Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Michelle Wamboldt

Michelle Wamboldt grew up in Truro and now lives on the beautiful South Shore where she watches the waves and walks the beaches every day. She loves to create, whether it’s painting, rug hooking, sewing or writing.  She received her BA in English literature from Dalhousie and then went on to journalism school in Toronto. She did short stints at CTV National News and The Chronicle Herald, but much of her career was in government communications. She has worn many hats over the years but now finds herself comfortably settling into a new role as an author. It is the act of writing, putting words on the page and creating an order from the chaos of thought and ideas that truly gives her pleasure. Birth Road (Nimbus Publishing, 2022) is her first novel, and in the past year she has also had short stories published in The Dalhousie Review and Moose House Publication’s second volume of Blink and You’ll Miss it.

Tell me about the birth of Birth Road. Why did you want to tell Helen’s story?

It was a very slow birth, which took over a decade! I abandoned this story many times over the years, but it would not let me go. It truly haunted me, and I could not rest until I had it out of me.

I wanted to tell my grandmother Helen’s story because she meant so much to me. We were very close, and although she did not share all the details of her life with my family, she did tell us some stories. So, I knew enough – from the things she had told me and things my mother knew. I knew that her younger years had been difficult and challenging. I knew she had faced tragedy and heartache and I marvelled at the strength she must have had to survive.

After she passed away, I started writing short pieces based on stories she had told me. The one story that always stuck with me was how she had walked several miles to the hospital on the day she gave birth to my mother. She walked alone on a hot summer day, wearing a coat to conceal her stomach and carrying a suitcase. That image always stuck with me. So when I decided to expand on the little stories and write a book about her life, I knew she would have to be walking that road, recalling the key moments of her life and letting these memories tell the story of how she came to be pregnant and alone.

So even though I wrote this story as a tribute to my grandmother and the strong woman she was, it was my own mother that I wrote it for.  My only goal was to finish it and place it in my mother’s hands. Having it published was not my motivation, but I’m so glad it happened.

Why did you choose to go the route of historical fiction instead of non-fiction?

When I started out, it was going to be a story based in fact and follow the events of Helen’s life very closely. To be truthful, her real life had so many difficult and tragic circumstances that I was unsure if I would be able to write about them. Through the process of writing and dreaming and visualizing my characters, a new story came to me. Luckily, the cast of characters that eventually appeared helped me to tell a version of her story. They played out like a movie in my mind and I just followed them, and the real Helen became a thread woven between the lines of fiction.

There are so many things in the book that Helen did in her real life – growing up in a logging camp, moving to Boston, working at Stanfield’s, marrying Edgar and many other things. (I don’t want to give away anything for those who haven’t read it yet.) But her story became mine, and my new characters, many of which I had fictionalized based on real relatives, had their own stories to tell. I think this is something we all do when writing – we pull from the well – we gather all the stories and people from or past and stir them all together and see what comes out on the paper.

What were some challenges / favorite things of writing historical fiction?

This may sound funny, but I did not knowingly set out to write historical fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until my editor, Whitney Moran, offered me a publishing contract for what she called my “historical fiction” that I had even thought of my novel as historical fiction. But of course it is!

Looking back now at my writing process, I can say that my favorite thing about writing historical fiction is the research. And this must be my journalism background, but I could happily do research all day. This is where so many great ideas are born, from characters to setting to the tiniest details of a scene. You can also find so many gems going down the rabbit holes. Hours can be happily lost as you learn about an event or person that can lead to interesting ideas for new stories.

I think the main challenge is the pressure I put on myself to ensure accuracy. I wanted to be sure, if I had a song, movie, car, train schedule or war reference in a scene, that it was authentic. I was very careful to ensure all of my historical facts were accurate.

How did your background as a journalist help you in the writing of this book?

It was a great help. The research was second nature due to my background in journalism. Interviewing people and searching out resource material is something I not only enjoy but have been trained to do.

Tell me about your research. Where did it take you?

As I have said, research can lead down so many new roads, and that was the case with my research for Birth Road. I did not write with a detailed outline, only a timeline and an idea of the key moments in Helen’s life that I wanted to convey.

Through my research, I was able to transport myself to a logging camp in the early 20th century and envision daily life for the McNutt family. I thought Stanfield’s would be a small part of the book, but after visiting the Mill and interviewing former employees, I had so many amazing stories and rich visuals that I knew I had to make it a major part of the story and plot. I also was surprised how much the Second World War, the North Novas and Halifax during the war came to be a key component in the story. That had not been my intent, but because of my research and the things I learned about soldiers’ training and substance abuse, I had material to build on and plot twists I could work with.

I enjoyed every part of the research. All of the people I met and everything I read helped in some way to enrich my story. I think research is not only important for ensuring historical accuracy; I think it can be an endless source of inspiration as well.

In your acknowledgements, you mention quite a few other writers. What role did other writers have in your fiction writing journey?

The support and encouragement I received from other writers was invaluable. I struggled with self-doubt and found it almost impossible to make myself sit in the chair and get the work done. (Let’s be honest, even with one novel published, I still struggle.) I could come up with any excuse to not write. I now know it was my fear that kept me from writing, but without the positive feedback from other writers, I would never have been able to overcome that fear on my own.

Also, I can easily admit, I am nothing without a deadline. Throughout the time I worked on this manuscript, I was lucky to have two different periods when I had a mentor who I was accountable to and deadlines I had to meet.  In 2013, it was six months with Donna Morrissey, and in 2019, it was six months with Chris Benjamin.  Without the structure and deadlines, I would never have begun or completed my manuscript. I will forever be grateful to them both for encouraging me and keeping me on track.

I am also lucky to have friends who are writers, such as Rene Hartlieb and Sylvia Gunnery, who continued to show interest in my work, year after year, and insisted I keep writing and get Helen’s story out into the world.

What’s your advice to writers who may have a manuscript in a drawer?

Get it out of that drawer! Trust in your voice. We are all full of doubt, so you are not alone. Know that your story matters. Send it out, and if it isn’t accepted, send it again and again.

I would also encourage writers to share their writing with other writers.  I myself am not very good at this – but I do believe it is helpful to boost confidence.

What are you working on now?

I always seem to have a few ideas that are fighting for my attention.  For now, the one I am focusing on is another piece of historical fiction, this time set down here on the south shore in the 1920s – 1930s.

Author spotlight: Jan Fancy Hull

Jan Fancy Hull lives in Lunenburg County. Prior to being awarded the 2022 Rita Joe Poetry Prize, her poetry was published in The Antigonish Review, and in an anthology, Gathering In (Windywood). She has also published two collections of short fiction, three mysteries in a series of twelve, and a non-fiction book (Moose House Publications).

As the title “Moss Meditations” suggests, your winning entry for the 2022 Rita Joe Poetry Prize reflects on nature. What are some of your favourite outdoor spots in Lunenburg County?

