Author spotlight: Anne Emery

Mystery writer Anne Emery is the author of ten novels. Her most recent book, Though the Heavens Fall, is due to be published by ECW Press in October. Her books have won prizes such as a silver medal in the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards, the 2011 Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction, and the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel for Sign of the Cross. In the following post, Emery discusses her writing practice, the role religion plays in her work, and more.

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

I’ve been writing since childhood, and have always wanted to be a writer, though of course other workaday matters took up much of my time. I’m not sure when I decided on the mystery genre but it may well have been when I read John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That of course is a masterpiece of a spy novel and I have not attempted a spy novel myself, but it has the element of mystery, a puzzle to be worked out, and LeCarré gives us a glimpse into the murky, flickering region between good and evil. But what strikes me most powerfully are his unforgettable characters and their brilliant dialogue, along with the setting and atmosphere of the British intelligence services. The most important element for me in a book is character, and my favourite part of the writing process is dialogue: hence my character Maura MacNeil, who has a tongue in her head that could slit the hull of a freighter. And her husband, bluesman and lawyer Monty Collins, whose courtroom scenes are one of the highlights of the writing for me.

What role does religion play in your writing? 

I am interested in the intellectual, worldly kind of person who also has a strong religious faith. Not the sort who refuses to believe in evolution or thinks the earth is only six thousand years old. The religious element also brings in other things that are important to me, including the great tradition of music in the church, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina and Byrd to Mozart and Handel and, more recently, Lauridsen. Also, the magnificent art and architecture: a stained-glass window, a Botticelli painting, a soaring gothic cathedral. I wanted a complex, attractive character, someone with conflicts that had to be addressed, the most obvious of course being his struggle with celibacy: and so Father Brennan Burke, who strays on occasion but keeps the faith. I get strong reactions to Burke, everything from “He’s not fit to do anything but scrub the floor of that church” to “I’m a single woman; where can I meet him?”

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

First, do a lot of reading. Not just in your preferred genre. Read the great writers and also read history or politics or whatever else you might have to know for your story. And have several other pairs of eyes look over your work—that includes your query letter—before you begin submitting it. And when you are stuck, do what I keep telling myself to do: “Just sit down and make it up!” It will be revised a hundredfold later on.

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

No, I’m a lone wolf when I’m writing. Have to be alone. But once I have a draft, I have three very astute “early readers” who read what I’ve written and offer their suggestions. I revise the manuscript accordingly, and only then do I send it to my publisher. Then there are several stages of editing, for which I am most grateful!

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

One of the best things about Nova Scotia, and the Maritimes in general, is the wit and humour that is characteristic of Maritimers. So I try to make that part of all my Maritime stories. And I have mined the history and culture of our part of the world, particularly the Irish and Scottish, and the Gaelic culture of Cape Breton. Writing in Halifax has opened my eyes to the beautiful old buildings we have in this city: think King’s College, our lovely wooden houses… I am a bit obsessive about research so, even though I have lived here for much of my adult life, I still go out and observe the buildings: how many panes in the windows of the University Club at Dal? What is the correct term for those faces on the Spring Garden Road courthouse? Et cetera.

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

I head out for a walk with my music player; somehow, listening to music awakens the creative impulse. Music forms a vital part of the stories themselves. My two main characters, Collins and Burke, are musicians. And many of my scenes were inspired by music or lyrics. In fact, my fifth book, Children in the Morning, arose out of three particular songs: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”  (the title comes from a line in “Suzanne”), and Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. And—I said this above, but it bears repeating: on those occasions when nothing seems to work, I tell myself, “Just sit down and make it up!” I find that starting to write—writing anything at all—gets the neurons firing. 

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

The day I got word that ECW Press was going to publish my first book, I was meeting two good friends for lunch, and I was over the moon. Glad I got to share the good news with them over a bit of food and drink. And when the publisher, Jack David, came to Halifax to meet me, he was frank: he mentioned a well-respected crime writer and said, “He was on his eighth book before he could give up his day job.” That’s about what I would have expected! I was grateful that he hadn’t given me any horseshit about making me (1) a star or (2) a fortune. I wouldn’t have believed a word of it and now that I know Jack, I know he’d never have spun a fictional tale like that.

