Cafe Aphra: When did you first realize that you wanted to write as an occupation?
It crept up on me. I chose English literature as a major in university because I enjoyed it and I was able to reliably get good grades, but I don’t think I had any particular interest in creative writing. In my mid twenties I started to write short stories, and since then I’ve continued to write. I’m sure that I will always write, because I love it and it helps me a lot in my life, but I’m still not sure that I want to do it as my primary occupation, because I find it hard to live in a balanced way when I am writing full-time, and it doesn’t pay well.
CA: You did a Creative Writing Masters course some years ago in Canada... tell us about that. How did you find out about it and what did it bring you? Would you recommend it to other aspiring writers?
I did my MA in Creative Writing at Concordia University. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to others, because it might not be helpful for everyone, but for me it was helpful. I had teachers who inspired and encouraged and challenged me, I had access to excellent resources for writing my research-heavy historical fiction book, I learned not to take either praise or criticism too personally, and I met some of my best friends. It was also my first experience of being part of a writing community, and that’s something I definitely would recommend to other aspiring writers.
CA: What sort of thing are you interested in reading? What are you reading at the moment?
What I’m reading depends on what I’m writing, and I usually read several books at a time. I tend to work on projects that require a lot of research, so I read a lot of nonfiction. For the past year I have been reading mostly about addiction and psychedelics. I really enjoyed Supernatural by Graham Hancock. I don’t often find novels that I love, but when I do love a book I read it again and again. In general I am much more interested in writing and reading about people struggling to overcome their own limitations and weaknesses than I am in writing and reading about people overcoming forces of antagonism outside of themselves. At the moment I am reading Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott.
CA: What sort of thing are you interested in writing? What are you writing at the moment?
My first book was a collection of short stories about American folk music, the second is a novel about a Canadian family who move to West Africa and now I am working on a story about rehabilitation programs where psychedelic plants are used to treat drug and alcohol addiction. It sounds eclectic, but looking back on it I can see that I was exploring similar themes and working through similar questions in all of them.
CA: Tell us a bit about your experiences of trying - and managing - to get published. Where have you had your work published and how did it happen?
I don’t think there is anything useful I can share about my experiences with publishing, because for the most part it has been a matter of luck and good timing. The publisher of my first book approached me after reading one of my stories in a magazine, and my agent just recently found a home for my second book. I don’t have any advice about whether or not it’s a good idea to have an agent, but I am certainly glad to have one.
CA: What forms or genres are you interested especially in writing? Or do you like to experiment with different forms?
I am mostly interested in writing fiction and creative nonfiction. I am starting to be interested in science fiction as well, so I’m exploring that.
CA: Tell us a bit about your most recent book, The Western Home. Where did it come from and what is it about?
The Western Home is a collection of stories and an essay about the American folk song “Home on the Range.” My mother’s father died when she was a child, and she used to talk about him a lot to me and my siblings while we were growing up. One of the things she told us about him was that his favourite song was “Home on the Range.” When I was about 26 I happened to read a full version of “Home on the Range” in a book called Good Poems, and I was very moved by it.
I realized that what I had thought was a sort of silly song was actually a really beautiful and poignant poem about the longing for home that brought settlers to the West and what that meant for the people who already lived there. Somehow this resonated with my own longing for a home and this kind of yearning for paradise that I have carried around all my life, probably because my family moved all the time, and my awareness of how limiting and even dangerous that can be. I went online and read some more about the history of the song, and I found it fascinating, so I decided to use the story of the song and the people who shaped it over time to explore some of the themes I have returned to again and again, especially the connection between faith and healing and failed (or reframed) pursuits of ideals.
CA: Tell us a bit about your forthcoming book, White Elephant. Where did it come from and what is it about?
White Elephant is a novel about a Nova Scotian doctor and his family who move to Sierra Leone in the early 1990s to do humanitarian work, despite the fact that the country is in the early stages of civil war. My family lived in Sierra Leone briefly in the early 90s, and that experience left a huge impression on me, so I wanted to write about it somehow. I wrote a short story set in Sierra Leone for a fiction workshop at Concordia, and my thesis supervisor encouraged me to develop it into a novel, so that was how it started.
I went back to Sierra Leone about four years ago to do research while working on a Christian hospital ship and then traveling a bit and writing an article about meetings between traditional and western medicine, and those experiences also influenced the direction the book took. The book was my way of exploring questions that troubled me, but it’s also just a story about a family struggling with their own problems in ways that make them quite blind to what is happening around them.
I guess if it’s about something it’s about empathy, and the limits of empathy. Like my other book it also explores the connection between faith and healing and the pursuit of some kind of ideal, whether in the form of a place or a person or a state of being. It will be published in Canada in May, 2016.
Sierra Leone, photograph by Catherine Cooper.