Author Spotlight

Author spotlight: Francesa Ekwuyasi

Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer and multidisciplinary artist from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging.

Francesca’s debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Breadwas longlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize and is a contender for CBC’s 2021 Canada Reads competition.

Her writing has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Brittle Paper, Transition Magazine, the Malahat Review, Visual Art News, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, GUTS magazine, the Puritan, forthcoming from Canadian Art, and elsewhere. Her story Ọrun is Heaven was longlisted for the 2019 Journey Prize.

Butter Honey Pig Bread came out on September 3, 2020 and immediately made a splash. The first time I heard the intriguing title of your book was when the Giller longlist came out. What do you think about the reception for your book?

I’m totally overwhelmed and grateful for the reception of my book in general. It’s definitely a dream come true. I love to write and imagine stories and this feedback is very encouraging. I’m excited to create more. 

The latest accolade is inclusion on CBC’s Canada Reads. Are you a listener of Canada Reads? (Canada Reads runs March 8 to 11 on CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem and CBC Books.) What is the benefit of a competition like this (even if perhaps your book doesn’t make it to the end)?

I think the benefit of this sort of competition is the incredible publicity. CBC’s Canada Reads is definitely getting my book into the hands of folks who may not have heard about it otherwise. It’s an incredible opportunity for which I’m immensely grateful. 

Can you tell me about your background? What brought you to live in Halifax and Nova Scotia?

I’m of Igbo and Yoruba ethnicity, from Lagos, Nigeria. I’m an immigrant to Canada, and moved to Halifax for graduate school about seven years ago.

What are three things you like about Halifax?

Three things I like about Halifax are the natural environment; the access to water—the beaches, the ocean, lakes—is totally unprecedented for me. There’s also so many gorgeous trails, forested landscapes, and remnants of old growth forests. I also really love the communities I’ve developed here; I’m in community with so many compassionate, kind, and generous folks here. 

Your character, Taiye, also lives for a time in Halifax. Why did you decide to situate her here? (There are things I learned about Halifax by reading your book—such as that people go to see the crows that roost by Mount Saint Vincent. What!!)

I decided to situate the character, Taiye, in Halifax because I enjoy writing about environments I’m familiar with. My goal is always to immerse readers in a sensual experience, and location is one way to do that. 

When I was reading your book, I always felt the need to snack. I think that’s because Taiye loves cooking and in a way uses food as a way of bridging the schism with her twin sister Kehinde. It almost feels that a recipe book could come out as a companion for Butter Honey Pig Bread. That’s not really a question, but perhaps could you elaborate on the role of food in your novel.

Similar to location as a tool for creating an immersive experience for readers, I think that food can also do that. I wanted readers to feel the hunger and longing that the characters felt, and food as well as music can be somewhat universal ways to elicit emotion. 

Can you talk about the writing of your book? Where did you write it? How long did it take? Did you have to work at the same time as writing and how did you manage that?

I wrote the book in many different places! I started writing it in the summer of 2013 when I was in Lagos, Nigeria. I wrote it in my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s flat, my student apartment when I moved to Halifax, the Saint Mary’s library, the Halifax Public libraries downtown and in the north end. I wrote in many bars and cafes, at my previous day job when I was supposed to be working. I wrote at airports on my trips home to Lagos, and visiting Montreal. I wrote in hotel rooms, in my old bachelor apartment, in my current shared apartment. I wrote while I walked to work by recording voice notes. Ha!

Sometimes I had to work as I wrote—I can’t remember where I read this, but someone said if you treat your craft like a torrid affair you’ll always have time for it, so writing between work shifts and work breaks, and sometimes during work felt like an affair. 

It’s definitely not easy, but definitely worthwhile for me. 

I’ve also had opportunities to go on writing residencies—the dedicated time to write was very necessary. 

With your debut novel having made such a splash, do you have any advice for writers who are toiling away at their novels? What worked well for you in terms of getting published?

My advice for fellow writers is to write with your whole heart, which requires vulnerability and honesty. Also, read lots, read what you like as well as what you can learn from. What worked for me was to take a leap of faith and submit my manuscripts to publishers I was excited about before I thought my manuscript was totally ready, because from their publishing history I knew that my work would fit in with what they liked. 

Now some fun questions…

Do you snack while writing? What’s your snack of choice?

I snack while writing, for sure! Give me all the chocolate pastries, the sweet and salty roasted nut mixes, double chocolate cookies!!

What’s a favorite meal of yours?

I love spicy savoury meals! Rice and chicken stew, spicy ramen, anything with smoked fish!!

Do you have any rituals when you sit down to write?

I say a prayer and listen to music I enjoy.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

No guilt, only pleasure! I love to indulge in most ways.

Do you have a favorite spot to write and where would that be?

I’m pretty flexible when it comes to writing locations; I like to co-work with friends, so wherever we can do that is a place that works for writing. 

What are some things that kept you going during the pandemic?

Community, friendship, family, love, and the knowledge that things can and will change have kept me going during this pandemic. It’s a devastating thing that we’re experience right now, and we’re all experiencing the devastation to varying degrees, so leaning into gratitude for circumstances, and empathy and compassion as a verb for myself and others has been a practice I’m having to hone. 

Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Genevieve Graham

Genevieve Graham moved to Nova Scotia in 2008 and fell in love with the integral history woven into every aspect of this province. Using her love of historical fiction as a palette, she began in-depth research into the little-known, even forgotten history of Nova Scotia, then the rest of Canada, publishing five Canadian bestselling novels in five years, including the “instant #1 bestseller,” The Forgotten Home Child. Prolific and determined, Genevieve is proud to bring Canadian history to life through the popular, mainstream market of commercial historical fiction and plans a book a year for as long as she can keep up!

You mention on your website that you started writing when you were 40. What were you doing before? And what made you start writing?

I graduated from the University of Toronto in 1986 with a Bachelor in Music Performance (on the oboe), but my life changed direction when I developed an autoimmune disease called “Sjögrens Syndrome.” Unable to play anymore, I taught myself to type in a weekend and then embarked on a crazy but fascinating series of jobs in advertising, promotions, marketing, and fundraising in retail, media, and non-profits. I also taught piano in my home to dozens of local kids over the years. In 1998, I became a stay-at-home mom, and that was the busiest of all my jobs! When our daughters were about six and eight, my mother noticed that I spent very little time on myself, and she decided to change that by bringing me a book and insisting I sit down to read. That book was “Outlander,” and it turned my world upside down. I proceeded to read as much historical fiction as I could find, driving the local librarians nuts with my need for more. Then, one day, I decided to try my hand at writing something myself. I’d never written much more than a thank-you note. I remember Mothers Day 2007 fondly, because that was the day my husband bought me my very first laptop, all to encourage me on this new path. Well, it worked, and I’ve never looked back. I am self-taught — I joined writing communities online (I highly recommend but never paid for a single course, and while I worked on my first novel, I ran my own freelance editing business that taught me even more.

Your books are all set in the past. What is it about historical fiction that attracts you?