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

I write on the top floor of my house in Halifax, looking over the harbour. The room is, as you might imagine, full of books.

What are you working on right now? 

The tenth novel in my Collins-Burke series is coming out in the autumn: Though the Heavens Fall. It was directly inspired by the inscription on a building in Dublin: Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall. I said to myself, “There’s my next book.” It is set in Belfast during the Troubles. I am working on the next book in the series, set in Halifax and Germany; it will be called Postmark Berlin. I also have a couple of historical mysteries in the works. A daunting task indeed. Every single line has to be researched. “They went to the castle.” Yes, but how did they get there? And when they arrived, they had a drink. Of? And what did they drink out of? The paradox is: you have to do scads of research to paint an authentic picture for the reader, but nobody wants to read all your research. So it may take a while before you see anything historical with my name on it.

Author spotlight: Bretten Hannam

Bretten Hannam is a screenwriter, director, producer, and fiction writer. His short and feature-length films have been featured in festivals across Canada and abroad, including the Atlantic Film Festival, the Kashish Mumbai LGBT Film Festival, Los Angeles Cinefest, the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Hannam’s feature-length film North Mountain won awards including the Best Feature Film Awards from both the Two Cliffs Film Festival and Screen Nova Scotia (2016). In the following post, he talks to us about how he got his start as a writer, his advice for aspiring writers, what he loves about life in Nova Scotia, and more.

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

I remember being a kid and having a long roll of newsprint going across the floor. I’d start at one end and draw these insane stories with pictures and then explain them to anyone that was around. Kind of like oral storytelling with very colourful visual aids. After I learned to read it occurred to me that people have to make the books—they don’t fall out of the sky. So I had a few shaky attempts at writing a novel when I was thirteen (I think it was maybe 20 hand-written pages) and some short stories.

I had a similar experience with screenwriting when I watched a film made in Nova Scotia and realize that people also write films! I have a background in drawing and illustration as well, so screenwriting seemed a natural fit, since you write exactly what you see on screen and nothing more. But I love fiction, too. And oral storytelling. Really any type of story and I’m there. Got puppets? Bring ’em on!

In addition to being an accomplished screenwriter, you also write fiction. Do you see any similarities or differences between the two mediums?

Screenwriting is rigid in terms of format and framing. Those limitations give me walls to scale as far as pushing myself in terms of content. They force me to be creative. Without those constraints I don’t think I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard. When I was younger prose was frightening to write because a blank page can literally be filled with anything. With scripts, I know there’s a layout. A pace. A cadence. That takes pressure off, somewhat. But now that I’ve written a few scripts I turn to prose for exploration and relaxation (though sometimes it’s just as stressful).

What do you think is changing in film these days?

Accessibility (though on-going) has changed everything about how we communicate. The ways we can communicate, and the platforms we have. For both better and worse at times. Film isn’t any exception to this, though there are big machines in place that work to slow those changes every day.

One thing that doesn’t change is content. The story needs to be engaging. Have meaning. Observations. Comments on the world, on life, on imagination. Those aspects are rooted deep in our experiences and histories as human beings. They live now in oral traditions of Indigenous people, as well as independent cinema right here on this land.

Another change in film is the issue of Indigenous voices in storytelling. Non-Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories isn’t a new problem. But in the past decade or so there has been a slow move to make room for Indigenous filmmakers to tell Indigenous stories, whatever they might be. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it makes me happy to see those conversations happening and I’m excited to see how relationships continue to evolve.

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?

This is my home. It’s where my family is from, and where many of my ancestors lived. The relationship with this place—the land, the water, the forest, and all the animals, is something I carry with me every day. It’s something that lives in the stories I speak, in the words I write. I know that no matter how far I wander there is a place here for me and that helps more than anything most days I’m feeling down. Sometimes when I’m walking in the forest, or outside, I see so much I want to share and I realize how many words I don’t have.

The seafood chowder is pretty good, too!

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?

