Review: Mennonites Don’t Dance

Thank you so much to Penny and Literary Hoarders for this amazing review!

literary hoarders

Ever since reading The Divinity Gene, I cannot get enough of short stories! And does it seem only to me that Canadians are at the forefront of producing excellent, high-quality short fiction? Admittedly, I’ve only been reading Canadian short fiction, but with each collection completed, I feel they keep getting better and better!

What originally drew me to Mennonites Don’t Dance is this haunting and beautiful cover. But the moment I began reading, I just could not put it down! The Globe and Mail review says it is “arresting, mesmerizing, authentic, stunning”. Yes, yes, yes and yes!

I do believe this is my favourite collection so far. Again, as the G&M says, the characters and stories are so authentic. I couldn’t agree more with that word – authentic. Because every character written in this collection is genuine and well, yes, authentic. Each person is perfectly portrayed in a perfectly described setting or…

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2012 Evergreen Award Shortlist announced

I’m head over heels in love with this award! Thank you so much OLA for shortlisting Mennonites Don’t Dance.

Huge congratulations to every one of the other authors and publishers!

news release by Quill & Quire

OLA announces 2012 Evergreen Award shortlist

The Ontario Library Association has announced its shortlist for the2012 Evergreen Award, which honours the best in Canadian fiction and non-fiction titles.

Selected by a committee of librarians, this year’s nominees are:

During the month of October, the general public is invited to vote for their favourite shortlisted book. The winner will be announced in November and the award presented at the OLA Conference in February 2013. Last year, Emma Donoghue took the Evergreen Award for Room (HarperCollins Canada).

Recipes from nicefatgurdie lately

Mini Choklat-y Cupcakes

February 11, 2012 by whatlooksin | Edit

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup Choklat (or the best quality available) cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp kosher salt
5 oz butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup whipping cream
For the chocolate ganache frosting:
3/4 cup whipping cream
6 oz dark variety of Choklat, or other chocolate, chopped
In a medium bowl, whisk together first 5 ingredients.
In the bowl of a power mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar for 5 minutes on medium speed, until light and pale. Incorporate egg. Alternately, in 2 batches each, add flour/cocoa mixture and milk/cream mixture. Mix until batter is uniform and smooth.
Line 36 mini-cupcake cups with paper liners. Fill each 3/4 full and bake at 350F for 12 minutes, until a tester comes out clean. Cool completely.
Meanwhile, place chopped chocolate in a medium, stainless steel bowl. Heat cream in a pot over medium until just boiling. Immediately pour hot cream over chocolate and let stand for a few minutes. Whisk until chocolate is thoroughly incorporated and the mixture is smooth and glossy. Continue to stir frequently with a rubber spatula, scraping sides, as ganache cools. When completely cool and thickened, frost cupcakes using an offset spatula.
Note: Recipe will also make 12 regular-sized cupcakes. Bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes.
Where to find it:

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1 quart Saskatoons
2 quarts water
2/3 cup sugar
4-5 tbs flour
1 cup sweet cream
Cook fruit and water until soft.
Add half of the sugar.
Add the other half of the sugar to the flour and mix with cream until smooth.
Add mixture to the pot and stir constantly until thickened.
You can serve this warm or cold.

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Warm Berry Compote

February 9, 2012 by whatlooksin | Edit

1 1/2 cups red wine (not cooking wine!)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups frozen blueberries or Saskatoon berries
1 1/2 cups frozen raspberries
3 tbs cornstarch
3 tbs cold water
In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring red wine and sugar to a boil, whisking frequently. Add blueberries and return to a boil.
Meanwhile, combine cornstarch and water together to make a slurry. When berry mixture is boiling, add about half of the cornstarch mixture and bring back to a simmer, which will reveal how much thickening has been accomplished. If needed, add a little more cornstarch mixture.
Add raspberries to pot and heat until they’re warmed through and have released some of their juices into the sauce, being careful not to break them up while stirring. Let cool somewhat before serving over angel food cake, topped with whipped cream.
Note: While this may seem like a lot of wine, it becomes a background flavour, mild and mellow.

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2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 tbs olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chilli powder
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
2 1/2 cups organic chicken stock
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup blanched sliced almonds, toasted
1 tbs chopped fresh coriander
Cut chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces. In a Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, heat 1 tbs of the olive oil. Cook chicken until browned. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
Heat remaining 1 tbs olive oil in the same pot and cook onion, garlic and spices, stirring until onion is soft.
Return chicken to pot, along with stock. Bring to a simmer, then cover and set in a 350F oven for an hour, until chicken is tender (the tagine should be fairly dry, not at all soupy). Add apricots, honey and almonds. Sprinkle with coriander. Serve with couscous.

