Ellen Hopkins

Interviewed by Meagan Black

Ellen Hopkins is a life-long writer who exploded onto the New York Times’ bestseller list in 2004 with Crank, a novel written in free verse that was loosely based on her daughter’s real struggles with “the monster”—crystal meth. Verse novels and “difficult” subjects have become her trademark over the past fifteen years; since Crank, she has published twelve more YA novels in verse, tackling topics from suicide to sex trafficking to eating disorders, and three adult novels, two of which are also in verse.

Ellen lives on 1.25 acres of Nevada hills overlooking Washoe Lake, on her website, and—for about a hundred days each year—on the road. She is also currently raising three grandchildren under twelve, but was kind enough to make time for this interview over email.

Though your big splash was Crank, you actually published over 20 nonfiction books for children before your first novel in verse (and YA bestseller) came out, and before that you were a freelance journalist. How did you make the move from writing articles to writing books? And what was it like when your very first book came out?

Some of the articles I wrote as a freelancer required heavy research, and through that, the subject matter drew me to write about it deeper. I’ve always loved flight, so writing about air racing made me think about the history of flight through man’s love of competition. Who was first into the sky? Who was the first woman into the sky? How did they fly? (Kites and balloons, in case you’re interested.)

First book to now, every time I see a cover with my name on it, there’s an immense sense of satisfaction.

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Francesca Lia Block

c307e2cf505fbd4b585b1f26101f17fb_400x400Interviewed by Genevieve Michaels

The work of California-based writer Francesca Lia Block creates its own universe: a dreamy, gorgeous parallel reality that blends magic and danger to haunting effect. Among her many remarkable books is the Weetzie Bat series. The series was collected in the omnibus Dangerous Angels, which The New York Times called “transcendent” and Buzzfeed referred to as “a quintessential book of the 90s.” Block is a recipient of the Spectrum Award, the Phoenix Award, the ALA Rainbow Award, and the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also a gifted teacher, which is no surprise – her warm, empathetic nature is evident in her compassionate treatment of both her readers and characters. I first came into contact with Block as a fan, when I sent her a piece of my writing in 2014. To my surprise, she responded  with thoughtful comments, and we have kept in touch ever since. In fact, I think of her as my virtual fairy godmother.

Weetzie Bat is a cult classic. What is the experience of being the author of such a well-loved book? Does it in any way “overshadow” the rest of your books? Is it still your most popular book, or do younger fans tend to start off with your newer works?   

Yes, it does overshadow everything! Usually when I meet a new person, they know all about Weetzie but aren’t familiar with much of my other work.  It can be frustrating. My fan base is definitely older now and those are the readers I’m in touch with so I don’t know what books of mine the younger ones are reading. In terms of sales, currently, Weetzie Bat, Dangerous Angels and Girl Goddess are my most popular, in that order. I really want people to take a look at The Elementals. It’s an adult book published by St Martin’s and I think it’s one of my strongest novels.

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Mark Leiren-Young

Mark Lairen-Young Colour head on hands high resInterviewed by Max D’Ambrosio

Mark Leiren-Young has worked across many genres and media. He serves as editor for Reel West magazine, and his journalism has appeared in the Walrus, the National Observer, TIME, The Hollywood Reporter, Maclean’s, and many other publications. Never Shoot a Stampede Queen – A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo (Heritage), his account of working at a small town newspaper during his early career, won the 2009 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. That book and his more recent memoir Free Magic Secrets Revealed (Harbour) are both being adapted into films. Other nonfiction works including The Green Chain: Nothing is Ever Clear Cut (Heritage) and This Crazy Time (Knopf), written with activist Tzeporah Berman, addressed the subject of environmentalism. His debut feature film The Green Chain, which he wrote, directed, and produced, earned him the most recent of his three nominations for the Writers Guild of Canada Award, and won the El Prat de Llobregat Award at the International Environmental Film Festival (FICMA). His stage plays have been widely acclaimed and produced in at least four countries, and translated into four languages. He has also written for a large number of television shows, including beloved Saturday morning cartoons such as ReBoot.

Shortly after meeting Mark in person for the first time on the streets of Victoria, I encountered him again in Vancouver, as we were both new students working towards the University of British Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing. Having enormous respect for his work, and for how he has handled himself as a working writer, I wanted to glean as much insight as I could from his extensive experience. Hence, this interview. 