I wrote “Moss Meditations” as my personal response to an experience which excited my imagination. I live 100 feet from the shore of a small Lunenburg County lake. Looking out my windows, I watch the seasons, the weather, and the lake change a dozen times every day. In summer, I take my small boat on the water and just drift. Nature is awesome.

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How did you prepare to enter “Moss Meditations” in Nova Writes? Did you revise the piece on your own or did you seek out feedback from others before the submission deadline?

All the above. I shared the initial version with a couple of trusted readers, then submitted it hither and yon, including to a previous Nova Writes. The great value of NW is the commentary that all entries receive. My poem received praise and suggestions, but no prize—OW. I knew it had good bones. I implemented (most of) the suggestions, submitted it again—WOW!

If you could only read three books of poetry for the rest of your life, which collections would you choose and why?

I’d choose three thick anthologies of diverse poets from diverse periods of time including the most recent. For the variety, and the possibility of finding new favourites with every turn of the page.

You’re also a member of WFNS. What spurred you to sign up?

I wanted to be part of / benefit from / support the provincial writing community. By the end of this year I will have published six books of prose published by Moose House Publications. I learned about MHP in a WFNS newsletter, so membership paid off bigtime!

What’s one thing you can’t write without?

A tinfoil hat, naturally. Also: For prose I need virtual hiking boots so I can navigate the rocky story trail without twisting an ankle.  For poetry, I need a virtual shovel to unearth extraordinary meanings hidden in ordinary things.

For more about the Rita joe Poetry Prize, see our Nova Writes Competition for Unpublished Manuscripts.

Author spotlight: Libby Broadbent

Libby Broadbent writes in Port Medway, Nova Scotia, in between teaching high school and running her small art business, Blissfully Writing Studio. She has self-published five novels under the pen name Mavis Williams, and her writing includes fiction, poetry, plays and illustrated children’s stories for her two granddaughters.

Your winning entry for the 2022 Joyce Barkhouse Young Adult Fiction Prize, Seventh Son, is excerpted from a longer YA fantasy manuscript. How did you approach worldbuilding for this story?

Worldbuilding for Seventh Son came to me as I explored my home community of Port Medway. The Old Port Medway Cemetery and Seely Hall are the imagined home of Button and the long-dead Gracie who guides him on his quest. His journey to discover his destiny takes him to Long Cove, just down the road from Port Medway, and the ocean is the constant soundtrack to his adventures. You can see the teddy bears he encounters in the trees and bushes on the road to Long Cove, and Elinor is the name of a local (now deceased) community member. I have long been fascinated with “life” under the gravestones, and how young people believe in things that adults find impossible. I wanted to capture the wild nature of rural Nova Scotia and the ancient atmosphere of our oldest graveyards, seen through a child’s eyes as he navigates both grief and adventure.

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In your entry to Nova Writes you mentioned that this is your first foray into young adult fiction. What led you to try your hand at this genre?

I grew up in Narnia and the Shire. I love fantasy novels, and young adult writing is fun and fascinating. I have written five romance novels (under the pen name Mavis Williams) but the story of Button kept pestering me over the past few years and I felt compelled to try to put it on paper. As a high school teacher I like to pretend that I understand young adults—even though they prove me wrong repeatedly—and I just really love immersing myself in that magical world of young people where there is so much possibility and hope, even when they’re faced with challenges and obstacles requiring great resilience.

Many thanks to WFNS and the team of readers/judges who facilitate the Nova Writes competition. It’s a thrill to be noticed in the ranks of so many wonderful entries.

Who was the character you found most easy to write in this story? And who was the most challenging to capture?

I loved writing both Button and Runa, the twins who don’t know they’re twins. They’re fun and wild and while I didn’t find them easy to write (is anything about writing easy?) I loved discovering their personalities as the story unfolded. The hardest character to write was the antagonist. A bad guy has to be worthy, and his purpose has to be both malevolent and relatable, and I really struggled to discover who my bad guy was and what he wanted. It turns out he’s Button’s Great-great-great Grandfather determined to seize Button’s powers as his own.

Did you read a lot growing up? What was your favourite book as a child?

Oh, I read ravenously as a child and still do. Favourite book? Gaaaaa… ALL the books! The Fairy Caravan, Narnia, The Hobbit. Fairy tales, epic fantasy, Moby Dick. I love Dickens and Shakespeare just as much as Ursula McGuin and Philip Pullman.

Do you have a favourite writing spot or setup?

I write in my living room, facing the Medway River, with my wiener dog by my side and a coffee at hand. I am mostly a 5am writer, before work, before sunrise! I strongly encourage anyone with an urge to embrace the madness of a writing life to check out Nanowrimo as an inspiration and a motivation to get the words on the page. I do National Novel Writing Month every year, and it has honed my practice to the point that getting 1600 words on the page in one sitting isn’t at all daunting anymore. Not all of those words are good words, mind you, and I have been known to write “I don’t know what the &%$%$% to write next!” but I don’t stop until I’ve hit that number. I don’t believe you need a specific place or time to write but finding your personal motivation that gets you to the page is essential. I belong to a small writing group of lovely ladies who support each other relentlessly, and I try to set myself the goal of 50k words in a month when I’m working on a novel. The coffee helps, as does the wiener.

For more about the Joyce Barkhouse Young Adult Fiction Prize, which alternates year-to-year with the Joyce Barkhouse Writing for Children Prize, see our Nova Writes Competition for Unpublished Manuscripts.

Author spotlight: Jodie Callaghan

Jodie Callaghan is from the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation in Gespe’gewa’gi (Quebec). She started writing stories when she was 8 years old and has always been drawn to story-telling. She has found writing to be the best way to connect to her history and her culture. Jodie currently resides in Northern New Brunswick with her husband, child, and pets. When she’s not teaching, you can find Jodie dreaming up stories she will one day write.

Your debut book The Train, which recently made the 2022 Ann Connor Brimer Award for Atlantic Canadian Children’s Literature shortlist, centres around a conversation between the young protagonist Ashley and her great-uncle, a residential school survivor. What inspired you to write this story?

I wrote The Train for my community’s local writing contest. I was working as a video journalist for the Aboriginal People’s Television Network at the time and was interviewing a lot of survivors of the Shubenacadie Residential School. I think The Train was my way of processing all of the difficult conversations I was partaking in. I remember sitting down to write something to enter into the contest and The Train just poured out of me. I was able to draw a lot of inspiration from conversations I had with my grandmother about her time in Indian Day School. The character Uncle is heavily influenced by her experiences and Ashley is a reflection of how I felt at the time.

As an adult educator and former journalist, there are a number of ways you could have approached this important topic in your writing. What drew you towards a picture book in particular?

The Train was originally written as a short story, however, upon seeing other residential school picture books coming out, I thought The Train could find a home among the rest of the books out there. It was amazing to see it come to life with Georgia Lesley’s illustrations.

How did it feel to see your original story transformed into a dual-language edition translated by Joe Wilmot?