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Hunter’s Pie

February 8, 2012 by whatlooksin | Edit

2 pound beef roast, trimmed
4-6 tbs canola oil
1 large onion
2 medium carrots
1 leek, white and light green parts only
1 celery stalk
3 cloves garlic
5 medium white mushrooms
5 cups beef stock
1 cup red wine
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
kosher salt/fresh ground pepper
Heat beef stock and keep hot on a back burner.
Chop vegetables and steak into approximately 1/4-inch dice. In a large pot over high heat, heat 1 tbs oil. Sweat onions, carrots, leek and celery. Add garlic and sweat, then add wine. Simmer to reduce liquid by 1/3.
Lightly season raw beef. In a large skillet, heat 1 tbs oil. Sear 1/4 of the beef at a time, transfer to a large bowl, and repeat, adding oil as needed. When beef is done, add mushrooms to pan and deglaze with a splash of wine. Transfer vegetables and mushrooms to bowl with beef.
In the pot used for the vegetables, melt butter over medium-high. Add flour and whisk vigorously to form a paste; about 1 minute. A few ladles at a time, add hot stock, whisking constantly. When a smooth gravy has formed, add meat and vegetables. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat and continue to simmer about 35-40 minutes. Season to taste.
For the mashed potatoes:
3 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sour cream
kosher salt/fresh ground pepper
Peel and halve potatoes. Cook in salted water over high heat until potatoes are tender. Drain. Press through a ricer (or mash). Stir in butter and sour cream. Season to taste.
The dish may be assemble traditionally, in a baking pan, with the meat/vegetable mixture on the bottom, topped with mashed potatoes and baked at 350F until hot and bubbly.
Or place a ring mould (we used an appetizer-sized 2-inch ring) onto a serving plate, fill 2/3 with stew, top with potatoes, and gently lift ring.

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Apple Strudel

February 7, 2012 by whatlooksin | Edit

1 cup warm milk
1 tbs active dry yeast
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup melted butter (cooled)
2 large eggs, well beaten
1/2 tsp salt
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 egg and 1 tbs milk for egg wash
Dissolve yeast and 1 tsp of the sugar in the warm milk. Set aside ten minutes to proof, until foamy.
In a large bowl, combine yeast mixture, sugar, butter, eggs and salt. Add flour and bring together with a fork until dough begins to form. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 5-7 minutes to form a soft, elastic dough.
Transfer to a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled; about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare apple filling:
1/4 cup butter
5 tbs brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 medium apples, cored, peeled, chopped
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add brown sugar and cinnamon and stir with a wooden spoon. Add apples and sautee, stirring, until tender-firm; about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half. Roll one half into a 12×12-inch square. Spread with half the apple mixture, leaving a border on all sides. Roll up and transfer to a Silpat or parchment paper lined baking sheet. Repeat with second half of dough and apples.
Cover rolls and let rise until about doubled.
Beat an egg together with 1 tbs milk. Using a pastry brush, brush egg over tops of rolls.
Bake at 325F for 35-40 minutes, until golden. Transfer to cooling racks.

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Lemon pudding cakes

February 6, 2012 by whatlooksin | Edit

128g granulated sugar
70 g all-purpose flour
pinch salt
4 large eggs, separated
325 ml buttermik
70 g fresh-squeezed lemon juice
zest from 3 lemons
Butter and sugar 8 ramekins (custard cups). Set aside.
Into a medium bowl, sift together sugar, flour and salt.
Whisk egg whites to soft peaks.
Whisk together egg yolks, buttermilk, lemon juice and zest until fluffy.
Gradually fold the dry ingredients to the egg yolk/lemon mixture until combined. Fold in the eggs whites, a little at first to lighten the mixture, then in thirds. Deflate as little as possible.
Divide mixture among prepared moulds. Place in deep-sided baking dishes. Add hot water to baking dishes, half way up the sides of the custard cups. Cover with foil, carefully place in a 300F oven. Bake 25 minutes, then uncover and bake until tops spring back when touched; about 15 minutes.
Remove custard cups from water. Let cool to room temperature. Invert over serving dishes and shake lightly until they come loose. Dust with icing sugar or serve with raspberry sauce.

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readings, Red Deer and Robert Kroetsch

Saturday, May 28th.

I’m at the Mayfield Inn & Suites in Edmonton, having just delivered a breakfast keynote for the Alberta Association of Library Technicians (AALT). An engagement arranged by Susan Toy, a friend from Humber who has never failed to live up to a long ago promise that, if my book was ever published, she’d do everything she could to help get air under its wings.

As the girl who used to sit on the floor among the fiction stacks of every library and bookstore I ever visited, gazing at the H-authored shelves, trying to believe enough work could earn me a place among them, giving a keynote to a roomful of library techs is more than a little surreal. Copies of Mennonites Don’t Dance are now on their way to new libraries, including a high school and middle school.

In a very little while, the winner and runners up of the Danuta Gleed Literary Award will be announced in Toronto. I’m in the running, along with Teri Vlassopolous, another friend from Humber.