You’ve been writing in one form or another since the 80s. What are some of the most significant changes you have observed in the industry? Have journalism and entertainment writing changed to a similar extent, or in the same ways?

I started working for “real” newspapers while I was still in high school (not sure that can happen today). As a journalist the most significant and shocking change is the implosion of mainstream and alternative media. When I worked at the Williams Lake Tribune in 1985/86 we would complain that it was impossible for a staff of seven to properly cover a town with as much news as Williams Lake. 

When my book about working at the Trib was published about two decades later I was interviewed by a student at the University of Victoria who’d worked at a paper in a Victoria suburb and she was in awe of the idea of a seven-person newsroom. 

A few years later that same student (who I’d hired briefly as a researcher) went on to work in Nelson – a pretty sizeable town – and I think she was one of only two people at the paper there. And she was also expected to do video files.

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Ernie Crey

Creyoppenheimer (1)Interviewed by Wawmeesh G. Hamilton

Cheam First Nation leader Ernie Crey understands the plight of aboriginal foster children better than most. At age 13 he and his eight siblings were taken from their mother and placed in separate foster homes. In 1997, Crey and Vancouver journalist Suzanne Fournier co-wrote the book Stolen from Our Embrace, a tome that revealed the gritty realities of foster care, residential schools, and other aboriginal issues. Stolen from Our Embrace won the BC Book Prize and the Hubert Evans Prize for nonfiction. It is also required reading for social work, political science, and aboriginal studies in colleges and universities across Canada, including UBC. I came to know Crey after interviewing him for a news story.

What is Ernie up to these days?

Well, I start my days by scanning Facebook and Twitter and reading news sites. My days – well, I still have my hat in the ring. I serve on my tribe’s council and our elections are coming up in November. I’m going to run again and may run for chief councillor. I’m 66, and it’s a lot to consider at my age but I’m still up for it. I’m also the fisheries and media advisor to the Stó:lō Tribal Council. I sit on various boards and foundations, and I lecture frequently at colleges and universities as well. And I still read books, at least two a day; I have for years now.

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Monica Heisey

Monica HeiseyInterviewed by Christine Bortolin

Monica Heisey brings the funny, but she also brings the heartbreak. She is able to openly and honestly reveal herself, using her personal experiences to explore larger themes.

Her website lists her as a comedian and writer living in Toronto, but those titles don’t do justice to the many ways she works her craft. She has a history of performing live improv and stand up, which is probably why she can weave tragedy and comedy so deftly. She could break a pen and, as the ink spilled out, it would form an essay on her first break up, foiled by the history of the burrito. Her essays, articles, and short fiction have appeared in VICE, Broadly, The Hairpin, Rookie, The Guardian, Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, FASHION, Playboy, Noisey, and the list goes on. She was an editor at She Does the City and is now editor-at-large at VICE’s female-centric channel Broadly. Her fantastic new book I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better: A Woman’s Guide to Coping With Life is as hilarious and heartfelt as Heisey herself.

She kindly took the time to answer a few questions for me.

What was your first piece of professional writing? What do you consider “professional writing”? Were you scared about it?

My first piece of professional writing was for my grandfather’s Penetanguishine quarterly newspaper in Georgian Bay. I was 11 and we went out in this helicopter to take pictures for their spring issue. I wrote up a little first-person account of the experience. A few weeks after my story was published, I got a cheque in the mail for $65. My grandpa had processed an invoice for me and paid me like the regular writing staff. 

These days I consider “professional writing” to be writing that helps you earn your income, although I’m not convinced financial gain is a good metric by which to judge creative pursuits. “Professional” writing and “good” writing can be very different things.

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Whiskey Blue

blue2Interviewed by Becca Clarkson

Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love, a collection of literary erotica or ‘fine lesbian smut.’ She is also a contributor to Psychology Today, advice columnist extraordinaire for Everyone is Gay, and has published with The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, AfterEllen, Curve Magazine, Bitch, and more. You can follow her at @topshelferotica.

Whiskey reached out to me two years ago when my older sister, her close friend, told her that I’d been accepted into UBC’s Creative Writing Program. Her genuine interest, sincere advice, and impressive range of publications stuck with me and made her an obvious choice to interview, years later. Luckily, the Brooklyn-based writer moved back to Vancouver in 2014, and we were able to meet for coffee at Turks on Commercial Drive. It should also be noted that Whiskey is a very savvy dresser, and took the time to discuss our mutual love of the television series Broad City once the interview was done.

