Author Spotlight

Author spotlight: Emma FitzGerald

Author/illustrator Emma FitzGerald was born in Southern Africa to Irish parents, and did most of her growing up in Vancouver, BC. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art in Visual Art at UBC, she moved to Halifax, NS where she completed a Masters in Architecture at Dalhousie University.

It was in summer of 2013 that she started documenting her North End neighbourhood through drawings and stories. This became the beginnings of her first book, Hand Drawn Halifax (Formac Publishing, 2015), which has sold 10,000 copies to date. The drawings and words speak to the importance of community, and shared oral history, and extends beyond her own neighbourhood to include places like North Preston, Cherrybrook, St. Margarats Bay and Lower Sackville, showing her interest in not only ‘the centre’ but also the edges of the city. She has also illustrated children’s books, including A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop  by Rita Wilson (Nimbus Publishing, 2019). It was nominated for IBBY Canada’s Elizabeth Mrazik Cleaver award for Excellence in Canadian illustration. Emma’s many years of researching Elizabeth Bishop, including artist residencies in Great Village and Rio de Janeiro, allowed for the project’s full realization, and also to a collaboration with film maker John Scott, creating animation sequences for The Art of Loosing, a forthcoming documentary film about Nova Scotia’s most famous poet. 

Emma continues to document places and people, in Hand Drawn Vancouver (Appetite of Penguin Random House, 2020), and has started work on Hand Drawn Victoria.

I note in your bio that Halifax is your “chosen” home. What is it about Halifax that captured your heart?

I think the people, who are community minded, and the general feeling that people work together to “make things happen.”

Did your house portraits come first or your study of architecture?

I liked to draw houses as a little girl, based on reading Anne of Green Gables and other L.M. Montgomery books where the protagonists had a strong attachment to a particular house/home. This sparked my interest in architecture, and was the beginning of my motivation to pursue it as a career. However, the house portraits came out of economic necessity, when I was laid off and not able to find architectural office work.

Why did you switch to illustration?

I always would illustrate things for my mother, whether it was menus or place cards for dinner parties. When I worked as an architect, I kept an art studio practice, focused on installation and art that had its basis in relational art practices, with community as its focus. Alongside this, I would make posters for music events, cd covers etc, always saying yes to opportunities to draw. From this came a desire to make books, and I submitted an illustration portfolio to a publisher at around this time (2010), but it took several years before it became clear what direction I would take in publishing.

Tell me about Hand Drawn Halifax. What was your goal in creating that book?

The book emerged, as opposed to being something I set out to do. I had always sketched when traveling, but never taken the time to draw on location when at home in Halifax. Then came the economic necessity of making a living, so I went about completing a drawing every day in my neighbourhood for one month, to test drive my ‘style’ and attract attention to my house portrait business. From the beginning I posted the drawings online on social media, accompanied by short stories that were told to me as I was drawing/snippets of conversation I overheard. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and people started sharing their own stories with me. This experience formed the basis of my “Pitch to the Publisher” at Word on the Street in 2013, which resulted in a contract with Formac Publishing. At that point the book pivoted from just being about my North-end neighbourhood to all of HRM, including neighbourhoods that are typically under represented. I wanted to celebrate the moments of connection that can happen anywhere; whether at a Tim Hortons, in a parking lot, on a sports field, or at an after-school program. There was a real sense of adventure and discovery, as I went to places I had never been before, drawing and ‘seeing’ what would happen. So the book acts as an invitation to the reader to similarly discover new places on their own. I also tried my best to be aware of my own position, often as an outsider, and be respectful in how I represented people.

You’ve also illustrated books written by other people, including EveryBody’s Different on EveryBody Street by Sheree Fitch and A Pocket of Time by Rita Wilson. What is that process like? Do you work collaboratively or quite separately?

The author and illustrator work separately, with the publisher, mainly the editor, acting as a liaison, and of course the designer also has a voice in the process.  However, I had met both Sheree and Rita before getting started, which is fairly unusual, but helped in connecting with their work, and motivated me to do the very best work I could. In both cases I got a small amount of feedback after the initial sketches, but that was communicated via the editor, Whitney Moran.

I know that A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop is very special to you. Why is that?

The project had a feeling of being ‘fated’. Both the author, Rita Wilson, and I, have spent many years separately researching Bishop, including both staying at Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, as artists in residence. On my part, I had also travelled to several of her homes in Brazil, during a six-week artist residency in Rio. I have also been working on a film project with John Scott, creating images for his forthcoming feature length documentary film about her life. So I feel very invested in Bishop, in a really lovely way. To happen upon Rita’s book project and get to just ask if I could illustrate it was like a dream come true. I think I love Bishop so much because of the clear love for Nova Scotia expressed in her work, alongside her obvious need for travel. I think I can relate to that!

Do you see yourself writing your own children’s books? Why or why not?

I have a few ideas, kicking around. I am trusting that when the time is right, that might happen. For now, I have been too busy with other projects. I do enjoy how the Hand Drawn books are words and pictures together, for adults as much as for children. I think we all have an innate need to look at art and ‘listen’ to stories though pictures…. 

What picture books captured your imagination as a child? What picture books do you recommend today?

I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess with illustrations by Graham Rust, Roahld Dahl’s books illustrated by Quentin Blake, books written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, John Bergman, Beatrix Potter, Rosy’s Garden by Satomi Ichikawa,  and Winnie the Pooh illustrated by EH Shepard.

I have to say I still have a soft spot for the old favourites, but I also am inspired by how dynamic the picture book world is today. The most recent children’s book I bought and enjoyed is My Best Friendby Julie Fogliano, with illustrations by Jillian Tamaki, and I am excited for Jillian’s forthcoming book Our Little Kitchen.

How has life been like for you during the pandemic? What aspects of quarantine and staying home do you like? What are some of the first things you’ll do when stay-at-home orders are lifted?

It was quite dramatic in that I moved across the country on March 27th. My initial plan was to move to Victoria on April 2nd, but I sped up my decision as it was seeming like interprovincial travel might be stopped. I completed a 14-day quarantine on arrival, which was made easier because I had some friends drop over groceries and basic kitchen supplies. Since getting through the quarantine, I have mostly been self isolating, and just treating each day as a new day, trying to be gentle on my expectations of myself. Luckily there have been no restrictions on visiting city parks, and there is so much nature to enjoy here in Victoria. During my daily walks I will see owls, otters, sea lions, eagles and more! Also lots of lush plants and blossoms. I am returning to my love of ballet, doing online dance classes, and keeping connected with family and friends via phone and Zoom. As we look towards some of the restrictions I look forward to visiting my parents and siblings in Vancouver.

What project are you engaged in right now?

The intention was to be fully engaged in promoting the launch of Hand Drawn Vancouver this month, with many events planned in Vancouver by my publisher, Appetite of Penguin Random House Canada. However, due to the pandemic, the release date is now June 23rd, and so far the only event still planned is an online exhibition of drawings via the West Van Memorial Library, coming up on June 10th. I do have plenty to work on in the meantime, including getting started on Hand Drawn Victoria, which will also be published by Appetite. It will be interesting to see how much of the ‘new normal’ will influence the book.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: John Read

John Read’s journey into astronomy began with a small and rickety telescope purchased at his local pharmacy. He found it fascinating to observe the Moon and Saturn with its rings using such meagre equipment. He decided to share these views with others by writing his first book, 50 Things to See with a Small Telescope, an easy-to-understand beginner’s guide which he self-published and sold through Amazon starting in 2013.

Since then, he has written a number of other books on space for children including 50 Things to See on the Moon (Formac Publishing). In 2020, two more books are coming out—50 Animals That Have Been to Space, which he co-wrote with his wife Jennifer Read, and 50 Space Missions That Changed the World, due out before Christmas. Both books are published by Formac. Besides writing, John works as the telescope operator at Saint Mary’s Burke-Gaffney Observatory.