It was honestly a dream come true for me. I have always wanted to publish a book, so seeing it realized was so special. Having the dual-language edition come out was extra special too because it was something I asked my publisher about early on and they were immediately on board. I love that we were able to get someone from Listuguj to translate it, as it was important to have it done in the writing system we use in our school. It was important to me to create a community resource too.

The Train was published by Second Story Press after winning their 2018 Indigenous Writing Contest. What was it like to return to their 2021 contest as a judge?

I was very flattered to have been asked to participate as a judge. I was also incredibly blown away by the number of entries we had to read. I don’t know what I expected going into it, but it was very cool to have the opportunity to read all of the manuscripts that were submitted. I also just enjoyed the whole deliberation process. I love talking about books and representation and now I am so excited to see the winning books out in the world soon. The stories that won are so great and I look forward to adding them to my children’s bookshelves.

Have you always been a storyteller? Who encouraged you to keep writing over the years?

Yes, I have always been drawn to storytelling and specifically writing. I started playing around with writing fiction when I was in the third grade and luckily had a very encouraging teacher who spoke to my parents about encouraging my writing and reading. I have had so many wonderful English teachers over the years who continued to encourage my writing. As I grew older, I definitely got a lot more self-conscious about my writing and have been much more hesitant to share. This is something I am working on moving past. I really want to write and publish more books, so I am ready to throw caution to the wind and put myself out there!

What are some other children’s books by Indigenous writers you’d recommend to young (and young at heart!) readers?

Some of my favourites at the moment are Little You by Richard Van Camp; Swift Fox All Along by Rebecca Thomas; Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard; and Giju’s Gift by Brandon Mitchell. I also love any book illustrated by Julie Flett – her illustrations are so beautiful. 

Are you working on any new stories at the moment?

I am! I am currently plotting out a YA horror novel with a young Mi’gmaq protagonist. I grew up reading and loving R.L. Stine novels, and so, I’m hoping this book has the same vibes as his work. I love creepy stories and I really just want to write the book I would have loved reading as a kid.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Monika Dutt

Monika Dutt finds motivation in relationships, community, and being outdoors. Her work is focused on improving the health of communities in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador. She volunteers with groups focused on labour and racial justice. Her ten-year-old son brings her joy.

“Foundations,” your winning entry for the 2022 H.R. (Bill) Percy Short Creative Non-Fiction Prize, involves a common misfortune many of us have faced: a flat tire. What was it about this particular instance of car trouble that made you want to write about it?

Partly because my flat tires seem to always involve epic journeys; I’m known for that. Mostly because this particular journey seemed to draw out so many emotions, memories and relationships. It also happened during the first year of the pandemic and I was struck by the contrast of being so alone yet also still part of a network with so many people, living and past. My mother died one month before my son was born so she is intimately connected to his life. My experiences of being both the caregiver and needing care felt intrinsic to this road trip. Lastly, a significant pull to Atlantic Canada for me has been the geography, the land. The vastness, ocean, and forests can be both grounding, and, sometimes, intimidating, as they were in this story.

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What inspired you to submit “Foundations” to Nova Writes this year?

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been taking virtual writing classes through Toronto-based Firefly Creative Writing and although I typically don’t share my writing, I found the classes motivating. Additionally, as someone who works in public health, writing has been an outlet for me when dealing with some of the most challenging times in my career over the past two years. I have never submitted a story to a competition before, but both the desire to tell stories from the pandemic (this story happened during the pandemic, but I tried not to write the word “pandemic”!), as well as encouragement from writing classmates, gave me confidence.

Your son plays a heartwarming role in this piece. What was his reaction when you told him you’d won Nova Writes?

He was happy for me! It helped him to see something concrete come out of all the writing he sees me do. At the same time, he is fully into tweenhood so after saying congratulations he went back to doing his hair and picking the right shoes for the day.

You’re a physician as well as a writer. Is there anything you have learned from working in healthcare that has informed your creative pursuits, or vice versa?

My degree before medicine was liberal arts which fit perfectly with my interests. A background in humanities was also a perfect framing for medicine, which can often be reductive. As a public health physician I try to understand the stories that create communities, and as a family doctor, it is a privilege to hear so many personal stories and see how health is shaped by each person’s context. Writing has helped me process the challenges and surrealness of the past few pandemic years.

As a reader, are there any memoirists or creative non-fiction writers whose work you particularly connect with?

Mira Jacob is a wonderful author, and I love her book Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. She is also the daughter of parents who immigrated from India around when my parents did and many cultural nuances of her writing resonate with me. There are so many books I’ve loved; I’ll pick a few that I’ve read recently. Tomson Highway’s Permanent Astonishment is magical. Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power is necessary reading; I just finished His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa which has many similar themes. I’ve also immersed myself in Newfoundland and Labrador stories/authors lately, and Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 is haunting.

For more about the H.R. (Bill) Percy Short Creative Non-Fiction Prize, see our Nova Writes Competition for Unpublished Manuscripts.

Author spotlight: Amy Jones

Amy Jones is a novelist, editor, and creative writing instructor and mentor. She is the author of the novels Every Little Piece of Me (McClelland & Stewart, 2019) and We’re All in This Together (McClelland & Stewart, 2016), and the short fiction collection What Boys Like (Biblioasis, 2009). Her third novel, Pebble and Dove, is forthcoming with McClelland & Stewart in 2023. Originally from Halifax, she currently lives in Hamilton, ON with her husband, writer Andrew F. Sullivan, and her rescue dog, Iggy.

WFNS recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. You were part of the 2005 mentorship cohort. What was that experience like for you?

Honestly, it was the first time anyone took my work seriously, which in turn helped me give myself permission to take my work seriously. It gave me an immense boost of confidence to have my work chosen. I had the amazing good fortune of working with Linda Little, who helped me polish my short stories, which was the only reason I got into my MFA program, which was where I wrote my first book. So I guess you could say it really was the start of my writing career.

The film adaptation of your first novel We’re All in This Together came out last year. How did it feel to see your writing transformed into a movie?

It’s really hard to describe the feeling—it’s like seeing your own thoughts on screen. But at the same time, I could see the filmmaker’s vision as well, sort of superimposed over them, so it became something completely new. I was extremely lucky to work with someone who understood my book and my characters so well, and who took such great care with them. I’m not going to lie—I bawled my eyes out the first time I saw it, just from how overwhelming it was, in the very best way!

Your second novel Every Little Piece of Me examines the potential downsides of life in the public eye. What inspired you to explore this topic in your fiction?

One of the themes I think is kind of ongoing in my work is the idea of identity, and the different layers of it that we veil ourselves in, either consciously or subconsciously—who we think we are, who we pretend to be (and especially who we think we have to be), who others see us as, who we think others see us as, all the different strata to ourselves that we have to dig through to get to the “real” us, if there is such a thing. In ELPOM I was particularly interested in how this intersects with social media, fame, and the public eye in general, especially for women. I’d say the inspiration for this stemmed from my own re-evaluation of how I have interacted with or viewed female celebrities in the past—I feel like there are a lot of us looking back at how we treated women like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan through a more contemporary lens and realizing how wrong we got things.

