Susan McCaslin

SMcCaslinInterviewed by Michael Cole Klassen

Susan McCaslin, an established Canadian poet and Faculty Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Douglas College, New Westminster, BC, has published fifteen volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Into the Open: Poems New and Selected (Inanna, Sept. 2017). Susan has also published a memoir, Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna, 2014) and a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit (Wood Lake, 2011). Her Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011) was short-listed for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (BC Poetry Book Prize) and first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award. Susan currently resides in Fort Langley, BC, where she initiated the Han Shan Poetry Project as part of a successful campaign to protect an endangered rainforest along the Fraser River.

Susan and her husband are friends of my parents. I saw her books around the house as I grew up, but I didn’t read them—too busy playing videogames and reading fantasy. Recently, I’ve sunk into her lovely mysticism and nature-filled poetry and nonfiction. Eager to absorb the stories and strategies behind her writing and career, I emailed her and we arranged to meet at my parents’ house in Langley.

It’s perfect that you published Into the Open right before this interview: it’s your whole poetry career in one book!

Yes, it was hard to choose! It’s good to see enough of my work in one place that a person—a reader—or even I, can get a sense of patterns of development and recurrent images. Russell Thornton, who wrote the introduction, noticed a recurring image of the magnolia. Though I knew we’d always had a magnolia tree in our front yard, I hadn’t realized it was a pattern, and didn’t know that the magnolia is one of the oldest flowering plants on the planet. So an astute reader gave me back my poems in a new way, which is a rewarding part of putting your work out into the world.

Has talking to your readers about how they experience your work been important to you?

Oh yes. Someone ended up with a volume of my poetry—I forget which one it was—a woman from Australia. She had cancer and would read a poem a night, keeping my book by her bedside. She said it gave her hope. I had no idea the impact it might have on someone so far afield. She later sent me a volume she had written, and we corresponded for a while. Occasions like this come as surprises. I think writers write because we wish to share. When we connect with the beauty of nature, for instance, we want to share it with others. It’s that simple.

How important to you are writing groups and feedback? Has this changed over time?

When I was younger I was much more introverted than I am now. For instance, I didn’t gravitate toward groups or events going on in Vancouver—like the Literary Storefront series that my friend Mona Fertig initiated. And I was never enrolled in a Creative Writing program, since when I began writing in the 60’s and 70’s such programs were relatively new. Then in the 90’s, when invited to teach creative writing at Douglas College, I began to understand the value of receiving feedback from peers. So, I began to participate in the occasional workshop. My husband Mark is one of my best editors. He’s an environmental activist, a nature lover, and has written some poetry as well. He’s excellent at concision, and I would say that now much of my revision process moves in the direction of compression.

Reading your poems, I noticed concision. Personally, I can find so much time and thought into so few words frustrating. Do you ever get frustrated working with concision?

To me, it’s become a pleasure rather than a pain to pare some of my poems down. Sometimes, you can feel you’re losing what you see as your babies or whatever. But a poem can be more powerful when it allows silences in which the words can breathe. You see something—you’re chiseling it—something is emerging that you didn’t previously sense. I feel like, overall, I’ve produced a lot of words. When you add them up, there are perhaps too many, but there they are.

I’m 70 now and I don’t write every day. I don’t try to force the process. There will be months when I’m not writing and then suddenly something will catch my attention. It will take me in deeper till I somehow find myself within a more profound gestalt. In that flow, I’m about the happiest person one could be. Being taken into something larger and more whole is one of the highest states I know. Being part of a larger field, ecology, or web of interconnections feels like something is moving through you. The publicity side, though—what I’m doing right now—is my least favourite piece. Once I’m reading and sharing, I’m fine. But figuring out how to get places and advertising events on Facebook is something I do because I want to stand by my books and interact with readers.

I have a question regarding the publicity stuff—sort of. You wrote in Into the Mystic about how your niche can be isolating. You write many pieces around Christian themes, but in the arts Christianity can be a red flag. At the same time, I can assume that most churchgoers wouldn’t be into your mystic, holistic Christianity. On top of that, poetry is already super niche. So that’s like triple niche.

Exactly.

How has that affected marketing and finding a publisher? Also, how have you coped with the isolation?

I would say that, in some ways, the isolation has been good for me. I had to delve deeply into what really mattered and go with my deepest intuitions. There was a phase where I was afraid people would lump me together with fundamentalist Christians or forms of institutional Christianity that weren’t me. And I did try to distance myself from what to me seem aberrations or distortions of the deepest levels of Christian tradition. When putting my Selected Poems together, I decided not to avoid using the “Christ word” or “Jesus word.” I know that the holistic side of a spiritual tradition, as you called it, is much more inclusive than the rigid forms to which thinking people rightly react negatively. I didn’t want to minimize the uniqueness of the Christian tradition, but also I felt a need to divorce myself from anything that would say “Oh, you have to believe this or that to be saved.”

When I was choosing the poems for this volume, I was tempted to omit some more Christian poems, especially if they use language that could be interpreted as patriarchal or doctrinaire. In one originally titled “Hymn to the Father,” I explored how divinity can be expressed metaphorically as masculine, feminine, and beyond gender categories. In the dream experience that was the basis for that particular poem, the figure sitting on a humble chair was androgynous. So I renamed the poem, “Hymn to the Holy One.” If people read carefully, they’ll see I’m moving toward what the title of my Selected Poems suggests—”into the open.” I feel life has moved me into a more open, mysterious, and experiential form of spirituality. But, you know, I can understand why some readers bristle at religiosity. I have friends who had very bad experiences of Christianity growing up, and rightly rejected it. Probably, if I’d been through what they had, I would have rejected it too.

