Recently, I had the opportunity to interview writer Janet Wees, a retired teacher living in Calgary. As a young girl, growing up in Saskatchewan, writing greatly influenced her life. Janet’s imagination was fuelled by reading and creating stories. Through the course of the interview I learned that when Janet was around the age of twelve she had a pen pal from Holland. This pen pal shared insight about The Hidden Village; which is a secret village deep in the Dutch forests where Jews had taken refuge from the Nazi regime. Learning this information, I was curious about how these experiences have shaped her writing and influenced her life.
From research, I found out you started writing at the young age of 9, what attracted you to start writing at such a young age?
I was living in a small village in Saskatchewan, with no TV of course. I read a lot and I cut out magazines (mostly from the 1940’s) and put the pictures together to make stories. I guess they would be considered comic books now. That was also the age when I began writing letters to relatives and pen pal’s.
I see you have a published book based on true events, “When We Were Shadows”, what compelled you to write this story?
When I got a pen pal in Holland, I first became aware of The Hidden Village, so you could say he was responsible for the book. I also visited the memorial site of The Hidden Village in the story and it affected me profoundly and I knew I had to write it for my students’ children as I was then retired and had no students anymore. I wanted to let children in North America know how war impacted children and how people risked their lives to save those in danger.
How has this story impacted your life?
I became close to the man I interviewed about his experience as a boy during WWII. He is a part of my life now. I also got to know the late son of Mr. and Mrs. Von Baumhauer and their grandson and wife, so that family is now part of my being as well. It also allowed me to get to know Rona Altrows who became my mentor and who offered such incredible support and advice with my final draft of the novel. She taught me how to think like a writer.
What motivates you to keep writing?
Being a teacher of elementary and middle school students as well as teachers in training, I think it is the teacher in me. I want to let people know about issues; I want to use my imagination to create; I want to make people accountable (thus letters to politicians); I want to keep my mind expanded by doing research and continuing to learn.
What advice can you offer a young writer who is just starting out?
Stay with it; don’t be afraid of feedback; don’t be afraid to ask for help; and to quote my mentor, “it’s your story”.
After knowing Janet’s experiences, I see how creativity and imagination played a large role in shaping her childhood. As well as the hunger to never stop learning and expressing worldly issues which helped influence her identity. I also find it very inspiring to see her dedication to bringing a part of history forward for younger generations to acknowledge. I believe the knowledge Janet shares through her writing will help shed light about issues of the past, and the present as she continues her journey through writing.
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