Several hours later, Susan and I are headed out of Edmonton. She’s on her way home, and my sister lives along the way.

Although rewarding, it’s been a long weekend. I don’t travel well, and feel ready for the glue stick factory. My post-reading migraine is crackling on the horizon. But Susan has arranged a surprise that will make all that disappear for a little while.

For the moment, though, I still don’t know that anything but a bathroom break is on our itinerary.

The last time I stopped in Red Deer, it was 18 years ago and I had my wedding dress in the back seat of my mother’s Ark-sized Oldsmobile.

This time, I’m with Susan as she wends her Subaru into a residential neighbourhood. New developments surround us with show homes, and I begin to worry that:

1) We’re lost, and

2) I didn’t, ten minutes ago, make myself clear.

“If I pretend I’m interested in that townhouse there, the realtor might let me use the bathroom!”

“Yes, yes,” says Susan. “You’ll be fine for another minute. I’m taking you to meet someone.”

What?! Nooooo!

Glue sticks. Migraine. Bathroom! I want to say. But Susan knows I’m knackered. I know she knows I’m knackered. She wouldn’t take me on a detour unless it was going to shake my boughs.

Turning into the driveway of an elegant condominium building, Susan says, “There he is.”

On a bench, taking in a blue Alberta afternoon, is Robert Kroetsch.

I’m not well traveled enough, connected or schooled enough, to recognize him by sight alone. An ignorance that makes me instantly nervous when Susan tells me who we’ve come to visit. I’m glad I didn’t know ahead of time, because I would’ve spent it worrying. After all, I’m still clutching my very first book, and this man is a legend.

More, I know that fellow Thistledown author, Anne Sorbie, lately loaned him a copy of my stories.

“He’ll give you an honest opinion,” she said.

Honest opinions didn’t scare me until the book was printed and bound. Until then, anything or everything could still be fixed.

Now, even though the reviews have been generous enough to leave me slack-jawed, and Mennonites Don’t Dance has landed on two shortlists, I don’t know what to expect. Just that I keep expecting a reversal of fortunes.

What I do know is that this gentleman, who is gracious and kind as he takes my hand and shakes it warmly, is someone who has a right to his opinion.

“I wish I’d thought to take the two of you out to dinner,” he says. And just like that, he puts me at ease.

How do I tell him, or Susan, that this next half hour is already 30 minutes I will never, not ever, forget? Do I even know this yet?

We spend the time talking about books and writers. I tell him who taught me. His eyes light up as he says that he taught my teachers. Then he says, “I’ve read your stories and they’re extraordinary.”

After so many years of doubt, my heart is on my sleeve, along with these stories.

“How do you go into all those dark places?” he asks. And because I don’t think about being smart or clever, because Robert Kroetsch is so easy to talk to, I say, “With a lamp.”

He nods and agrees. There’s no finding one’s way without one.

As the minutes tick and it’s time to get back on the road, I already know that if my name isn’t called in Toronto tonight, I’ve been given something priceless.

Half an hour later, though the three of us hoped the announcement would come in while Susan and I were still in Red Deer, we’re driving again when I find out that I’m a runner up.

After I call my husband, I send an email to Robert Kroetsch.

It’s wonderful news, he says. He’s glad to have met me on this special day. There’s more to the email, but repeating his words would lighten their weight.

Runner up may be the bridesmaid’s prize. And to everyone who doesn’t write, the dollar difference between first place and not looks like a loss.

I would love to have won. I would love to have been in Toronto to hear my name called.

Who could pretend otherwise? Although I can’t even describe what a thing it is to be shortlisted for such an award!

As Susan and I drive towards Calgary, the crackle begins to return and I’m anxious to see my sister.

Today has been a gift, and I look forward to a few days from now, when I’m home and can peel back the tape and untie the ribbons.

Writers Reading Recipes!

If you’re within the delivery area of one of the newspapers that carries my food column, next week’s story (or the week after that, depending on the paper)  is all about Writers Reading Recipes.

It’s more than the very good idea of Book Madam Julie Wilson! It’s a literary feast, with celebrated authors lending their voices to tempting dishes. Better than bedtime stories. Almost as good as eating. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer even reads in Flemish.

So find someplace quiet, have a seat. Take a pen with you. You might want to make a grocery list.

Writers reading recipes begins with a series of readings by five authors. Listen in here!

In order of appearance:
Julie Wilson, “Tender Eggs with Cream and Chives”
Sarah Leavitt, “Pumpernickel Bread Ring”
Iain Reid, “Coconut Ginger Lentil Soup”
Darcie Friesen Hossack, “Rollkuchen”
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer


Teri Vlassopolous reads Aunt Gwen’s Fried Egg Sandwiches in “H is for Happy” from An Alphabet for Gourmets, by M. F. K. Fisher, published in 1948.