Do you think you would have ended up doing a Ph.D. and teaching if you didn’t need work? Or did you start teaching mostly out of a love for teaching?

Absolutely. I was drawn to becoming an educator out of an admiration for some of my teachers in elementary school, higher education, and so on. I remember doing a report in grade 8 where the instructions were: “Choose a career that you want to research.” I chose being a teacher. When I was a kid, my biological family called me “Suzy head in the clouds” because I always had a book in hand. So, I guess I was a bookish type from an early age. And never very adept at practical things. Yet, even if I could have made more money at another profession, I would’ve said no. I would have been a fish out of water. The first time I lectured at a university a student approached me after class and said, “was this your first lecture?” I had my notes almost written out word for word. But, as I moved into it, I gained more confidence. Truly, if I had it to do all over again, I’d become a teacher.

So, for you, it wasn’t so much a difficult balance between working and writing—two different things—like how many writers experience it?

Well, in some ways balancing the two things was hard because of the heavy marking load. I started to develop back and neck problems from the marking. It was the marking load and the administrative duties that compelled me to retire at 60. I received a lesser pension, but the decade between turning 60 and now 70 has been the most rich and prolific time in my life as a writer. If I’d continued teaching, I would have had to compress all that energy for my poetry into the summers. That’s what I always did. When you’re a mother—there are a lot of things going on. I had my daughter when I was nearly 40 and I was teaching full time. She was born in April and I returned to teach in September. I had a semi-nervous breakdown when she was about 2, finding myself shaking as I was driving to work. So I managed to keep working, but chose to step down to half time and then back to three-quarter time—in order to restore some kind of work/life balance.

Earlier, we were talking about the lovely flow writing can get you into. In your really busy years, did you feel like sometimes the flow came to you, but you didn’t have time for it?

Yes, I did sometimes. During those periods I would keep notes (journals) and think about projects I might do in the summer. But I also found that—now that I look back on it—I began to write more out of my daily life, rather than just about ancient myths or figures like William Blake. I do have this whole lineage of literary ancestors, and still find myself engaging in dialogues or conversations with dead poets, saints, visual artists, and mystics. My busyness forced me to turn to everyday life more, which I think enriched my work.

You just mentioned this lineage of people from history that you draw from. Like, Demeter Goes Skydiving is about Demeter living now, experiencing modern life. What draws you to mine the present through the eyes of the past?

It started with my reading. I was into fairy tales, myths from an early age. The figures and worlds created though books were real places and presences. Alice in Wonderland was one of my main source books as a child. I remember I’d go to a park with my dad, and he would say “Well, this is wonderland right here”. And I’d say: “No, how do I get to Wonderland? Where’s Wonderland?” It drove him crazy. He was right in a way—this world is wonderland if you see it through the eyes of childlike perception. But I was always looking for alternative realities.

As I matured and read writers like William Blake or the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, they became for me what George Steiner calls “real presences.” I felt like I was communing with their souls or their spirits, to put it bluntly. I had dreams about William Blake and even wrote a poem where I encounter Blake in the afterlife saying “Well, my old stuff was good in its way, but look what I’m doing now!” Such presences come upon me. I enter their work and get swept away. So, I’m glad when that happens. I think anyone can participate actively with anything they truly love. Most writers agree reading widely and well is good for your writing. You’re not going to become so influenced by others that it that it takes away from your voice. Some people might find my subject matter somewhat literary. I mean, they might wonder “who’s Demeter” and feel put off by not being acquainted with the myth. So I try to provide enough context that the poems make sense viscerally, whether or not one knows the myth intimately. Working with ancient materials is part of who I am: as natural as eating peas and carrots.

You write in Into the Mystic about your mother’s schizophrenia in relation to your experiences with Olga—your mystic-teacher. Having these experiences growing up with your mother—how do you think that changed your growth toward being into visions and mysticism?

I would say there’s a double side. One is that my mother’s experiences were traumatic for her and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through them. Yet, she also had a visionary side. As a teenager I was troubled by this duality. Sometimes she would think devils were telling her she couldn’t drink out of the black straw, but she could use the white straw. This form of religious symbolism, apocalyptic and fundamentalist, is something I find limiting and scary. My mother endured horrific experiences when she was in a mental institution at a university hospital and observed by doctors in a padded cell. Yet at the time she also had a visionary experience where she was taken up to heaven. She told me later that Jesus came to her and said “Phyllis, you can come now to heaven and your parents and relatives are here, but if you want to go back to your family—your earth family—it’s your choice.” She said, right out of her heart: “I want to go back and be with my family.” Within three days, she was dramatically improved. Within about two weeks, she was home. Things like that are quite remarkable and have a certain authenticity.

Yet, after returning home, my mother continued to hallucinate: sometimes seeing serpents whirling in the air, being terrified by her “voices.” These things made her anxious and depressed. Olga, however, embodied for me both the visionary and the rational mind. She could mediate between this world and her other worlds, distinguishing without confusing them. She didn’t lose her equanimity or do inappropriate things, and she wasn’t afraid. My mother was full of fear. So Olga, I believe, became a sort of spiritual mother for me in many  ways—having the visionary side of my mother, but with her rationality intact.

Your work makes it obvious that nature is important to you. In his great introduction to Into the Open, Russell Thornton mentions the poetry protest you started in Fort Langley. Was that the first time you initiated that kind of action?

