Gone to Grass

“Gone to Grass”

I learned this expression from the lovely Jean McKay when we were at Sage Hill in 2004, attending Robert Kroetsch’s novel colloquium. It is, in fact, the title of one of Jean’s elegant books which also include The page-turner’s sister and Dragonfly Fling whose cover bears the comment, “Jean McKay is one of North America’s finest writers” from no less than Annie Dillard.  This is all sidebar but important because if you have not read Jean’s book, do try to find them. It may be devilishly hard, but worth the effort.

“Gone to grass” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the back list of my books and those of many of my writing colleagues. It grieves me that while there are some literary comets that blaze for light years , too many of our books are more like shooting stars.

As many of you know, I have had the benefit of former bookseller and publishers’ sales representative, Susan Toy, in the promotion of my last three books, and while she was promoting those, she always shone the light on the first two as well. Susan closed down her business, Alberta Books Canada, when she left Calgary but she continues to be a fierce supporter of her Alberta friends and a whole new community of authors she has gathered online.

As many of you also know, I am totally dismal when it comes to promoting my own work, and I miss Susan’s help. She is one of those people who rarely go through a whole day without that light bulb flicking on over her head. I can hear her say, “I have an idea!” as I write this.

I’ve asked Susan if she would please go back to work for me for a short while to help get Odd One Out into the world, which she has graciously agreed to do. But not without coming back within hours with, “How do you like this idea?!”

Do stay posted for the Go Read Me Campaign! she will blogging about sometime soon. Now, Susan, compares this project to Crowd Funding, but it will feel to me like begging and I will blush but will not apologize.

Meanwhile, go in search of Jean’s books. http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/author/jean-mckay  I’ve found them listed on both Amazon and Chapters/Indigo, but you may need to buy a used copy. And if you find Gone to Grass please let me know because someone borrowed my copy about 10 years ago and didn’t return it. Which is why, if you ask to borrow my copy of the other two books, you’ll have to read them at my house.


Summer Stories

My garden is my sanctuary from the time blue buds on hepatica dare to appear under a dusting of snow and until the last trees finally begin to drop their leaves—the laurel leaf willow and the burr oak that seem to hold onto hope until late October or longer.

This time of summer, when every plant and tree has reached the peak of its perfection, has always been the best of all. In any corner of our garden, I can find a place for a chair and a bit of loveliness to contemplate.

I know that spring and summer are also the seasons of many of my stories. Rarely do I write winter and in particular the dark months.

Will there be a story from this summer? Or is this endless succession of warnings— “Weather Alert! Conditions are favourable for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, and funnel clouds” —about to become the cliché for prairie summer.

This summer, my garden has been less of a sanctuary and more the scene of mad dashes into periods of sunshine to weed and dead head and clean up the damage from the latest deluge of rain and hail.  And yet, I’ve been in awe of the mild spring that began in April and carried straight through to summer, the explosion of roses, day lilies of spectacular size, the early harvest of vegetables and a Calgary landscape more lush and green than any I can remember.

Here’s a pictorial of the Seasons in My Garden https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

Next summer may arrive even earlier and bring weather more extreme but even so, as I watch my garden mature into its late summer beauty, I hold tight to the hope that the cycle will remain essentially the same. I’m hoping too, that the fall garden will provide its own sanctuary.

As for story, I’ve written weather many times, and I suspect that will not change.

Here’s a short excerpt that seems fitting in this summer 2016.  “Storm Warning” was published in AlbertaViews 2002 July/August issue, the 15th anniversary of the Edmonton tornado, Jackie Flanagan reminded me the day she called to tell me that “Storm Warning” was a finalist in the AV Short Story contest. “Storm Warning” was also included in the collection A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008)

Storm Warning

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rear-view mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiralling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him








reunion: who are you? Who was I?

reunion;  (OED)   the act or instance of reuniting; the condition of being reunited; a social gathering especially of people formerly associated.

Google “school reunion” for more advice than I hope you will ever need:  6 Reasons High School Reunions should not exist; 5 Reasons to attend your high school reunion;  school reunion ideas, quotes, songs, invitation wording. Apparently high school reunions thrive in spite of the “6 Reasons” and in spite of reunion horror stories. Mine is not a horror story; simply the story of a woman who, for the most part, stays afloat by living in the Now.

I had an email today from a woman I haven’t seen in more than fifty years. As soon as I began to read the message I had a clear visual of my kind, funny, red-headed, preacher’s kid, best friend.  I met Joyce when we were ten years old. We’d moved to Camrose from a small town where I didn’t really have a best friend because I was a townie and all my “friends” arrived in yellow busses that rolled into town in the morning and departed at 3:00 in the afternoon.