My love for history is only a few years older than my writing career. I will admit that I slept through history class in school, but well-written historical fiction (mostly about 18th century Scotland) awoke a need in me to learn about what and who had come before. It wasn’t until we moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia in 2008 that I began to recognize just how much history existed around me, and how little I knew about my own country. I decided to focus exclusively on Canadian history, and I left my Scottish research behind. 

For me, historical fiction is a very powerful tool. I had no interest in history before I discovered the genre. Now I understand that historical fiction has a huge responsibility: we must teach the mind but also touch the heart. History itself is in black and white. It feels far away and cold. Bringing the colour of fictional characters into a well-researched point in history, essentially breathing life back into the history, makes the past real. It’s much more difficult to forget a story if you care about the characters, and so history is remembered. I absolutely love reading reviews that start with “I had no idea about this history until I read Genevieve’s book …”

What kind of research do you do?

My first stop is always the library, where I take out every non-fiction book I can possibly find on the subject. It’s not exceptional for me to check out 20 books one week and go back for ten more the following week. I read through as much of the serious history as I can — though I’ve never been good at dry non-fiction — and I learn the basic background, the five Ws. 

Then I go online. My favourite resource is finding individuals who are passionate about a certain subject, like re-enactors. I remember once meeting a Scottish man wearing eight layers of thick wool (his kilt) in the heat of summer during a historical reenactment weekend. The history mattered so much to him, and that’s what I need: people who really care about the right information being shared. They are the most critical and determined sources I’ve ever come across. 

The third step is to go onto social media. You’d be amazed how many facebook groups have been created for specific historical research. For example, I once joined a facebook group made up of descendants of POWs in one particular German camp during WW2. I recently joined one completely made up of historical photos of Toronto. And when I was researching the British Home Children for The Forgotten Home Child, I joined a half dozen regional pages of the children’s descendants, as well as the main page at Those people were so enthusiastic about sharing the information about their ancestors that over 200 of them filled out surveys for me, detailing their ancestors’ usually heartbreaking stories. As a result of their responses, I was able to integrate actual experiences into my characters, making the book even closer to non-fiction, and much more compelling.

Most of your books are set in Nova Scotia. Why?

Growing up in Toronto, then living 18 years in Calgary, Nova Scotia had always seemed like a faraway, wild place. It wasn’t until we actually moved here (completely by choice) that I fell in love with it. And the history was so very real — actual hundred-year-old houses abandoned along the Eastern Shore (where I lived) had me questioning everything: who lived there? what had happened that forced them out of their house? I could frequently be found in cemeteries, intrigued by generations of families all living in the same area they’d always lived in, all buried there as well. Then, one day, I heard about the Halifax Explosion for the very first time. I was astounded that I’d never been taught about something so important in our country’s history. Despite going to school in NS, our daughters knew nothing about it either, and very few people out west had any idea of what I was talking about. So I decided to educate myself, and as soon as I started doing that, the storyline began to build. Tides of Honour came from that research. While it was in the process of being published, I learned about the Acadian Expulsion, and Promises to Keep was born. Then I heard about the Merchant Marines and the German U-Boats skulking along the Eastern Shore during WW2, about fifteen minutes from my house, and that evolved into Come From Away. At the Mountain’s Edge, the story of the Klondike Gold Rush and the early Mounties (NWMP) took me to the west coast, but the characters in The Forgotten Home Child all arrived via … you guessed it, Pier 21, right here in Halifax. How could I not write about such a history-rich province? Nova Scotia is a historical fiction author’s dream location!

What are some of the difficulties in setting things in the past? 

Research is obviously the most time-consuming part of the journey, but for me it’s also the most exciting part. Still, some facts can be elusive, and when I am unable to find them, I am forced to change direction. My characters are always fictional, but I will never try to “create” history. Other than that, I don’t find it difficult to write about history — I feel more comfortable writing about the past than the present, to be honest!

Can you tell me about your latest book, The Forgotten Home Child? What made you write this book?

My passion lies in discovering forgotten or little-known moments in Canada’s history, because I feel our history is so often in the shadows of other countries’ stories. In my search for “new” stories to pursue, I follow a lot of historical pages on social media. Back in 2017, one of those sites posted an article about the British Home Children (BHC) and I was intrigued since I’d never heard of them before. At first glance, I was taken aback by the fact that I’d never heard about tens of thousands of British children being placed into indentured service, but when I read on and discovered the children were shipped to Canada, well, I was hooked. What I do remember learning during history classes in high school are the basics: War of 1812, Plains of Abraham… but how was it possible that I had never been taught about the over 120,000 destitute children shipped from England to Canada to be used as a source of labour on thousands of Canadian farms and households? The more I dug into the story, the more my heart twisted with the need to get the truth into the hands of Canadians. And when I learned that over 12% of Canadians – more than 4,000,000 people – are descended from the children and most have no idea, well … how could I not write it?

What is it like releasing a book during the pandemic?

It’s been a roller coaster. Two weeks before bookstores locked their doors, I was flown into Toronto and Montreal where I was on four or five radio programmes, I was on TV, and I spoke to crowds. I learned that The Forgotten Home Child was an instant #1 bestseller while I waited to speak to an auditorium of students in Montreal. At the time, nobody could have imagined how the world was about to change.

But change it did, and it was like someone had turned off all the lights. It broke my heart, imagining that no one would ever see my book or read its important content. I wanted so badly for people to learn about the British Home Children. 

Fortunately, I’m stubborn, and I refused to go quietly into the night. I quickly learned that my computer’s camera was not actually my enemy, and I used it on Facebook live videos via Zoom with book clubs, book promoters on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, local newspapers, museums, and more. I did an interesting one with the British Home Children descendants as well. Then I expanded, creating “Historical Fiction Panels” on Zoom, inviting other authors to come onto my Facebook page and talk about their books. At one I had six of us, another had three, and I have another one coming up in November. Now I’ve added short videos about “Historical Fiction coming soon,” where authors come on my page and read Chapter 1 of their new novel. I find that one of the best and most thoughtful ways to promote yourself is by promoting someone else, and there were so many people out there going through the same thing as I was. We all helped each other.

It was a frantic, frustrating, but exciting time. While I was desperately promoting, the books sold out and replenishments were trapped across the closed border for weeks. Anyway, something I did must have worked, because even with the bookstores locked up tight, The Forgotten Home Child was on the Canadian Fiction bestseller list for 19 weeks, and 11 of those weeks it held the #1 position. 

I noticed that your website delcares you open to appearing at book clubs. What do you get out of book clubs? Isn’t it nerve-wracking?

Originally, before all this virtual stuff, I was terrified of going to book clubs. I’m not usually a social person (I prefer my quiet little desk!), and while I knew book clubs were important for sales and for reaching new readers, I was nervous about little things: what will they ask? what should I wear? what if they hate the book? 

It didn’t take long before I realized that book clubs are wonderful! I was there because they wanted me there, and what they really wanted was to listen. Ask anyone about their passion, and you’re liable to get a lot of answers, so we all enjoyed the meetings. Then everything moved to Zoom, and it all got so much better! I had offered FaceTime / Skype meetings before, but I hadn’t done very many. Suddenly groups were meeting up all over, getting comfortable with Zoom, and I was meeting with three or four clubs a week for a while, all over Canada and the US. 

