do you like to write? 

Anywhere, but if I have a choice and the time, finding a corner in the Central Library for a couple of hours works well. I like the idea of writing alone in a cabin by the ocean somewhere, but the cabin (or the solitude?) has yet to materialize.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

I don’t know that I really feel guilty about any of my pleasures currently. Stuff I do that I’m probably supposed to feel guilty about: keeping up with my horoscope, watching reality shows like Terrace House and The Bachelorette, looking at photos of dogs up for adoption even though I have a dog and absolutely do not want another one. I could go on! 

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

Finding time is the bigger challenge for me – the upside to this is that when I do carve out that time, it feels precious and urgent, so I don’t experience writer’s block, exactly. By the time I sit down, I usually have a backlog of notes and fragments I want to work with.  If I’m stuck on a particular piece, I walk around, pull books off the shelf and flip until I find something that spurs me on again. If I’m feeling empty of new ideas, that usually means I’ve been neglecting to read. 

What’s something you’ve done that many others probably haven’t? 

I don’t think I have many life experiences that are all that unique, except maybe attending a ventriloquism convention in Kentucky when I was working as a speech researcher at Queen’s University. I was there to collect video data of people speaking without moving their lips. As a result, there’s a ventriloquist poem in my first book.

What are you working on right now? 

Fragments, notes and blocks of text that exist handwritten in notebooks or as memos on my phone. These may eventually turn into new poems, or may not.

Author spotlight: Gloria Ann Wesley

Gloria Ann Wesley is an award-winning writer and a retired teacher. She is the author of several books of poetry, children’s literature, and young adult fiction, including Chasing Freedom (Fernwood Publishing, 2011), which was listed as a Grade Nine and African Canadian Studies resource by the Nova Scotia Department of Education and was shortlisted for the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2012 (Atlantic Book Awards), and If This Is Freedom (Fernwood Publishing, 2013), which was selected for One Book Nova Scotia in 2017. Her latest book, Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Africville, will be published by Lorimer this fall. Read on to learn more about Wesley’s writing, the inspiration behind her historical fiction, her guilty pleasures, and what she loves about life in Nova Scotia.

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

It seems I’ve been writing forever, but I started playing with words long before I committed them to paper in any type of format until I won a class writing competition about the local museum. My teachers’ praise and having it published in the local paper was a wonderful incentive.

I was drawn to poetry, at first, because I saw things so vividly and felt so passionate about the American Civil Rights Movement. Writing was the only avenue through which I could express all my opinions and get rid of pent-up frustrations about what was happening. 

Fiction came much later when I realized one way to have Nova Scotian Black history appreciated was through novels. Since there weren’t any, I decided someone had to write them and why not me. Besides, I was so tired of the one Black book, Raisin in the Sun, as a teaching resource.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also an educator. Do you see a connection between these two practices? What similarities or differences do you note?

Being a writer and an educator is similar. In both, you have to be an entertainer and draw on others’ thoughts and imaginations as well as your own. Teaching opened my eyes to see how students varied in their relationship to reading and how hard it is to accommodate the many learning styles and genders in the classroom. Novels and short stories I discovered had the potential to cross over the divide and get all students engaged, talking and sometimes re-enacting or rewriting scenes. The difference is a writer has to do far more research and be far more engaged with the content than a teacher. 

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?

I love Nova Scotian water, air and seafood, all moist and permeated with salt. No matter where I go, I can’t wait to get back home to experience the constant changes in the topography and weather.

Your young adult novels, Chasing Freedom and If This Is Freedom, are works of historical fiction. What inspired you to write historical fiction? What was challenging about the process?

I began writing Black historical fiction, maybe unconscientiously at the time, and because of its omission in the Nova Scotian publishing arena. The process, though long and arduous, is not as difficult as the challenge to change mindsets as to the value of historical fiction and that of Black writers because by embracing diversity, things get a whole lot more interesting.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

My advice is that if you have a special interest or something you really want to say—write about it. Aspire to please yourself first and then others may follow.

