While days and weeks and even years in front of a keyboard may seem romantic to those who don’t do it for a living, writers can have a love-hate relationship with the books they imaginatively, doggedly, astonishingly produce. But for professional authors, writing is often not a choice, but a calling. The stories they launch demand to be written. No amount of fridge-cleaning, weed-digging or hair-pulling can stop these books from developing. And the irony is, even after those books hit the shelves, writers will joyously return to their computers only to start again. Fuelled by an idea, an image, an errant dream, they scribble their stories — creating something where there was once nothing.
In Kingston there are hundreds of talented writers in our midst. A few of them are willing to give you a glimpse into their writer’s soul. Their own, oft untold, stories follow…
“Writing is work. I love the research though and the thrill of finding crazy bits of trivia or an inspiring article. And then there are those moments when things are coming together, when I feel the weight of the book around me, when I feel writing magic.”
A delightful, engaging conversationalist, Y.S. (Ying) Lee is a relatively new young-adult author and didn’t initially pursue a traditional writing path. “I read before I was three and always had a secret yearning to write, but trying something so financially precarious was a frightening thing.”
Instead she continued in academics and earned her PhD in Victorian literature. Captivated by that time period, she decided to start writing. At first she wrote secretly with only her husband, Nicholas, as her reader and confidant. Then while teaching at Royal Military College, she wrote her first book. “I set the story in Victorian London and made it about a women’s detective agency — an elite, top-secret corps of female investigators. After about five revisions, I sent it to agents.” The rest, with one big twist, is history.
Her new agent loved it but suggested she transform her novel into a coming-of-age story for young adults (ages 12 and up). “I learned to write for my younger self. Now I love hearing from my young readers because they are so passionate and unfiltered when they tell me what they think. The Internet allows for a wonderful and immediate connection with them.”
The first book of her series, The Agency: A Spy in the House, came out in 2009, just a few years after Lee finished her PhD. Her award-nominated books have since been translated into seven languages, and these days she is working on her fourth novel in the Agency series, Rivals in the City. After this she may let the popular Mary Quinn character go while she focuses on a new novel set in Malaya (now Malaysia) during the Second World War.
Lee has a home office, but more often works at her kitchen table where she can sit beside the wood-burning stove and watch her garden. “I tend to follow the sunshine around the house. It’s a lovely space and I am connected to the sense of a day, and even the seasons, progressing. Sometimes I move to the library or a coffee shop to work, but I make sure they don’t give me the wireless password.”
And as all writers know, the craft of creation is rarely glamorous. “I am not always inspired, but I do love writing dialogue between two main characters. That is my dessert. I tell myself, if I get through this section, then I can spend the afternoon writing dialogue.”
So, luckily for her readers, Lee is no longer a closet writer, but continues to follow the sunshine around the house, creating as she goes.
“I often have five stories going at one time. I am a natural grazer and could have several books going at the same time, as well as translations and anthologies. In between I might build a shed or feed the chickens.”
When Wayne Grady was in Grade 3, he stood up and announced that he was going to be an engineer. His wise teacher corrected him: “No you’re not. You are going to be a writer.” Despite that directive, Grady did try engineering before graduating with a degree in English from Carleton University. He followed his literary heart, working as a journalist, editor and science writer with and for many prestigious publications, including Harrowsmith magazine where he cultivated his passion for nature. “I would go into the field and write the story from the inside. If writing about wolves, I would camp with a wolf researcher in Algonquin Park.”
By the time he left the magazine, he had a non-fiction book underway about Canadian paleontologists searching for dinosaurs in the Gobi desert. “I was already a literary and environmental journalist, but when I got the contract to write the China book was when I became a writer.” Today, after a 30-year career as a writer, editor and translator, he has 38 works to his credit: 14 books, 12 anthologies and 12 translations.
Grady says that translations are a unique creature. “In translation, you are not translating words, but culture. I translate from Canadian French into English, and I follow the voice.” Grady won the Governor General’s Award for English Translation for On the Eighth Day by Antonine Maillet.
Grady and his wife, Merilyn Simonds, recently co-authored their first travel book, entitled Breakfast at the Exit Café: Travels in America. He also has two brand new books finished, but not yet in print. Emancipation Day, set in the early ’40s, grew out of his accidental discovery 15 years ago that his father was black. The second, The Man in the Brown Suede Jacket, is a detective novel. Grady admits this foray into fiction called for an imaginative shift.