Teri Vlassopoulos’s first book, Bats or Swallows, was published by Invisible Publishing in Fall 2010. She’s not only a good friend of mine from writing school, but we were co-short-listed for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Her favourite meal is breakfast.

In the third instalment,

Writers Reading Recipes continues with Kim Moritsugu reading “Butterscotch Brownies” from The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.

Kim Moritsugu is a creative writing teacher, food blogger and the author of four novels and one novelette. Visit her at The Hungry Novelist and Follow her on Twitter at @KimMoritsugu.

The results are in!

Driving from Edmonton to Calgary, fellow Humber grad and Danuta Gleed Award nominee Teri Vlassopolous texted me with news from The Writers’ Union of Canada’s AGM. More on the trip to come, but for now, congratulations to Billie Livingston!


The Writers’ Union of Canada and John Gleed are pleased to announce that Billie Livingston is the recipient of the $10,000 DANUTA GLEED LITERARY AWARD for Greedy Little Eyes (Vintage Canada), judged the best first English-language collection of short fiction by a Canadian author published in 2010.

Jury members Douglas Glover, J. Jill Robinson, and Claire Holden Rothman said of Greedy Little Eyes: ‘‘Billie Livingston’s writing has energy, spunk and daring. In this collection the writer’s eyes are wide open, taking in the world and then reflecting it in all its strangeness and beauty. She pushes edges, teeters on brinks, creating the exhilaration that comes only with taking risks. Her characters are real people in a real world who achieve break-out velocity and recreate themselves by signal acts of courage and self-definition. Frequently, her plots hinge on a demand for justice in a world clouded with calculation and evasion, resulting in a collection as strong in content as it is in style.’’

Runners-up Darcie Friesen Hossack and Alexander MacLeod will each receive $500.

Of Darcie Friesen Hossack’s, Mennonites Don’t Dance (Thistledown Press) the jury said: ‘‘Readers easily and gladly enter the world Darcie Friesen Hossack has created in Mennonites Don’t Dance. That world, a primarily Mennonite world, is peopled with an array of characters both fair and foul, kind and cruel, characters all engaged to greater or lesser degrees in what Faulkner has called the ‘struggles of the human heart.’ These fine stories are written with great care, unfolding naturally and skilfully.’’

Of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (Biblioasis) the jury said: ‘‘The stories in Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting are dense with the tragic poetry of the everyday. His narrators speak in a deceptively relaxed vernacular that reflects a fierce emotional intensity just beneath the surface of the words, the stoic heroism of the common man and woman, and MacLeod’s commitment to realistic story-telling.”

The short list of five books was announced on May 2, 2011 and also included R.W. Gray’s Crisp (NeWest Press) and Teri Vlassopoulos’s Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing).

The DANUTA GLEED LITERARY AWARD was created as a celebration of the life of Danuta Gleed, a writer whose short fiction won several awards before her death in 1996. Danuta Gleed’s first collection of short fiction, One of the Chosen, was posthumously published by BuschekBooks. The Award is made possible through a generous donation from John Gleed in memory of his late wife, and is administered by The Writers’ Union of Canada.

The Writers’ Union of Canada is our country’s national organization representing professional authors of books. Founded in 1973, the Union is dedicated to fostering writing in Canada, and promoting the rights, freedoms, and economic well-being of all writers.


Burning through Books with author Sylvia Petter

“We are with students for a lifetime, we are their cheerleaders for life.” ~ Antanas Sileika, creative director of the Humber School for Writers.

Not only is this true, but for some students, this also describes relationships between teachers and fellow graduates. From my year, about a dozen of us (all women) still exchange flurries of emails about writing and publishing and life.

This group, which can’t seem to name itself, has grafted in a few more members over the years, including other writers and editors.

Personally, I’ve also connected with another Humber grad, and the friendship has turned into an unexpected blessing.

Aussie author Sylvia Petter was not part of my original Humber class. We instead waved hello across a Facebook group for Humber alumni (she was mentored by both Peter Carey and Timothy Findley, who she affectionately refers to as “Tiff”) and have kept in touch ever since.

When in Toronto a couple of years ago, Sylvia sent me one a signed copy of the original print version of Back Burning, her newest collection of short fiction.

Now holding a doctorate in creative writing, Sylvia is not only a published author, but specializes in teaching the art of the short story. Lately, she offered a critique up for bid on an “Authors for Japan” auction raising Red Cross funds for tsunami victims. And although I didn’t have a new short story ready I put up my paddle.

While Sylvia is still waiting for that short story to take place on an actual page, she has read the first third of my novel-in-progress, and keeps welcoming more pages, and more.

The thing is, I needed in the worst way to see the story and language through someone else’s eyes because mine had become blurred with literary cataracts from looking to closely. My book had stalled in a mud puddle of doubt.

I keep thanking Sylvia for such a gift. And simply, “Tiff,” she says, “would want it that way.”