In this Q and A, John talks about his love of space, his collaboration with wife Jennifer, and what you can see in the night sky right now.

How did you get interested in space?

My dad was an agricultural salesman and he moved our family to Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia while I was in Grade 4. That’s when I started watching Star Trek and reading old National Geographic magazines about space. I was probably about 10 at the time.

As an adult, I bought a cheap telescope and pointed it at Saturn. We were living in California then—I was in corporate finance at Clorox—and my interest just grew and grew into larger telescopes.

The first book (50 Things to See with a Small Telescope) sold pretty well, about 1,000 copies the first year it was out. I thought that was pretty cool. And the next Christmas it sold maybe a few more thousand copies.

But then it kept selling and selling and that let me know it had business potential. I had it translated in 10 different languages (including German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese) and I created a southern hemisphere edition.

So you quit your job at Clorox?

The growth was exponential—I’ve probably sold 100,000 copies of that book now.

And my job in finance. I realized I wasn’t 100 per cent there. My mind was occupied with all things space.  So I applied to the astrophysics program at Saint Mary’s University and decided to write more books. We moved back to Halifax in 2016.

What is with the ’50 things’ approach?

I think of it as a brand to tie all the books together. I look at it from a marketing perspective and that’s the hook. It originated as 10 telescope targets per season, plus the eight planets, Sun, and Moon.

The book that’s just out is called 50 Animals That Have Been to Space. Why did you collaborate with your wife Jennifer on this one?

Jennifer is the animal buff. When she was in University in California, she was on movie sets making sure the animals were being well taken care of. She also grew up on a ranch.

Jennifer did most of the research while I worked full time on my studies. She found out all the facts and got the photographs. Then we kind of matched everything to my writing style in the other books. This was a unique case—the intersection of our two hobbies, space and animals.

Was there anything surprising that you found out in writing this book?

Well, what’s surprising to me is how many animals have gone into space, and how many different species — they’ve sent up scorpions, snails, shrimp, jellyfish, newts… The Soviets sent turtles flying around the moon. Mice have been in space to see what happens when are struck with cosmic rays. When a cosmic ray hits a black mouse, its hair turns white … they’re like geiger counter for space radiation.

In the early days, space was an unknown frontier, so animals were sent as biological samples, everything from fruit flies to guinea pigs. Later, the Russians sent up dogs to test life support systems. The Americans sent up monkeys and chimps which could pull levers and press buttons … and this happened right before human flight.

What’s it like releasing a book during the pandemic?

Releasing a book during the pandemic was tough. Our official launch date was March 28th, so we had several events canceled, including a major release at the Halifax Public Library. Instead we held a reading contest, offering free ebook copies of the book. Some people liked the book so much they bought the paperback as well. I’ve also had several teachers reach out to me about getting the book for their classrooms.

You write fiction too?

Between my first and second space books, I wrote two sci-fi novels —The Martian Conspiracy and Callisto Deception. I may pick that up again but for now I have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed, writing is really my only paying job. I don’t mind waiting on the sci-fi, since I enjoy writing non-fiction just as much.

What has life been like for you during this time?

Well, I’ve got to say that Jennifer has been super supportive and handling the kids while I finished up classes. Untill mid-April, the astrophysics program kept going at me 110 per cent.

Now, I’ve been writing pretty much full time. I work intensely in the morning while Jenn is home schooling. We try to get the kids outside in the afternoons.

At night, when there’s clear skies, I’m doing astronomy. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I’d like to return to Herring Cove and set up my telescope on the wharf and take photographs.

What can you see in night sky at this time of year?

To astronomers, spring is referred to as galaxy season. You point your telescope toward Virgo and look for galaxies. There’s lots to see from the city as well, even without a telescope. In the morning, you can see Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. In the evening, the bright star you see in the west is Venus.

 – In conversation with Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Lindsay Ruck

Lindsay R. Ruck, born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism in Ottawa. Since graduating in 2008, she has worked in the marketing, communications and publishing fields. Similar to her grandfather, the late Calvin W. Ruck, she has a deep and abiding respect and affection for her home province of Nova Scotia and recently returned to Halifax, after living in Ottawa for 12 years to further her career as a writer and editor. Her latest book is a biography of Dr. John Savage called Against the Grain (Pottersfield Press).

In this interview, Lindsay talks about the inspiration her grandfather Calvin W. Ruck has given her and her interest in history.  

Can you tell me about your grandfather, Calvin W. Ruck?

I know I’m biased, but my grandfather was an incredible man. He grew up in Whitney Pier and eventually moved to Halifax to work as a sleeping-car porter with the Canadian National Railway. He dealt with racism and discrimination on a daily basis, but he never wavered or stopped fighting for what was right. He fought for basic human rights, like haircuts at local barber shops, jobs for black men and women at local businesses, and land titles for residents who lived in communities their entire lives but still weren’t properly acknowledged as property owners. He brought dry cleaning services and school supplies into communities that went without up until that point. He was never content with the status quo and spent his entire life improving the lives of others. He would eventually go on to be appointed to the Senate of Canada and was able to continue his work on a larger platform. He will always be one of my greatest inspirations and his life is a testament that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it and believe that they can make a difference. 

Why did you decide to write about him in the book Winds of Change?

 Among other job titles, my grandfather was an author and historian. He wrote a book about the No. 2 Black Construction Battalion and was working on a second book when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It became apparent that he would no longer be able to tell the important stories of the past and that included his own incredible story. When I started thinking about this project, I had just graduated with a journalism degree and was figuring out what to do next. Writing has always been my passion and being able to tell the story of my grandfather’s life was a huge honour. For me, it was the perfect first swing at the bat as an author because I was confident in his story, I was passionate about the subject and I wanted others to know just how incredible he was. So many people after reading the book have said they didn’t realize he did this or that, or they had no idea black families endured so much in Nova Scotia. I wanted people to know we are where we are today because of trailblazers like my grandfather, and there is still a lot to do to continue the work he began in this province and in this country.

How did you write the book? What kind of research did you do? Were you able to interview him? (I realize he passed away in 2004.)

When I first started writing the book I was living in Ottawa. My grandparents lived with us in Ottawa and although my grandfather had passed away by the time I started working on the book, he had left boxes and boxes of documents ranging from transcripts of speeches he’d given to post-it notes where he had written down thoughts, names, and titles of books and newspaper articles. So the early days involved digging through all of those boxes and piecing together any relevant information pertaining to his life and the projects that were most important to him. Once I moved back to Halifax, I had a chance to meet with several of my grandfather’s colleagues, friends and family members. Those first-person accounts were really special for me and I was able to see how moved people were by one man’s actions. But my favourite interviews were the ones with my grandmother. Talking about how they first met, the loss of their daughter (my aunt), and the struggles of a young mother were all things we never talked about before and I will cherish those conversations most.

What are some of things that you take away from his life story?

There’s so much to be learned from how he chose to live his life. One of the biggest takeaways is standing up for what is right and not being afraid to speak up. My grandfather was fearless. He didn’t come from a wealthy family. He had to leave school when he was quite young to get a job and support his siblings. (But would then go on to get his high school degree and obtain a university degree in the 1970s – becoming the oldest in his graduating class.) These things never held him back. If he saw something was wrong, he figured out how to make it better. He also had a way of speaking calmly and concisely to get his point across. When people go into battle, sometimes they think the louder they are the better, but my grandfather believed the opposite. He came armed not with fists and weapons, but with a calm demeanour that somehow could captivate a room and change the minds of even the most stubborn of individuals.

Your latest book is a biography of John Savage called Against the Grain. Tell me about the title.

It wasn’t until I neared the end of writing this book that I thought of Against the Grain. In my opinion, it really sums up the biggest theme in the book, which is making unpopular decisions and doing things that weren’t always well-received. Politics aside, Dr. Savage was a huge advocate of sex education in the schools and this was at the time when the topic was considered taboo. He worked with drug addicts and alcoholics and opened a detox centre for those who were essentially tossed to the side by society. He then battled day in and day out to reform a province that wanted nothing to do with his ideas and fought him at every turn. He went against the grain and was unapologetic in his beliefs and actions when he truly believed he was doing what would be best for a people and a province.

