Category Archives: Writing

On the Canadian writers’ blog tour

Sally Ito tagged me for a stop on the Canadian writers’ blog tour. More about the tour in a moment, but first about Sally. She’s  a Winnipeg writer of poetry (most recently Alert to Glory), memoir, and non-fiction, as well as teacher, translator, and artist (see her “tour” posts at Sally’s Visualandia). She often writes a haiku as her Facebook status, like this evocatively colorful one:

On the window sill
replacing ripe tomatoes
empty blue bottle

Now about the tour. Someone described the Canadian writers’ blog tour as a chain letter for writers–except that there’s no threat of misfortune should it be broken! I don’t know who started it or all the places it’s gone, though a google search uncovers some of its  pathways. Essentially one answers four questions, and then tags another writer or two for a further stop.

So, welcome to my place on the tour, and here goes:

1. What am I working on?

I’m finishing a novel that’s been some years in the making. Finishing, for me, is a rather flexible concept. I think I’m finished, and then I discover, no, it’s not ready yet. But soon, soon, I hope, this manuscript will be on its way to publication. I dread this next stage, which may take months or years, but I don’t think about it much when it’s off my desk. — And, you may ask, what’s the novel “about”? An archivist, an odd uncle, a mysterious death, shame and loss.

Between the stages of the novel, there have been and will continue to be other projects. I’ve been fiddling with some more short stories and working on some creative nonfiction pieces. My goal for 2015 is to explore the nonfiction genre. I plan to write an essay on our two-and-a-half years in Paraguay, from which I’ll read a few excerpts at Mennonite/s Writing VII: Movement, Transformation and Place in Fresno, in March.

2.  How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I’m not sure I can assess my work comparatively. I’ve been writing literary fiction. I’ve sometimes mined my Mennonite background for content. I’m interested in women’s lives. My style probably tends to the reflective end of the spectrum rather than quick-paced drama.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Another hard question. I don’t really know why one idea rather than another grabs me. Not just grabs me—for I start more than I finish—but holds me tight enough to carry me to the end of it. In the case of the novel This Hidden Thing I wanted to set a story in Winnipeg and I was curious, for a number of reasons, about secrets (their positives and negatives). Maria and her story grew out of that.

It seems that when I open myself to the possibility of a new idea, something is always given. In the case of the recent novella “Mask” (published in The Malahat Review), it was a single sentence in a book about the quest for Everest—that there were camps or retreats or something like that for men who had head wounds from the First World War. This stuck with me, and before I knew it, I “saw” this girl chancing upon her father without his mask on (if the men couldn’t be repaired properly, they were fitted with masks) and the shock for her of that. Which became a way to consider not only the effects of war but the dynamics of woundedness within a family. And perhaps, in a larger sense, about how we “uncover” our parents in the process of growing up, yet want to love and protect them. I’ve always been fascinated by people and how they manage, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, within the circumstances in which they find themselves.

4. How does my writing process work?

I let myself write a terrible beginning or first draft, not thinking about it too much but just getting it out, usually with pen and paper, often sitting warm and cozy in bed. If these scribblings continue to interest me, I transfer the best bits to the computer, adding and improving as I go. From then on I work at the computer. I revise a lot. I have to. I use various tricks to see the thing freshly, like the print preview option or changing the font or margins. I always read my work aloud, to myself and often later to H.  More than once I’ve had this crazy experience where a rejection will clarify a piece for me. I don’t know if I just get stubborn about it then, to make it work, or what. I’d just as soon leave that step out, however.

Okay, that’s the end of my stop. I’m tagging an up-and-coming poet whose work I  admire and who is also a wonderful reader/performer of it: Angeline Schellenberg. She has a book in her future, but she can tell you more.


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Eleanor Catton on character

Eleanor Catton, the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker prize (at 28)–this for the longest book ever to win it, the 800+ page The Luminaries–was in Winnipeg recently to kick off the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (aka Thin Air). I enjoyed hearing her read and be interviewed.


Eleanor Catton at Thin Air 2014

An hour allows only impressions, of course, but in reading about her elsewhere I find my impressions corroborated: Catton is a hugely intelligent and articulate young woman with a friendly, open demeanor. Her life has been irretrievably altered by the fame and money the Booker confers (one feels almost anxious for her sake), but she seems quite solidly grounded. Perhaps her years of immersion in a novel about the 1860s gold rush in New Zealand, with a host of characters who  feel they’ll be changed if only they strike gold, will stand her in good stead. “Money,” she told us, “is incapable of transforming us; only love can.” Continue reading


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Does the First World War belong to me?

The first question Susan Sanford Blades asked me in an e-mail interview about “Mask” was, Was this story informed at all by any of your personal experience (via family etc.) with the war? (“Mask,” which will appear in The Malahat Review this summer, concerns the repercussions of an English soldier’s facial injury in the First World War.) A perfectly appropriate question, perfectly innocent, about the story’s origin. When I read it, however, I reacted with an inner gasp of panic. Does the First World War actually belong to me? 

It had never occurred to me to me that it didn’t, but in that moment, before I went on to answer Susan, it loomed large. Did it belong enough, that is, for me to use it in a story?    Continue reading


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A baby, a novella

20140411-IMG_5769A second set of sticky notes about books is nearly ready to post, as promised, but I’m going to interrupt that brief series with two recent happenings in my life.

First was the birth of another granddaughter! I visited the family in B.C. for ten days, to help as best I could in a busy household with a new baby and returned with warm memories of the lovely child (who bears the distinguished name Honor) and many memories of the other children as well. Choice sayings by the nearly-three-year-old, for example, moments of closeness initiated by a child who tends to self-containment, and so on. Things a grandparent gathers and chuckles over or ponders upon. Continue reading

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Narratives of place

H. and I took a short road trip through parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana recently, in connection with my participation at the Billings (MT) Bookfest and the High Plains Fiction Awards on Oct. 25-6.


near Thermopolis, WY

We enjoyed it. We were impressed by how dramatically terrain can shift in a matter of hours (we covered more than 4000 kilometers) and how much of what we passed was interesting or wondrous in some way. Okay, there were a few patches — in  Wyoming — almost too desolate-looking for words, but I was reading Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories – a collection I highly recommend – and for that, the patches were perfectly necessary. For the connection between place and art, I mean, which is what this post is sort of about. Continue reading


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In defence of what you’re trying to do

Before I get completely submerged under the ripe tomatoes, ditto the grapes and the five-gallon pail of apples, plus the story I’m writing, I want to say something about last week.

I spent it at the Banff Centre in an intensive focus on short fiction led by Alexander MacLeod, literature professor and author of the Giller short-listed collection Light Lifting. I’ve never taken a writing retreat or week-long writing course, so I’m still feeling like a girl on her first trip to Disney. It’s a bit of a wonderful bubble one goes into, for sure. But the Disney analogy ends now: there’s nothing Minnie Mouse about carefully, brutally workshopping others’ writing (that is, learning to read), or being workshopped just as carefully and brutally. We all knew, of course, and tried to remember, this was where the benefit (a.k.a love) lay. Continue reading


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Miscellanea: June

Crazy busy month so far, this June, but wonderful too, the green and colors of spring fully arrived to our city at last. I never tire of our simple backyard and especially the way one of the branches from our elm tree stretches over our lot and blesses it with its draping foliage. Continue reading


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