I lost track of Joyce and other best friends when we moved to Edmonton six years later. So many different schools, so many partings with best friends, one would think I’d embrace the idea of “reunion.” Ten, twenty, thirty years of catch-up just might rekindle friendships and stir the pot of precious memory.

The invitation to the 50th anniversary of the class of 1966 at Camrose Composite High School arrived in February of this year. I was puzzled to receive it, because I’d only attended the first half of grade ten in Camrose. In 1966 I’d graduated from Bonnie Doon Composite High in Edmonton. When I questioned the enthusiastic woman who was head of the organizing committee, she said it mattered not. They were including everyone who had spent any length of time in grades 10, 11, 12 even if they’d moved away before graduation. A friendly inclusive gesture.  I left the invitation simmering in my Inbox; when the reminder came in May, I put off replying. The closing paragraph of the reminder: Don’t forget to pack yearbooks and conversation starter memorabilia and items that scream the 50’s, and 60’s. I didn’t have a yearbook nor do I keep memorabilia.  I let the date slip away.

I attended one high school reunion and it dispelled any notion I had of fun and renewed friendships. At this point in my life, connecting with people I haven’t seen in ten years is a  pleasure but in the context of a long life, not a reason to make of it a huge celebration. In 1976, high school graduation felt like the distant past and I allowed an Edmonton best friend to talk me into attending the ten year reunion of graduates from Bonnie Doon. Compared with Camrose Composite High School, Bonnie Doon was huge. For reasons too ill-conceived to ponder, home room classes were determined by academic achievement. I attended all the core subject classes with the academic bright lights. Many of them were also athletic bright lights and on the school council and beautiful. The combination of brains, beauty and success in every possible activity struck me as unfair in 1963 and still strikes me as an unfortunate glitch in evolution.

I was bright, but an ordinary looking teenage girl, totally lacking in athletic ability and morbidly shy. I suspected that it would be the most successful and happiest ex-Dooners who would attend the reunion, but never validated that prediction because there were few people I recognized and even fewer who remembered me. Apart from a half dozen people with whom Carolyn and I chatted, I felt as personally connected as I would have at a play or concert or wandering through the grocery store.  To be expected—name tags.  I was asked not once or twice, but far too many times — What was your name before you were married? Having morphed from the shy kid to the introverted adult with a sharp tongue, my answer to the question?  My name before I married is the same as it is now—Betty.  I convinced Carolyn that we (I) had stayed long enough to have made our understated appearance. She had her infant daughter with her and baby had definitely had enough. That, I told myself, was the last school reunion I would ever attend.

Joyce caught up with me because she did attend the Camrose reunion. She was in the 1966 graduating class. She’d gathered a mini-history of what I’ve been up to for the past 50 years from a few Camrose people with whom I’ve visited when I’ve done readings in that city.  I had a ripple of regret as I read her email, because I wondered how many other long ago “best friends” I’d missed by staying home. I found the invitation and scanned through the long long list of recipients and recognized so few names (although I make allowance for those girls, who like me, hadn’t kept their surnames when they married) that I imagined myself drifting uncomfortably from one corner to another wondering why I was there. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so. Perhaps I would have reminisced and laughed and been saddened by the list of classmates who have died or suffered misfortunes. For all of them, I offer up a prayer of peace.  For all who are doing fine and are happy in their lives, I wish them well. I do this comfortably from a distance because age mellows memory, and what’s left in my memory of the time in which I knew these people makes me grateful that we survived those harrowing teenage years.

I’m delighted to have had this “reunion” with Joyce and I hope to hear from her again. I’m sure the weekend was a wonderful chance to feel eighteen years old again and to marvel over the distance all those who attended have traveled. Will I go to the 60th reunion? Or reunions of any other people with whom I was formerly associated? I suspect not.  Although imagine the fodder for writing?  Every former student a walking short story.





Promotion — from the klutz’s perspective

I had just finished reading from my third book, Delivery, when a woman came over to introduce herself as my sales representative, the person who had  traveled about selling the new books from that season’s catalogues of several publishers as well as my own, Oolichan Books. Susan Toy worked for the Kate Walker Agency at that point and had won awards as “top sales rep of the year.”  As I got to know Susan it became clear that her love of books, authors, audiences, and her enthusiasm and personality made her a worthy recipient of that distinction and many other accolades as well.

Susan asked if I would meet with her over coffee and surprised me by bringing along Randal McNair, my “new publisher.” As well as having less than a clue about what went into selling a book once it was out in the world, I had also been oblivious to the transfer of Oolichan from Ron Smith to Randal McNair and the physical move of the press from its long time home in Lantzville, to Fernie.  Susan had been busy arranging for as many Oolichan authors as were available to meet their new publisher.