“At first, writing fiction was more fun than non-fiction. When you write non-fiction, you are bound to the real world and that gives you plot, character and events. So at first, I felt free. But fiction has to make sense and hang together, so, in a way, it becomes more constricting. It is harder to create a world than to write about the real world.”
And to fully inhabit these imaginative worlds free of all distractions, Grady built a writing cabin, complete with wood stove for tea, at the back of his country property outside of Kingston. He is up early and spends the mornings there, where he works for up to five hours. “Then there are the gardens on our country property, and the house. I like to work outside part of the afternoon. With a whole day in the office I get grumpy.”
“Every stage is impossible, but beginning a novel is unthinkable… The most satisfying stage is the final section of a first draft when the story is funnelling, free-falling toward its conclusion and I’m just a helpless spectator, observing…or like a stenographer, desperately trying to keep up with the inward dictation.”
When describing his youth, poet and novelist Steven Heighton simply says, “Few friends, lots of books and good parents who encouraged me to do whatever I chose, even if the path seemed impractical.” And impractical or not, his choice of finding a voice in the writing world has definitely been the right one. Heighton is now the author of 11 books with a long list of awards. His third novel, Every Lost Country, has been translated into six languages and optioned for film. This fall his collection of memos and fragmentary essays called Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing hits shelves, followed in the spring by a new short story collection, The Dead Are More Visible.
A master of both poetry and long fiction, Heighton still has a love affair with both. “As a writer, my first love is language — the music of it — and for writers of that kind, poetry is the primary literary form. It’s the form closest to song. But I’m also a storyteller and I wouldn’t want to give up either genre. I make my living as a fiction writer, and although I still write whatever stories move me, at the back of my mind there’s always the knowledge that the fiction needs to work, needs to earn me an advance. So after a certain point, I can’t just throw a novel away, the way I can with a poem that won’t come out right. Which is one of the things I love about poetry — it offers the freedom of total obscurity. Few people read it and there’s no money in it, so poets can do whatever the hell they want.”
Heighton also turns his hand to teaching, editing and the challenges of translation, mainly from French, but also with a little Greek, Spanish, Latin and German thrown in. “Translation is like a master class with a great dead writer. It’s a fantasy apprenticeship. I go inside the poems and read them over and over and write draft after draft of my translation and by the end I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I deeply understand the writer and his or her language.”
And all these dances of the imagination are fuelled by the world around him. “I often get inspired by something I’ve just read in the poetry or fiction of another writer I love — or sometimes don’t love. All it takes is the spark of a word or a phrase and I’m into something new of my own. Oh, and my dog Isla is a source of inspiration. She reminds me of how important it is — especially if you spend most of your day at a desk — to keep the young animal alive inside you.”
“Things come in bits and pieces for me. I find something and get interested and go after it. That thing you get as a reader when you can’t put a book down? You have to have the same thing as a writer. You just feel. You can’t control it. It is a living thing.”
One oft-cited story about poet and novelist Helen Humphreys is that she once pumped gas. And while it is true, there is more to it than that. She says, “I picked jobs where I could be alone and read and preferably be outside. While in the little gas station booth, I could read a book a shift.”
That story is only the tip of the iceberg in the life story of this deeply thoughtful writer. “I have written from an early age, so I decided to work and just read and write instead of going to school. I set up a rigorous reading schedule and planned to read all the fiction books in one of the Toronto libraries. I started at A and planned to read to Z but, as it happened, I only got to M because I wanted to read Virginia Woolf and had to skip ahead to W.”
Humphreys wrote a lot of poetry in her youth, with her first poem published at 16 and her first book of poems out by age 24. Three more followed. “When you are young, life is all about first experiences and that suits poetry. Then, one day I had an idea for something I knew wasn’t a poem. I didn’t write short stories, so I just thought it was a novel. ”
Five novels and one work of creative non-fiction later, Humphreys is still going strong. Her newest book, The Reinvention of Love, comes out this month and is based on the true story of the love affair between Adele, the wife of French literary writer Victor Hugo, and Charles Sainte-Beuve, who was once Victor’s best friend. “The book is fiction but based on real things. I get to go inside their minds, which gives me more freedom and depth of expression.”