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

In Nova Scotia, there are so many untold stories waiting to be discovered.  

What’s your guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure is Lay’s plain potato chips with a Snickers bar and a Pepsi or peanut butter and strawberry jam on crackers. 

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

When my brain freezes, I go to bed early, then wake up at one a.m. and write for an hour or two, then sleep in. It’s great to be retired. 

What are you working on right now?

I’m in the final stage of Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Africville, due out in September. Also, editing a YA novel on the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

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

If I wasn’t a writer, I’d like to be an Inspirational/Motivational Speaker or Lecturer.

Author spotlight: Elaine McCluskey

Elaine McCluskey is a fiction writer who has authored three collections of short stories and two novels. Her most recent book, The Most Heartless Town in Canada, was published by Anvil in 2016. In the following post, she shares the story of her beginnings as a fiction writer, her advice for aspiring writers, and an update on her most recent projects.

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

I always wanted to be a fiction writer but I didn’t know how to go about it. Where do you even start? So I went into journalism where I acquired discipline and some useful skills. I became economical in my writing and I learned to look for the telling details.

When I went on maternity leave with my daughter, I decided to write a novel based loosely on my father’s life in boxing, a sport of outliers and outlaws, and I did. It won the WFNS’ Bill Percy award, and that gave me the confidence to dive headfirst into fiction, which I love. In fiction, you can do anything you want to people: plant them in the woods, have them eaten by a bear. I find that both subversive and liberating.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also an editor for Nimbus Publishing. Do you see a connection between these two practices? 

I edit non-fiction, and I am constantly learning something new about our history, our geography, and our people. Nimbus writers know a lot of stuff.  They make me think about where I am and why it is the way it is.

Some stories also inspire me. This season, I am editing a book entitled The Blind Mechanic, the story of a man who lost both eyes in the Halifax Explosion as a child and taught himself to become a professional auto mechanic. The book is written by his daughter. If it was not true, you would not believe it. 

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?

The fact that I can hop in a car in Dartmouth and be on a beach in Lockeport before lunch. I can walk down a hill and watch kayak races on Lake Banook. You can go pretty much anywhere you like in Nova Scotia and people will let you be. Plus, people here have good manners compared to some places. Nobody is in your face, asking you how much you make or, “Is that your real hair?”

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

That it is easy work.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Just write. And write from the deepest place you can write from—go down that extra layer until you find something that actually scares you: a feeling or a truth. Write about places and human dilemmas that matter to you. If something matters to you—it could be your grandparents’ village on the Eastern Shore, it could be lost friendships—you have the ability to make it real, to make it unique. And do not get discouraged if your work is not accepted right away. It happens to all of us. And, for God’s sake, do not get uber emotional and phone the editor who declined your work to berate her and furiously demand an explanation—I’d like a meeting to discuss this!!—because nothing good will ever come from that.

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

Nobody knows what I am doing. Or if they do, they pretend that they don’t.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Vanity Fair. Livestreams of amateur sporting events in Szeged, Hungary, at 4 a.m.. Walking at night in a park in winter with my husband, Andrew, while wearing headlamps. 

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

I always have more than one story on the go, so if I get stuck on one, I shift to another. I tend to alternate between novels and short-story collections, and I keep files of notes I can dip into.

What are you working on right now?

It is short-story time, and I have almost completed a collection. Some of the stories have appeared in journals such as The Antigonish Review and The Nashwaak Review; a couple have made lists. I am quietly pumped about it. I get to go some weird places.

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

Journalism worked for me. I was good at getting strangers to tell me stuff: “I hear that you are marrying [serial killer] Allan Legere. Congratulations!!! When is the big day?”

At this stage, I also wouldn’t mind being one of those guys on the homemade gas-powered bicycles. They all look the same in their black hoodies, and they all seem to have contempt for societal norms, which is admirable.

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