At that meeting, Susan suggested another coffee date to discuss an “idea” she had. I was to learn that Susan’s creative mind never stopped spinning new ideas, some brilliant, others that were original but not quite where I was willing to go. The one we laugh about still was her plan to promote author readings at adult birthday parties and my reaction. Am I the sort of person who would even be comfortable, never mind enjoy, being the entertainment at a party?  Dress up in a clown suit?  Burst out of a cake with book in hand? Those were the images I conjured, not really what Susan had in mind. Nevertheless, that idea led to others that were both appealing and successful.

The idea over the next latté, went straight to the heart of my resistance at promoting my own writing. Some authors are comfortable with promotion and do a stellar job of reaching new audiences and creating a “platform” (a term I also learned from Susan) for their books and their identity as authors.  Susan had decided to leave her position as a sales representative and launch Alberta Books Canada whose services would involve seeking promotional opportunities for Alberta authors through Susan’s many contacts with libraries, booksellers, book clubs, writing groups and a long list of other connections.  I was ready to sign on before my coffee was cold.

Over the next five years, I traveled with Susan to bookstores, libraries, conferences, book clubs, wherever she saw an opportunity to sell my books and build that platform.  Surprisingly, I did so willingly, even enthusiastically, because I was always in the cheerful company of my promoter. I learned a vast amount about the industry from Susan and that knowledge still guides my decisions about choosing the most beneficial ways to reach new audiences, and reinforce my connection with readers I met in my Alberta Books Canada travels.

Susan is not only a tireless advocate for books and authors but also a fine writer. She and her partner, Dennis, have owned a home on the beautiful island of Bequia in the Caribbean for many years and divide their time between there and Canada. When she felt it was time to close shop on Alberta Books Canada, she retreated to the “Island in the Clouds” to write the mystery that would be given that title. I took out my author inscribed copy just a few days ago, because Susan has a new book that will available soon, and I wanted to immerse myself in “paradise” in prep for One Woman’s Island. In the interval between these two novels Suan published a novella, That Last Summer, and has gone online with her never ceasing promotion of authors and their books, new and backlist included.

Particularly now, with a new book and the knowledge that if I don’t do some promotion, it’s not going to be read, I’m missing Susan.  Not that I want to ride my skateboard to any teen birthday parties,  but her ideas are always welcome. But I know,  distance not withstanding — Susan is currently back at her “trailer” in Ontario– Susan is still on my small team of She and Me and there will be ideas.

Meanwhile, I owe her and want to give a well-deserved shout-out to her books.

Visit my good friend, Susan, via her books and through her websites — buy the books and consider providing her with reviews and interviews and anything else that she would like to offer on her blogs. She’s gone international with her recommendations and promotion, but I know that Alberta Books Canada is still alive.






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Books that Enchant


I have no memory of my mom or dad reading to me, but I know that my older sister entertained me well with books. In fact, I remember her telling my dad with great excitement, “Janie can read!” I was about four years old, and no young genius, but after many readings of the same book had the words down pat and always pointed to “the” which was one that I did recognize.

Even then, I chose the prettiest books. Illustrated copies of Beatrix Potter’s books and a tome of a collection of Bible stories for kids with illustrations that verged on the downright terrifying— Joseph sold into slavery, Jesus with a tear-stained face kneeling to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Questionable imagery at best, but oh so beautiful on the page. I can still call up the painting of Elijah ascending into heaven in his fiery chariot.

Robert and I did read to our children. We maxed out our limit at the library on occasion, and our bookcases fairly bulged with the strain of the books our kids owned. We not only raised three readers, but can proudly claim a children’s librarian as our own. Among the books I keep hidden so they will not be kidnapped–Brian Wildsmith’s A Christmas Story, A Prairie Alphabet by Yvette Moore and Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet, and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this latter one with illustrations dark and almost frighteningly beautiful.

This long preamble to talk about a book that is currently enchanting me. I’ve had the good luck to reconnect with Glen Huser whose Writing for Children course at UBC was the hatchery for my YA book, Odd One Out, which I will be released this spring from Oolichan Books.

I knew of Glen’s books and the fine recognition they garnered before I me him at UBC. A former Edmontonian, Glen taught at the same school as one of my cousins, had been in a writing group with several authors I know, and highly respected in the Edmonton writing community. In fact, I read some of his YA books in preparation for the UBC course: Touch of the Clown; Stitches, which won the Governor General’s literary prize; Skinny Bones and the Wrinkle Queen, nominated for the GG; and the beautiful Grace Lake, written for an older audience.