I think book clubs are very important for authors to recognize. First, everyone in the club has to read your book, so there are sales up front. Second, and more important, those are serious readers who know other serious readers. If they liked the book – even better if they like you – they will be recommending it to other readers, helping to get your name spread far and wide. Third, I always send out a book list before the meeting, because if they enjoyed the book (and you!), they might just be motivated to buy from your backlist. Of course, if I am going to a live, physical book club, I always bring boxes of books to sell, along with bookmarks for everyone!

Your website also features the trailers for your books. Is this something you recommend for other writers? What other things do you do to promote your books that may be a little out of the ordinary?

I’m not sure why I love making book trailers so much, but I do. The thing is, they are a lot of work and really don’t amount to much, in my experience. But they are one more weapon in my arsenal, so to speak, and I believe in coming fully armed. 

Hmm. What else? I think I do what most people do, but just in case, here are a few suggestions:

I always carry bookmarks and business cards with me, and I leave dozens at bookstore tills when I’m visiting. Bookstores love free stuff! At one point, my publisher asked “why business cards?” I use them a lot — for e-books! I love to sell at farmers’ markets, and I hand out bookmarks to tons of “tire kickers.” Some of those people are interested, but they don’t want physical books. So I hand those out. I advise having both. Oh, and both my husband and my mother always have a stack of business cards. I know they’ve both brought me readers!

I’m quite active on Instagram and Facebook, and sort of active on Twitter. I have one big rule: I will never engage in any political discussions. That’s very, very important to me. No matter how correct you believe you are, there is always going to be someone who feels the opposite. I know some authors feel passionate about speaking up, but I don’t see the value in cutting off half your potential audience just to make a political statement — or worse, to argue about one.

In addition to my own news, I share other authors’ announcements on instagram and twitter whenever possible. Doing that makes friends and builds loyalty with other authors, and it gives your followers some recommendations to check out.

I have an e-newsletter, but I only send it out three or four times a year, and only when I have important things to share.

On my website, I post both Historical Information about the books AND deleted scenes/chapters.

What are some historical fiction books that you like and recommend?

The Outlander series will always be my favourite because it was the one that encouraged me to try writing. Other favourites are Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, Paullina Simons The Bronze Horseman, and a recent favourite from close to home, Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer.

What are three things on your writing table — and what significance do they have to you?

I have a big, ugly paper blotter (I think it’s from an auto body shop?) under my laptop which is for scribbling phone conversations or notes on, as well as for sopping up all my spills. 

I have a pair of candles which I light whenever it’s cloudy. They’re kind of a zen thing, I suppose. I have a box of Kleenex always on hand, because I cry a lot while I’m writing. It’s true. I write some very sad things sometimes, both historically and fictionally. With The Forgotten Home Child, I made it even worse by listening to sad music (Ezio Bosso’s “The Rain in Your Black Eyes” over and over and over). I think it’s good to cry. We wouldn’t cry if we didn’t care, right?

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Allison Watson

Allison Watson believes in living every day to the fullest. Raised in Petitcodiac, New Brunswick, she had an active childhood despite daily treatment for cystic fibrosis. In 2014, she received new lungs in Toronto. As a side effect, she was diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder. After intensive chemotherapy, she is now cancer free and is again able to physically do the things she enjoys.

Allison Watson tells her cystic fibrosis double lung transplant story in the book Transplanted (Nimbus), nominated for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. She lives in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

First of all, congratulations on your Atlantic Book Award nomination, the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. What was your reaction when you heard?

I’m thrilled to be nominated. The nominees and previous winners are outstanding books and it’s an honour to be part of the list.

Please tell me about your book Transplanted. Why did you decide to write it?

Transplanted tells the story of my growing up with cystic fibrosis and subsequent double lung transplant and cancer diagnosis. I wrote it initially for myself as a way to work through the anxiety and stress I had about the transplant and recovery. It was therapeutic to review my old blog posts and talk to my family about that time in my life. I added some context with stories from my life and cancer journey to make it more of a rounder book and then pitched it to publishers.

When were you diagnosed with cystic fibrosis? Can you describe what it was like to breathe before the transplant? And after?

I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth. My older sister, Amy, also has CF so I was tested immediately. 

I used oxygen for about a year and half before my surgery to help me breathe. The week before my surgery I was hospitalized and using a BiPap machine which helped me breathe at night. During the day I was on supplemental oxygen and even then, I was short of breath walking around my hospital room. 

Immediately after the transplant, I’m sad to say I didn’t have one of those viral moments where you watch a person taken off the ventilator and their first breath is a moment of joy. I struggled to breathe off the ventilator and it took me quite some time to adjust to my new lungs. Once I was comfortable breathing on my own, it was phenomenal. For the first time in years I could breathe comfortably in the cold air, and walk up a flight of stairs without getting short of breath.

When did it become necessary to have a double lung transplant?

My lung function had a fairly slow decline in my early 20s. My respiratory team started talking about the need for a transplant when I had several chest infections in one year that dropped my lung function below 30% (of what an average person my age would have). I was in denial at first but eventually, after a serious case of pneumonia, I agreed to start the work up process.

What is your hope for Transplanted?

I hope that people reading Transplanted understand how organ transplants save and transform people’s lives. I also hope that anyone who is going through the medical system can relate to my story and perhaps see themselves in parts of it. Overall, it’s a story of resilience told with humour that I think anyone can enjoy.

What has the reaction been from other people with cystic fibrosis?

I’ve been very supported by people from the cystic fibrosis community. While I’ve heard more from family and friends of those with CF, they say it has helped them greater understand what their loved one has or is going through.

What is your life like now? Is cystic fibrosis something that you can recover from? (Forgive my ignorance about this!)

I’m now five and half years post-transplant and four years post-chemo and my day to day is quite different than it was pre-transplant. Cystic fibrosis does not have a cure so while my transplanted lungs do not have CF, the rest of my body still has the disease. Apart from my digestive enzymes and vitamins, I take immunosuppressants to avoid organ rejection which makes me vulnerable to catching infections. I have to be more cautious than most about hand washing, disinfecting, and avoiding anyone with a cold. 

Although I’m immunosuppressed, physically, I’m healthier than I imagined was possible before my transplant. I’m able to work (pre-pandemic), go on long hikes, and generally have energy to do the things I want to do.

Do you see yourself writing in other genres besides non-fiction?

As someone who reads a lot of romance, I would love to write a modern romance but I’ve discovered that writing fiction is quite different than non-fiction.

What your favourite thing about living in your part of Nova Scotia? 

I love being close to both sides of the ocean. It’s a quick drive to the Strait if I want a relaxing beach day and is also close to the Bay where there are some great hikes and delicious clams. 

Where are your favourite places in the province to explore?

I love spending time in Halifax and camping in the Highlands of Cape Breton. I’ve also enjoyed backpacking around Cape Chignecto and hope to again this summer. 