Yes, I would say so. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I protested against the Vietnam war, and I’ve been concerned with peacemaking and justice since I came of age. Later, it was my husband Mark who opened me to environmental activism, something to which he has devoted his life. Back in the early nineties, he got involved in a campaign to save Pinecone Burke Provincial Park. And that was successful. I was always the literary person—the teacher—and he was the activist in the family. So, when I retired, our mutual desire to help save a forest in Glen Valley, near our Langley home, compelled us to join forces. I learned from Mark that there are times when the beauty of a natural area you love compels you to make every effort you can to see it protected.

I was involved in organizing grassroots arts events to bring attention to the plight of the forest, and a poem I wrote at the time contained the line, “I fell in love with a forest and became and activist.” And to me that was it—the connection with beauty linked to the feeling you don’t have any choice but to act. It’s like, you see someone being nearly hit by a car and you’re going to try and save them. So I thought, well, let’s have an art in the park day, and then Mark and the group WOLF—Watchers of Langley Forests—jumped in and helped. Next, I came up with the idea of the Han Shan poetry initiative, whereby a group of us strung up poems solicited from all over Canada and beyond in the forest and invited the community to stroll through. I named the project after a Buddhist monk from the 8th or 9th century AD who was said to have scrawled poems on rocks and trees. Gary Snyder—an ecological poet from the States—named one of his sequences the “Cold Mountain” poems because Cold Mountain in China is where Han Shan was said to have lived. So, I saw the Chinese monk as a Pacific Rim figure because of Snyder. I envisioned the old poet leaping to 21st century BC to help save a west coast forest.

Mark and I were totally conjoined as activists. We had an incredible energy I’d never experienced. We were lucky that the Township came around and that a woman who read the press on the issue donated to make the area an eco-reserve. I think the politicians were embarrassed by all the publicity. And it didn’t hurt that Robert Bateman got onboard. Looking back—I think it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done because saving a small piece of land may serve as a legacy to future generations. Growing up, I was often told that poetry was not practical. The experience allowed me to prove to myself that poetry can be practical, that poetry matters and has power.

Do you think it’s important for art to be connected to activism?


I think when an artist feels called to action from the heart, she should act. But I don’t think artists should feel compelled to be explicitly political every minute. Especially if their muse is taking them elsewhere. If I got to the point where I felt every poem had to make an overt political point, I would feel trapped or narrowed. It just depends on what is presented to you and what you need to write about. The political, after all, isn’t disassociated from everything else. And the personal is political—as the feminists have said. So I think poetry in the largest sense is by definition political, a contribution to what the Greeks called the polis, or public domain. However, it’s also important to avoid the merely didactic or polemical in art.  For me, poems need to sing, not merely teach, and certainly not preach.

Any advice for all us angry writers and artists during a politically erratic time?

Well, anger can be compelling, and be an authentic part of your poetic voice, but it’s only one tonal range. I don’t want to lose the sense of beauty and celebration. I think our innate attraction to beauty and interconnection is what makes us want to be a better species. The current devastation of the natural world, the ecosystems to which we belong and on which we depend, are maybe calling us first to lamentation. Before we can begin to repair and restore the world, I think we need to lament what is lost and being lost, such as extinct and endangered species. Grieving doesn’t preclude action, but sometimes it has to precede it. We need to act and celebrate, but I think we need to grieve too.

Michael Cole Klassen is a writer/musician/performer who lives near UBC and is at the moment finishing his BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in philosophy, focusing mostly on fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and lyricwriting. He also attends the Jennings Institute for Performing Artists and helps students with writing at UBC’s Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.

 

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Catherine Vale

 

Catherine ValeInterviewed by Alyssa Brazeau

Originally from Nova Scotia, Catherine Vale is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling urban fantasy and paranormal romance novelist. Catherine’s novels are self-published on Amazon.com. She began this in 2011 when Amazon unveiled their Kindle Publishing Platform, and has received success ever since.

Her first novel Curve Crazy debuted in 2011 under her pen Adriana Hunter. In 2014, she made the New York Times Book Review E-Book Bestsellers list with Fated Mates, a box set of paranormal and shifter romance novels by various writers. Then in 2017, the urban fantasy and paranormal romance box set Haunted By Magic made the USA Today Best-Selling list.

I wanted to interview Catherine because I was fascinated by her ability to thrive in the unpredictable economy of e-books.

Catherine graciously took time away from her busy work and family life in Ontario, to email with me.

What is your background, work and education wise?

I started out writing poetry, filling countless binders with edgy, emotionally-charged poems that were based on whatever was going on in my life at the time.

Later, I turned to songwriting and finally, fiction writing in my late teens. I had my first poem published in a book distributed by Scholastic Canada in the late 80’s titled Windows of the World. After that, I was hooked.

My first job was working at a bookstore which nurtured my love for literature. Though my paychecks went right back to the store in the form of book purchases!

When I bought my first computer in 1997, I carved out a career in writing copy for budding entrepreneurs and new businesses.

 Do you have an idol that influences your work?

As a teen, I read every mystery novel under the sun and everything ever released by Judy Blume. I was also a huge fan of V.C Andrews and have a full collection of every single book she has ever written. Today, I read a lot of books by Philippa Gregory as I’m drawn to the Tudor era. I hope to one day write a historical fiction novel when the time is right.

What is your daily writing routine?

A routine? What’s that? (wink). I write when I feel inspired to write, and thankfully I’ve managed to stay consistent over the years. I don’t force the process though. There are times where I’m able to write 10,000 words a day for 3-4 days straight, and then I take a week off to recharge.