I’ve been struggling how to word this question so that it doesn’t sound like I’m encouraging kids to do drugs and not prioritize school. In your article “Coming Out in Psychology Today, you describe your adolescence as hard—not because you’re a lesbian, but because being an adolescent sucks for everyone. You also describe experimenting with ketamine and frequenting raves at that time. After high school though, you went on to work in a law office and wear power suits, and now you’re a successful writer who people seek advice from in columns! I guess I was hoping to hear your take on the anxiety many students feel about not being successful enough, or the best in their program, sleeping in, drinking too much, etc. Do you that your lack of focus on a specific career, perfect resume and cover letter, etc., affected how you became the writer you are today?

When I was in high school I was a really bad kid. I was doing bad things: drugs, dropping out of school—it took me a very long time to get my high school diploma. I was always feeling like a little bit of an outlaw. By my late teens and early twenties I was so off the grid that I wasn’t really worried or thinking about getting a degree and going down a certain path to get a certain job. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to exist in these parameters but it was definitely my reality. When I did go back to school, I never felt like taking creative writing would make me a writer, I just wanted to go to school instead of bartending and working so many jobs, and have X amount of hours a week for writing. School allowed me to spend X hours in class, surrounded by peers who are also thinking about writing, and be with mentors and teachers who know more about writing than me. I felt like that would create inspiration and opportunity but I never really saw university as a track to a career in the way one might if they’re taking engineering. A part of what makes writing so difficult and annoying is that there isn’t really this straight line or path. I think that a lot of the writers that I’m interested in didn’t take a very straight path either though. To feel on the outside is a pretty valuable and, I think, very typical experience for a writer. To feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, or feeling bad for sleeping in or not doing enough, that’s part of the experience. It’s good for a writer to be a little bit of a fuck up. [Read more…]

Lee Maracle

Aboriginal authorsInterviewed by Francine Cunningham

Lee Maracle is the author of many critically acclaimed literary works including Sojourner’s and Sundogs, Ravensong, Bobbi Lee, Daughters Are Forever, Will’s Garden, Bent Box, and I Am Woman; and the co-editor of anthologies including the award winning My Home As I Remember. She is also co-editor of Telling It: Women and Language across Culture. She was born in North Vancouver and is a member of the Sto: Loh nation.

The mother of four and grandmother of seven, Maracle is currently an instructor at the University of Toronto. She is also the Traditional Teacher for First Nation’s House and instructor with the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and the S.A.G.E. (Support for Aboriginal Graduate Education) as well as the Banff Centre for the Arts writing instructor. In 2009, Maracle received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Thomas University. She recently received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work promoting writing among Aboriginal Youth. Maracle has served as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and the University of Western Washington.

What made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

It’s sort of hard to tell you know. I was a little girl and I remember lying to my granddad and him staring at me for a long time and then telling me it was a good story. After that he started telling me stories and then telling me to tell them back to him, different but the same. We played that game quite a lot. When I was older I came across Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson, about Capilano and his wife Mary Agnes both telling stories to E. Pauline. I really liked how they told the double headed serpent story, like it was going on right then, and I remember talking to my granddad about that and he called it myth making. You know, we’re supposed to tell stories that way, we don’t tell stories for no reason. When somebody needs a story you tell it to them, but you tell it to them like it’s happening now so that they’ll get the lesson in it. Also, when it comes to myth making, there is a kept version— somebody is the keeper of the story—and everybody else tells the sort of fictitious version or the “un-kept” version. That’s applicable to today, and I decided those were the kind of stories I wanted to write. It took quite a long time to get to the place where I thought I could write those kinds of stories. [Read more…]

Billy Kahora

kahora from kwaniInterviewed by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo.

Billy Kahora is the author of The True Story of David Munyakei, a non-fiction novella about Kenya’s biggest whistleblower, and the screenwriter for Soul Boy, a Kenyan film that was nominated for five African Movie Academy Awards. His short story “Treadmill Love” was highly commended by the judges for the 2007 Caine Prize (the Caine Prize is the preeminent prize for African fiction) and in 2012 his short story “Urban Zoning” was shortlisted for the same. Billy’s writing has appeared in Granta, Kwani?, Chimurenga and Vanity Fair US. He was a Regional judge for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Billy is also the Managing Editor of Kwani?, a leading African literary magazine based in Kenya. Kwani? is Kiswahili for “So what?”