Why did you want to write about John Savage? Did you see in him qualities he shared with your grandfather?

My grandfather and Dr. Savage worked together in Preston. When Dr. Savage discovered the area didn’t have a medical centre, he knew he wanted to do something about it. Among other volunteers, my grandfather and Dr. Savage not only brought a medical centre to the community, but also a daycare and a ball field. They both believed that if they saw a void or if something wasn’t right, it needed to be corrected and if they couldn’t do it themselves, then they would find the right people who could make it happen. 

I was quite young when Dr. Savage was premier of Nova Scotia, but I was certainly aware of the major moves he made while in power, such as the amalgamation and the HST. I was intrigued by what I did know about him and it was apparent there was so much more to this man than just a politician and I really wanted to uncover those other layers and tell a complete story of his life.

In the books that you write, you seem to gravitate to history. Why do you think you went in that direction?

When I was younger, I wanted to write YA novels and children’s books and I filled notebooks with ideas that catered to those age groups. I really had little interest in history, especially when it came to writing about it. It wasn’t until I began considering my grandfather’s biography that my fascination grew in telling others’ stories. Growing up, my history textbooks held very little in relation to black history and while working on Winds of Change I began to feel a responsibility to tell those stories that get lost in school curriculum. While it was never part of the plan, I feel incredibly grateful and honoured to tell these stories. A few weeks ago one of my high school teachers sent me a message saying a student included a line in their presentation that started with “As author Lindsay Ruck stated….” That is exactly why I now gravitate towards historic literature. So that students will learn far more than I did about the stories of incredible individuals who made a difference, who stood up for what they believed in and fought racism and discrimination to make a difference. There is a void that needs to be filled when it comes to black history resources and I hope to help in filling that void. That’s not to say those YA novels still won’t become a part of my repertoire someday!

I see you have another book coming out this fall — Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians. Who are some of the people you profile in that book?

There are so many incredible black Atlantic Canadians and I couldn’t include them all in the pages of this book, but I tried to feature a wide range of men and women, including athletes, artists and educators, both past and present. Operatic greats Measha Brueggergosman and Portia White, the coloured hockey league, Halifax activist Quentrel Provo and the No. 2 Black Construction Battalion are all featured in this book. I’m so excited to see it released so kids can learn all about these incredible individuals.

OK, changing direction. You’ve got a toddler and a newborn with you at home. What has that been like during these strange days?

My son was born just days before the stay at home order was issued and so our family and friends still haven’t been able to hold him or spend that special quality time with him in those early days with a newborn. That’s been tough for sure. My daughter is two years old and trying to explain to a toddler why she all of a sudden can’t see her friends or spend time with her cousins is difficult. On the flip side, I keep thinking how blessed we are to have welcomed a happy and healthy baby boy into the world who is so loved by so many already. Life can become so busy and this has forced us to slow down, appreciate the little things and really just enjoy being together with our growing little family.

I wouldn’t imagine you would be able to write at all with two little humans depending on you … have you?

Despite this being my second child, I still naively thought I would write during the “down time.” So far, that hasn’t happened. I’m still working on finishing up Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians and have been able to tackle that in short spurts so far. I certainly have a lot of notebooks to fill with new ideas and storylines that are currently sitting in my brain waiting to be explored further.

What do you miss the most from the time before?

Time with my family. Both my husband and I come from very close-knit families and not being able to just pop over to their homes or invite them over to our place for dinner is very odd and a huge adjustment. This is something I will appreciate even more once this is all over.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Janice Landry

Janice Landry is a regionally and nationally award-winning writer and journalist whose non-fiction work primarily focuses on mental health and wellness. Her latest book, Silver Linings, focuses on gratitude and resiliency, two key cornerstones in the field of mental health and wellness. Dedicated to her late mother, Theresa Landry, and friend, Audrey J. Parker, who both died while Landry was working on the project, the book includes a rare interview with Dr. Robert Emmons, considered to be the world’s preeminent scientific expert and researcher in the field of gratitude. Dr. Emmons is based out of the University of California – Davis.   

Pictou Antigonish Regional Library has arranged for Janice to do a reading from Silver Linings online on Tuesday, May 26. (Check out the details here.) Through the Read Atlantic program, her book is also available for a free download

First, where does the name Groundhog Productions come from?

 I immediately knew the name of my freelance business would be “Groundhog Productions.” I was born on Groundhog Day; February 2. It’s the kind of name that you don’t easily forget, and it usually brings a smile to a person’s face when I explain the connection. I am Groundhog Productions. It reflects who I am; I also love humour. I grew up watching British comedies. For me, silly is always in style. My company name is a tad silly, and that’s okay by me.

You were a long-time employee at ATV (now CTV Atlantic) — a reporter, editor, producer, anchor. Why did you make a career change to author?

I left television news in 1999 after the birth of our daughter, Laura. I wanted more control over my time as a mother, and over the work that I produced and created. I have always loved documentaries, series, and in-depth stories. I actually stayed with CTV Atlantic for about seven years, after 1999, as the producer and writer of all the patient stories for the IWK Telethon. Both jobs allowed me to work with some of the best people in broadcasting. I also started freelancing, in 2001, and, as part of that, began magazine writing, which I have always loved. The magazine writing acted as a bridge between writing for broadcast and starting to write in different formats. I took a lot of work for me to branch away from a script style, which I had solely done for 19 years. I eventually started writing long form non-fiction as a way to honour my late father, who died in 2006. Dad was a veteran Halifax firefighter. My book, The Sixty Second Story, (Pottersfield Press, 2013), honours Capt. Baz Landry, M.B., his Halifax Fire peers, as well as the nine firefighters who died as a result of the Halifax Explosion. The latter are solemnly and collectively referred to, in Canadian firefighting history, as “The Fallen Nine.” I started writing books to honour my dad. It started out of love and respect.

What do you miss about daily journalism? 

 Hands down, the people I worked with; the people are the best part of any job. There are a handful of  people from that era that I regularly socialize with, and a great number of them that I connect with via social media, and also at events around the city and province. I am deeply grateful for my time with each of them. They were like a second family to me. They also continue to teach me a lot. There are a few of them who are still like family now.

Did you have stories that needed to get out?

Yes, and I still do. There are always ideas floating around in my head. I purposely place some of them on the backburner to stew and allow others to come to the forefront. It is important for me, as a writer, to give an idea time to percolate before I start any research or writing. This can take months, or years.

Who are some of your mentors, who perhaps took a similar path?

My first mentor was/is my late father. Everything I know about work ethic, and strive for, came from him. Baz’s work ethic was off-the-charts. In his opinion and approach, you only did something to the best of your ability. Later in life, two of my other biggest mentors are the late Ian Wiseman and the late Bill Jessome. Ian was one of my professors in the journalism department at the University of King’s College, Halifax. Ian was a respected former broadcaster, who worked at the CBC. From Newfoundland, he was an empathetic and funny person, who truly cared about his students. A great poet, Ian was incredibly multi-talented. I credit him as the person who helped me choose broadcasting as my initial career path. I met my third main mentor, Bill Jessome, while working in broadcasting at CTV Atlantic. Bill remains one of the best storytellers I have had the great pleasure of knowing. He was a master in video production and also using the pen. I, and a circle of other fortunate people, became very close friends with Bill. He was family. Bill was funny, dapper, and immensely generous with his time. Bill is the reason I faced my fear and started writing books. A conversation with Bill in his Halifax home was the tipping point for me to branch out into longform non-fiction.

I feel your writing is unique in that you’ve focused on themes including gratitude and resilience. Why do you keep returning to those themes in your writing?