I do find “sprinting” works best. This is where I literally shut everything else down and focus on writing for just one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon and one hour at night. When that timer goes off, I stop, even if I’m in the middle of a scene.

Breaking up sessions keeps my mind fresh and that way, I don’t suffer burn out. And if I stop in the middle of a scene, even better, because it’ll stay at the forefront of my mind all day until my next sprint and then my fingers fly! It seems to have worked well for me for the last few years because I’ve never missed a deadline!

Is Vale your only pen name?

No, Vale is one of many. I came up with Catherine Vale based on my name, Catherine Valerie. I started writing as Adriana Hunter, and have recently launched a pen name, Kate Nova, in reverence to my home province, Nova Scotia.

Do you use different pen names for different genres?

Yes, I do. I was told early on not to confuse readers and so I segment my books based on genre. Recently I’ve decided to test the waters and publish books from different genres under my main pen, Catherine Vale. I’m hoping it works out because it’s a lot easier to manage just one pen name. We’ll see how it goes!

Which genre is your favorite to work in?

Urban fantasy is currently my favorite genre to write in. I wrote a lot of books in paranormal romance before I ventured into urban fantasy, but there’s nothing more fun than writing about magic and mayhem!

Do you think there’s a particular genre that’s more lucrative?

The popularity of genres changes with the wind. I started out writing erotic romance for BBW readers, and then ventured into paranormal romance when vampires and werewolves were suddenly popular. If you write to market, you need to stay on top of the changes and demands, which isn’t always easy to do. Recently, military romance and cozy mysteries have become popular again, but in a few months it could be something entirely new.

What are some rookie mistakes that new authors should look out for?

Not investing in themselves. If you want to maximize exposure and build an audience, you need to invest in your craft and treat it like a business. Hire professional book designers, editors and set up a beta team of readers as well as an ARC (Advanced Review Copy) group. Don’t try to do it all yourself just because you’re trying to save money. If you can’t afford to properly package and launch your book, wait until you’re able to save enough money to give it the attention it deserves.

What motivates you to keep writing despite an unstable industry?

I write for the pure love of writing. It has never been about sales or distribution for me, though I’ve been very fortunate to have had success with both. I do work in other writing fields as well, including as a copywriter for a very successful marketing company. I also create content for several companies in nonfiction markets, and am currently working on content for www.WritersHustle.com, a website I plan to launch in 2018 that will provide tips and resources for budding writers who want to break into the fiction market.

What advice would you give others that are struggling?

My best advice is that if you are writing for the pure joy of it, write what you are most passionate about. If you are writing with the hope of earning a full-time income, then write to market.

If you are lacking motivation, join an online writers group and network with other new writers. Join a box set. Not only will that allow you to form valuable relationships with other authors, but it’ll provide you with a front row seat into the entire marketing and book launch process. And you never know, you might even hit a bestsellers list!

Alyssa Brazeau is in her final year of the BFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently juggling projects, including a children’s paranormal/sci-fi novel, and a television crime drama.

 

Michael Hingston

Michael8057Interviewed by Alex Migdal

Michael Hingston’s byline is well known in Edmonton. He served as the Edmonton Journal’s books columnist from 2012 to 2016 and regularly writes about the city’s oddities, from West Edmonton Mall to the failing Oilers to why so many of its local landmarks are named after Winston Churchill. His stories have also appeared in The Washington Post, Wired and The Guardian. Hingston published his first novel, The Dilettantes, in 2013. His newest project — a book about Calvin and Hobbes called Let’s Go Exploring — is slated for release in May 2018. I caught up with Hingston by phone as he drove to Calgary to promote another one of his projects, a short story collection titled The Ghost Box.

 

When did you commit to being a full-time writer?

 

I’ve always told people that you should keep a day job for as long as possible if you’re trying to be a writer. Not having to count on that work for money gives you a little bit more freedom. You’re not hustling quite as constantly and taking on every single thing that comes by for fear of missing out.

 

For eight years, I had a full-time job and freelance on the side. I had kids and a family life at home. My partner had been home with the kids all that time and I felt it was my turn to be at home with them. My son was in kindergarten for two hours a day. I felt confident enough at that point that I could easily fill those two hours with freelance writing. Which is to say that after eight years of freelancing, I was confident I could spend a quarter of a day with freelancing work. That maybe speaks to the constant insecurity of freelance work.

 

Were you able to fill two hours a day?

 

It was way too conservative of a guess. I instantly had too much work to do. I got a contract a month after I quit. I also got a pretty big contract doing a freelance project for the City of Edmonton. It was not a luxurious home life. I ended up doing weekends and evenings more than I wanted to. It was for the best, I think. I like being more conservative than more optimistic because there’s nothing worse than having the time and not having anything to do with it.

 

What’s your writing process like? It sounds like you work in chunks.

 

Chunks, for sure. That was the other fear of quitting to become a full-time writer. I can’t write for eight hours a day. I have to be switching gears between things. Even in university, I was only able to write a page of an essay per day. I would have to then work backwards. If I need to get this done in a week, and it’s a seven-page essay, I would give myself enough time that way. That formula still holds out.

 

The nice thing about the journalism that I do is you always have a chance to do other things when you’re not writing. There’s always researching, pitching, bookkeeping, invoicing, updating your spreadsheets. Even in a full workday, that still gives you a couple hours to write. And for me, that’s all I need. I find I do have to write often. But it has to be small, steady doses.

 

Do you ever have days where you don’t get any writing done at all?