The biggest one I’ve encountered is that typing is writing. Lots of people think that all I do all day (or any writer for that matter) is type at a keyboard. But the process is so much more than that, and varies incredibly from person to person. Because of people equating writing and typing there’s a misconception that writing is easy. While sometimes the words come quickly, it’s never really easy (for me at least). But because so much of it happens hidden away in minds and hearts it can be difficult to understand.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Don’t worry about being perfect when you start. Or even good. Just write. Write about things that you’re passionate about, or things that scare you. Or write about your dreams, or characters and ideas that pop into your head. Let your writing be what it wants to be. Don’t try to force it into a shape you think will be best for your career. It’s a living thing as much as a process, or at least that’s how I’ve always seen it. You have to feed it (writing daily a little bit, or as often as you can), play with it (explore different forms and approaches), socialize it (share those stories with other writers, friends, and readers). It’s also important to read. A lot. Read all the time.

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

I live in kespukwitk, close to the lakes and the forests I grew up with. I’m lucky to have relationships with this place, and to learn from it. Those are things I try to put into my writing. When people drive through here they might think it’s boring, that there is nothing. That’s far from true. When you stand outside alone at night, in the middle of the dark forest under moon and stars, you can hear the enormous sound of leaves crashing together, like a giant, dark ocean above you—there are a thousand voices that spring to life then. But you have to take the time to listen.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I will watch literally any sci-fi or fantasy television show. They’re basically melodrama with werewolves and robots! And sometimes it’s not of the highest calibre, but most of the time it’s at least fun! Enough that I can unwind and not worry about picking it apart for structure and plot. Though I have been known to curse at the TV when characters do things so out of left field that it makes no sense.

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

When I’m stuck on a short story, I set it aside. That means I have an army of works in various stages of completion. But often after something happens to me in life, or I meet someone new, or remember something long forgotten, it will inspire me to finish the right story. I do the opposite for scripts. I beat it out—literally with story beats and index cards. I combine, erase, re-combine, and mess around until I work something out. Often it’s just a grueling step forward and 2 drafts down the road the real solution comes, but if I lose traction there I’ll be dead in the water. With fiction it’s a different process. If I tried to work through what I write in the same way as screenplays, I’d probably kill it. I’m pretty kind to my fiction, and a bit harsh with my screenplays.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m working on a whole bunch of short stories that I hope to get into decent enough shape to get published. I’ve also been writing a novel by hand for the past two years. It’s a very different process, but it forces me to be slow and think about things more before I jump into the writing. I don’t know if that will go anywhere, or if it will just end up being a good learning experience for me.

I’m also writing two new scripts—but it’s so early it’s hard to tell what type of stories they’ll turn out to be. Or at least, I don’t want to jinx it.

Author spotlight: Marq de Villiers

Marq de Villiers is a journalist and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest title, Back to the Well: Rethinking the Future of Water (Goose Lane Editions, 2015), was shortlisted for both the Donner Prize for Best Public Policy Book by a Canadian and the Evelyn Richardson Prize for Non-Fiction. He has a new title, Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, forthcoming from University of Regina Press (2019). In the following post, he talks about his new book, getting paid as a writer, life on the South Shore, and more.

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

In addition to being the author of more than a dozen books, you also have a background in journalism. How did you find the transition to writing books? 

The first two questions run together, at least in my case.

My working life has been less than purposeful. Not to put too fine a point on it, I blundered into journalism because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Between graduating (University of Cape Town) and graduate work in London I got a summer job on a small newspaper in South Africa called, if you must know, The Friend (don’t ask). The first day at work the news editor, knowing that I knew nothing, told me to take along a photographer and go into the town and find a story. That’s when it hit me: they were actually going to pay me to get out of the office and talk to people! That didn’t seem like real work … So I stayed with journalism, and have considered myself a journalist ever since.

There was nothing high-minded about it—no “telling truth to power” and all that stuff.  That came later. It was just … interesting.

When I came to Canada, therefore, I worked in the newspaper world for a while, doing all the usual beat work—police work, the courts, local politics, general assignment reporting. After a few years I was sent to Moscow as Russia correspondent for a Toronto paper and that changed the people I was talking to and writing about, but the methods were the same—interviews, observations, analysis, lots of words, story telling.