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Amy Spurway

Originally from Cape Breton and now based in Dartmouth, Amy Spurway is a writer, performer, and editor. She has worked with CBC Radio and published in Today’s ParentThe Toronto Star, and other venues. Her debut novel, Crow (Goose Lane Editions) was released a year ago and was recently shortlisted for two Atlantic Book Awards, the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction) and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. 

What was your reaction when you heard you’d been shortlisted?

The anticipatory anxiety around awards is always a bit of a struggle for me, so just seeing those announcements made is a huge relief either way. My reaction to actually being shortlisted involved a little happy dance in my backyard.

It’s little more than a year since your first book, Crow, came out. You’ve used the metaphor of giving birth to describe putting your book out in the world. Has this first year been akin to raising a toddler?

That metaphor still holds up pretty well. Toddlerhood is a time when the world really opens up — life gets bigger, more interesting, with so much learning and growth and exploring. This has certainly been a year of new places, new people, and new experiences for me and Crow. It has also been a very high-energy time — lots of movement, lots of chatting, lots of being ‘on’ and in performance mode for extended periods — which is also reminiscent of my days of raising toddlers. There may have even been the odd meltdown here and there and I definitely made a lot of funny faces, many of which have been immortalized in photos, so that tracks with raising toddlers too.

What have been some of the highlights for you during this year?

The Cape Breton launch at the Ross Ferry Firehall at the end of March, 2019, was not just a highlight of the year, but a highlight of my life. I have never felt so surrounded by love, and it was not just about me and the book: it was about an entire community coming together to pull off one helluva celebration. It was humbling, exhilarating, and a memory I’ll cherish forever.

Another major highlight of this year has been the people. So many people. Meeting other writers and connecting with booksellers, hearing from old friends and making new ones, talking with readers who relate to the story in so many different ways. There’s something about Crow that inspires other people to share little snippets of their own lives with me, and that’s something I deeply appreciate.

One more highlight was being part of the inaugural Briny Books lineup, and in conjunction with that, the release of a Crow-inspired jewellery collection featuring a funky ring, big honkin’ earrings and a bad ass bracelet. My husband got me the bracelet for our anniversary and it is wicked cool to have that as a memento.

Have you been invited to book clubs? What’s the book club experience like from the perspective of a writer?

I’ve been invited to several book clubs, and they’ve been so much fun. They’ve been great opportunities to talk about the story, characters, themes, and the process of writing with people who really want to get more in-depth. Book clubs have also given me a really great perspective on what resonates with readers, and why.

Cape Breton seems to be a place that nurtures really great literary writers. What’s in the Cape Breton DNA that creates great writing?

Cape Breton just seems to have a culture of storytelling, and I’m sure there are many reasons for that. Every person, every place, everything has a story behind and around it, and many Cape Bretoners have a keen sense of that, and a knack for teasing those stories out. That cultural bent towards storytelling produces some great writing, but also some great music. Great art. Great connections, and great conversations around the kitchen table. There is also immense resourcefulness and resilience in Cape Breton, and storytelling is an expression of that.

Growing up in Cape Breton are there any creative sayings or metaphors that you heard all the time that worked their way into the novel? 

Most of the sayings in Crow are straight out of my Grandmother’s and/or my mother’s mouths, or are things I’ve absorbed by sitting and listening. My favourite one — and the one that people often ask about— is “You’ll wish your cake dough,” meaning that you’ll regret doing something and wish you could start over and make a different decision. I can’t tell you how many times my mother said that to me over the years. And getting called ‘Missy’… any time my mother said  ‘Listen, Missy’ I knew I was in big trouble.

With the success of Crow, can you see yourself becoming a full time novelist?

I don’t think it is easy for anyone to become a full-time novelist, regardless of how successful a book is. The economics of the publishing industry are often surprising to those outside of it, and while big literary prizes and arts grants can be a pathway to some financial stability, the resources are limited, the competition is stiff, and you can’t take anything for granted. So, being a full-time novelist seems more like a lovely dream than a tangible reality to me, at this point. There is also something deeply fulfilling for me in having one foot in the literary world, and one foot in other projects and pursuits. Right now, that approach not only helps pay the bills, but it lets me have other experiences and connections that help shape and inform my novel-writing in weird, tangential ways. 

How is the second book going? (In your first Author Spotlight you talked about writing a book about a group of women cast aside by society for various reasons.) When might it be coming out?

There’s still a second book in the works, but the original idea I started working on shortly after Crow was published has been shelved for the time being because it just wasn’t the right time for that particular story. After a few false starts, I feel like I’m finally finding a groove with a new story but I can’t even hazard a guess as to when it might see the light of day. 

What has the pandemic been like for you as a writer?

The first few months of the pandemic shoved my writing life onto the backburner because I found myself trying to crisis-homeschool three kids who all require different levels of educational support, even at the best of times, not to mention struggling to manage my own emotional response to our new reality. A bunch of trips and events I was looking forward to got cancelled, my kid-free writing days were gone, the part-time work I had been doing came to a halt, and pretty much everything in the world went sideways. I went into a kind of survival mode, which, on the surface, isn’t ideal for writing and creativity. But it did force a certain kind of clarity. A real roll-up-my-sleeves-and-just-get-‘er-done kind of attitude that I think will ultimately serve my writing well in the long term.   

See Amy Spurway read from Crow in an Atlantic Book Awards Spotlight. 

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Ian Colford

Based in Halifax, Ian Colford writes short fiction, novels, and literary criticism. His first book, the short fiction collection Evidence (Porcupine’s Quill, 2008), won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award and was a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and the ReLit Award. Since then, he has gone on to publish two novels.

His second book of short fiction, A Dark House and Other Stories (Nimbus Publishing) was released last fall and is nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction.

Congratulations on your nomination for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction. It must feel good being nominated for an award named for Alistair MacLeod, a master of the short story genre. What was your reaction on hearing the news?

I was very pleased and enormously humbled. Having my name associated with Alistair MacLeod in any capacity is a huge honour. I’m proud of A Dark House. I believe it contains some of my best work. But at the same time, when I think of all that Alistair accomplished and his stature as an icon in Canadian letters, my little book doesn’t seem to amount to much. I was also—I can’t say shocked because I do believe my book is good. But I keep an eye on the local literary scene and when I think of the amazing books of short stories that aren’t on the shortlist—books that were published around the same time as mine, that I read and greatly admire—my mind kind of boggles. I can’t imagine the jury members had an easy time of it.

Tell me about A Dark House.

Speaking generally, this is a collection of stories that depict people at times of crisis. The crisis can be moral or financial, or it might be a crisis of confidence or of identity. In each case the main character is faced with a decision, or perhaps many decisions. How is he or she going to approach the challenge they’re facing? How are they going to fix things, or find a path forward, or save themselves and those who matter to them? The story builds as the repercussions of the decision they’ve made are felt. One thing I’ll admit is that, dramatically speaking, I find failure more interesting than success. Readers will notice that some of my characters make very poor decisions and fail in spectacular fashion. They’re trying to do what they believe is the right thing, but through their actions they betray themselves and those they care about. Other characters push themselves forward into the unknown—either bravely or stupidly, who can tell? Regardless of the particulars, I’m always striving for dramatic urgency. I want to create situations that give the reader no choice but to keep turning the pages. And from the feedback I’ve received so far, I think I did a decent job of that in this book.