 

No, I don’t. By the time I sit down, it’s been kind of marinating. I have a clue of where to start. I don’t have a problem writing. I don’t have a problem churning out two bad pages in a day. That’s all progress, too. Getting it out of your head and onto the page is sometimes the hardest part. I try not to chastise myself too badly for that.

 

I believe in very strongly in filing early and starting early. I don’t handle pressure well at all. If I had to do 500 words by 4 p.m., that’s a nightmare for me. Whereas if I started two days earlier at 9 a.m., I might get those 500 words done by 11 a.m. That might come from the fact that I’ve never really worked in a newsroom and never had to build that skill.

 

I know you employed the chunk method when writing your first book. Tell me about that.

 

I wrote the book on my lunch breaks in one of my day jobs with the government of Alberta. I did basic math. I know my book should be 300 pages long and I wanted a first draft done in 18 months. I just divided the days. I realized to get there, I would have to write 120 words a day, every day. That’s two paragraphs, which is nothing at all. I wrote up these homemade calendars and I would note how many words I had written each day. Seeing a couple zeroes on there would give me a kick in the pants. I don’t think there were ever three zeroes in a row. It was always satisfying to look back and see that very glacial progress. It did add up. Each week I would have 1,000 words by the end of it, which goes a long way.

 

The block I did have with writing fiction was opening the documents. That was daunting. Getting back into the world is the scary part. If I told myself, you have to write 120 words today, that would convince me that it wasn’t going to kill me if I opened the document. I could get through it. Once it was open, then it’s super easy. You see a sentence you don’t like and you change it. But I look back the novel and think, man, that was hard. I might have to trick myself in more sophisticated ways.

 

The Dilettantes was published in 2013. When you read it now, what do you think?

 

I don’t read it now. That’s the trick. I went to a Sloan concert a couple nights ago. I was just thinking, man, the bands have to just play the same hits every night. That 45-year-old man has to play a song he wrote when he was 21. I don’t know how you stay OK with that. It was crystallized at a certain time. Fans love it. That is just so scary to me. Writers can just disown books and not read from them.

 

I haven’t read from The Dilettantes in awhile. There are a couple of sections I enjoy still. But even then, I still edit stuff. And I think that’s actually instructive with how I would go ahead writing fiction in the future. Not because the books are dated, but just the language itself, the way that the sentences work. You figure out what works pretty quickly in front of a crowd.

 

You’ve just finished a book about Calvin and Hobbes. What’s the premise of the book?

 

It’s part of a series that ECW Press in Toronto does called “Pop Classics.” It’s a series of books about pieces of pop culture that are culturally significant. One that’s coming out after mine is about The Bachelor. It’s a funny topic about something that people like on a simple level and you’re going to tell them why it’s more significant than that.

 

When I quit my day job, I had been figuring out what my next book was going to be. I knew it was going to be non-fiction of some kind. I tried selling a couple of full-length non-fiction books and they didn’t sell. I thought an entry into a series would be an easier way. And these books are shorter. They’re just 120 pages. Anyone can submit a proposal.

 

The thing with Calvin and Hobbes is that fans already know it’s a significant piece of art. The fun was lying out why that is. The strip hasn’t appeared for 20 years. The creator is this semi recluse. The book is about why the strip matters, but specifically this idea of imagination. The main character, Calvin, has his best friend named Hobbes who turns to life when he looks at him, but everyone else just sees this stuffed animal. So I talk about how imagination functions in the strip — and what it means for Calvin in his childhood.

 

How has the workflow for this book differed from your first book? Is there more pressure this time?

 

I had three months to write this one. I had my plan to become a general freelance writer and immediately I got this book contract. I was writing the book and not doing much else. It was a lot more condensed, a lot more pressure. But I really enjoyed it. Just because it was a longer non-fiction project, which I hadn’t really done at that point. It’s 30,000 words. I really like the structure of non-fiction. A 1,500-word piece has its own rhythm and structures that are different from a 30,000-word piece. Just discovering what a detour in a book chapter looks like was super fun.

 

You’ve written on a really eclectic range of topics. Your two most recent book proposals, for instance, were about the history of teeth and why the Oilers suck. What draws you to a subject and makes you want to write about it?

 

I really love the notion of taking interests a bit to the extreme. I’m always interested in how people have the confidence to do that in an age where it’s easy to be ridiculed online for having an obscure interest.

The Oilers has this fan base that follows a god awful hockey team. How does it go wrong – how do you mess up that badly? The teeth book is also full of those characters. A lot of people are scared of the dentist and their teeth. But the people that like teeth are so interesting. There’s a dentist in Red Deer, Alberta who owns one of John Lennon’s molars. And he paid $30,000 for it. I talked to him and he said, ‘I was thinking of making a clone of John Lennon.’ That’s a crazy thing to say. But he’s just in this world where that makes sense to him.

 

In recent months, you’ve posted online your two failed book proposals. How do you grapple with failure? Does it help you to share it with other people?  

 

I dealt with failure a lot worse when I was starting out. At this point, I think I’ve had enough successes that one failure doesn’t make me want to quit writing. Writing agony makes me want to quit, but failures are never the problem.

 

Selling a novel is just an exercise in hilarious failure. I think I had 50 agents and 20 publishers turn it down. You become numb to it at a certain point. I also realized pretty early that there’s never a personal element to it. In fact, that’s the challenge of it — trying to find the right editor at the right place at the right time with the right story.