The addition of a, shall we say, “Lunenburgesque” setting really adds an interesting dynamic to Every Little Piece of Me. Why did you want to bring the novel’s celebrity characters to small-town Nova Scotia?

I knew I wanted the Hart family’s reality show to be in a small town, and Nova Scotia just seemed like the right fit. I’m so intrigued by how kind of “exotic” people in the US and even in the rest of Canada think the Maritimes are, and I wanted to play with that a little—not just the contrast between Manhattan and small-town Nova Scotia, but also the contrast between the characters’ perception of small-town Nova Scotia and how it changes over the course of their time there, how it changes them. Plus, I am not done writing about Nova Scotia by a long shot!

You’re a graduate of the Optional Residence MFA Program at the University of British Columbia. Do you have any advice for other writers considering graduate studies in creative writing?

I have a lot of thoughts on this! I had a good experience with my MFA, but it’s not for everyone. There’s a myriad of ways to become a writer, so really think about what it is you need—maybe it’s just time, or mentorship, or accountability. And for the love of god don’t make the mistake I did and go into massive debt over it! It’s hard enough to make a living as a writer without having to deal with student loans hanging over your head for years.

Hamilton is home for you these days. Do you still consider yourself an Atlantic Canadian writer?

I absolutely do! I think I keep a piece of all the places I’ve lived with me, but I spent the first nearly 30 years of my life in Nova Scotia, and I still spend a lot of time there. It’s the place that shaped me the most, and it will never stop influencing my writing.

I know you still visit family in Nova Scotia from time to time. What’s the first thing you like to do when you get back to St Margarets Bay?

When I’m not in NS, I constantly dream about being out on my dad’s ancient Boston Whaler, heading for Shut-In, searching for porpoises. And, of course, picking up lobster from Ryer’s!

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Charlene Carr

Charlene Carr has independently published nine novels. Her first agented novel, Hold My Girl, has sold to HarperCollins Canada, Sourcebooks Landmark (US), Welbeck Publishing (UK), Alma Littera (Lithuania), and is set for adaptation to TV by Blink49 Studios in partnership with Groundswell Productions. She has received grants from Arts Nova Scotia and Canada Council for the Arts to write and revise her next novel. 

As your website mentions, you’ve travelled extensively and lived all across Canada. What brought you to Nova Scotia?

My original plan was to go to grad school in Ontario or Quebec, but after living in South Korea for awhile, having some pretty intense situations happen both there and at home, I decided being closer to family (who lived in New Brunswick) might be a very good thing. So I applied to Dalhousie just days before the deadline, and was offered a full scholarship, so Nova Scotia it was! After a few months it felt like home, the first place that had felt that way since I’d left Toronto eight years earlier.

In the past decade, you’ve independently published nine novels and a novella. Can you share some of the benefits and challenges of your self-publishing journey?

A major benefit is certainly the fact that you’re entirely your own boss when you self (or independently) publish. You determine your publishing schedule, your deadlines, what you want to write and how you want it written, etc. However, that’s also the major challenge. You’re all on your own—either handling all the many assets of publishing yourself or hiring them out, which isn’t cheap, and certainly hard to do if you don’t have another source of income, which I didn’t for most of that time. The other challenge is that writing, at times, can almost seem on the back burner as you essentially become an independent publisher. The work of maintaining that, if you want to take it seriously—through marketing, advertising, charting meta data trends, etc. is a full time job.

In addition to your standalone books, you’ve also released the Behind Our Lives trilogy and A New Start series. Did you always intend to write these stories as a series of linked novels, or was it while writing your first books that you realized your characters had more to say?

So I had NO intention of the A New Start series being a series. I wrote the first book as kind of a lark, and as a promise to a friend that I would give self-publishing a try. At the time, I didn’t want to publish my first full-length novel that way (which I’d spent over ten years honing) so I wrote When Comes the Joy (which was originally titled Skinny Me). I had so much fun through the process of writing it and had such a great reception from readers that I decided to keep going. Autumn, the lead in the second book, was a character from When Comes the Joy I was really curious about, so I decided to make the next book about her, and the pattern of having each book be about a character in this group of friends stemmed from there. Each novel is a standalone, but if you read the later books before the earlier ones, there are some spoilers.

As to the Behind Our Lives trilogy, that was meant to be one book, but once I started outlining it I realized the story I wanted to tell could not fit between the pages of one book (and have people still able to pick it up!) So, I decided to split it into three, and by doing that, I was able to give the story the time it deserved.

I love that you’ve shared some book club discussion guides on your website. Do you have any advice for other authors who are interested in connecting with book club audiences?

Although I haven’t been booked through it yet, I’ve heard very good things about the new website, which allows readers to book authors virtually. Outside of that, I think just make it clear on your website and through social media that interacting with book clubs is something you’re keen to do.

It took me nearly four years to write and edit my debut novel, so I’m in awe of your prolific publishing accomplishments! What does your writing process look like? Do you work on one project at a time, or do you always have a few different stories on the go?

For the most part I’ve worked on one project at a time. After my first three novels, I started outlining/drafting and that has made a huge difference to my efficiency and ability to write more quickly. When you have a general idea of what you want to get on the page each day it really minimizes the ‘staring at the screen’ time. I also give myself word count goals and stick to them like it’s my job . . . because it is! I’m gentle with myself though. Before I was a mom, my daily word count goals were often between 1500-2500, depending on the project and the time frame I’d set for wanting the next book published.

However, when I had a very attached, nursing child at home with me, I ended up giving myself a goal of 300 words, four days a week, and as long as I hit that four days, I considered myself successful, even if I may have only gotten 150 words in during a session. Of course, there were many days I got 1000 or more if the muse moved me, but it was a great lesson in the fact that even a little bit of consistent effort adds up to a lot. The book I wrote with that low word count goal is Hold My Girl, the book that looks like it’s going to totally transform my career, with deals in Canada, the US, the UK, Lithuania, and an option for TV adaptation!

You’re quite active on Goodreads. Is there a certain etiquette you follow when reviewing someone else’s work online? How has reading widely impacted your own writing career?

Now that I’m an author myself, if I don’t feel I can honestly give a book four stars or higher, I don’t rate it. It does become tricky, because I also really care about tracking my reads (for my own personal enjoyment) and there are a lot of books I like (which would be 3 stars based on the rating system), but that’s considered a critical review. So I’ll mark that I read the book (not give a rating) and try to ‘hide’ that I’ve read it by not adding it to my update feed. I actually find it very frustrating that a 3 star rating is considered a critical review, because how is ‘liking’ something critical? Not every book can be one’s favourite.