Writing short stories versus novels. Pros and cons?

The short story is all about short-term gratification. You can finish a story in a few days, give it some spit and polish, and end up with a tight, compact little drama. Then send it off somewhere and with luck and perseverance have a publication credit to add to your CV, all within two or three months. The novel is more about long-term pain. With a novel, you’re making a commitment to an idea and a group of characters that are going to occupy your mind and drain every ounce of creative energy for years to come. The physical and psychological toll is real. It can wear you down and strain relationships. So you really have to think long and hard about making that commitment and you have to ensure you’re up for the challenge. And before you start writing their story, you also have to know your characters inside and out, know them at least as well as you know yourself, and be sure you don’t mind spending a lot of time with them, because there’s nothing worse than getting a couple of hundred pages into a manuscript and discovering that a) you really don’t like these people very much, or b) you have no idea what they’re going to do next. However, if you can get past the self-doubt and teeth gnashing and mental anguish and make it to the end, you’ll find that there are very few artistic rewards that can compete with completing a novel manuscript. Shepherding it through the revision, submission, and editorial stages, and then seeing it published is another challenge altogether. But when you’re holding the finished book in your hand, all the pain will miraculously melt away. In that moment, you’ll forget about whatever misery it cost you and realize that you can’t wait to get started on the next one.

Why are awards like the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction important?

Maybe I’m biased, but I think most people would agree that we need to encourage people to read. But we also have to encourage writers and artists to create, give them as many publicity opportunities as possible, and reward them from time to time. Writers toil in the shadows and it’s common for even frequently published and widely admired writers to remain virtually unknown for their entire careers. So literary awards like this one represent a tiny pinprick of light to battle the darkness. These awards are also a way to highlight some of the best of what our society has to offer. Reading is an activity that has no downside. The more people read, the more imaginative, thoughtful, aware and empathetic our society becomes. Everyone is busy, everyone’s life is full, but if even one person who has never heard of me or my book sees it listed for this award and reads it as a result, then the Atlantic Book Awards has more than lived up to its mandate.

What are three short story collections you would recommend?

On top of all the classic books of stories produced by masters like James Joyce, John Cheever, William Trevor, Katherine Mansfield, Eudora Welty, and countless others, there are talented short story writers working right now, writing wonderful story collections. For this question I’ll limit myself to three recent books that blew me away. The Sign for Migrant Soul by Richard Cumyn is worth hunting down. The stories are boisterous, engaging and playful. Richard’s prose is filled with cunning metaphors, unexpected wordplay and droll observations on contemporary life. Another recent collection that knocked me flat is Zolitude by Paige Cooper. This collection is, frankly, very strange and disturbing, and all of the stories are weirdly cryptic, eerie and challenging, but in a good way. And then there’s The View from the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney, a collection of linked stories that follows the lives of a group of people over several generations. It’s a book that creeps up on you because all the characters seem so ordinary. It’s only when you get to the end that you realize that you’ve just read something extraordinary.

Now that we’re coming out of the pandemic and tight restrictions are being relaxed, what things do you think will stay with you?

The pandemic leaves behind a double-edged story: one of cooperation and teamwork countered with another of defiance and recklessness. I think we’ve done well in Nova Scotia, taming the virus and diminishing its destructive power. It could have been better, but our health officials have generally made sensible decisions and kept things real. But you can’t avoid the reports coming out of other places, particularly the US, where the wearing of masks has been politicized and people regard the health restrictions as an infringement on their rights. Yesterday a headline came across my twitter feed, this guy who used to be a pro baseball player saying that he’d rather die of the virus than wear a mask. It’s absolutely insane. Those sorts of stories will stick with me for a while. And, of course, the complete story of the virus has yet to be written. 

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Marq de Villiers

Marq de Villiers is a journalist and the author of more than a dozen books. His vision and skill have been recognized with prestigious literary awards both in Canada and in his native South Africa, including a Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction for his book Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource and South Africa’s Alan Paton Award for White Tribe Dreaming.

A resident of Port Medway, Nova Scotia, he’s been nominated for the Evelyn Richardson Creative Non-Fiction Award seven times and received it twice:  in 2005 for A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins of Sable Island and 2008 for The Witch in the Wind: The True Story of the Legendary Bluenose

Looking at your other books, it seems to me that Hell and Damnation is quite different, not concerned with the environment or a tangible thing from history such as the Bluenose, but with an idea – the idea being hell. What attracted you to the topic?

Well yes, Hell and Damnation is pretty different. Most of my previous books have been either on environmental issues (I count the Witch in the Wind book among those), or about Africa, plus one or two oddities: a book about wine, for example, and a travelogue on Russia. Why Hell? It started when I was reading a biography of Galileo, and came across a curious episode in the great scientist’s life: he calculated backwards from the presumed size of Satan, and the notion of Dante’s that Satan’s navel marked the exact centre of the earth, and told an audience of clerics in Florence that hell must be somewhere around 650 kilometers beneath the surface of the earth – or, if you read his calculations another way, that the Dome of Hell must have a roof at least 640 kilometers thick to support it. This fascinated me – he was a great scientist, with all that implies, but this was surely not one of his signature achievements! In any case, that got me going. It also told me that the idea of Hell was going to be difficult to take seriously, and so it proved.

What religious background did you grow up with? What was your idea of hell as a child?

Religion played no role in our family life. My parents for some reason went to church regularly once a year on Christmas morning, but otherwise religion, heaven and hell were entirely absent from my childhood. As a consequence, I cannot recall any time in my life when I believed in anything supernatural. I grew up in South Africa. We had more seriously issues to deal with than mulling the afterlife.

It looks like writing the book might have been fun. In fact, one of the blurbs on the back calls it “a sly and madcap romp,” which is really unexpected for a book about hell. Was writing the book “fun”?

Thus yes, free from having to actually worry about the torments of hell, this was a purely fun book to write. I was fascinated to find that “our” hell, the Judeo Christian one, was far from the only afterlife invented by people across history. I particularly liked some of the eastern Buddhist traditions, which generally have a separate hell for each sin. The Burmese, for example, had no fewer than 40,040 different hells. They included hells for people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance and people who complain about the weather. How could you really take those seriously?

What has the response been like from readers?

The response from readers has generally been in the spirit in which I wrote the book, enjoying it for its folklore and not for its theological content (which is pretty small in any case). A few people were offended by it, not having known it wasn’t a serious examination of eternal torment. But the book has sold well – first printing sold out pretty quickly, so some of them must like it.

Many of your books are related to Nova Scotia in some way. What about this one?

I’d be hard put to find a Nova Scotia connection to this one. Now, if I were to write a book about paradise, it might be different.