 

I like having multiple ideas on the go at once, so that’s there’s various fallbacks instead of poring over the rejection. I’ve tried a lot of different things and haven’t gotten anywhere with them. I’ve been trying to write a picture book for kids for three years and I’ve got four manuscripts I’ve been sending out. That’s just relentless failure.

 

I think people don’t talk about those failures. Or we do, but in romantic terms. I like the idea of being honest about the life of a writer. I’m not an expert on it by any means. The teeth book proposal is so long and I’ve spent so long working on it. I believe in that proposal certainly more than magazine pieces I’ve written over the years. So I hope it’s useful to other writers.

 

You’re a journalist and a writer. Do you attach yourself to one role more than the other?

 

I usually say I’m a journalist and an author. But more and more, the publishing side is catching up to me too, so I’ve got to figure out how to describe myself. My Gmail signature has three pieces to it and I don’t think that’s helpful. I was trying to order business cards a few months ago and I just gave up. (laughs)

 

I think that’s reflective of how the industry has evolved. You have to wear so many hats.

 

That’s true, hey? I’m teaching this class with Jana Pruden from The Globe and Mail right now. We’re working with a group of students on non-fiction pieces. It’s funny how we just expect writers we follow on the Internet to be able to do everything now. I assume that they have personal essays out in the world and can turn around a 2,000-word reported piece on their hometown. But those are totally different skill sets.

 

You’ve worked for years now in Edmonton. How has it figured into your writing and your network?

 

It’s been huge. If I hadn’t moved to Edmonton when I did, I don’t think my career would have been where it is right now. When I moved from Vancouver, I had a couple clips. I had written a story for The Tyee and a couple of book reviews for the Georgia Straight. But I didn’t have steady work at either of those places. Then I came to Edmonton and, at the time, it had two alt-weeklies. More than that, they were looking for writers. The writing community was really welcoming and I found it way faster than I did in Vancouver.

 

We don’t take for granted the writing community in Edmonton because there’s this fear that anything of cultural value is going to disappear unless you fight for it. There’s a sense of urgency that we want to keep the people and opportunities here.

 

As I’ve tried to become more of a national writer, I just love pitching myself as being the Alberta correspondent. The stories in Alberta are amazing. If you’re writing for a national publication, it’s a huge advantage not to be from Toronto. They want to be seen as representing all of Canada, so you’re doing them a favour. I use that geographic diversity quote to my advantage whenever possible.

 

Any final words?

 

Persistence is the only thing I would remind people of. The difference between someone who’s a successful writer versus someone who quit and went into communications ten years earlier is not that they were worst writers. It’s just sticking with it. Staying in the game and keeping your muscles flexed is your best competitive advantage. It’s not talent – it’s more just sweat.

 

Alex Migdal grew up in Edmonton and is now a Vancouver-based journalist. He’s in his final year at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where he’s pursuing a SSHRC-funded research project on the decline of local news coverage. He is also a fellow in the school’s International Reporting Program. His stories have appeared in CBC, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Postmedia and VICE.

 

 

Raziel Reid

Raziel PhotoInterviewed by Heather Farrell

Raziel Reid is a Canadian author with a degree in acting from the New York Film Academy. His work took off just three years ago with the release of his debut novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies. It won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s literature in 2014, when Raziel was 24, making him the youngest author to win the award in that category. Raziel now has a two-book deal with Penguin Random House Canada. The first of the two books, Kens, is set to be released in 2018.

While reading When Everything Feels Like the Movies I was enraptured powerful narration and the impact of the story. It was an honour to be able to correspond with Raziel about his work not long after finishing his new novel.

Your first novel, When Everything Feels Like the Movies [WEFLTM], is based off the true and tragic events in 2008 that led to the death of 15-year-old Larry Forbes King. He was shot by a fellow student whom Larry had asked to be his valentine. What was it like to write a novel-length work inspired by such a powerful true life event? How did it affect your writing process?

I knew the ending before I knew anything else, and since the real-life inspiration was rather bleak, I instinctively countered it with a riotousness and humour in the writing. During CBC Canada Reads in 2015 when the panel had to pick one of the titles as the only book they could read for the rest of their life Martha Wainwright didn’t pick WEFLTM but she said it meant she would be laughing less. I really appreciated that.

Larry became a martyr and idol of mine because I shared in his humiliation and the dissonance between his ethereal spirit and the material world. But I got to survive. By experiencing his death, I found an appreciation for my life.
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Jeyn Roberts

Jeyn PhotoInterviewed by Heather Farrell

Jeyn Roberts is prolific Canadian author who currently has published five novels in the young adult genre. She has a degree in creative writing and psychology from UBC, and received her MA from Bath Spa University in London. She is arguably best known for her Dark Inside trilogy, which follows a group of teens as they struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic Vancouver. She is also the author of When They Fade (2016) and The Bodies We Wear (2014). Her sixth book, a young adult horror novel, titled Wendigo, is set to be released on October 31st.

Beyond writing Jeyn is also invested playing music, traveling and volunteering her time to help abandoned animals. Her fun and laid back attitude came through online, where she agreed to answer a few questions.

I had actually met you several years back at a local author’s event in the now-closed Chapters in Richmond. At the time you were marketing the first instalment in your young adult series, Dark Inside, which was published back in 2011. The third and final book of the series, Fury Rising, was released late last year. How does it feel to be finished up this chapter of your writing career?