Most of my work comes to me, I don’t go looking for it. The story ideas percolate until they are ready to be told. This may sound odd to readers, but I feel like I am a kind of vehicle for them, to be honest. Many of the interviews I do are somehow placed in front of me on my creative journey, either through people I know, events I attend, or other happenstances. It’s actually quite uplifting. I don’t believe in coincidences. I think things happen for a reason. I allow time in my process for a work to evolve naturally. A lot of my writing includes first responders as a main theme and focus. Because I grew up as the proud child of a firefighter, I have the utmost respect for emergency personnel and their families. This is a primary theme that will always be close to my heart. Gratitude and resilience have also become important topics since I am now living with the loss of both of my parents. Their deaths have been traumatic and difficult. Grief is a journey. I write to help people work through trauma. Researching and writing is also a cathartic and healing experience for me.  

You are also seen as an advocate for first responders – how did that arise?

It wasn’t a strategic decision but evolved over time. I have written five books, as of 2020, and have  attended and spoken at many conferences and events, across Canada, over the past seven to 10 years. The whole process has allowed me to meet, and get to know, dozens of responders, fellow advocates, and medical professionals, from the United States and Canada. I try to do what I can to get the word out that – we fundamentally owe our first responders our ultimate respect, support, and funding, across all levels of government, for training and support services, right now.

What kind of research do you do in writing your books?

The research is one of my favourite parts of writing. It takes a long time, many months, or years. It will involve attending multiple conferences on the latest mental health and wellness information, article and book reading, online research, and many interviews with people, to name a few research tools. Most of my books contain 15 to 20 interviews. Some people are interviewed multiple times. I learned how to do in depth research at King’s. But that learning never stops. I am also an advocate of lifelong learning. Research is a major part of writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. You need a good base layer before you can ice your cake.

Where do you write?

I write at home, on a desktop. I also have a laptop, but I am faster at my desk. I always sit facing a window for inspiration. I love to watch the birds and people go by. On my desk, there is a vase from Barcelona that our daughter bought for me, a pen holder from a friend that says, “Be as bold as your lipstick,” a small picture of my late parents on their wedding day, and a handmade paper maché dish made by the late Canadian artist, Bernard Bowles. It was a gift from one of my dearest friends, who is like a sister. Inside the small dish is a tiny, printed quote that says, “Always believe something wonderful is about to happen.” I don’t like a lot of clutter around me when I work. I usually write for three to six hours in one sitting, and begin about 9am. I am not a coffee shop writer. I find it distracting. I also don’t focus well after dinner time, so late-night writing sessions do not work for me. I am focused when I start a project. A day can go by quickly. I will often stand at the kitchen counter to eat a snack and go right back to the work. I will also re-heat my tea multiple times, as the mug will sit in front of me and go cold. I forget it’s there. Tea is a must.

What project are you working on now?

I am working on a video script for a client. It’s about a 15-minute video, so it’s an in-depth script that is very technical and requires a lot of research. I am also editing a magazine-style brochure for another client. The second client is a former student of mine. I taught part-time in the Department of Communication Studies, at Mount Saint Vincent University, (MSVU), for nearly 17 years. I am humbled to be working for a former student. All of the people I taught are a major gift in my life. I miss them. I left campus life in 2017, but they will always be ‘my students.’ 

What do you see as the “silver lining” of the pandemic? What aspects do you hope to carry through into the future?

I am inspired by the stories of empathy and support I am reading across social media platforms. People have really stepped up to help one another, in small and large ways. I find this soothing. I also love seeing families spending more time together. People are doing hobbies, creating art, baking, or just leaving time ‘to simply be.’ We were all rushing around so much that I am not sure we knew exactly what we were rushing about for; our people must come first. And now, we realize that lost connections with people are taking a toll. As we move forward, I hope we appreciate people, and even the smallest experiences, more deeply. Going for a coffee or having a sandwich on a patio downtown will have new meaning. I also hope employers will allow people to continue to work from home if this suits and supports their lifestyle. Working from home is challenging for some people, but I love it.

Have you been putting on lipstick during this time?

I laughed out loud when I read this question. I don’t always wear lipstick at home, but as my friends and family know, it is my favourite go-to accessory. Pink lipstick is kind of a signature item for me. My students in my final 2017 MSVU class bought me a tube of Mac lipstick as one of my parting gifts. I continue to buy the bright pink colour they chose for me. This fascination with lipstick likely started because my late mother, Theresa, always applied it before she went out. She never wore it at home. Working from home today, I am wearing a sweatshirt, pink pyjama bottoms, slippers, my hair is in a bun, and I am wearing zero makeup/no lipstick. I rarely wear much makeup outside of socializing. Since you have asked, I feel compelled to now leave you, spruce myself up, and put on a coat, of lipstick. Great final question.  

 – Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: A.J.B. Johnston

John (or Jay) Johnston is the author or co-author of 20 books: 15 on different aspects of the history of Atlantic Canada and five novels. The Canadian Historical Association awarded a Clio prize to his Endgame 1758: The Promise, the Glory and the Despair of Louisbourg’s Last Decade, while Ni’n na L’nu: The Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island was selected in 2014 as the best published Atlantic book. John was made a chevalier of France’s Ordre des Palmes académiques in recognition of his many publications on the French presence in Atlantic Canada. He lives in Halifax with his wife Mary. For more information, please visit

Author photo by Nicola Davison, Snickerdoodle Photography.

A.J.B. Johnston is the name on your books. What do the A, J, and B stand for? What name did your mom call you?

The names behind the initials are Andrew John Bayly. When I first started to publish I used just my initials (like a lot of well-known authors at the time) and now I feel locked into that style. My mom called me Johnny, and everyone else either Jay or John.

As a writer, you seem to do it all, writing fiction and non-fiction. How come you didn’t just settle on one thing or another? 

For many years, I wrote mainly history (for my longtime employer, Parks Canada, and for my own personal research interests), with occasional freelance non-fiction pieces in magazines or newspapers. I turned to fiction because I came to feel that there were stories I wanted to tell (and themes to explore) that went well beyond any historical evidence. It was an odd sensation in the beginning to invent characters, settings and dialogue. Historians don’t do that! So far, I’ve been able to keep the two crafts separate. I believe that after I moved into fiction, my non-fiction writing for museum exhibits became much more creative.

From your website, I see that you are a chevalier of the Ordres des Palmes Academiques. That’s incredible! How did that come about? 

I had a champion — the late Robert Pichette, who among many other accomplishments, designed the flag of New Brunswick — who put together a dossier of all my work on the French presence in the history of Atlantic Canada, especially in connection with 18th-century Louisbourg. The powers that be in France accepted the case that Robert put forward and gave me the honour. There was a touching ceremony at the French Consulate in Moncton.

As well as a writer of books, you are an interpretative writer. What does that mean? And what are some of your favourite projects?

I have written a great many exhibits over the years, beginning with when I was with Parks Canada and then later as an independent writer. It is challenging to write short rather than long, a challenge I like. Not everyone is inclined to do that kind of work. I feel especially fortunate and honored to have written the ground floor exhibit at the Black Cultural Centre, the permanent installation at Truro’s Colchester Historeum, the Ni’n na L’nu travelling exhibit and the recent “Vanguard” exhibit for the Nova Scotia Museum. 

Tell me about your latest book, Kings of Friday Night. What is it like to release a book during a pandemic?

I hope Kings reaches different audiences, beginning with those who remember The Lincolns but extending to those who do not, but who are nonetheless interested in a touching, sometimes funny, sometimes sad story that is ultimately a universal tale. It’s a book that is also a partial memoir, with some 1950s and 1960s social and cultural history of Nova Scotia thrown in. The pandemic closures eliminated the usual book launch events, which was a drag, especially the postponement of the Marigold Centre event that was going to include performances by the legendary Lincolns themselves, with Charlie A’Court taking over as the singer after the passing of Frank MacKay last year..