Reading widely has defined my career. Growing up, I’d only read the classics and the type of contemporary novels that are studied in university. Before independently publishing, I hadn’t read a single book that would be considered commercial. So, when I finished my first novel Beneath the Silence, although I really liked it and was proud of it, I didn’t know where it fit. It wasn’t until I started independently publishing that I began reading the books that were topping the charts, and learned there was this whole other world of fiction I knew nothing about—wonderful books that readers devoured—but weren’t strictly ‘literary’. Although I would classify some of my books as firmly in the commercial Women’s Fiction category, where I see my writing going and where I hope Hold My Girl sits, is in the realm of Upmarket fiction, that sweet spot between literary and commercial. My role models are books/authors such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

I know hiking was one of the ways you combatted writer’s block when you lived in St. John’s. Do you have any favourite hikes around Halifax?

I do! Unfortunately I get out a lot less as it’s tricky doing it with a little one, especially because I have some serious neck and shoulder issues from a car accident and kids come with more gear and less patience. But I’d say the Musquodoboit Back Country Wilderness Trails are my favourite, with the Bluff Wilderness Hiking Trail as a close second.

Your tenth novel Hold My Girl will be published next year by HarperCollins in Canada. How did working with an agent and traditional publisher compare to your independently released titles?

Well, the second part of that question I won’t totally know the answer to until after the book is released, but working with my agent was an incredible experience. She’s very editorial, and we spent six months and four to five rounds of revisions getting the manuscript to a place where she felt confident it would sell and sell well. She clearly knows her stuff, as the book sold well and quickly—an overnight pre-empt in Canada—and even garnered the attention of multiple high-profile, LA based production companies.

As to working with publishers, it’s been a wonderful experience so far. It’s hugely encouraging to have a team in your corner, who are such experts, and are handling all of the stuff that I found the most difficult when I was independently publishing. It means my core focus can be on the writing, and it also means my book will have a massively greater reach than I ever could have managed on my own—which is the dream, my book in the hands of and touching the hearts and minds of as many readers as possible.

Hold My Girl may not be in readers’ hands yet, but it has been optioned for television adaptation. Have you allowed yourself to daydream about potential cast members?

I have! Haha. Quite a bit. And the production team has also given me their dream potentials. I won’t share any names though!

A number of your books are set in Halifax. I’m sure all of your characters experience this city differently. How do you go about envisioning or re-envisioning the same place through their eyes?

All of my books actually have Halifax in them in some capacity. And like any place, it is what you make it. For some, the city is merely a setting . . . for others, (for example Lincoln in Behind Our Lives) it’s practically a character. As someone who has lived in many places, I’ve experienced that myself—how some locales get under my skin, almost becoming a part of me, and others are simply where I lived for a time. So, it really depends on the character, where they are in their life, how they operate—whether they spend a lot of time walking the city (such as Lincoln, above, or Tess from Hold My Girl) or whether the city is merely a backdrop to their life, and doesn’t actually affect their journeys very much (such as Autumn and Tracey from the A New Start Series).

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Luke Hathaway

Luke Hathaway is a trans poet who teaches English and Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s University in Kjipuktuk/Halifax. He is the author of four collections of poems, and of many works in other genres (essays, playscripts, libretti …); his most recent book, The Affirmations, is available from Biblioasis. (Photo Credit: James MacLean)

Your latest poetry collection came out in the spring. Can you speak about the significance of its title, The Affirmations?

The book’s title is at least on one level an allusion to the Christian/mystic tradition in which the Way of Affirmation is one of two ways in which the human soul may come to God. The other is the Way of Rejection. In the latter Way, God appears to us in negative terms: no earthly thing resembles Them; we are called, therefore, to withdraw from the world, in order to prepare ourselves for an encounter with the divine. But in the former way, the Way of Affirmation, everything commands our love: everything in this world is an image, albeit an imperfect one, of the divine; we are called therefore not to withdraw from the world, but to embrace it. The poet John Heath-Stubbs writes — piercingly and, I think, truly — ‘[The Way of Affirmation], lived to the full, is not necessarily less hard than the Way of Rejection, for it will, sooner or later, involve the affirmation of the images of suffering and loss, along with the others.’

The Halifax launch of your book took place at the Writers’ Fed on May 26. I’d imagine the pandemic has led to a number of cancelled or virtual events for you. What was it like to connect with an audience in person again?

It was heaven. Really and truly: it felt like having made it through to the other side — not simply of pandemic lockdowns, but of a period of great tumult in my personal life. And to have found there, on the other side, so many of my near and dear ones — and so many people too who are walking towards me, even as I walk towards them … what bliss.

The Halifax launch was also a chance for me to share the stage with some of my great artist friends (great friends/great artists, both): Alexander MacLeod, Raymond Sewell, Colleen (Coco) Collins, Jon Claytor. Each of these artists has, in their way, had a great influence on my life and work in these past few years — teaching me things, keeping me afloat, drawing me into community.

If you had absolute free rein to organize your ideal evening of poetry readings, who would you want to share the lectern with?

See above! (Alexander MacLeod, Raymond Sewell, Colleen (Coco) Collins, Jon Claytor.… If my friend and collaborator Daniel Cabena had been there, too, my joy would have been complete. [Dan’s Guelph-based, and was unable to travel to be with us, in the event.])

You’re a librettist and theatre maker as well as a poet. The Affirmations’ audio book contains elements of performance and musicality I found quite beautiful, and I’d love to hear more about the ways you weave other art forms into your poetry.

That’s such a nice question. The weaving of art forms for me has very much to do with friendship, love, collaboration, community …: marrying words to music (as, in earlier books, marrying words to images), I enter into conversation with friends and fellow makers — an extraordinarily subtle and intimate kind of conversation, in which form and content take equal part, in which meaning can be manifest in ways that are not only verbal but also melodic, rhythmic, gestural, visual, sculptural….

Writing can sometimes be a solitary act, but that’s not necessarily the case with your own work. Daniel Cabena is a frequent artistic partner of yours, and many of your poems reference or dialogue with poets and people from the past. What role does collaboration play in your poetic practice?

When I was coming of age as an artist, I was meaningfully mentored not only by individual artists but by collaborating pairs: the poet Richard Outram and his wife, the artist Barbara Howard; the photographer Thaddeus Holownia and his friend, the poet Peter Sanger. These artists modelled for me visions of art-making as eros and philia, respectively: both those visions are central to how — and also why — I work.

Daniel Cabena’s collaboration has been extraordinary. Shortly after I met him I had a powerful dream in which we were standing face to face, unclothed — though it wasn’t a sexual dream. It was a dream about gender, I think, about my sense of him as this person with — as he had put it to me then — a woman’s voice in a man’s body (Dan is a countertenor); and of myself as a person with a man’s spirit in a woman body: really the only language I had for transness at that time. (I was raised in an extremely straight/binary environment; it took me a long long time to discover contemporary languages of queerness.) It was Dan who introduced me to the music of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, with its profound recombinative textures, in which the secular and the sacred, the masculine and the feminine, are always getting productively mixed up in one another — in which folks were living queerness in all kinds of ways familiar and unfamiliar to us now. It changed my life, even as it also transfigured my poetry.