Who says it’s done? Yes, the Dark Inside series is technically done, but I do still get requests from readers who want more. I’ve been toying with a short novella idea on Daniel’s backstory, mostly because people keep asking and I keep thinking about it. Overall, I’m very pleased with this series. It was my first and hopefully not my last. I feel like I’ve grown so much as an author for having written it and the characters will always have a very important part in my heart.
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Ashley Opheim

Ashley OpheimAshley Opheim is a poet, editor, and founder of the intersectional feminist literary press, Metatron. In 2014, Opheim published her first book of poetry, I Am Here. Last year, Opheim landed the emerging publishers grant from the Canada Council. Opheim’s Metatron and its sister blog, ÖMËGÄ, publish contemporary writing drawn from an international crowd.

Have you always been good at writing?

 I’ve always been interested in communicating. When I was a kid I would strike conversation up with literally anyone anywhere and babble on about whatever was on my mind. I was obsessed with reading and escaping everyday life through stories. I think that my curiosity in communication and my fascination with the imagination naturally led me to writing, and I think that the curiosity that drives my writing has naturally led me to do it a lot, read a lot and therefore get better at communicating my ideas in somewhat interesting ways.
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Kayla Czaga

Interviewed by Shaun Robinson

Kayla Czaga grew up in Kitimat, British Columbia and now lives in Vancouver, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Her poetry, nonfiction and fiction has been published in The Walrus, The Puritan, Room Magazine, Event and The Antigonish Review, among others, and she has twice been selected for inclusion in the Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology series. She is the author of the chapbook Enemy of the People from Anstruther Press, and the full-length collection For Your Safety Please Hold On, which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Emerging Writer Award, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, among others. She serves beer at “possibly the nerdiest bar in Canada,” according to the National Post.

Can you tell me about the first poem you ever wrote? What was it about? What led you to write it?

I wrote my first poem at age ten, after finishing A Ring Of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle, a YA coming of age novel. I closed the book and had the weird sense of needing to write a poem, like there was a poem trapped inside of me trying to get out. I guess it was my first experience of “inspiration.” The poem was long, awful, written in rhyming couplets and was about these jeans I really liked, my cat, and cinnamon buns.

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Tamora Pierce

Syracuse Head Shot Photographer

Interviewed by Emily Pate

When I was still a pre-teen, my mom brought home Trickster’s Choice, then the latest of Tamora Pierce’s novels. I devoured this book, and quickly followed it with Pierce’s first two quartets. Then came her third, the Protector of the Small. These four books starred Keladry of Mindelan – sturdy, caring, and special only in the stubborn pursuit of her goals – a character more like me than any I’d ever before encountered. It was largely because of this series that I decided to become a writer myself.

Tamora Pierce has published short stories, essays, radio plays, comics, and over 28 young adult novels. She has also won the 2005 Skylark Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction, the 2013 RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award, and the 2013 Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement in Young Adult Literature.

Pierce is currently working on Tortall: A Spy’s Guide, which will be release in October of 2017, and the first in the Tempests and Slaughter trilogy, out in the Spring of 2018. Here she offers insight into her fabulous female heroines, and gives advice for both young writers and young readers.

Pierce can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.tamorapierce.com.

One of the aspects of your work that always stands out to me is your continuous use of female protagonists, and the wide variety of these female characters. What inspired this aspect of your novels, and has this added any difficulties to your career?

No, it hasn’t added any difficulties. There were very few female heroes around when I was a kid. Mostly in YA historicals, and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote very strong female characters, but when you got through those, that was pretty much it. The rest of the girls I found stayed at home, cheered for the guys, helped with their homework. When I got to fantasy, there were three female heroes, all of whom were deeply flawed, so until I got to Anne McCaffrey in the mid-seventies, I wrote what I wanted to read, which was girl heroes. Even when there were more female heroes after McCaffrey, I still found things I couldn’t relate to. Most of them were gay or celibate, and I was neither. So I continued to write the kind of heroes I wanted to read. Which were straight, female, kid warriors. And then straight, female, kid heroes. And then heroes like my fans. But since there still aren’t enough female heroes out there, especially female kid heroes, that’s pretty much where I’ll stay. 

Is there something in particular that draws you to writing for a younger audience?

That’s my mental age. 

The Protector of the Small series is your first where the heroine doesn’t have magic. What was the reason for this?

I tried to do it with magic and discovered a couple of chapters in, if I had her training to be the first known girl knight, and added magic on top of that, there was no way I could cover page training and magic and make my page limit for the book. In fact, her page training as a girl was so complicated, I not only had to give up the magic, but I had to find a way to break off her first year, because it would take me a book at my then-page-limit to cover it. 

You’ve written for a broad variety of mediums, including comics and essays, as well as novels. How different is it to write for these various genres?

It’s just a different way of looking at the world. Writing comics, you have to pare your spoken script down as far as possible. You have to set your dialogue as sparely as possible. You have to see in your head what you’re writing, and you have to keep it down to the bone. There’s also the fact that you’re working with an artist, and it’s a collaborative effort. You have to concede some of your ideas and accept some of their ideas, so you have a harmonious piece. It’s like working with another writer. You can’t force your partner to give up every one of their ideas. They have to have some of their ideas in there too. What you have at the end is not your work plus their work; what you have is a combined work, hopefully more than the sum of its parts.

When it comes to non-fiction, writing straight articles, you still have to keep economy in mind, but you also have to keep rhythm in mind. It’s like fiction, in that you have to build up, but economy is still a factor. You have to make sure what you include is absolutely what your audience needs to know, and you have to check your facts very carefully.

As such a prolific writer, are there characters or series that are your favorites?

It changes depending on the day, on my mood, on what I’m writing. At the moment, my favorite is the Graveyard Hag. She’s so lovable!