In 2008 I interned at Kwani Trust, the Nairobi-based literary network that develops, publishes and distributes contemporary African writing, and worked as Billy’s Editorial Assistant. I’ve since done some editorial work for Kwani?, their flagship publication. I reached out to Billy for this interview both because I wanted to share one of my literary forbearers with my new space in Canada, but also because I haven’t been able to have much of this kind of conversation with him, and was grateful for the excuse.

Did you always know you would be a writer growing up?

No, I didn’t know I wanted to write when I was a kid, I just read a lot ‘til I was in my teens. When I couldn’t find anything to read that satisfied my curiosity, anger, and admiration for all the things I was seeing and experiencing around me, that’s when I thought about recreating my immediate conditions. I did it for fun until things seemed to get worse around me like they do for all teens. I realized then that I had to take this “replication” of my surroundings a bit more seriously. After that writing became my default way of trying to explain the world, life and all else. The denial that this is what I wanted to do went on for a long time and still goes on. [Read more…]

Tyee Bridge

Tyee BridgeInterviewed by Andrea Hoff

Over the past fifteen years, Tyee Bridge has been writing essays and features on ecology, religion and urban culture. His work is gutsy and deeply researched, often exploring polarizing issues and drawing together unexpected narrative threads: the need for mythic stories in an era of information overload; a voyage to Antarctica and the pending apocalypse of Western Culture; an exploration of the fate of residential garbage in Vancouver from bin to landfill; the causes, cultural effects and possible solutions to Vancouver’s lack of affordable housing, to name just a few of the themes in his work.

His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Swerve magazine, Westworld, BC Business, and many other publications. He is the recipient of four National Magazine Awards and seven Western Magazine Awards since 2007.

He and fellow journalist Anne Casselman recently launched Nonvella, a publishing house dedicated to nonfiction novellas.

I caught up with Tyee Bridge via email at his home in Vancouver, BC to discuss the ideas behind Nonvella, his influences in writing, and what he envisions for the future of long-form journalism.

Can you chart the path you took into writing literary journalism?

I was physically inept and bookish from an early age. The first book that made an impression on me was D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, with the great illustrations, and I was always a fan of comic books—Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, Spiderman, X-Men. I have an uncle who for some reason thought I would enjoy reading a box set of the collected essays and plays of Woody Allenat age 13 or so, which I did, and was permanently warped as a result. Fiction was sci-fi and fantasy: Tolkien, Herbert, Stephen King. I started to appreciate nonfiction and essays much later, mainly via the work of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry.

As ridiculous as it might sound to anyone who is married to or otherwise financially entangled with a writer, what got me into writing nonfiction was realizing I needed to earn a living. Having run up my credit card while living in Portland and trying to write the Great Work of Metafiction That Would Change Everything, I hit the wall in more ways than one. I needed money and couldn’t go back to working in hotels and restaurants without having a panic attack. So I got into magazine freelancing. [Read more…]

Douglas Glover

gloverInterviewed by Jane Campbell

Douglas Glover is an itinerant Canadian, author of six story collections, four novels, two books of essays, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His bestselling novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2007 he won the Rogers-Writers’ Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award. His most recent story collection Savage Love (Goose Lane, 2013) was a Quill & Quire Book of the Year and also named to the Globe Books 100: Best Canadian Fiction list. Steven W. Beattie in the National Post called it “hands down, the best book I read in 2013.”

Glover teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and he is the 2013-2014 Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. He is the publisher and editor of the online literary magazine Numéro Cinq.

In your essay “Nihilism and Hairspray,” in your collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, you argue that being a writer is a calling or vocation rather than a career one consciously chooses. I agree with this, yet in my experience, there are many people who feel called to be writers, but instead choose to be become doctors or engineers or farmers in Southern Ontario. How did you decide to make writing your career?

That’s an interesting question. “Nihilism and Hairspray” is a polemic; I was setting up an antithesis: vocation against the institution-based professionalization of writing. The larger argument of the essay is an attack on words, categories, and forms deployed to control and define behaviour. Words like “writer,” “Canadian,” and “career,” often represent a set of values and expectations, a box, as it were. I think words like this have much the same effect on everyone. Like commercials on television, they make you, at the very least, anxious because suddenly you have entered the field of someone else’s desire.

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