As though that’s not enough, I asked another favour: Would she would be willing to talk to me for this blog.

Her answer, gracious as always, was yes. The following is our conversation, which happened via email last week.

Thank you Sylvia, for this and so much else!

Q: Our paths crossed in a roundabout sort of way because of the Humber School for Writers. Your mentor there was an author whose name Canadians speak in hushed tones. He’s that loved. Tell me, how did you come to have Timothy Findley as your teacher, and what was the experience like, both during and after you’d finished the class?

Yes, my Humber experience certainly played a big part in my development as a writer. In 1997, I attended a summer workshop run by Wayson Choy. It was an intense and satisfying experience. Then I saw that Australian Peter Carey was on the faculty and thought how great it would be to work with him in the correspondence course. But Carey was tied up with the filming of his book, Oscar and Lucinda, and so Joe Kertes suggested I work with Timothy Findley. (I eventually did work with Peter Carey on another novel, Ambergris, the last time he taught at Humber. It was very helpful for my writing but very different to my experience with Timothy Findley).

I’d never heard of Timothy Findley and the course was more expensive for non-Canadians. I remember phoning Joe from France and telling him, I’d have to take out a loan to pay for the course. He assured me that Timothy Findley would be perfect for me. This was in 1999 and Timothy Findley was still living in France and so was I. We did everything by snail mail. I sent him a draft of my novel, tentatively entitled Tillandsia, and thought that I was nearly there with it. It was the last time he was doing the correspondence course before going on book tour for his novel, Pilgrim. Over the 30 weeks, not only did he look at Tillandsia, but also the beginning of another novel in progress, Duende, and gave me detailed feedback on both works, with lots of questions that I was to explore. It was an intense period.

He was tough, but he was also very generous. He hinted that Tillandsia and Duende might be the same story and that I needed to find the right way to tell it. He made me think about coincidence, about character, structure and most of all about storytelling. Let me share some advice from his correspondence: “In stage terms, you (the writer) indicate some of the setting design and some of its details, some of the lighting and sound effects – and the reader supplies the rest of the look and the sound of the production; you define the roles to be played – but the reader does the casting for each role. And thus, every reader achieves a different and entirely appropriate production. “

When the course was over I reworked the novel, but I think I took on that job far too soon. He had warned me against this, saying that novels could take years to mature and mentioned that Pilgrim had taken almost 20. Today, Tilly (as I call my novel still in revision) is still unfinished, but I think I am ready now to revisit it, and once again study all our correspondence, reread Famous Last Words, for example. Timothy Findley’s guidance to me continues through his works. I miss that there’ll not be more of them.

Q: You have a shelf of CanLit in your office. Who’s on it?

Janette Turner Hospital, my Oz-Can link – I’d discovered her short stories in a remainder bin on a trip back home. She spoke to me through her stories, Dislocations and Isobars. Timothy Findley – I devoured everything he wrote. Famous Last Words is my textbook. Lauren Davis, who was also mentored by Timothy Findley and attended the Geneva Writers´Group, Isabel Huggan, who also gave workshops in Geneva, Wayson Choy. All those are on two shelves together. Then there are other shelves with Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, Dennis Bock, Mavis Gallant, Anne Michaels, Elisabeth Harvor, Erika de Vasconcelos, Richard Scrimger, copies of Descant and Prism, collections of Canadian short stories, Robertson Davies, Clark Blaise and Alistair McLeod

Q: For readers getting to know Sylvia Petter for the first time, I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a kangaroo living in Vienna. How did your writing take you from one place to the other?

There are lots of souvenir items, including T-shirts, in Vienna, which say “No kangaroos in Austria”, and somehow that seemed not quite true. So I bought one of those T-shirts and marked it up to read: I am a kangaroo in Austria; that highlights who I am, an Austr(al)ian. I was born in Vienna and grew up in Australia, and now I’m back, not really belonging anywhere anymore. My writing takes me to places linked to identity, subversion, truth in the lies and vice versa, in short, places of dislocation where I enjoy what in German they call “Narrenfreiheit” – I guess a sort of freedom of fools. It’s the dislocation, perhaps, that informs my writing, even when I’m writing bits of nonsense just for the fun of it, which I also like to do.

Q: Janette Turner Hospital calls you “…a cartographer of dislocated lives.” There’s wonderful poetry in that image. What does it mean to you, the writer who charts these characters.

When my publisher told me what she had written for the blurb on my book, Back Burning, the hairs on my arms stood up straight. It was a shivery experience. Often I discover things in my stories through the lenses of readers. What a reader sees and feels on reading my stories helps me explore my own dislocation, taking a phrase from John Metcalfe, shows me “how stories mean”.  If a cartographer draws up her chart after having gone down the road, then maybe that’s what I do. But there is never a chart at the beginning; it’s all unknown territory when starting out.