What kind of research did you do for this book?

I found lots of good material, especially images and even a forgotten TV show, in various archives. Decades of experience as an historian really paid off. Even more important than the visuals were all the stories the guys in the band and the legion of fans were willing and eager to share. Those recollections make the story come alive.

I also notice that some of your books are self-published and others are conventionally published. Why did you decide to go the self publishing route? What are the advantages/disadvantages? 

I was curious about self-publishing, and gave it a try with The Hat and Something True. They were stories I wanted to get out there, but I can now say that, for me, I much prefer going the traditional route with a publisher. I was especially disappointed that the books were initially only available on not  

If you didn’t write, what do you think you’d do for a living?

I don’t think I would ever not write. I can’t imagine it. Words are everything. But I have to say that I was lucky to find work (and leisure time) to write history, fiction and museum exhibits, rather than memos about who knows what. Truth be told, I did also write tons of memos, minutes and other things back when I was a public servant. They paid the rent etc. The immense variety of writing over the years gave me the feeling that I could write about anything, because I already had. I’ve never suffered any kind of “block.” If I am not sure what to write next on some project, I’ll go for a walk, and allow the way ahead to raise its hand.  

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

I really like Nicola Davison’s In The Wake. It’s persuasive, moving and thoughtful.

What are you working on now?

I have two projects. One is the fourth and final novel in my Thomas Pichon series. My working title is World Undone. The other is a second book about PEI history with Jesse Francis. That one is entitled Ancient Land, New Land. It was to be launched in the summer of 2020 but complications arising from Covid 19 has pushed it back a year.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders.

Author spotlight: Melanie Mosher

Writer Melanie Mosher grew up in Amherst, Nova Scotia and now lives on the eastern shore of the province with her husband in a little green house with a bright orange door. Always an avid reader, her love of writing began in Grade 2 when she won an essay contest. Her two daughters make me proud and her granddaughter, Emma, reminds her of the joy of childhood.

I love the little bit of info about yourself on your website. What was it like to grow up in a funeral home?

My Dad was a funeral director and licensed embalmer and my family lived in the upstairs apartment over the funeral home. I really didn’t consider it much different than anyone else’s home. We did have to be quiet sometimes as the noise we made upstairs traveled through the floor and could disturb the mourners below and my parents worked odd hours compared to other families. I can remember kids at school teasing me and telling me spooky stories, trying to scare me. I told my dad, and he quickly replied, “It’s not the dead you need to fear.” I never thought much more about it. It was my home. No, we didn’t get many trick or treaters at Halloween, but I did have plenty of friends who came to visit.  

Your latest book is called A Beginner’s Guide to Goodbye. What is it about? What is it like to have a new book come out during a pandemic?

A Beginner’s Guide to Goodbye is a story of loss. Ten-year-old Laney has lost her sister in a tragic accident and we see her and her family grieve. They travel to their cottage on the Northumberland Strait of Nova Scotia for the first time since Jenny’s death but Laney is worried her favourtie place may not be the same. It is a gentle story about a tough subject written for a young audience although suitable for all readers including adults. It is meant to provide comfort for those who have lost, and encourage empathy for those around them. It is meant to provide hope and spark difficult, yet necessary, conversations. 

It is a story that seems a bit “too” relevant right now. My sincere hope is that is may resonate with readers and provide comfort.

What do you like about writing for children and teens? 

For the younger readers, I love their honesty and their imagination. And I can always learn from them. For example, in my picture book, Fire Pie Trout, young Grace will not put the worm on the hook. For me, as the writer of a certain age, this was simply because it was gross and about her fear of trying new things. But when I went into the classroom and asked students in Grade 2 why this happened, they immediately told me it was because Grace didn’t want to harm another living creature. “Okay, but what about the fish?” someone else asked. It started a wonderful conversation about nature and the circle of life. A conversation I hadn’t expected.

What were some of your favourite books growing up?

This is a hard question to answer. I was fortunate to live a house filled with books and readers. My parents were generous when it came to the Scholastic book orders and my siblings and I spent much of our allowance at the local comic book store. I also frequented the local library. To name a few: Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Winnie-the Pooh, Clifford, the Big Red Dog, Pippi Longstocking, Baked Beans for Breakfast, The Pigman, and anything by Beverley Cleary, Judy Blume, Mark Twain, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

I would have to say money on workshops and courses about writing. Because, writing is a solitary endeavor, it is important to come together with other writers to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas. I still look back on the workshops I took at the WFNS in 1999-2001 (dates may be off as that’s a long time ago) with Norene Smiley and Carol MacDougall as the ones that set me on the path to becoming a published author. The encouragement of the instructors and fellow writers was/is a priceless thing.

Does your corner of the world — Gaetz Brook — figure into your fiction?

Not specifically, but my love of a rural setting and the importance of nature is part of my stories. My characters often know their neighbours, walk through paths, and climb trees. And can go fishing. When I give a presentation here in Nova Scotia and ask grade one students to tell me a “fishing story,” every hand flies into the air. Once, when I was in Toronto, I asked a group of kids to raise their hand if they’d been fishing. No one raised their hand. Up to that point, I had taken for granted how influenced I was by my beautiful province of Nova Scotia.

What has it been like for you during this strange time? Have you discovered anything about yourself that you didn’t know previously? What have you found to be difficult?

I’m an introvert, so staying home has been okay. I write, I read, I cook, I rake, I garden, I play solitaire. Again, I am grateful for my rural surroundings and my yard. Being able to get outside and be in nature is very important. Also, I am very grateful for technology. Having email, messenger, Facebook, Zoom, and twitter make it possible to stay connected with my family, friends, and other writers. Some of these I found overwhelming before, now they are necessary.

I used to say “If I had more time…”

Now, I have the time, but I find it hard to settle down and focus. Perhaps it was an excuse all along!

I am recognizing what’s important by recognizing what I miss most: hugging my family and friends, the freedom to come and go, and the sense of purpose that going to my day job gave me. But I also have immense gratitude for my government and our medical system and all those essential workers still going to their job each day.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I prefer to write early in the day.  I love to write by hand using pen and paper, my favourite being Hilroy scribblers. My computer is great for editing, rewriting, and sharing words, but the creative part, for me, is still with paper.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Criticism can be devastating if it comes too early in my writing process, so I have become very protective of first drafts. I do seek advice from others, and I think it’s important, and I do want and get feedback, both positive and negative. But if I’m still in the stages of developing an idea, negativity can squash it and the story fades away. Once the draft is complete, I’m not as vulnerable and I can welcome the input of others. And I do welcome the input. None of my writing is complete without the others. Writing is solitary, but it’s also collaborative.

What does literary success look like to you?

If I can help one person, make a difference in their world, have them recognize themselves in my story, then I have success. 

What are you working on right now?

My ideas seem to pick me, and don’t go away until I listen. When Vic Markham, the protagonist, in Goth Girl, first appeared in my imagination she intimidated me and I didn’t want to write a young adult novel about a girl dressed in black who was breaking the law and mouthing off to police. She was relentless and eventually I sat and let her speak. I’m glad I did.

I usually have more than one project on the go at a time. I am currently working on a non-fiction piece for adults, which is a completely new genre for me. It’s a memoir that details my journey with depression, not one that I would have volunteered to write, but as I’ve said, it is persistent.  Because it can get “heavy” at times, I am also working on an early chapter book about a young boy named Jackson. Jackson finds himself suspended from school for three days and must spend them with his cranky old neighbour, George. Discovering how these two unlikely characters become friends due to circumstance provides me balance.

 Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Joan Dawson

Joan Dawson is a member of the Lunenburg County Historical Society, the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Archaeology Society, and the Antiquarian Club of Halifax, and she is a fellow of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society. She has written many articles on maps and local history, co-authored Historic LaHave River Valley, and authored Nova Scotia’s Historic Rivers, Nova Scotia’s Lost Highways, The Mapmaker’s Eye, and The Mapmakers’ Legacy. Joan lives in Halifax.