I see from your website that Hell and Damnation is under option for TV. Tell me about that. Would you be involved in the adaptation for TV? 

The only book of mine that has so far actually been made into a miniseries was Water, written  in 1999. In retrospect, the producers gave me too much of a role in the filming, which didn’t really improve things much. If this one gets made, I plan to stay out of the filmmakers’ way as much as possible.

Your books seem to have long titles. What’s the secret to a good book title?

Yes, many of my books seem to have long titles, or at least subtitles. I think long subtitles are something of a fad, one to which I am unfortunately prone. Many book don’t need subtitles at all. Sometimes the publishers write mine. I am not necessarily very good at titles, and will take whatever help I can get.

What is the role of awards? Is being nominated important to you?

The role of awards is complicated. These days when the number of reviewing options is so small, awards play a really valuable role in bringing new books to the attention of readers who might otherwise not have come across them. And they do work for marketing. My only Governor General’s award was for Water, and there is no doubt that it sold well because of that. I think the Evelyn Richardson award is similarly valuable. It may not have the same reach as a GG, but it is recognized as credible, and I think readers trust it. In past years (before 2000, I think) only the winner was announced, and not a shortlist. I think that was a good change to make. There is even a case to be made for publishing a short list and NOT announcing a winner – fairer to all. (Though who gets the cheque, then?)

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m still writing. It’s all I know how to do! This wretched pandemic has in a peculiar way made it easier – fewer distractions. I’m closing in on a first draft of a new book whose deadline is this fall. Back to environmental issues: this will be a history of the human use of, and interactions with, wood. Forest, tree, wood, the whole progression.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Anne C. Kelly

Anne Kelly’s first published novel is Jacques’ Escape, released by Trap Door Books in 2019. But she has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember. She got her first taste of sharing her writing in Grade 4, when she wrote a class newspaper with a friend. Anne is an avid reader, and especially enjoys reading historical fiction, crime novels and stories from Atlantic Canada.

As well as being a writer, Anne is an English teacher at heart. She taught English-as-an-Additional-Language (EAL) to adult newcomers to Canada for more than 20 years, and loves learning about different cultures and traditions. She currently works as a English Language Coordinator at the Bedford Public Library. When not reading, writing or working, you’ll find Anne walking, doing yoga, playing piano, or singing with her community choir.

In this Author Spotlight, Anne talks about her first book, which was originally submitted to the Atlantic Writing Competition (now Nova Writes), theWriters’ Fed of Nova Scotia’s competition for unpublished manuscripts, and getting published.

Congratulations! It’s exciting to see that your debut book Jacques’ Escape was shortlisted for the Hackamatack Children’s Choice Award (See the Hackmatack Shortlist 2020-21 here.) What was your reaction when you heard that news?

The nomination came out of the blue for me, so I was surprised.  That’s one of the things about having a published book that I didn’t anticipate—that it would take on a life of its own! Jacques’ Escape is being read, discussed, reviewed and nominated for awards without my knowledge—like a child who has headed off to school and a life away from his parents! I am of course thrilled to be nominated, especially since it means so many more children will be encouraged to read it!

Tell me about the book. What’s it about?

Jacques’ Escape is the story of a 14-year-old Acadian boy from Grand Pre. During the Expulsion, Jacques and his family are deported to the British colony of Massachusetts.  Jacques longs to escape and join his older brother in fighting with the French. Through his experiences, Jacques comes to know the true meaning of family and home, as well as what it means to be Acadian.

As a first-time author, what was the experience like to get your book published?

Amazing! As I said at my book launch, when I hold a copy of Jacques’ Escape, I’m holding a dream in my hand!

The process of writing this book and having it published was a long and slow one, with multiple rewrites and many rejections. I often felt frustrated and wanted to give up on the whole project. But I loved my characters and believed the story was worth telling. So, I kept rewriting and sending it out again and again. 

My publishers at Trap Door Books are wonderful—always supportive and respectful of my story. They truly helped my dream to come true.

I understand that you originally submitted the manuscript for Jacques’ Escape to the Writers’ Fed’s Atlantic Writing Competition (now called Nova Writes) and that you won the category you submitted in, back in 2001. Why is this program important to writers such as yourself?

I find that I lose the ability to look at my writing objectively, especially once I’ve begun the editing and rewriting stage. Programs such as Nova Writes give developing authors clear, written feedback, practical suggestions, and lots of encouragement!

The book is fictional, but obviously grounded in fact. Why did you decide to take this approach?

I personally love historical fiction. It brings history alive for me. I was never as interested in facts and dates as I was in the what life was like in the past—what did people eat and wear? Why did they do what they did? How did they feel about what was happening around them?  I first learned about the Deportation of the Acadians when I was in Grade four, and for many years I wondered what life was like for the families once they were driven out of Acadia.  What happened? Where did they go? How did they feel? So, I set out to answer those questions.

How did you do the research for your book? What was involved?

I started out by reading everything I could get my hands on about the Acadians, and I read until the books all began to say the same things! I took many, many notes, which I referred to as I wrote. I visited Grand Pre and some of the other Acadian sites in Nova Scotia, then went to Boston to access the Massachusetts Archives. That was really exciting for me—holding and reading original documents that dated back to the 1700’s.

Much of my research was done before the internet became so fast and easy to use. Although the internet may make some of the material easier to find and access, I don’t think it would change my style very much. Holding books in my hand and being where the events took place gives me a sense of the history in a more powerful way than reading an online article ever could.

Your book is quite beautiful to hold, with illustrations by Helah Cooper. Did you work with the illustrator? What was the process like?

I didn’t actually see the illustrations until they were almost finished, when they were sent to me to preview. And I didn’t meet Helah until the book launch. But I was amazed at how she took my words and turned them into pictures!

Like everyone else at Trap Door Books, Helah was respectful of my story and my opinion. There was one illustration that I felt wasn’t dramatic enough for the scene it was portraying. I hesitated before expressing my opinion, but Helah willingly made the changes for me.  

I love the way the book looks, the cover, the pictures, the blue and red text. As one of my daughters commented, it looks like a real book!

When you were a young reader, what books did you love? Was there a book that made you say to yourself, “I’m going to be a writer one day too”?

My two favourite books as a child were Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and  A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The main characters in both these books—Anne and Sara—are storytellers. I don’t think that’s a coincidence! I don’t remember consciously deciding that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve just loved books and stories—reading and writing them—well, forever!

What are you working on these days? Will you be revisiting the time period?

The novel I am working on now is vastly different from Jacques’ Escape. It is for a slightly older age group and is a mystery of sorts, set in modern day. I don’t have any plans at this time to revisit the Acadians, although many people have asked me whether I am going to write a sequel, so I suppose the possibility is there.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Jen Powley

Jen Powley is a prairie girl living in Canada’s ocean playground. Since moving to Halifax in 2001, she has held jobs at the Independent Living Resource Centre (now Independent Living Nova Scotia) and the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities. Realizing she could not engineer the type of societal change she wanted, Powley returned to school earning her Master’s of Urban Planning at Dalhousie University, and then worked for five years at the Ecology Action Centre. Losing her voice due to her multiple sclerosis, Powley recognized the presentations the job required were no longer feasible so she returned to the University of King’s College to pursue her Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction.