Q: Lately you’ve been telling me about your “souk” that’s currently under construction. “Souk” isn’t a word I’ve come across in Canada. Would you mind telling us about it, and yours in particular?

Ah, the souk. I was in Marrakech ages before I started writing fiction in the early 90s, and loved the souk, the marketplace filled with a jumble of goods from spices to satins and in the middle an old man cross-legged on an old carpet, before him an array of dentures and single teeth and the instruments for pulling them – a dentist of sorts. That image came back to me in my first writing room in France – papers and books all over the place, organic disorder, and in the middle, notebooks and computer, my tooth pulling instruments.

Sylvia's souk

Q: The collection of short stories, Back Burning (Interactive Press), is your most recent book. But there were others before, and others to come. What would you like people to know about your recent book? What are you working on now?

Between the Wayson Choy and Timothy Findley courses, I answered a call for submissions in the TLS. My collection, The Past Present, was accepted and in 2000 appeared as one of the first eBooks, and in 2001 as a POD (print-on-demand). It was a publishing “labour of love” ahead of its time, which soon sadly failed. Five years later, my collection, Back Burning, won Best Fiction Prize at IP. I’m very fond of Back Burning. It was important for me to be published in Australia, it was like coming home. But maybe Janette Turner Hospital’s words on the cover hint at my doubt in the existence of such a place. I need to revise Tilly, as well as Ambergris, the novel I did for my PhD at UNSW in Sydney on the smell of dislocation. Then I want to take stories from The Past Present and self publish them as an eBook together with many others not in Back Burning. That collection will be called Mercury Blobs – no publisher would ever accept that, hence the self publishing. It will be all over the place, my kind of thing. But first I need to finish a “memoir in craft” on the work of my mother with lots of photos of how she interpreted “waste not, want not”. And, of course, after all that, or maybe in between, there’ll be stories.

Q: What is your favourite thing about writing?

There’s a magical state of wanting to know how a story ends that I want to recapture. I was there once when I first started writing. I want to go back there to that freedom and energy and passion, that road into the unknown. Sure, there’s tooth pulling, but it’s worth it. Recently, John Siddique, a poet friend, wrote a blog post about the book teaching the writer how to write, how each book makes you start all over again. Starting something new, letting story take over. I think that’s what I love about writing.

Q: What do you think would surprise people to know about you?

Back in the 60s, between high school and uni in Sydney, I was working in the underwear section of a big department store. A woman was looking for a brand of bra we didn’t have, but I’d seen that brand in the window of a small shop a few blocks away and so rather than trying to sell her something from the department store, I told her she’d find what she wanted just down the road. She was very pleased. Needless to say, my supervisor was not impressed. I guess I still do that.


I received news this morning that both Mennonites Don’t Dance and my friend Teri Vlassopoulos’ book, Bats or Swallows, have been shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award! Congratulations Teri, I’m so excited to share this moment with you!

Meanwhile, if this is the first time you’ve heard about Mennonites Don’t Dance, here’s a little more information to go on:

Darcie Friesen Hossack - Darcie Friesen Hossack


Arresting, mesmerizing, authentic, stunning


From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

Jonah’s life as a chore-burdened Saskatchewan farm boy is hard enough without the black moods of his father, Abram, who considers himself an abject failure and humanity a plague of locusts. Worse, Jonah’s Uncle Elias is a strong-ox “Samson” of a man whose God-fearing work ethic and bountiful fields have shamed Jonah’s dad for decades.

Mennonites Don’t Dance, by Darcie Friesen Hossack, Thistledown, 201 pages, $18.95

Luna, the opener of Darcie Friesen Hossack’s arresting story collection (short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for first fiction, canada and the Caribbean) offers characters fully integrated with their setting: defined by land, weather, hidebound family hierarchies and their success or failure at prospering under the yoke. Jonah’s creeping bitterness, as he grows to become a young husband and father, gives the story a unnerving heat that you fear will become incendiary.

Read the rest of the review here.

no ordinary family-an interview with Betty Jane Hegerat

Usually, a reader will fall for a book before falling for the author.

As it happened, though, I was introduced to Betty Jane Hegerat in a Calgary coffee shop a little more than a year ago, and have met her only once since then.

I’m a little shy to admit it, lest she change her email address and politely unfriend me on Facebook, but I have what I can only explain as a daughter-crush for this warm and wise women, who’s not only held my hand through the unfamiliar-to-me territory of being a first time author, but whose work makes me want to be a better writer. The very definition of a mentor.

With three books to her name, Betty Jane is just now releasing a much anticipated fourth. The Boy (Oolichan Books) begins its official tour, and simultaneous blog tour, this month. I couldn’t be more pleased that she chose What Looks In as the venue for her virtual visit to the Okanagan Valley.

Betty Jane spoke a little about her new title at a reading I was able to attend in October, and an image of a family’s shoes lined up together has stuck with me ever since. Fittingly, that image is now the cover art.