I asked Dan to make the audio book with me, because so many of the poems had been written for him and for music. As we worked on it, I realized that even poems not originally written for music had musical gestures written into them: inherent elements of counterpoint, antiphone, polyphony. Dan saw this, too, and drew out the musical elements, lending his voice(s) and his compositional talents, sometimes adding melodic gestures …: it’s very beautiful.

You’re also part of the team behind the Amadeus Choir’s Choral Creation Lab. For those of us who are unfamiliar with choral music, why is it important to foster opportunities for poets and composers to co-create new works? What do you most enjoy about mentoring other poets in this creative endeavour?

Collective singing is an ancient artform and healing technology, and it is one of the time-honoured homes of poetry amid our daily lives. I think some contemporary poets are unaware of this, or have forgotten. They (we??? I am speaking for myself here — my own blinkered perceptions) associate choral singing with stodgy old European music, or with a colonially weaponized religious life….

But we shouldn’t let choral singing be co-opted, in our own perceptions, in this way. We need to take it back.

And there are so many amazing choral conductors, composers, and performers who are working to bridge the gap here — to find new texts and soundworlds, to bring old works to life in new ways, to expand the popular sense of what choral singing is. There’s so much room for fertile cross-pollination, restoration, renovation.

(And soooo much more to choral singing beyond what had an airing on the risers of the Kiwanis Music Festival when I was a kid.…)

The first iteration of the Choral Creation Lab ran in 2020/21. The composer Andrew Balfour (hear, here: and I served as faculty-mentors, but our participants all brought so much to the process — it felt deeply collaborative / non-hierarchical. We hope to run the Lab again…. It went on temporary hiatus through 2021/22, as the choir dealt with the on-again/off-again complications of the pandemic.

Biblioasis refers to one of your previous collections, Years, Months, and Days, as “[a] transfiguration of Mennonite hymns” rather than a strict translation. The book reminded me of Di Brandt’s Glitter & fall, as she calls her poems transinhalations of the Dao De Jing. Whatever terminology we might employ, how would you describe the process you used to engage with your source text?

In the afterword to Years, Months, and Days, I call its poems ‘expressions of both intimacy and disorientation’, vis-à-vis that source text — an 1836 Mennonite hymnal entitled Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung, which was printed in the area where I grew up. ‘They are not translations,’ I wrote, ‘so much as they are meditations on the possibility of translation’:

What can be carried across the boundary between languages? And — perhaps a more pressing question in my time and place — what can be carried across the boundary between religions, or between religion and secularity; between a world defined by the presence of God, and a world defined by His absence — or perhaps by other sorts of presences and Presences?

I was speaking to my status as an outsider to these hymns: to the language of their presentation (German), to the community whose worship life they were compiled to articulate and reinforce (the 19th c. Mennonite community that had settled on the so-called Haldimand Tract, in what is colonially called southwestern Ontario …), to the Christian faith….

What I found, in my meditations, is that what could be carried across these boundaries was … really only me: in order to come to even a provisional understanding of these hymns, I couldn’t bring them out … I had to somehow bring myself in.

These are complicated passages. I am not, and will likely never be, a Mennonite (though nothing is impossible in God!); I will never be a native speaker of the hymns’ German language, able to understand their lyrics in my bones and blood, the same way I can understand my English…. But I did rerelation, in some way (to use a beautiful word I learned from waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy), with the Christian faith, in the process of ‘translating’ these poems. As I tried to understand them, I took the Christian story down from off of the cross to which I’d pinned it (eager to dissociate myself from the power-structures to which it had, in my mind, become attached), and began to think about its simplest images: light and darkness, birth and death, the cycles of seasons…. I noticed these images beginning to do their work on me, moving me through a space of darkness (I was in a terribly depressed place when I began to work on those poems, a fact to which the book only glancingly makes reference), and towards a space of light.

As someone who grew up in a Mennonite community and has written about Mennonites myself, I was curious, what drew you towards the hymns of this group in particular?

I think it was the fascination of what’s difficult. I grew up the child of liberal, atheist, urban/American parents — in this conservative, religious, rural/Ontario place. I was queer and trans in a place where it felt like that could get you killed — though I didn’t have the language to come out, until much later (a distinctly mixed blessing). I was never made to feel that the religious life might be for me.

Only much much later did I come to discover in myself what Philip Larkin calls a hunger to be more serious: and at that point, it was actually much much more difficult — in the progressive artsworld with which I’d surrounded myself — to come out as a religious person, than it was to come out as trans and queer! So, the book was — on some subconscious level, I think — an attempt to tackle head on some stuff, both in myself and in my world, I’d always shied away from. I was encouraged in this direction by Isabella Stefanescu, a beautifully uncompromising artist and arts-organizer from Kitchener, Ontario, who saw me shying away, and was wise enough to realize that this signalled a direction in which — for artistic reasons as well as, perhaps, for personal reasons — I had to go.

I should note that of the many Christian denominations that had a presence in the community where I grew up, the Mennonite denomination felt most approachable to me — perhaps because of the faith’s pacifist emphasis; perhaps because of its connection, through the agrarian life, to natural cycles (there’s an animistic part of me that responds to that, in any faith); also perhaps because of the proliferation in that area of different sub-denominations, some quite politically progressive — though it is the (relatively conservative) Old Order community that still uses the Liedersammlung in its daily/weekly worship.

My own family roots are Catholic and Lutheran on my dad’s size / loosely Episcopalian on my mom’s — though my parents broke from all these traditions, once they were out in the world on their own. And the roots-web is complex: various animistic traditions percolating down, reflected & refracted in the languages of the Christian faiths.… And things move laterally, also, and beyond the boundaries of bloodlines: that’s an article of trans and queer faith for me, even acknowledging all the difficulties of movement/transition/conversion — of translation, in the largest sense.

Poems from Years, Months, and Days have now been set to music by two different composers, Colin Labadie and James Rolfe. Labadie’s setting was premiered in Kitchener, Ontario, by Menno Singers, a community-based choir that sings mostly sacred music rooted in a Mennonite tradition. The collaboration of that choir completed the work for me, bringing the words back into the embodied presence of the community where I had found them — and where they had found me. (Many of the choristers had themselves gone through journeys of departure and/or return vis-à-vis their Mennonite roots, and some of them spoke to me about that, very movingly.)

Both Labadie and Rolfe are people who, like me, have made reckonings with familial faiths in adulthood (Catholicism, Judaism, respectively), moving towards and/or away, depending. Each of them brings that to the work, though in very different ways — even as they also bring their own, very different musical idioms. (Plans for a premiere of Rolfe’s setting are underway, in collaboration with the Winnipeg choir Canzona.)

How will you be spending your summer now that another teaching year at SMU is behind you?

Godwilling: kidcare,* dogcare,** love,*** and music.****

* With my former partner, John Haney, I parent two awesome kids, Anson and Ethan: they live with me most of the time during their school year.