In May 2017, Powley released her first book, a memoir Just Jen (Roseway), winner of the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award (Non-Fiction). Her second book, Sounds Like a Halifax Adventure, will be launched virtually on Tuesday, June 16 at 7 pm. (See the invite below.)

In this Q&A, Powley talks about her books and her advocacy for people with physical disabilities. 

Your first book Just Jen is a tour de force, allowing the reader a glimpse of what it is like not only to live, but to thrive, with multiple sclerosis. Was this a book you needed to write? 

I don’t think I needed to write it, but I think it needed to be written. I think the public needed to hear what it’s like to have a disability. It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself, though of course there is some of that. But it’s about getting on with life. I am very lucky to have parents who continue to support me. I wonder what people with disabilities could accomplish if government supported us to a greater degree.

If Just Jen is a book that needed to be written, is Sounds Like a Halifax Adventure the book you’ve always wanted to write?

I didn’t always want to write Sounds Like. It started as a gift for my partner, Tom. It grew from there.

You take a novel approach to this book by paying attention to sounds. Why sound? Why not another sense (say touch or taste)?

I picked sound because it is important to Tom and it made me think about it a lot. It is also the one sense I have not affected by my multiple sclerosis, so it made sense to write about sound.

The other thing totally crazy about this new book is that it can have an ending unique to each reader. Do I have that right? How did you manage that?

I formulated the book based on the books where you could choose your own path I read when I was a kid. I wanted to make some major changes to the genre. I wrote in third person, not second like those books used to write. I also wanted the choices to not lead up to a quote-unquote “correct” ending but wanted the choices to be like life where the smallest choices can determine the path you take, so it might just be a matter of whether you turn right or left as you leave the building, not whether you choose to die for some other character’s plan.

What is the process of writing like for you? Has it changed since you wrote Just Jen?

For this book, I wrote mainly what came into my head. For Just Jen I had thought about most of the scenes and was merely re-creating them based on previous events.

Why did you decide to self publish this book?

I decided to self-publish because the book didn’t fit the criteria of what other book publishers accept. I was taught to always read what a publisher accepts. I didn’t find anyone accepting interactive adult fiction. I didn’t want to be the publisher, but I wanted the book to get out into the world.

Tell me about the launch party. When and where is it?

The virtual launch is on Tuesday, June 16, 7 pm on Zoom. All are welcome.


Meeting ID: 577 316 0199

Password: 123

How can people get a copy of your book?

The book is available at Bookmark in Halifax. I am setting up a Shopify site. It will be ready by the launch.

What’s next for you Jen? Do you have another book percolating?

I am working on getting 24-hour attendant care for people with physical disabilities with Independent Living Nova Scotia approved by the province. Until January, when a proposal for a living situation for four adults with disabilities was approved for a two-year pilot, the only thing in Nova Scotia for adults with physical disabilities who needed round-the-clock care was to live in a long-term care facility, i.e. a nursing home. I don’t think that is right. Why shouldn’t I be able to have my boyfriend stay overnight? At the moment, I have no book ideas percolating.

– questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Gloria Ann Wesley

Gloria Ann Wesley is an award-winning writer and a retired teacher. She is the author of several books of poetry, children’s literature, and young adult fiction, including Chasing Freedom (Fernwood Publishing, 2011), which was listed as a Grade Nine and African Canadian Studies resource by the Nova Scotia Department of Education and was shortlisted for the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2012 (Atlantic Book Awards), and If This Is Freedom (Fernwood Publishing, 2013), which was selected for One Book Nova Scotia in 2017. Her latest book is called For King and Country,to be published by Formac.

Read on to learn more about Wesley’s writing, the inspiration behind her historical fiction and her life during the pandemic. 

I see you have a new book coming out this August – For King and Country. It looks interesting, a combination of fiction and non-fiction. What is it about? 

For King and Country is about a young man, Wilbur (Will) Wesley, who wants to fight in the First World War. Though he attempts to enlist, he is turned away because of rampant prejudice, but he remains hopeful that attitudes will change. When Will is finally accepted, it is not to fight, but to be part of a construction company, eroding his dreams of valour and pride as discrimination continues to plague his service.

What is it about this particular battalion that is significant?

The No.2 Black Battalion was Canada’s first and only all-Black military regiment.

Many of your books deal with the black experience in the past. Why do you gravitate to this theme in your writing?

Literature can be a powerful force for enlightenment, create discussions and act as a bridge to address the racism that continues to restrict inclusiveness, justice, and respect.  Because Black novels, relevant to and about the daily lives of African Nova Scotians did not exist, I decided to take on the work of filling the gap.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

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

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

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

What’s your guilty pleasure?

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

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

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

A lot of artists have been creatively stymied during the pandemic. Have you found that?  Has your writing been affected?

The pandemic seems like just another day to me. My writing routine has not changed. I am a recluse by nature and continue to write at all hours of the day and night. The one thing I miss is public engagements. 

What are you working on now?

I’m editing a book about a young woman who is coming to terms with the repression of sexual assaults she experienced as a child. A total 360 from historical fiction.

What are you most looking forward to when restrictions are eased?

I’m really looking forward to leaving the province to visit family members and hug my grandchildren.

– This Author’s Spotlight with Gloria Wesley updates an earlier spotlight posted in July 2018. Additional questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Ray Cronin

Ray Cronin is a writer, editor, and curator. Between 2001 and 2015 he worked at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as both curator and director, and he is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award. Cronin has been writing about visual arts for magazines and newspapers for almost thirty years. As well as writing a series of “field guides” on Atlantic Canadian artists published by Gaspereau Press, he is the author of Our Maud: The Art, Life and Legacy of Maud Lewis, and the Arts Canada Institute e-books Alex Colville: Life & Work and Mary Pratt: Life & Work. His book Nova Scotia Folk Art: An Illustrated Guide, is forthcoming from Nimbus Publishing in 2021. He lives in Elmsdale.

These field guides published by Gaspereau are really wonderful. The essays are beautifully written, and of course when you’re reading about art, it’s nice to have the colour plates to refer to. How did the series come about?

It all started with the best rejection ever. I proposed a book to Gaspereau Press of twelve essays about Atlantic Canadian artists, a kind of “greatest hits,” I suppose, which would have had a combination of previously-published work and new essays (much writing about visual art is pretty ephemeral, often for magazines or newspapers, or for exhibition publications that are little distributed and out of print quickly). Anyway, Gaspereau’s publisher, Andrew Steeves, responded quickly with, “No, I don’t want to publish that.” Basically, he didn’t think he could sell it, and that he didn’t find the idea interesting (anyone who knows Andrew, knows that there is no BS with him). But then he asked if I was interested in writing 12 books on individual artists. You can see why I call it the best rejection ever.

Why are they called “field guides”?