Extremely disciplined, Humphreys keeps a strict writing schedule and often writes her novels longhand. “I can go seven days a week, or day and night if I really get going. Sometimes up to 10 pages a day. The enthusiasm about the story propels me and gives me the energy to write it. That is actually how I know a story is going to work or not. If I am not enthusiastic, then it won’t give me that energy.”
Although Humphreys has not quite finished reading all of those M-Z books in the library, she encourages fledgling writers to read a lot. “Learn from reading other peoples’ novels and understand why things work. That is better than anything, even more than writing really. I would still just read and write if I had to do it all over again.”
“The hardest part is the very beginning, that blank page. But it just gets more enjoyable with every step. And I love fine-tuning a draft. It’s just like the framing part of building a house is the most taxing, but then you love putting in the carpeting and painting the walls.”
Iain Reid followed that age-old advice “write what you know” when he wrote One Bird’s Choice, the tale of his return home to live with his parents on their farm near Ottawa when he was 27. And it is these beloved, and much written about, parents who are responsible for introducing Reid to the literary world to begin with. “My dad is an English professor and my mom has always had an interest in writing. There were always thousands of books around so it was like osmosis.”
After finishing school at Queen’s University, Reid realized that he liked to tell stories. Between coaching basketball and doing carpentry, he kept writing. His break came with a gig at CBC Radio’s Vinyl Café, which led to a job at CBC in Ottawa. “So I moved there and thought I would just crash at my parent’s farm for a little bit. Well, I ended up staying and that’s when I got the idea to write about it. It started with one essay and then snowballed into a collection.” The resulting book won the CBC Bookie Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of 2010. Foreign rights to the book have just been sold to China and Germany.
Reid works in the morning in cafés and libraries, and spends his afternoons reading. The 30-year-old writer jokingly describes himself as an old man. “Really, it is a solitary life. I go for walks, volunteer and I even like old records. I like the idea of getting old. You get more knowledge, and I would rather a complete brain than a better body.”
Finishing his second book now (part memoir, part essay collection), Reid still enjoys the whole process. “I love that moment when you realize that you have something. You might get stuck for a while, but then you fall into a three-hour writing streak when you revisit it and it becomes something. And any time I finish anything is euphoria to me.”
“I am a slow writer and like to tinker. Every sentence has to be done before I go on. I need to feel like things are good from the beginning.”
From the time she was small, Diane Schoemperlen wanted to be a writer. Family lore says that the household cookbooks were stored in a wooden drawer under her bed. “My mother said that before I could even read I would haul out the books and pretend to read her a story from those cookbooks. So I had this impulse early on.”
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Schoemperlen used her allowance to buy books. Eventually she studied English at Lakehead University and then spent a decade living in the Banff/Canmore area writing for the local paper and The Banff Centre. “What I did was just so foreign to my family that when I got laid off and took a job as a bank teller, my mother’s response was, ‘Oh, finally you have a job we can tell people about.’”
But she never stopped writing and her first book, Double Exposures (a novella with photos), came out in 1984. “My heart is really with the short-story form though, because they don’t take years to write. My first novel, In The Language of Love, took four years. Working on one project for that length of time is a big commitment.”
Schoemperlen impulsively came to Kingston in the ’80s to teach a writing course and stayed. “I need a writing community and I found most of my friends here within a week, so I packed up my little baby, a 10-year-old cat, 100 boxes of books and hit the road. I arrived without a job or a home.”
These days this passionate writer has 11 books out: seven short-story collections, one non-fiction and three novels. She has edited four books and operates a manuscript-editing service. Forms of Devotion, her collection of illustrated stories, won the Governor General’s Award. Schoemperlen is also the Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University this academic year. She continues to experiment with structure and form, and her latest project, By the Book, is a collection of short stories. “This is as far out a book as I have ever done. I love the idea of illustration and colour, so in this book, I am making a set of coloured collages to go with the stories. Collage appeals to my sense of fragmentation, unexpected connections — the finished product always being more than the sum of its parts.”
Like many writers, Schoemperlen works best with a routine. “I get up at 6 a.m. and read for an hour in my special reading chair. That has become the time of day when I get into my writing mode.” Years ago, she thought it would be romantic to build a writing shed in her yard. To this day it has a desk and books and even a fridge, but not a writer. “I found that I didn’t want to work in there. I just like my living room. I need to be at my desk with two cats and two dogs and a wall of books.”
“All stories involve a protagonist with a problem. The protagonist either solves the problem or is unable to. Sometimes there is more than one protagonist, more than one problem. That’s the story. That’s what story is. That describes any novel ever written.”