** I have an aging dog who is on her vulnerable last legs this summer: such a humbling thing, to be intimate with a creature who is coming to the end of their life.

*** Wheeeeeeeeeee!

**** With Dan Cabena and three other wonderful musician-collaborators, I am preparing a program of music rooted in the Burgundian chansons tradition (queer/polyphonic/courtly) — with contemporary texts — to tour out here on the east coast in the fall.

Other projects: the sign of jonas, a new folk opera (with Benton Roark), the opera Eurydice Fragments (with re:naissance opera), the audio-visual album Ghosts (with the art collective thirtyminutes), and an art something with Melissa Marr.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Briony Merritt

Briony Merritt (she/her) is a writer and actor based in Halifax/Kjipuktuk, Nova Scotia. She is a founding member of BARE Theatre Co. and playwright for their current work-in-development, THE STATION. Briony recently completed her first feature screenplay, an intergenerational family drama set in Atlantic Canada.

“Blackfriars Bridge,” your winning entry for the 2022 Budge Wilson Short Fiction Prize, takes us back in time to a story set along the River Thames. What helped you inhabit this long ago and faraway space in your mind as you wrote?

Originally, this story began as a writing challenge between me and a friend! We gave ourselves two requirements: both of our stories had to be set during a specific time period and they each had to feature a young child or baby. From there, I settled on the backdrop of a London Frost Fair pretty quickly. These festivals occurred when a portion of the River Thames would completely freeze over during the winter, allowing Londoners to walk safely on the ice for a few days. I started by researching the different vendors and performers who would set up booths for the event – acrobats and puppeteers, tradesmen selling coffee and cider and freshly printed poems – which really helped me get a feel for the world my characters lived in. After that, I knew I wanted to combine the bright, expansive setting of the Frost Fair with a more intimate “backroom” conversation, and found a protagonist who could traverse both.

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I know you have a background in film and theatre as well. How does your writing process for a short story compare to working on a theatrical script or screenplay?

I think I’m getting better at recognizing what form a story wants to take. My last couple of projects have been scripts (one for the stage and one for the screen), which meant they were inherently driven by dialogue and character relationships – with only bite-size visual descriptions! For these projects, I’d find myself scribbling down fragments of conversation in no particular order and then filling out the details of a scene around the dialogue. With short fiction, l try to force myself to write in chronological order to maintain a better sense of pace and voice. In “Blackfriars Bridge,” specifically, I was able to strip out almost all of the dialogue and enjoyed delving into one child’s perception of events.

If you could sit down for a conversation with any writer living or dead, who would it be and why? What would you most want to chat with them about?

Ooh! I’m a big fan of Tom Stoppard plays and would credit Arcadia as being a huge influence on the style of my current play-in-development. I would love to have a coffee chat with him about his writing career and how on earth he produces such consistent, clever comedy! However, I also read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke recently and was blown away by the scale and intricacy of the world that she built. I would be fascinated to sit down with her for a conversation about Strange & Norrell, as well as her 2020 novel, Piranesi – which is next on my TBR list!

What advice would you have for anyone who is thinking about entering Nova Writes in the future?

If you’re not sure, just enter! I had been hesitating to send “Blackfriars Bridge” out to competitions or journals because historical fiction doesn’t always seem to be as in-demand as contemporary stories. Ultimately, I submitted to Nova Writes with the hope of getting feedback on the piece, and received some very encouraging comments and useful suggestions from the judges.

What’s next for you in your writing journey?

Last summer I participated in a script development program where I completed the first draft of a feature screenplay called Love in Marginalia. The story follows three women (grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter) as they navigate a book hunt through rural Nova Scotia after a death in the family. I’m really looking forward to diving back into the script this month for some rewrites and editing!

For more about the Budge Wilson Short Fiction Prize, see our Nova Writes Competition for Unpublished Manuscripts.

Author spotlight: Michelle Butler Hallett

Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, is a history nerd and disabled person who writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her short stories are widely anthologized, and her essay “You’re Not ‘Disabled’ Disabled” appears in Land of Many Shores. Her first novel, Double-blind, was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award, and her 2016 novel This Marlowe was longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. Her most recent novel, Constant Nobody, won the 2022 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s.

Your five novels have taken us back in time to eighteenth and twentieth century Newfoundland, Elizabethan England, and now, with your latest book Constant Nobody, the Spanish Civil War. What is it about these particular places and points in history that made you want to write about them?

First, I should point out that the admittedly feverish plot of Constant Nobody catches fire in northern Spain, but most of the novel is set in 1937 Moscow.

I don’t start out with a moment in time in mind so much as an image or an idea. Sometimes the idea is linked to a setting or a time period. I want to write fiction about universal themes and human experiences which play out in highly specific settings. The more history I encounter (I am a student, no proper historian), the more I find highly specific settings bursting with conflict and huge social forces crying out for a story.

So I guess what draws me to these settings is first the environments – how people live, what they value, what they struggle against – and how one can, as both reader and writer, get lost in another time and place yet find oneself and one’s own deepest concerns playing out.

For my fiction set in Newfoundland: I have two Newfoundlands, the “real” one of our world, and an alternative-historical Newfoundland that votes for responsible (self) government versus confederation with Canada in 1949. The confederation referendums boiled up big questions of identity which remain today.

Elizabethan England? In 1993, reeling from a deep study of Christopher Marlowe’s plays, I checked out an introduction to Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy. It mentioned Kyd’s arrest and imprisonment in Bridewell. The accusation? Kyd was accused of writing a piece of seditious, violent, and hateful doggerel which alluded to several of Marlowe’s plays. Under torture, about which the government papers are quite open and blatant, Kyd identifies some papers mixed up with his as belonging to Marlowe, left over from a time when they shared lodgings. While Kyd is imprisoned, Marlowe dies of a dirty great knife in the eye. So, one or two things going on there. Now, I ask: who can resist that for storytelling?

What sort of balance do you like to strike between historical accuracy and creative licence in the stories you tell?

Yeah, that’s a tricky one. At some point, for me, the history must serve the story, even when we set out to have our story serve the history. Fiction is an art, and one makes aesthetic decisions. Even with that, one can be highly accurate; so much depends on the story and history themselves. Sharon Robart-Johnson would be a good one to ask about that, because she wants her story to serve history, to bring a monstrous injustice out of the whitewashed shed. With my alternative-history Newfoundland, I have a lot of freedom for anything set after 1949, but it still must seem plausible. A relatively independent Newfoundland and Labrador would still have a British Empire hangover.

In This Marlowe, I have Mary (Manna) Marlowe, Kit’s older sister. He adores her and tries to write to her, and she becomes a target of violence as pressure on him. The real Mary Marlowe died when the real Christopher was four, something I didn’t discover til fairly late in the writing. Like, really late – going to press soon. It was a rookie mistake when it comes to accuracy, but I decided I couldn’t and wouldn’t remove Manna as a character, because that would take so much away from my Kit character. So Manna ended up being a lesson in taking good care with my notes and giving long thought to my aesthetic design.