Through this reunion via email and Glen’s website http://www.glenhuser.com/main/, I’ve found his more recent novels, Runaway, and The Elevator Ghost as well as two stunning works of art, Time for Flowers, Time for Snow, and The Golden Touch.

The book that has me so enchanted now is Time for Flowers, Time for Snow, a retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. In Glen’s words, the book “was the brain child (children?) of a Montreal music director who works with a massed choir of about 200 schoolchildren for the chorus.” Glen has written the narrative and the lyrics to the opera. The music was composed by Giannis Georgantelis who directs the choir of over 180 school children accompanied by the Orchestra Symphonique Pop de Montreal. A CD with both narrative and music is included with the book. Illustrations by Philippe Beha complete this marvelous package. I am awaiting the arrival of the second book in this series, The Golden Touch, a retelling of the King Midas story.

Give your children and yourself these gifts of enchantment by one of Canada’s finest. Seek out Glen Huser’s books. Just a trip to the bookstore or library—they are so close at hand, and so worthy of the quest.

My UBC Hat Trick


Now, I am a pitiful specimen of a Canadian, because I do not love hockey; I don’t watch hockey, I know very little about the game or the lexicon therof, and my interest in the Calgary Flames involves periodically asking the true fan in the house how “our” team is doing. But there’s a hockey term that always makes me smile—“hat trick.” Although I’m sure there is no one out there who needs a definition of hat trick: the scoring of three goals in one hockey game by the same player.

So, I’m calling the publication of my newest book, Odd One Out (Oolichan Books 2016), the completion of my UBC hat trick. I’m borrowing this is as a literary term. The game has been a long one beginning with the publication of my MFA thesis, Delivery, a novel, (Oolichan Books 2009) the year after I completed the MFA Creative Writing through UBC’s low residency program. For literary purposes I’m going to say the game has three periods, and can go on for even longer than a cricket match—in my case, for seven years.

In the second period, The Boy (Oolichan Books 2010), a hybrid of investigative journalism, fiction and memoir was published.

This spring, 2016, Odd One Out, a novel for teens, will be out.

Each of these three books owe huge thanks to the exceptional mentors I had access to at UBC. The gracious and talented Catherine Bush was my thesis advisor and guided me through the final draft of Delivery.

The irascible journalist, Terry Glavin, was one of the instructors who drew me to apply to UBC when I was struggling with non-fiction, with writing the story that ultimately became The Boy. Not only did Terry teach me how to “construct literature from the found materials of the known world,” he baptised me in the belief that TRUTH MATTERS.

I had no intention of writing for young people until I took a summer session course, Writing for Children, with Glen Huser. As in all writing courses, there is that basic requirement— write! And it was in the ten days in the summer of 2007 that I began to think about a boy named Rufus, to hear his voice in my mind, and to get a sense of what was troubling that poor kid. The kind and generous Glen Huser, in my estimation one of the finest Canadian authors of children’s book as well as an outstanding teacher, read the first draft of Odd One Out and helped me find the right sized boots I needed to write for a teenaged audience.

I’ve noticed a recent surge of discussion about the value of the MFA in terms of a writer’s skill and success. I will go on record, as I have many times, in saying, “No! One does not need a university degree to be a good writer.” But what’s troubled me lately is that many of the people who are making that same declaration are doing so with a kind of reverse-snobbery that gets a tad offensive. Don’t apply to graduate programs if you feel they’ll be of no value to you, but please don’t peer down the length of your nose at those who have taken that path for their own personal reasons.

I applied to the UBC MFA Creative Writing program and was accepted on my second try (this for those of you who are inclined to toss in the towel after first attempts). My motive was simple. There were important things I didn’t know and felt sure I couldn’t accomplish without the help of some wise people who would hold my feet to the fire in my efforts to earn a degree. I didn’t need any more letters to tack onto my name, I didn’t need a new community of writers, although I’ve been ever grateful to have met so many gifted and supportive people. I was at an age when I wasn’t looking to gain extra credibility in order to teach. I wanted to be immersed in that academic world just long enough to find answers to my questions.

Am I glad I made the decision to apply to the MFA program? You bet I am. Would I have continued to write and to publish without the degree? Of course I would have. I am determined, tenacious, and thick-skinned and not particularly humble when it comes to believing I have a gift and a responsibility to use it.

Thank you UBC for helping me tighten the laces on my skates. Hat trick.