The first book Violette Malan read was Treasure Island. “My parents had no concept of picture books, so we read works of literature — Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe and so on.” Malan’s family is filled with writers, painters and poets, but she pursued a different path and decided to go into teaching at a university. After graduate school, where she studied 18th-century English literature, jobs were scarce so she kept writing both stories and academic papers.
“I was only eight years old when my brother, Oscar, told me to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. That got me reading science fiction and really started me down the fantasy path.” After one of her mystery shorts won a Crime Writers of Canada competition and her first book came out in 2006, Malan made the decision to focus solely on fantasy fiction.
She delights in sharing that she also writes a bit of erotica. “I get commissioned to write short pieces for private collections. It’s rather like being an artist with a patron. And being such a hot topic, this work gets me onto a lot of panels too.” With a twinkle in her voice, Malan adds, “There was also a girl in grad school with me who was stripping to pay for her education. She noticed that strippers with routines became the headliners. So I helped her find the right music and clothes, and between my storytelling ability and her practical experience, she got the headline!”
These days, Malan focuses on her own storytelling and has five fantasy novels out, has edited the anthology Dead in the Water and is president of the board of the annual Scene of the Crime Festival on Wolfe Island. And now her computer holds her latest book, The Shadowlands, which is due out next year.
But as other writers attest, writing is hard work. “You have to treat it as your job. After all, we all get to the office on time each day. I try for 1,500-2,000 words a day, and Sundays are for the business part of what I do. I try to do a book a year to keep my name in the public eye.”
Malan loves her home office in her house in the country where she is surrounded by a library of some 5,000 books. “You know, sometimes I think back to when I was a kid playing in my backyard in downtown Toronto and telling my friends stories. One friend said, ‘You are very good at this.’ At the time I was puzzled because I thought everyone did this.” These days she is no longer puzzled, and her fans continue to echo those words of long ago.
“People do get their minds changed by reading a book by artists of any kind. You hope that your work makes an impression on those who view it. You do hope that it changes minds.”
Jamie Swift is a man who gets involved. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he has never shied away from controversy in his many years of writing. His love of the written word comes naturally. “My mother was a militant bibliophile and a great reader, as was my grandfather. I caught it from her. My father liked mysteries and I still like that genre for my recreational reading. After all, the best of it is sociology — acutely observed social comment.”
His interest in activism really began when his Grade 7 teacher gave him a copy of George Orwell’s examination of poverty Down and Out in Paris and London. (Swift now owns all of Orwell’s works, biographies and criticisms.) In 1968 he headed to Montreal’s McGill University during a time when the student left was agitating. “There were struggles around Vietnam and the rise of the Quebec nationalism movement, so there was plenty of opportunity to get involved in student politics and politics outside the university.”
But Swift’s political writing really took off when he moved to Toronto. His first book, The Big Nickel: Inco at Home and Abroad, examined the world’s largest producer of nickel. In the late 1970s, he and some friends started publishing company Between the Lines, which is still going strong some 34 years later. A collectively run publisher of “critical perspectives on culture, economics and society,” they have published many of Swift’s books, which tackle subjects ranging from mining and forestry industries to labour unions and poverty.
“I have worked as a freelancer for 24 years or so now. I’ve written 11 books (including two biographies), numerous magazine articles and CBC Ideas programs, so you become well informed quite quickly in a particular area. It is a little like going to university and taking interesting classes, only you decide what’s on the curriculum. You learn the stuff of life.”
Swift passionately fights what he sees as the wrongs of the world, speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. These days he is busy co-writing (with Queen’s University award-winning history professor Ian McKay) a new work titled Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Fear, a book he says is “a look at today’s attempt to re-imagine Canada as a country that has been all about war.”
Swift does extensive research and writes up to 1,500 words on a good day. “I used to write by hand, and then scratch and circle and cut and paste and then give it to my editor. Editors are really the unsung heroes of the literary process.” And when he is not glued to his claw-footed desk, surrounded by walls of books, Swift, an adjunct professor, teaches a course at Queen’s School of Business and has worked with the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.
He admits that being a writer, especially a political non-fiction writer, doesn’t pay very well but he persists nonetheless. “It is hard to put a cash value on autonomy and self-direction. Besides, writing is fun to do. It’s fulfilling, interesting and rewarding.”