A writer of what Betty Jane calls “Domestic Fiction” (a camp in which I gladly pitch my tent), she this time tackles some spectacularly dark territory by delving into one of the most infamous murders in Canadian history.

(From the publisher) “In 1959 Ray and Daisy Cook and their five children were brutally slain in their modest home in the central Alberta town of Stettler. Robert Raymond Cook, Ray Cook’s son from his first marriage, was convicted of the crime, and had the infamy of becoming the last man hanged in Alberta.

Forty-six years later, a troublesome character named Louise in a story that Betty Jane Hegerat finds herself inexplicably reluctant to write, becomes entangled in the childhood memory of hearing about that gruesome mass murder. Through four years of obsessively tracking the demise of the Cook family, and dancing around the fate of the fictional family, the problem that will not go away is how to bring the story to the page. A work of nonfiction about the Cooks and their infamous son, or a novel about Louise and her problem stepson? Both stories keep coming back to the boy.

Part memoir, part investigation, part novella, part writer’s journal, The Boy, is the author’s final capitulation to telling the story with all of the troublesome questions unanswered.”

Chatting with Betty Jane as The Boy makes its way into the world, I hope to introduce you both to the author and her work. I trust that you will be likewise smitten.

Along with the Q&A that follows, Betty Jane has provided an audio link. So sit back, read, listen, and get to know the author of The Boy.

Q: Tell me a bit about where you do your writing and what inspires you to sit down and work.

A: I write at home, and on retreats. I’m easily distracted and could never be a coffee shop author, nor do I write on trains and boats and planes. I seem to need the familiarity and comfort of my office at home — I have a great view of the garden. I’m also a retreat junkie, and love the Leighton Artists Colony at the Banff Centre; I’m deeply grateful for the residencies I’ve been able to do there over the past six years. The place is magic and I can usually accomplish as much in two weeks as it would take me two months to finish at home.

Q: How long has this book been taking shape in your imagination?

A: I began writing the fictional thread in The Boy about six years ago and very quickly found myself spinning back to a memory of the Cook murders. When I write fiction, my usual process is to just get the story on the page; write until there’s nothing more to pull from the well, and worry about the shape in subsequent drafts. But the obsession that grew around the real crime took me into territory that required a different strategy. So defining the structure of the book involved a lot of back-and-forth from fiction to non-fiction. In the end, I looked at the pieces of both and decided that instead of arguing with my fictional character in my head, I would let those conversations flow onto the page and become the glue that held the two together.

Q: Was it fascination with the subject or a need to exorcise it from your memory that finally led to putting it on paper?

A: More exorcism than fascination. One of the barriers I had to bringing this story to the page was fear. I am not abnormally morbid; I have little interest in reading about murder and mayhem. But there was something about this story that compelled me to write it at the same as the details repelled me.

Q: How did you deal with the challenge of using historic figures and events while knitting together a fictional story?

A: This was indeed a challenge for me. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with fiction that pulls in “characters” from real life, be they dead or alive. Possibly it’s an acute sense of privacy from my background as a social worker that gives me that prohibition, or maybe it’s simply personal discomfort.  Which is not to say I have trouble with other authors who recreate events and historical figures as fiction.  I’m just too aware of my own tendency to want to embellish  to trust myself.  And that is why I very quickly let go of the idea of writing the Cook family story as fiction.

Q: The Boy is dark territory. Was it difficult to be immersed in it as a writer? What did you do to leave it on your desk at the end of the day?

A: Typically, I write about things that trouble me, in an effort to make sense of the insensible.  Never before, though, have I ventured onto terrain quite this dark.  A number of people have chastised me for stirring up the ashes of such a horrific crime. But I think it was that terrifying aspect of the story that compelled me to write it.  When I first began reading about the murders, I learned to put the books aside long before bedtime. I worked on this book through three residencies in a studio at the Banff Centre and there were some nights that I got caught up the writing and suddenly realized that it had grown late and I was going to have to walk a dark path back to the residence.  I ran that path most nights, and probably scared the deer and any lurking predators with the sound of my pounding feet and ragged breathing.  This past January, when I was at Banff again, I was working on a novel for teens, quirky humour mixed into family drama, and I had a huge sense of relief that I’d left The Boy behind.

Q: What kind of responses have you had from people who remember these events, particularly those were local?

A: I knew, from the vividness of my own memory of hearing about the Cook murders, that there would be no shortage of others who remembered the events. What surprised me was the number of people I met casually who’d either lived in the area at the time, or knew someone who had.  Initially, I felt rather uncomfortable approaching people who had a far closer connection to the area than I, and had known the family. In every case, people were generous in sharing their memories, and accepting of my intent. But I know there will some who feel I should have let this family rest in peace.

Q: What about yourself do you think your readers would be surprised to know?