How did you get interested in history? 

I’ve always like social history, and growing up in the UK with its mediaeval churches and ancient villages, it became part of my everyday life.

What books did you read as a young person made you want to become a writer? 

I read everything that came into my hands, from Winnie the Pooh to Shakespeare. From an early age at school we were encouraged to write, and I enjoyed it.   

You seem to take such an interesting slant in your books. I’m thinking of A History of Nova Scotia in 50 Objects and Nova Scotia’s Lost Communities … topics that aren’t often explored. In writing history books about our area, what do you hope readers will discover? 

I would like them to think about the way our communities have grown up, and to look for traces of the events and people that have shaped them into the places they are today,  their hopes and dreams, successes and disappointments, joys and sorrows.  

You’ve got a new book out this year, Nova Scotia’s Historic Harbours. What kinds of things did you find out that Nova Scotians may find surprising? What is it like to release a new book during a pandemic? 

Two very different questions! First, I would like people to realize that almost all of our history began on our harbours. They are where Europeans first met the Indigenous people who frequented them, where people arrived as adventurers, colonizers, immigrants or refugees, to begin new lives; where they established communities based on industries; where they saw changes over the years. 

Secondly, it is strangely relaxing not to be planning for a launch, for talks and signings, the usual events associated with a book release. I suppose—and hope—there may be reviews and media interviews, but it all seems to be very low key. Perhaps by the publication date which is still some time away, I’ll have more of an idea of how things will go.

What is your research process like? What’s your favourite part of writing a book? 

My research method varies depending on how familiar I already am with my subject. I may go back to old notes and documents, re-read books, and look for new information. Or I may start from scratch, using the internet to find background material, and then check other resources for facts and details. I often use old maps to get a feel for a place and its inhabitants. I like to visit places, take photos, browse in local museums and on the internet.  Probably my favourite part in writing a book is the initial planning and getting the first words onto the page.

What is your favourite part of Nova Scotia? 

Lunenburg county and the LaHave River, for their beauty and for the depth of their history.  

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

An idle old woman messing about in her garden. (I often wish I had studied archaeology.)

If you could only have three books to read during the pandemic, what would they be and why? 

I recently bought Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror & The Light, but before I began on them, I went back to Wolf Hall, which I had read ages ago. I’m now nearly through Bring Up The Bodies, and will soon begin on the last (and thickest) of the trilogy. So there are the three that I’m actually reading, but if I were limited to only three for the duration, I would probably chose a complete Shakespeare, the Oxford Book of English Verse, and a Dickens novel.

What is bringing you happiness during this pandemic? What do you find the most difficult? 

A great joy has been sunny Sundays when my son and daughter-in-law and a grandson have come to have tea with me—at a distance—in a sheltered corner of my garden. Working in my garden is another joy, and even weeding, now that there’s all the time in the world, brings a sense of satisfaction. What is difficult is not being able to meet friends for coffee and a chat, but it’s good to exchange news and ideas by email.

What are you working on now? 

I have been writing pieces for Historic Nova Scotia, a website highlighting interesting people, places and events around the province.

– questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Briana Corr Scott

Briana Corr Scott is a painter, illustrator, and an author who lives in Nova Scotia. Her oil paintings, paper doll kits, and children’s books are inspired by a deep love of the natural world. 

In this Q&A, Briana talks about how her love of art and children’s books came together. Her books include I Dream of Sable Island and The Book of Selkie, both published by Nimbus. (See the book trailer for The Book of Selkie here.)

I’ve always loved your artwork and known you to be a painter. When did you decide you’d like to write a book and be an author too?

I have always loved writing. From a very young age I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator and author. I had a very influential creative writing teacher in high school and during that time I fell in love with poetry. Poetry and painting are the same activity to me; there is a method and an expectation, they both have restraints and a tradition that together form a creative box. I am more inventive with parameters. While I was attending art school I put aside the dream of being an illustrator and author because the illustration department  had just switched from analog to digital, and I wanted to learn how to paint. I continued to study poetry in my electives,  and I took on fine art as a major. Consequently, I have had to learn a lot of the computer programs for illustration later in life but I don’t regret the path I took to get here. I didn’t pick up my childhood dream again until recently, around 2016. I was just about to burst with all the stories I was keeping inside. I sometimes have imposter syndrome about being an author, but hey, it is way too fun for that to get in the way for very long. 

Where do you draw your inspiration?

My words and paintings are inspired by drawing from life, mostly objects from nature. Drawing is the thinking part of my process, and the creative thing I love most out of anything I do. I start by drawing objects that I am curious about. While I am drawing, pieces of stories or lines of poems come to me and I jot them down next to the sketch. I have piles of these scribbles and sketches in my studio. At some point a whole story or a whole series of paintings forms from this jumble.  I usually work around a theme. For example, in 2017, I was obsessed with Sable Island. I made a series of 20 fine art oil paintings at the same time I wrote my first picture book, She Dreams of Sable Island. I feel like whatever am currently curious about gets pushed out through writing, illustrating and painting. 

From the illustration exhibition 1,000 Words held at Teichert Gallery last year, I know you actually created your first book much earlier, when you were a little girl. Can you tell me about that?

My first grade teacher saw how much I loved to draw. She encouraged my mother to help me enter a book making contest. She helped me put together the illustrations and story into a book. Specifically,  my mother had to build a book from scratch , using a pattern and a typewriter , she even had to hand bind it. The title of the book is called The Flower Horse, and I find it funny that this is  very “on brand” for what I create today. The book is a beautiful object and I  treasure it. Making a book is like creating a universe that someone else can hold in their hands. I became hooked on that process at a young age, and it is every bit as thrilling to me now as it was back then. 

What were the books you enjoyed as a girl? 

I have a whole slew of picture books that I loved and I still love to look at, they include some Gyo Fujikawa among others.  For novels I loved the Anne of Green Gables series and Little Women. I loved and re-read Little Women so much that I named two of my children after the main characters. (I have a Josephine and a Teddy. Jo thinks her middle name is March but it is really Margaret. ) I also loved anything by James Herriot. In high school I lived in the poetry section of the library, Charles Simic was and is still a favourite.

I Dream of Sable Island contains paper dolls … I remember loving paper dolls when I was a kid but they seem so retro now … why did you want to create paper dolls in your first book and what has been the reaction been from kids?

I loved making paper dolls and figuring out all the details of the wardrobes when I was younger. I started an illustration business self publishing paper doll kits in 2011, after making a series of kits for my own children. It sparked something inside me and I have been making them ever since. I was thrilled when Nimbus wanted to include a kit with my first picture book, I think it adds another layer of interaction with the stories I write. 

Congratulations on your new book, The Book of Selkie. What’s it like releasing a new book during a pandemic?

Thank you! This story has been inside me for 30 years at least, I am happy to have it in the world. Books and stories are so important right now because they offer a chance to leave your house, even if it is just in your imagination. I am determined to give The Book of Selkie a proper release despite the pandemic. I have created lots of digital content to help get this story into the world. I am excited to share some stop-motion videos featuring my selkie paper doll, as well as colouring pages, bookmarks and projects for families to make at home. My version of the selkie is so relevant right now; she is a creative person who loves to be alone, loves to make things with her hands, and loves to eat simple, good food.  That is what a lot of us are doing in isolation if we are lucky 🙂 

Your website is so good. I love the short videos and the gallery is lovely. You’ve also got a section called Fun Free Things. What’s your hope for this section?

“Fun Free Things” is a section I created to share colouring pages and other resources to accompany my picture books.  During the pandemic I decided to add to it weekly. I wanted to help people in some way, and I used my skills to create activities with kids and families in mind.  It is place where I post stop motion stories that I make with my paper dolls, drawing tutorials, and free printable projects. It is important to me that as many people as possible can see and interact with my art. I have a degree in Museum Education, and some part of me is linking back to that skill set by creating these themed activities. The free projects are another layer of interaction with what I make.  