We are all immigrants…


(The Immigrants’ Song)

I and holding two photographs taken in 1947. In one, my mother, age twenty-five, is seated on a chesterfield with two other women Her hair is neatly permed, and she is wearing one of her “good” dresses, nylons, pumps. In the photo in my other hand, Beda, my dad’s cousin, age twenty-five, is posed with twenty-nine other German girls in the Lubercin Labour camp near Moscow, each of them wearing the one sweater they were allowed to knit for themselves in the textile factory where they worked.

On the back of my mother’s picture, faint blue ink tells me this was Christmas with the family. Beda’s photo bears these words: Look at our faces, we’re all young girls but look like old ladies.

I am haunted by the destiny of these two women; one whose family was desperate enough to cross an ocean to a country they didn’t know; the other whose family made the equally courageous decision to stay behind in spite of the threat of their village being obliterated by an advancing Russian army.

Both my mother’s and my father’s ancestors were German farmers who were settled in an area on the Vistula River near Plock in Poland around 1824. My dad’s grandparents and their five children sailed from Hamburg on the S.S. Sicilia on May 9, 1896 to find land in The Alberta District of the Northwest Territories after a decade of turmoil in Volhynia. Religious freedom was denied, military service became compulsory, and anti-Germanism was gaining momentum.

My mother’s family stayed through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, a time when the colonists retained an attachment to Germany through language, culture, and in many cases family who still lived in Germany. But they were expected to pledge their loyalty to Russia as their adopted land and fight for her interests. Their farm land was expropriated and vast numbers of Volhynians were packed into boxcars and sent to Siberia.

There have been no ambitious genealogists climbing around my maternal ancestral tree, so I have no knowledge of my grandparents’ life during that period. But in 1929 they too set out for Canada with their five young children—my mother at eight, the second youngest—and settled in the same area as my dad’s family.

I am a storyteller by lifelong habit, and in the past two decades, by occupation. The reluctance of my own family to share our story puzzled and frustrated me for years. One of the few stories I remember hearing about my mother’s early life in Canada is that she and her siblings were shooed away by the Englische farm wife down the road when they went to ask for water from her well. Barely ten years since Canadian soldiers had fought the Germans at Vimy Ridge and Passchendael, and now these Alberta farmers were to welcome German immigrants as their new neighbours?

We were German. I knew that was the answer to questions about my ethnic origin. Both sets of grandparents spoke heavily-accented English. My maternal grandparents who had come to Canada as adults, unlike the paternal grandparents who arrived when they were children, spoke English with difficulty, and when we visited with my mother’s family, we heard German. We were never taught to speak German.  But we listened and understood enough to learn that if we asked questions about “the old country,” the conversation came to abrupt halt because of “little pitchers with big ears.” My mother, in particular, had little patience for questions about the past. I had the sense that being German was not something of which one dared to be proud.

I knew from television, from the caricature Klink and Schultz of “Hogan’s Heroes,” that Germans were the butt of jokes. I knew from more serious drama that the jackbooted, brown-coated Nazi’s shouting commands were the embodiment of evil. None of those portrayals, none of those voices, had anything to do with my gentle-voiced grandparents.

We were Canadian. Yet I knew there was family left behind in Germany. I have Canadian uncles who were conscientious objectors in World War II and worked in Alternative Service camps. I have uncles who enlisted in the Canadian military  and fought the Germans. We know that many in the family who’d stayed behind were conscripted into the German military. No one spoke, even long after the war was over, of the possibility that cousins had come face to face in combat with cousins.
I am the child of a first generation Canadian father and a German immigrant mother.  When I look at the photograph of Beda, I am reminded that her fate could have easily have been my mother’s. When Beda’s family, German “colonists,” farmers at Nowe Borsyzewo in Poland, fled from an advancing Russian army in January 1945, Beda and the other young women and girls in the wagons that clogged the roads were taken prisoner. The two possibilities for Beda and the other girls were that would be sent to the Russian front as “company” for the soldiers or shipped to Siberia to a labor camp in cattle cars. Beda went to Siberia. In those camps she and the other prisoners were sent to work dawn to dusk on peat farms in the summer, in logging camps in the winter, and finally to the Lubercin labour camp near Moscow to work in a textile mill.

I am not “old stock” Canadian, nor would I wish to be. I feel a kinship to each wave of immigrants who have found their way to Canada during my lifetime. My family were the lucky ones who escaped before we became refugees.  Why were we not, as children, encouraged to learn and to speak German? Because we would have retained that identity as “the other.” The identity that sent the Englische farm wife out with her broom to chase my mother and her brothers and sisters away from the gate like stray dogs.

Were I able to wrap my arms around each refugee family who arrives in Canada from their war torn homelands my welcome would be brief: Thank God, you made it! We are all immigrants here.