Sharon Butala

Sharon BInterviewed by Tess Leblanc

Sharon Butala is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction. Her classic nonfiction work The Perfection of the Morning was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and was a #1 bestseller. Her latest novel Wild Rose was a finalist for the WO Mitchell Book Prize. She is the recipient of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and the 2012 Cheryl and Henry Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. In 2002 she became an officer of the Order of Canada. Her new memoir Where I Live Now, about the death of her husband Peter, was recently shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

How has your writing process changed over your forty years of writing?

At the very beginning, a lot of my writing practice was focused on learning craft. One of the big issues that I think most people who didn’t start when they were four finally reach is that moment when you try to figure out what the interaction is between craft and ideas – which comes first, so on and so forth – and I finally figured out that I could not express my ideas, I couldn’t even pinpoint them, until I had developed a certain level of craft. As years passed, and I got better and better at the craft, it became much easier for me to actually take a great leap into better ideas. I didn’t have to fight for the words so much. I was at the Victoria Writer’s Festival recently and they asked about rewriting, because this was a memoir – how many times do you have to write the same thing? For me, with my latest book, it was a great bunch of irritation and defeat and boredom to have to tell the story again. But, for example, when I reached the part where I had to write about the actual day and hours of Peter’s dying, that was actually a great joy to have that task in front of me. Not only had I never written it before, but it was a unique experience, which I think each death is. When you’re a real writer, that is the most exquisite moment, I would say… To render to experience as authentically as possible and in the most truthful kind of language.

How long do you feel like it took you to develop your voice as a writer?

It probably took me a dozen years, but I never knew what my voice was. There’s a part of me that says, “You always had the voice you would wind up with,” but I didn’t really know that, and I’m not so sure now that I haven’t written past voice, into some other stage where the experience itself is of less importance the meaning of the experience, the place of it, the feelings surrounding it.

In Where I Live Now, you talk about knowing a task of your writing was to convince urban people that rural people’s lives were worth reading about. Since you write primarily – and beautifully – about women’s lives, did you ever feel the pressure to convince a male audience women’s lives were worth reading about? Do you see your audience as primarily female?

I suspect that subconsciously I see my audience as mostly female, and I am subconsciously writing for women – although I wish that I weren’t, I would much prefer to be writing for everyone. I think that, because I was writing for women readers, I never felt any need to convince people women’s lives were interesting. I became more and more set in my desire to write about women’s lives with each book.

What was it like when you first began to publish? What path did you personally take to get your work out there?

I was at a weeklong writing workshop that used to be held at Cypress Hills Park once a year but hasn’t been for a long time. One of the teachers was a well-known – at the time – Saskatchewan critic and writing teacher, and she was giving me a ride one morning from the cabin I was staying in. It was a very, very foggy morning, and she pulled to the side of the road. I had asked her to read the manuscript I was working on – this was my first novel – and she pulled over to the side of the road and said, “I want that manuscript, it’s got everything, blah blah blah.” She said, “I’m starting my own publishing company and I want that novel for my publishing company and you owe it to me, I discovered you.” Like a Hollywood movie. She did publish the novel, though I think I waited a year after she got the publishing company going. The first one sold a couple hundred copies at most. Then she published a few other books of mine, and then I got an agent and a contract with HarperCollins Canada. And after that happened, of course, I was moving into the midlist author’s area – meaning I wasn’t a big star but neither was I a beginning writer who didn’t have much purchase yet.

That’s how it started, but at the same time Peter died there was this huge break and change in publishing companies. Although I was still writing every day, people immediately stopped asking me to write for magazines and newspapers, which was probably just as well since I couldn’t do it anyway, and I sort of dropped out of the whole writing scene. They didn’t ask me to go to festivals, they didn’t ask me to do reading. I was away for seven years, and when I returned the world had changed utterly. None of the big publishers wanted what I wrote, because they had the imperative to only publish books that would sell above a certain level, and nobody believed Wild Rose would. So we then sent it to Coteau Books. So there I was, I had dropped out of the big leagues and into the regional publishers again. I just changed agents, and my new agent is telling me it’s hard to make the leap from the small publisher back to the big publisher. I’m sort of shrugging my shoulders. In a lot of ways working with a regional publisher is better for you as a writer. You have a lot more freedom, and even though you don’t sell as well and you don’t get as much publicity, you get to publish what you really wrote. What you really wanted. The big publishers are a lot less open to experimentation. They know what they want, and they have pretty strict parameters. That limits a writer like me, who was able to create a career in a time when they were happy to get the book you gave them, and they’d work with it but they wouldn’t utterly change it.

You’ve spoken about the disappointment you felt in the past when your books were shortlisted for major awards but didn’t win. How do you feel about awards now, especially with Where I Live Now being shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award?

There’s a part of me that still thinks, like an 18 year old, that if I win the Governor General’s the world will be mine and I’ll be levitating with joy, and there’s a larger part that says in the general scheme of things, what’s the Governor General’s Award worth? Not nothing, but it isn’t going to make me 18 again. I’m tremendously pleased to have been shortlisted, and I like to think of my career as having started where it should, at the bottom, and having it slowly build and build until finally now I’ve reached the point in the normal course of events where my work is prize-worthy. That would be very satisfying, but not in the way of a kid at Christmas. Something grounded and sensible.

Something interesting in your book is the way you talk about how your career benefited from being quite isolated from the wider writing world. Do you have any thoughts for emerging writers who are wondering about networking?

It can be exhausting and embittering. There’s a line in the new biopic about Emily Dickinson – obviously I have to wonder about the screenwriters – where she describes herself as feeling that way, embittered. That’s what you have to struggle with, but the forces you encounter are rarely specifically aligned against you. Mostly it’s the way of the world that does this to you. Emily Dickinson was a woman living in a very repressive time and she didn’t go out in the world at all, and that’s probably a main reason she didn’t get published in your lifetime. When you think about the networking events you might feel pressured to do, I believe a lot of them are very worthwhile, but you have to pick and choose. On one hand, if nobody ever heard of you and you never talk up your own work, things will be denied you, I suspect. But on the other hand, overfamiliarity produces a kind of contempt to. “Oh yeah, he’s at all the readings, I don’t know who he is.” I can only speak for myself and look where it got me, but I always consoled myself with the thought I was becoming a better and better writer, and that in the end justice will out. In fact, justice won’t out, but at least you’ve got to hope, if you’re a really good writer. And if you’re always spending your time hanging around these other people, you’re not writing. It often muddles, and makes you envious, and makes you think, “That’s the fashion, I need to put some of that in my book! It’s originality, I think, that in the end gets you furthest in the literary world.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

I give advice to emerging writers all the time! Probably conflicting advice. I say “Don’t listen to your teachers or editors or your fellow writers, there are no rules in creative writing, the best memoirs find their own form… but here’s how you write a memoir.” I say that you have to stick to your essential writing self is saying. You have to resist the best advice, often. At the same time, you can’t think you’re so wonderful you don’t have to listen to anyone. It’s a hard path to walk. The problem with creative writing schools, in my view, is that they have a tendency to kill creativity in their workshopping process. They terrify people, and that’s not good either. I’ve people come into the classes I used to teach, and they left when they found out there’d be workshopping – they had vicious experiences in universities.Sharon B

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