Later I got into feature writing, and found I was writing longer and longer stories, so I moved into magazine journalism, where I got the space I needed. I became a 5,000-word specialist. I did that for many years.

Then I was approached by a literary agent, who asked me if I wanted to write a book.

Sure, what about?

You’re from South Africa, write a book about that.

What book?

I don’t know. Find one.

So I did.

And I found that books gave me even more room to write than magazines did. (I once had to cut more than 30,000 words from a manuscript; even book publishers have their limits.) So I’ve been doing it ever since. Sixteen books, now, and counting.

This also explains why I write non-fiction. I did try fiction once, and actually finished a manuscript, but it was no good, hopeless even, and I never submitted it anywhere. It turned out I was writing the kind of book I hated reading. (By that I don’t mean fiction—I read plenty of fiction. I mean books that are all technique and no story.) I found I had no talent for making things up. I have always needed the crutch of fact.

I don’t tend to call myself a writer, even now. In my mind, I am a journalist first. 

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

I’ve lived and worked in many interesting places in my time. Cape Town and Moscow, as reported above. But also London, Paris, northern Spain, Rome. In my work I’ve visited many other cities and countries—Dar-es-Salaam, Timbuktu, Samarkand, Xian, Singapore, Cairo, most countries in Europe and much of the former Soviet Union. I am comfortable in many cultures, can get by (albeit poorly) in a handful of languages. I could live anywhere. But I choose here.

My wife Sheila, a Hirtle from Lunenburg County, has been my collaborator on many books, and has immeasurably improved my work with her sceptical editorial eye. She also has the great virtue of owning a 200-plus-year-old house on Tancook Island, and when we were living “away” we always tried to get there for a while each summer. I like the rhythm of Nova Scotia, the amiability of its people, and their lack of pretension. I love the landscape and yes, even the weather. “Elsewhere” has now become agreeable to visit, but no longer a place to live.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer? 

Writers themselves don’t share this misconception, or very few of them, but for many it is that writing is not real work.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Just do it. Like anything else, practice doesn’t make perfect, exactly, but it does make you better. Figure out what kind of stories interest you, and write those. With any luck, a lot of people will agree with you, and your books will sell gazillions. (Mine don’t, but I’m still working on it…)

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

When I lived in Lunenburg, I could see the harbour from my office window, and the masts of the Bluenose II. What’s not to like? Now, we live down the shore some, and our house faces south to the open ocean, nothing between us and Brazil but the speck of Bermuda. True, it gets over-exciting in a major storm, but that’s Nova Scotia for you. It’s easy to take an expansive view from here.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

None of my pleasures are guilty ones. Though I don’t like talking about the fact that in decades of writing I have yet to suffer from writer’s block. I find that annoys people, who think it unfair.

Oddly, the thing that I take most satisfaction from in my working life has not much to do with writing, or shelves of books, or awards, or sales, but that I have a California vineyard named after me, a 15-acre plot that produces very high-end pinot noir wines (that sell for prices I can’t afford). But I don’t feel guilty about it.

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

I think I answered this in my response to questions 1 and 2—I have always been paid for my writing. Still, it’s pertinent to note that when I began working on books those decades ago non-fiction writers could anticipate a decent advance against royalties. Alas, that is no longer even remotely true. So in a way I am getting paid less now.

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

I’m a creature of habit. I write in my loft office, with my computer apparatus perched on an old oak roll-top desk salvaged from the demolished Bridgewater railway station. I can write elsewhere, but I feel most comfortable here.

What are you working on right now? 

My work-in-progress (now in final edits) is called Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment.

The following from my original outline:

Hell and Damnation is more than a peek into the wormhole of the medieval imagination, more than a guidebook to cruelty, though it is both those things. It is, in essence, a commentary on the nature of faith, for the decline of hell (if, indeed, it is declining) has consequences for heaven too. This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain skepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics.”

Publication is scheduled for March 2019. University of Regina Press would be happy to sell you a copy…

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.

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