What are some things you’ve been doing to cope with the stay-home order? What are you missing the most?

I have been pretty busy despite the stay home order. My husband and I both work at home so that hasn’t changed,  but my three kids are home from school. I love having them home but I have less focused time in the studio. The kids enjoy helping me or watching me make the stop motion videos so we sometimes do that as a group. I have made lots of sketches in the 20 minutes here and there when I am not cooking or homeschooling or entertaining kids. I am not putting pressure on myself to work because nothing good comes of that, but if some time materializes I do something that makes me happy.  I using time in the evenings for a personal project in which I am documenting and dissecting all the themes of my work by creating a “visual vocabulary”. Each day I draw a different item that I always return to, and then I write about it and what it might symbolize. This project is for my own benefit but people have enjoyed learning about this “behind the scenes” investigation on social media. I also taught a drawing class via Zoom which was fun and crazy! 

What will be one of the first things you do when we’re allowed to go out again?

I will put on real pants, hug some people I haven’t  seen, and then I will go eat a delicious sandwich at the Bird’s Nest Cafe in Halifax which is one of my favourite treats. I will then walk down to Argyle Fine Art and look at beautiful art and then I will poke around Desseres. 

What are you working on now?

I am extremely excited about my next book project with Nimbus. The new book is a retelling of the classic story of Thumbelina. It is called Wildflower.  The ideas for it started this past summer while I was on a painting residency at the Burren College of Art in Ireland. I was observing  and sketching the rare wildflowers that grow in the Burren.There is a strict code about not picking these wildflowers, and that honour code inspired me and became one of the themes of the book in an interesting way.  The other theme is about the bond between a mother and a child. I am so excited to escape into this new universe, it is very different from the two other books I have published. 

– questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Jo Treggiari

Jo Treggiari was born in London, England, and raised in Canada. She spent many years in Oakland, California and New York, where she trained as a boxer, wrote for a punk magazine, and owned a gangster rap/indie rock record label. Her novels for teens include Ashes, Ashes, a multiple award nominee and bestseller, a novella Love You Like Suicide, a psych-thriller Blood Will Out, and her most recent book The Grey Sisters which was a Governor General’s Literary Award finalist and an Arthur Ellis Award finalist.  She lives with her two children in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia where she co-owns a curated, spirited, independent bookstore Lexicon Books. 

Tell me about your latest YA novel The Grey Sisters. What’s it about?

The Grey Sisters follows three teen girls as they travel to the site of the mountain-side plane crash that killed their siblings. D and Spider are hoping for closure, and Min comes along for support. Meanwhile, Ariel, a member of an isolated survivalist cult who lives on the mountain, experiences a deadly attack that sends her looking for help from the outside. When the girls meet in a chance encounter, none of them are prepared for the way their very different worlds collide. I was asked to sum up the plot in one sentence recently and I said it was Little Women meets Deliverance

You seem to be unique among YA authors in that your books are scary and this seems unusual to me. What is it about these genres (YA, thrillers) that attracts you?

The exciting thing about writing for teens is that you can delve into experiences that most humans face—love, death, loss, grief, fear to name a few—but for a teenager, they are happening for the first time and there’s a tremendous amount of emotion and growth attached to that. A thriller lets me ramp up all those feelings, heighten twists of the plot, and build my characters by testing them. Writing page-turners comes naturally to me but I spend a lot of time fleshing out my characters so that readers can still relate to them in some way even though most of us will live our lives serial-killer and cult free.

Back when you were a teen reading YA books, what did you read?

I was a voracious reader so I read everything. All the books in the house which included all of my parents’ books too. Both of them are teachers, and my father is also a librarian. I read and enjoyed classic literature including the myths, Arthurian legends, fairytales, but also modern horror like Stephen King and Clive Barker, and I was a huge fan of Tolkien, Charles de Lint and Ursula K. Leguin. My favourite genre was adventure stories but back then there weren’t many that featured female or diverse heroes so that’s definitely become a theme in my books. 

Congratulations on the nomination of The Grey Sisters for an Arthur Ellis Award. What was your reaction upon hearing? Why are awards (and award nominations) important for writers? 

Thank you! I was thrilled and surprised.  The great thing about awards and nominations is that they increase the visibility of your work. And they level the playing field especially here in Canada. Lesser-known authors and smaller publishers have as good a chance as the bigger houses and best-sellers. There’s often a cash prize as well and that’s certainly appreciated by most authors I know!

How did you end up in Lunenburg? Does Lunenburg or the south shore end up in your fiction?

Like so many others, I came on a trip, fell in love with the beauty of Nova Scotia, and on a whim decided to move here. I grew up in Ottawa, but lived in the States for 30 years before making my way back to Canada.  Nova Scotia definitely informs my plot ideas and inspires me but since I write about horrible things, I’ve been reluctant to situate my books here geographically. That being said, I’ve read a lot of local non-fiction that has flavored my stories and I’ve begun a first-draft for a YA mystery that will be set here in my hometown.

Not only are you a writer but a bookstore owner too. Can you tell me about Lexicon Books and how it came to be? Is Lexicon still operational right now?

One of my many past jobs was selling books in upstate New York at The Golden Notebook which has been in business now for over 40 years. It’s a wonderful magical place like so many bookstores are and it’s located in a town very like Lunenburg—an arts and culture hub, a tourist destination, a summer spot, but with a year-round community of avid readers. Owning a bookstore was always a dream of mine but I fast-forwarded it when I became a single mother. There weren’t many jobs available to me that would forgive snow days, sick days, and shorter hours due to school pick-ups. I knew fellow moms Anne-Marie and Alice and it just seemed to come together naturally. We are closed temporarily due to Covid-19 but we have plans to open again as soon as it is safe for everyone. 

You wrote about the plague in your acclaimed book Ashes, Ashes. As we live through this pandemic, how does the experience feel like fiction? 

When I wrote Ashes, Ashes back in 2010 my children were young and I was imagining the worst thing that could happen to their world. I  wanted to explore the aftermath of something so cataclysmic and life-altering and through it write about bravery, strength and our shared humanity. Would we pull together? Would some people fight to preserve how things had been, or put their faith into science and technology, while others built new communities and went back to the old way of living–growing food, and reconnecting with the earth? It does seem prescient at the moment and recent tragedies have been almost unbearable but I am heartened by how people look after each other, check in with each other, and how kindness and compassion can overcome anything.

Writers are generally used to being solitary to work — has the State of Emergency changed things for you? Are you able to write?

I’m used to and enjoy the isolation of working alone on my books but I also love interacting with people—one of the reasons that working at the bookstore is so fulfilling- so it’s been hard only seeing my friends and neighbors at a distance. Most of my family lives in Europe and that has certainly been a sadness for me. I’m lucky that my kids have been with me full-time although we had to go through a period of adjustment getting the younger one settled with home schooling. My eldest already studies from home.  If I had not finished a first draft of a new book in March, I’m not sure if the current situation would have lent itself to a new project but fortunately I am editing and I find it easy to immerse myself in that process. Writing has always been a cathartic activity for me so there’s a lot of comfort in that as well. 

What are some of the positives you are experiencing?

I could say that I am embracing the slower pace of life at the moment but to be honest my daily life hasn’t changed that much.Normally the bookstore would be on winter hours still, and this is the time of year when I try to write a new book so I was already in hibernation mode.  Being surrounded by nature has always mattered a lot to me and to my well-being and it’s a big reason why I moved here. I can still get out for long hikes with dogs and kids. My study overlooks the harbour and the ocean.I’m whipping my vegetable garden into shape. I have a houseful of books. I feel very grateful.  

What are three great books you’d recommend to folks who are at home and need a good read?

In general fiction I just read and loved Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and  Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell. In Middle-Grade and YA, I’d say Coo by Kaela Noel, Bloom by Kenneth Oppel and Keep This To Yourself by Tom Ryan.