In Constant Nobody, fairy tales from both England and Russia churn the waters, so the novel’s apparent realism, like that of my first novel, Double-blind, is under strain. The Russian Revolution brought so much change, so quickly, and often with such violence, that people must have felt wrenched out of their reality and tossed into a new one. I tried to keep that feverish edge throughout the story, and I made up a station on the early Moscow Metro. Vasilisa Prekrasnaya is plausible, supports my themes and image patterns, and as far as I could see doesn’t cause anyone harm, so I invented it – but it doesn’t exist. It never existed. My story needed it, so I took various strands of history to serve my story.

Constant Nobody recently won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. What does this latest recognition of your work mean to you?

It means someone out there is reading and digging my work, which is wonderful. More pragmatically, it means I can continue to write full time. I started doing that in August of 2021 for the first time ever, and it’s been so good. It also means the Raddall family have tremendous love and respect for the first Thomas Raddall and his struggles, and the struggles of any writer.

You were part of a stellar shortlist for the Thomas Raddall Award alongside David Huebert and Sharon Robart-Johnson. How has the Atlantic Canadian writing community influenced your own career?

I’ve made a lot of friends, though before the ABAs I hadn’t met either Sharon or David. Nor had I read their work. It’s easy to feel isolated way out here in Newfoundland and Labrador, even with our rich arts traditions. So I treasure my friendships, both here in NL and beyond. Hearing other writers describe their difficulties can be very reassuring, and it’s so much fun to cheer one another on. I use social media a lot to stay connected.

Your fourth novel This Marlowe features a character, Robin Poley, who is physically disabled. As you’ve pointed out, the name of Robin’s condition, ankylosing spondylitis, is never mentioned in the book itself because “Elizabethans did not understand the condition the way we do.” Can you share a bit more about the process of writing about the experience and social framing of disability from another time period?

I am so glad you’ve asked me this question.

First, I need to make clear that I suffer from ankylosing spondylitis – ank spond for short. It can be agonizing. The fatigue alone disables me. I’m enjoying a really good patch of health right now, not in remission but definitely stronger than I’ve been in years. This could change at any moment. I’d be appalled, but not surprised, to wake up one morning stiff and in pain and exhausted in a bout that could last weeks, months, years …

I thought my experiences with ank spond, labours, miscarriage, kidney stones, and bile duct inflammation would make writing about the pain Tom suffers in Bridewell easy. I thought my shared experiences of agony that can make you pass out would make Tom’s pain more authentic on the page. I was wrong. Language, or English at least, doesn’t leave a lot of room for pain. The best we can do is metaphor: stabbing, burning, boring, shooting. Chastened, I felt like an arrogant failure. Then I saw a solution: show the effects of the pain, show how it breaks Tom, changes his thinking, damages him for the rest of his life. And that, with my limits as a writer, was the best I could do.

So why give Robin Poley ank spond? I was playing with Elizabethan tropes on disability, the famous one being that a person’s character is displayed in their physicality – Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example. This becomes very interesting when we look at the real Sir Robert Cecil, Acting Secretary of the Privy Council and later Lord Salisbury, clearly a capable and powerful man able to navigate court treacheries. Cecil suffered from scoliosis and had a noticeable hump. Did onlookers consider him a potential threat because of his mind, or because of his spine? Then there’s my character Robin, based on the real-life Robert Poley, an agent so well known that later Ben Jonson parodies him in a poem. That led me to thinking that the real Poley might be struggling to find work at that point, if everyone knows he’s an informant and spy, and I also needed a strong motivation for my character Robin in 1593. The real Poley was present at Marlowe’s death, according to the coroner’s report, but it was Ingram Frizer who stabbed Marlowe. I really wanted the death of my character Kit to mean something, so I decided early on that Robin, onetime mentor and friend, would be the one to kill Kit – which meant, in a way, that I was the one to kill Kit, because I had to write the damn thing. So on that level, giving Robin ank spond is a joke with myself. In my fictive world, ank spond makes Robin worry about his future. If he physically can’t move well or move without being noticed, if he’s in severe pain with debilitating fatigue, then he won’t make a very good spy, and he’s unlikely to be trusted with any sort of official desk job. I took a big risk here. It looks like Robin serves the Elizbethan understanding of disability, that is, a crooked body means a crooked mind and soul. In fact, Robin subverts it. Robin does terrible things in response to overwhelming social forces, not because he’s disabled. That he is disabled only makes him more vulnerable to those forces.

Earlier this year you offered a four-week workshop to WFNS members called “The Presence Of The Past: Writing Historical Fiction.” What are some of your top tips for writers who are interested in exploring this genre?

Dig. Dig for the stories. Dig for the details. Study source materials, if they’re available, to get some idea of the world views of people at that time and to consider what the opposing views might be. Deciding to set a story in 1954 may not be enough. Why 1954? Where in 1954? Who in 1954? What is the story, big and small, that’s hauling you into the time period?

In a previous interview with The Miramichi Reader you said “I knew since the age of seven I wanted to write fiction.” What drew you towards storytelling as a child?

I just loved books. I would handle them long before I could read. I love getting lost in a story, love the journey of trying to understand what it might feel like to be someone else, somewhere else. I was scribbling before I could write. I started reading and writing before school. Sesame Street was a big push there. And phonics. Loved me some phonics.

My favourite novels when I was a kid, it turns out, featured a girl as a protagonist, and a flawed girl at that, awkward and mouthy, well-intended, passionate, smart as starlight and stunned as your boot, in a distinctive setting: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne books, Mary Calhoun’s Katie John books, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I related to Anne, Katie John, Ramona (and her big sister, Beezus), Harriet, and Meg deeply, and I think you can hear them in my characters Christy Monroe, Claire Furey, Nichole Wright, Matthew Christopher Finn, and Temerity West.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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Recommended Experience Levels

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) recommends that each workshop’s participants share a level or range of writing / publication experience. This is to ensure each participant gets value from the workshop⁠ and is presented with information, strategies, and skills that suit their current writing priorities.

To this end, the “Recommended experience level” section of each workshop description refers to the following definitions developed by WFNS:

  • New writers: those who have been writing creatively for less than two years and/or have not yet been published in any form.
  • Emerging writers: those who have been writing creatively for less than five years and/or have some short publications (poems, stories, or essays) in literary magazines, journals, or anthologies.
  • Established writers/authors: those with numerous publications in magazines, journals, or anthologies and/or a full-length book publication.
  • Professional authors: those with two or more full-length book publications.

For “intensive” and “masterclass” workshops, which provide more opportunities for peer-to-peer (that is, participant-to-participant) feedback, the recommended experience level should be followed.

For all other workshops, the recommended experience level is just that—a recommendation—and we encourage potential participants to follow their own judgment when registering.

If you’re uncertain of your experience level with regard to any particular workshop, please feel free to contact us at