I was wondering what goes into making a Canadian author. How to start writing? What to write about? And finding oneself as an author. I asked Edmonton writer Don Perkins a few questions on the subject in the hopes he could illuminate these topics for me.
When did you decide to become an author and was it challenging to write as a career?
I decided to try my hand a writing when I worked as the Editorial Department librarian for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. I worked at the back of a busy newsroom full of banging electric typewriters, and would watch the writers at work. Most of them had less formal education than I had. But they had a lifetime of turning out stories on assignment and to a deadline. Eventually, curiosity and arrogance made me want to try my hand at writing, too. It was a slow process, gaining the experience. But the writers and editors were encouraging, when they weren’t being insistent I rewrite. I started in the Entertainment and Features department—record reviews, book reviews, some write-ups on live entertainment. I also got to suggest and write the occasional weekend magazine feature story. I was later offered the theatre reviewing and writing job.Through all of this, I learned the value of homework and preparation, because deadlines wait for no one. Homework to get ready to write. Writing as homework. Also began to appreciate the value of rewriting to get it right. This involved churning out a draft, then revising until it worked.
After a while, even other librarians I knew (I had been president of the Saskatchewan Library Association for a term) began to refer to me as a writer. That was a surprise.
You seem to draw inspiration from the things around you in your life. Do you ever find yourself at a loss for inspiration?
“Inspiration is a weird concept and maybe grossly overrated. It’s a big word for getting some ghost of an idea that something is or could become a topic to work out in writing, to think about in print.
What gets it all going?
This time, it’s your questions.
Sometimes it’s an assignment.
Sometimes it’s something I hear.
Sometimes it’s something I read.
Sometimes it’s a stray thought.
Sometimes it’s a word or phrase that comes to mind.
The word is full of possibilities.”
In your blog post “Stompin’ Tom and the Accents of Canada” you focused on the lines “You can’t fake place” and “You don’t try to write like somebody you’re not”. Can you elaborate on how they affect the way you write as a Canadian author?
“A Canadian writer? Or a Western Canadian writer? Or an Alberta writer? Or an Edmonton writer?
I recall reading that descriptive writing matters because everything happens somewhere, and the kind of thing that can happen has a lot to do with the kind of place it is. As for “voice,” it becomes important as a way of “living” the place and what happens there. Voice and details of place are why the whole can matter to those who will come to read what you have written about it. The details (or “homework”) are what makes your writing of the place and event “yours,” and not just “words on a page.” To locate itself in the idioms of a lot of different ways of living in and being part of some place called Canada—which turns out to be a lot of places.”
I guess I didn’t really understand what goes into the identity of an author in regards to region and place. His questions to me “A Canadian writer? Or a Western Canadian writer? Or an Alberta writer? Or an Edmonton writer?”, really made me think about how important it is to know who you are and where you are from.
A Canadian writer? Western Canadian writer? Alberta writer? Or an Edmonton writer?
What does it mean to know where you are from and write using that voice? That style? How important is it to write with your roots in mind? Is it necessary? I have never given any of these topics much thought, mainly because i have never been “inspired” to do so.
I have tried my hand at writing only a few times, outside of schoolwork and mandatory writing, but never have I attempted to write like a Canadian author, never mind anything more specific than that. I merely wrote about the topics that interested me and in the genre that they belonged in. One of my issues may be that I enjoy reading and writing fantasy and i have trouble picturing an Edmonton based work of fantasy, as entertaining as that may turn out to be. I have written a few works of fiction for various school courses that took place in an urban environment. Having not been to many other major cities, at that point in my life, I suppose that I was writing about Edmonton without even knowing it.
But do you really have to write about the geographical area you are from to show your voice as that kind of an author? I don’t believe so. Don Perkins wrote a poem called “Taking Leave” that managed to stop me in my tracks. It is based on a story of an island of Indigenous people choosing death over slavery and embracing their concept of the afterlife and the unknown. Perkins describes this poem as “not “Canadian” as such, not in topic or location or population” however, many Canadians still vacation on this island so in this way we are tied to the story. Such a beautiful poem, written by an Edmontonian author and yet, as far as my untrained eye can see, there is no obvious Canadian influence. Or, does the fact that it was written by an Edmontonian lend a Canadian influence to the work itself?
Does confidence in one’s roots and background translate into a distinct style of writing? In Perkins’ blog article “Stompin’ Tom and the Accents of Canada”, he writes about a conversation between two writers where one asks the other “who are you trying to write like?” and then follows up with the line “Write what comes natural. You can’t fake place.”. By imitation someone else, from someplace else, do you lose something in your writing? Maybe just having confidence in one’s own voice can lend power and authenticity to the work being created. I’d like to think so. Writing what you love and being yourself seems like generic, feel good advice given to children. However, it seems like it has the potential to be something more, to evolve into something greater than it would seem to be on the surface.
I believe that being confident in one’s writing ability can be read in the finished project, but can confidence in one’s background have the same effect? Again, i’d like to think so.