Gaspereau’s motto or tag line is: “Literary Outfitters and Cultural Wilderness Guides.” In coming up with a name for the series I wanted to play off of that, and to telegraph to prospective readers that the books would be both interesting and useful. Art writing has a well-earned bad reputation for being impenetrable and I wanted to signal that these books would introduce interested readers to interesting artists, and would do so in an informative and engaging manner (I hope!). I was thinking of bird books, or mushroom guides, those sorts of things. More and more in the arts we talk about the community as an ‘ecosystem.’ A set of “field guides” to some of that ecosystem’s more prominent members seemed like a fun approach.

I wonder if you can tell me briefly about the subtitles for these books, for example, Gerald Ferguson: Thinking of Painting and Alex Colville: A Rebellious Mind.

I want the subtitle to give a potential reader information about how I am positioning each book’s subject. Ferguson was a conceptual artist who struggled with the very idea of painting for his entire career: painting for him was first and foremost an idea. Colville saw the world as chaotic and sought order amidst that chaos. I argue in the book that he was an exemplar of what the French existentialist and novelist Albert Camus (how timely is his book The Plague today?) calls a rebel, one who demands “order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral.” I hope each subtitle conveys some of the atmosphere of the book. 

The new addition to the series is Maud Lewis: Creating an Icon. What do you think will surprise the reader about Maud Lewis?

Maud died in 1970, long before her paintings became as well known as they are today. Her work wasn’t even included in an art gallery exhibition until 1976. What I hope will surprise readers is how much Maud is both an active creator of a certain vision of Nova Scotia, and a product herself of that vision. In her lifetime she created an iconic vision of Nova Scotia, a vision that has, since her death, turned her into an icon.

What’s the challenge of writing about art and artists for a general audience?  

I suppose that goes back to the reputation arts writing has for impenetrability. I started writing reviews when I was still an art student at NSCAD, mainly because I was so frustrated by what I was reading in magazines in the late 1980s. It was so theory-laden and obscure. Why write something that people can’t read?

I grew up listening to my father reprise his philosophy lectures to my mother when he got home from work. She had been a nurse, but with seven children she was a very busy stay-at-home mum. When my father got home, she had been with us kids all day and was desperate for adult conversation (I stayed quiet in the background and soaked it all up).

When I first went to university I lived at home, and when I got back from my classes I would do the same thing – sit and talk with my mother about what I was learning, what I was thinking, and I got used to explaining my ideas to her. When I started to write about art, I thought about who my ideal reader would be. And my mother, who read every word I wrote in her lifetime, was that ideal reader. As a young artist and aspiring writer I was discovering things every day that I wanted to share with as wide an audience as possible. I still am, and I still do.

Are there other books planned in the series? On whom?

There are. Things are pretty up in the air these days of course, but I am working towards a fall release in the series, a book on Brian Jungen, subtitled “New Understanding.” Jungen is famous for his Nike Air Jordan sculptures that mimic Northwest Cost masks (“Prototype for a New Understanding”), and for his whale skeleton sculptures made from plastic lawn chairs. I first met him when he won the inaugural Sobey Art Award in 2002, and have followed his career closely ever since. After that I plan to do a book on Nova Scotian artist Colleen Wolstenholme, another great sculptor.

What is it like to release a new book during a pandemic?

It’s anticlimactic, certainly. No launch, no readings, bookstores mostly closed and struggling. The new book on Maud Lewis would have had a broader market because of tourism, but that too has been derailed by the pandemic. But it’s not like there’s ever been a huge market for books on Canadian art, so I’m not discouraged. People manage to find the books. I’m doing more social media than I ever have, writing a blog for my website (, posting excerpts of my writing, just trying to get things out there.

What do you see as the positives about this time? What have you found to be the most difficult?

Well, I have certainly noted the generosity of artists – the musicians doing online concerts, the authors doing readings, the actors presenting plays, the visual artists posting images of their work, and so much more. That evidence of how resilient artists are despite the closed theaters, cancelled concerts, and shuttered galleries, that’s the most positive.

Professionally, what has been difficult is the way that the pandemic has shut down the arts scene. Exhibitions and their catalogues are getting cancelled or delayed, magazines are suffering terribly from lack of advertising revenue, so freelancers are getting less and less work (my blog for Halifax Magazine has been suspended, for instance, and understandably so). I had a book’s publication delayed into next year as a result of the pandemic, and another that is stalled because I can’t do the research I need with libraries and archives closed (old files on the visual arts in Halifax are not on the top of anyone’s list for digitization, unfortunately).

Say the field guide series on Canadian artists continues 30 years from now … and you’re still writing them. Name three artists under the age of 30 whom you expect will be worthy of a field guide essay in 2050.

The thing about artists under 30 is that most of them won’t still be making art when they’re 40. I look back at my peers from my 20s and that’s as true for us as it will be for the current 20-year-olds. Making art is hard and too often unrewarding. Luck plays an outsize role as well, because everyone starts with talent.

Artists in their 30s are a much better bet for prognostication, but you asked for artists in their 20s, so here goes. I think that Letitia Fraser, whose show at Mount Saint Vincent I wrote about last winter for my Halifax Magazine blog, and who paints her friends and family from East Preston, has a lot of interesting things to say in paint. I think Laura Jean Forrester, a ceramicist who makes public commissions and floral sculpture out of clay will have a strong career. And Darcie Bernhardt, an Inuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk and recent NSCAD graduate, who is living in Halifax now is someone with a big career ahead. All three of them are artists I expect to be still relevant in 30 years.

I know that you are a graduate of NSCAD … what made you decide to work as a curator and writer instead of making art yourself?

That decision was sort of made for me. I made art until I was in my late 30s. Writing and making sculpture were parallel activities for me until 2001. But, when I was hired as Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, I knew that the job would be so demanding that I could never be more than a hobby artist. On top of that, I would have a role and position that would give me outsize impact on the careers of artists who were working at it full-time. Being an artist is too hard to have gatekeepers competing with you. As a curator I had tons of new opportunities to write, so it really wasn’t a difficult decision.

Whose art do you have on your walls at home? What’s the favorite artwork that you own?

So many great things are on our walls (and floors, shelves, ledges, and mantles). A partial list includes work by my wife Sarah Maloney, our daughter Mollie Cronin, Mary Pratt, John Greer, Gerald Ferguson, Lucie Chan, Cora Cluett, Greg Forrest, Colleen Wolstenholme, Gerard Collins, Cliff Eyland, Cal Lane, Mark Bovey, Mitch Mitchell, and David Askevold.

In terms of my favourite, I’ll instead name the most recent: a puppet by Graeme Patterson from an exhibition he had in Calgary in 2010 called The Puppet Collective 2. The idea was that he would do 52 puppets (one a week) based on observations of random people. Those were offered for sale in an exhibition in 2009. Everyone who bought a puppet was required to send Graeme photographs of themselves, which were used to make a second series of puppets. I bought his portrait of a bike courier in 2009, and Graeme made a portrait of me called Man in a Black Hat in Wire-rimmed Glassesfor the 2010 show. It didn’t find a home until a few weeks ago when it arrived in the mail. It’s hanging in my office right now.

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