What are you working on right now?

I’m doing edits on a new teen thriller called Heartbreak Homes which will hopefully come out next year. And in another compartment of my brain, I am working on a first draft of a mystery thriller The Moontown Murder Squad set in Lunenburg.

Author spotlight: Tammy Armstrong

Tammy Armstrong is the author of two novels and five poetry collections. Her debut collection, Bogman’s Music (Anvil, 2001), was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Her most recent book is a poetry collection titled Year of the Metal Rabbit, which was published by Gaspereau Press last fall. In what follows, Armstrong discusses her writing practice, what she loves about living in southwestern Nova Scotia, new books she’s looking forward to, and more.

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

I suppose, like many writers, I’ve been writing in some way since I was young. Before I started school, I’d sit on the kitchen counter while my mother cooked and she’d say, “Tell me a story or make up a song,” and so I would. I never had a sense of being “drawn” to writing until I submitted a manuscript to UBC’s Creative Writing Department. I was an undergrad and wanted to switch out of the English department, but was unsure where to go. Before that, writing was just something I did, and I didn’t see it as anything beyond that. I didn’t have aspirations to publish books; that wasn’t something that I felt to be in my reach until I was in my mid-20s.

I probably have suspicions about language that brought me to writing, slant-wise, as well. I had to go through the ITA program in grades one and two. ITA was a ludicrous, 1960s literacy project based on synthetic phonics and short hand, with a symbolic alphabet of 43-45 characters—none of which accounted for regional accents. On the page, it looked like Chaucer, the Jabberwocky, and the Cat in the Hat got together over drinks and co-wrote a book for children. Parents couldn’t read it and were therefore shut out of their kid’s first years’ of literacy. I could already read and write when I started school, but I was reprimanded for spelling even my name in conventional English or reading books written in conventional English. In this way, English became subversive to me. I learned that writing exercises my mother made me do at home, were not the exercises I did at school. It was all very Cold War. In grade three, we were told to forget ITA and learn how words were really spelled. You can see how there’s now a generation out there with terrible spelling skills. I came away from that project with a distrust for rigid systems, but also with a better understanding that there is no one-way to approach language. It has shape-shifting qualities.

Having said all that, I came to poetry through music as well. I wasn’t exposed to much poetry when I was younger, but I had access to a lot of records and so songwriters, to some degree, have influenced how I think about language and form. I’m thinking of writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Bobbie Gentry, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt. Each of them, in their own way, manage to endow marginal characters, edge lands, and difficult experiences, with a sense of grace that other, lesser writers might overlook or dismiss. I also grew up in the 90s and there were many, many wonderful songwriters recording then, as well.

How do you know when a poem is done?

Finished is always a feeling, isn’t it? I never know, really, but I have a sense when the snags are sanded down, when nothing jumps out of the frame. If a line or a word bothers me each time I read a piece, if a stanza is balancing badly on three legs, then I know I’ve got to go back and fix it. When I feel that everything is resting or moving as it should, where it should, then I’m ready to move away from it.

While I wrote the collection over six-seven years, I wanted to compress many of those experiences into a seasonal/annual wheel. Over those years, I lived in four cities in two countries, I travelled to another six countries, and saw firsthand austerity riots in Athens, mega forest fires in New Mexico, and Colorado’s flash floods, which tore through our little town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains—with devastating results. I saw the yards of old boats that African migrants risked their lives in to reach Sicily. And my husband and I drove from Colorado to Nova Scotia five times in two years. All the people I met and all that I saw in those years made my sense of the world strange. It made everything feel displaced and misplaced.

While all of this shifting was happening, I was also finishing up my doctoral dissertation, which explored how animals disrupt poetry with their presence. So, I suppose the “metal rabbit” is that juxtaposition between all things outside the animal (in my case a lot of cars, and planes, and urban living) and all things which give space to the animal (in my case the sea birds and seals now, and the mountain cats, bears, rattlesnakes, mule deer, coyotes, and rabbits I shared my yard with in Colorado). This is why there’s so much shape-shifting in the collection, I think. When you pass by things quickly, or see them through glass, they can trick your eye. They can become something they’re not.

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

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” And I adopt that sort of gentle handling, when it comes to how I think about writing. I come to the page every day, but some days might be puttering or reading or taking notes, and that’s okay. I’m not a fast writer, so I don’t have daily word count expectations or unachievable goals. With things the way they are right now, I feel inadequate with words. So I’ve been spending time reading Anna Akhmatova and letters written during the Spanish Flu, though I have to keep reminding myself that I am reading from the other side of that pandemic and the letters are from the centre; there was no ending for the writers yet, there was only being inside of it.

I also love how various art forms speak to each other. Lately, I’ve been really interested in visual artists, such as Andrew Wyeth, Andrea Kowch, Linden Frederick, and the Russian architect Alexander Nerovnya. All their work orbits around houses, in a sense. I think seeing how others translate the world in other mediums is both a humbling and inspiring way to spend an afternoon.

Do you have any writing rituals?

More habit than ritual, I suppose, but I like to take the first hour every morning to read some poetry or some fiction, especially something that challenges my own preconceptions of writing. I always have a hot cup of Yorkshire tea beside me when I work. And I always write under a quilt that a friend made for me some years ago. I write in an armchair by my window so I can spy on the bird drama that unfolds daily from the English Walnuts outside. When I’m editing, I like to use these really nice metallic gel pens that I bought in Latvia a few years ago. I haven’t been able to find them anywhere since, so I suspect I’ll miss them when they’re gone. I wish my dog would come hang out in my office with me, but he’s afraid of stairs and refuses to make the trip up to my room. That’s a German Shepherd for you.

What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?

I’m not sure . . . maybe the misconception is how much work goes into writing a book, how much of yourself you have to put into it, for years. I read a while ago an analogy to this (can’t remember where), that said something like, can you imagine an architect building a beautiful home and then having to put it on a flatbed truck and move it around, asking if anyone wants to buy it? Writers work on projects for years with very few assurances that they’ll ever see publication. I think all the foolishness with social media tends to skip the hard work because everyone just wants to see the result. Here’s a photo of me after all the hard work’s been done. But we also learn from mistakes and disappointments, and these are, sometimes, the most vital means of achieving a goal, or realizing that we were reaching for the wrong goal. When I look around at all my bookshelves, I see them in terms of years and years of very hard work, so I quietly celebrate and appreciate them in that way.

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

It’s very quiet and kind here. I live in a village where my husband and I may be the only full-time residents not connected, in some way, with lobster fishing. My neighbours not only welcomed us here—no familiar ties, just a couple of vagabonds from away—they’ve also taught me a lot about the landscape, as well as the wildlife. I’m much better with my shorebirds now and my neighbours know, if they see me, I’ll have questions for them about something or other. I’m privileged to be able to live in a rural area by the water, with so many beautiful beaches nearby, and I say a little thank you every day for being able to wake up here and spend my days writing. I’ve always felt that I write from the edges of the country anyway, so I’m happy here, where I can watch the tides and weather change. It’s also the second longest address I’ve ever had.

Are there any books coming out this year that you’re excited about?

I’m looking forward to reading quite a few books, when our world find its balance again. In fiction: Edward Carey’s The Swallowed Man; Anne Louise Avery’s retelling of Reynard the Fox; and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. In non-fiction: Cassie Chambers’ Hill Women; and Lives of Houses, edited by Hermione Lee and Kate Kennedy. And in poetry: Molly Spencer’s If the House; Bruce Snider’s Fruit; Peter Gizzi’s Sky Burial; Linda McKenna’s In the Museum of Misremembered Things; and Sinéad Morrissey’s Found Architecture.  . . . seems to be a bit of a theme here . . .

What’s next for you?

I’ve been working on a novel for a few years now that takes place in New Brunswick lumber camps in the 1920s. I’m also working on a new poetry collection.

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