Do you have any advice for young people, and young women in particular, who are aspiring to be authors themselves?

Keep writing. Don’t listen to advice that depresses you. If all advice depresses you, only listen to your agent and your editor. Don’t be discouraged if at first you don’t finish things. The more your write, the farther you’ll get, and the more you write, the more you finish things, and the more things you finish, the more things you’ll have to send out. And the more things you have to send out, the better your chances of getting work accepted. Or, as we say in my house, be too stupid to know when to quit. 

What do you want a reader to take away from your books after they’ve read them? What do you hope your books achieve?

I hope that they take away that they can be whatever they make themselves into. That they can shape their own selves, their own future. That they can do anything they want to do. 

Emily Pate is a first year MFA student in UBC’s Creative Writing program. She is on the PRISM International Editorial Board and formerly a staff writer for the Western Oregon Journal. She has published poetry and creative nonfiction in Blending Magazine and The Northwest Passage, and is currently working on a comic book about young female superheroes, as well as her first novel.

Anne T. Donahue

Interviewed by Raven Nyman

A quick scroll through Anne T. Donahue’s Twitter feed might leave aspiring writers feeling overwhelmed. After all, she’s written for MTV, Cosmopolitan, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, Refinery29, Sportsnet, Nylon, and Paper Magazine, just to name a few. Her publication credits are remarkable, and the diversity of her subject matter? Impressive. Originally from Cambridge, Ontario, Anne is a writer who admits to knowing way too much about The Great British Bake Off and holding a unique affection for Leonardo DiCaprio—see the hilarious Leo memes that accompany each of her newsletters. Her first book, Nobody Cares, will be published by ECW in September 2018. You can find her on Twitter @AnneTDonahue.

Her work seems to be everywhere, and Anne succeeds in maintaining an active social media presence while also completing a degree, freelancing regularly, and writing a weekly newsletter for her followers. Despite her full schedule, I was able to get in touch with Anne to find out just how she does it all.

Was writing always the career path you had in mind?

Not at all. I went to Conestoga College for journalism, but dropped out when I was nineteen. Then I worked in a hardware store, at American Eagle, and at a bank. At the same time I was re-doing high school courses and aiming for a kinesiology degree which I planned to use as a pre-med. Then I failed math, so that dream died. Finally, I applied to Wilfrid Laurier for Communications/History and dropped out after a year once I started freelance writing. But even then, even when I was doing almost exclusively music journalism, I thought I’d end up writing TV or doing comedy or doing some semblance of what Tina Fey was doing at the time. I didn’t think I’d be writing the way I was now. I thought I’d eventually make my way into TV full time or movies or something. I remember thinking there’s no way I wanted to be a “freelance writer.” Now, I don’t think I could handle working full-time in an office.

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Nigel Chapman

Interviewed by Carter Selinger.

Nigel Chapman sings, plays guitar, and writes songs for the burgeoning Halifax rock group Nap Eyes. The band’s critically acclaimed 2016 album Thought Rock Fish Scale was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, and is “brimming with passion and protest” according to Pitchfork magazine. I was introduced to Nap Eyes about two years ago, and since then I’ve thought at length about Chapman’s lyrics. The significance of the images, and ideas in Chapman’s songs seemed in accordance with my own changing perception, and open to countless interpretations. Maybe Chapman’s work as a biochemist with gene theory has influenced the “adaptability” of his lyrics—though he’s hung up the lab coat now to focus on music. He simply can’t think about one thing one way, and in an age where people with hardened beliefs seem to get the loudest microphones, this perspective is refreshing. During our conversation about alcohol and drugs, art, existence, self-doubt, science, and spirituality, I found the strength of Chapman’s ideas and beliefs comes from a place of empathy and flexibility. His beliefs bend and contort around ideas to allow opposing viewpoints, and can lead him to two seemingly valid opinions that are almost irreconcilable. This thought process can make him laugh, and say, “It’s a paradox.” He is alive to contradictions, and therefore alive to both the great struggle, and “great value of human existence.”

A few days ago, I was listening to the song, “Click Clack” after a few friends had come to visit me for the weekend, and we had spent a great deal of our time drinking together. The lyrics “Sometimes drinking I feel so happy but then / I can’t remember why / I feel sad all over again / Sometimes drinking I / don’t know my best friend for my best friend,” felt especially poignant to me because of the terrible emotional and psychological hangover I was going through. To what extent do you think alcohol (and other substances) have helped or hurt your creative process?

It was really hard to tell because sometimes I used to think drinking and smoking weed were a way I could get into a head space where I could write. I almost didn’t have the confidence in myself to believe what was happening when I was creatively inspired could be achieved without altering my consciousness chemically. It’s like when you’re learning to swim, you think you still need flotation devices, and you don’t want to test yourself without them. For a few years, I sort of assumed smoking weed and drinking would be necessary for song writing. Even though I was usually only doing that in moderation, I think using those substances revealed an inhibition, and they can help you overcome your inhibitions. It’s the idea of thinking you need a crutch even when you don’t need one, but some people do need a crutch. There is real medical value in some of these things, but there needs to be balance. I don’t think I have a final conclusion about the value, or lack of value, of these substances in my practice; sometimes they seem to relax me and be conducive to work, and other times they drain me of energy, make me paranoid, and so inhibited that I don’t work. It’s almost like they enhance things when they’re going well, and exacerbate things when they’re not going well. I think these substances are interesting things, they have a unique phenomenal value in the world, they aren’t things you want to lean into completely, or treat with reckless abandon, or without thinking about how you’re using them.
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