A: Considering the time I spent chasing this story,  anyone reading the book might be surprised to hear that I dislike research.  I am totally happy writing fiction that doesn’t require going anywhere except into my own head and heart.  Someone else asked me recently if I was surprised by the shape this book took — totally. While I felt compelled to follow every thread that might lead me to some understanding of what happened to the Cook family, I did the work because I wanted to get to the end of the story.  Never for the thrill of discovery or the pleasure of wandering off on tangents.  This book is a one-off!  I’m back to straight fiction!

An un-interview with author Teri Vlassopoulos

For a few months now, Teri Vlassopoulos and I have been trying, failingly, to coordinate timezones for a followup to “Of First Books and Chicken Feet,” our IM “uninterview” from August 23d.

Teri is the author of the fantastically-reviewed short story collection, Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing, 2010), and we’ve been long-distance friends since we both enrolled in the Humber School for Writers mentorship program. After five years, with most of Canada between us, we’ve never met.

After failed appointments, confusion over what time it is in BC when it’s 6:30pm in Montreal, and an inked-in date that was nearly forgotten when a paper box of French fries got the better of one of us, we finally connected and caught up on what’s happened since both of our books were published in the Fall.

The day after we chatted, it happened that Mennonites Don’t Dance was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Teri, being the amazing friend she is, quickly substituted this uninterview with one that caught my reaction. Which meant another month has gotten away and some of what was anticipated in the following conversation has come to pass.

Confession: Both the timezone snafu and French fry incident were my fault. Teri was ready with fast forgiveness, and here’s what we talked about:


The last time we typed to each other, we were still waiting for our books to be released. Now that the first season’s over, how’s booking?


Booking is good! A little calmer these days. How is it for you?


Honestly, I’m going a little barmy, buzzarding over every issue of the the Globe & Mail since my publisher said there might be a review.


Very exciting!


It is that! But I’m begining to worry I imagined it. Like a sighting of Sasquatch. Or Ogopogo, for those who live around here.


Rule #1 about the media: be patient.


A lesson that I keep having to relearn. Although the crimp in my shoulders suggests anxiety more than impatience.

A pause to consider the implications of either a good or less-than-twinkling review from a publication Canadian authors tremble before.


The last time we talked I was living in Athens! Our books weren’t even out yet! How did you see your book for the first time? Thistledown mailed you copies?


The doorbell rang early one morning. I flung off my blankets, two cats, and raced downstairs to intercept. I wish I’d had time to brush my teeth.

While I stood back and waited for Thistledown to unveil my book cover, Teri had a creative vision for how Bats or Swallows would look. The cover art, as you see above, is beautifully pared down, just like Teri’s voice in her stories. Still, even though we both had galleys, and Teri knew what her book would look like, there’s nothing like seeing the actual item for the first time.


We did everything through PDF, so I saw everything in electronic format, but it’s hard to conceive that those documents will actually be a BOOK.

So it was still a happy surprise to get the books in the mail. I totally cried (in a happy way). And I have to say I felt the same frisson of excitement with my e-book… I’ve become a total ebook convert over the past few months. I love my Kindle.

And then we talked touring:

So, you did a bunch of touring for your book since September – you’ve covered a lot of the west coast?


I did a lot in Montreal and Toronto, but not much in other cities. I need to get on that in 2011. All of the reviews were a surprise, actually. Sometimes I didn’t find out about it until I got a Google Alert for the name of the book.

Invisible was good at getting the book out for reviews – they told me they had things lined up

Actually, it wasn’t always a surprise. Some things were interviewed ahead of time (like the Chronicle Herald article on the weekend), and some I knew were in the pipeline (like Q&Q). But it was like your G&M review – a matter of waiting.

It’s good and bad. The Saturday morning I woke up and got the email about the Gazette review, I groaned and ducked under the covers for a minute. I was afraid to read it!

I wanted to just enjoy my weekend.


Without Google Alerts I’d become an internet trawling narcisist. Not because I love looking at my own reflection, just to make sure I have one!

I have to ask, do you have a most hated question, either (or both) when the asker is a member of the press, or just a random someone?


I haven’t done many interviews, but the questions I’ve been asked have been pretty thoughtful, so that’s nice. I’m surprised/amused by how many people I know (acquaintance, co-workers, etc) ask me what certain stories MEAN

Peope are very preoccupied with MEANINGS. The right one.


What do you tell them?


I try to reassure them that whatever meaning they want to assign to a story is good enough and that my stories aren’t meant to be puzzles to be solved.

I’m realizing that a lot of people avoid reading because they think the author is trying to trick them in some way and that they won’t be able to figure it out.


What about being asked whether the stories are true?


Oh yeah, I get that question. Actually, not even in question format – just assumptions that things are true! I mentioned this on my blog, but my cousin was all, “hey, you killed off your dad in one of your stories – so funny!”


People have been assuming my stories are true since my Chicken Soup for the soul days (we all have to start somewhere). But the worst question, I think, must be, “How many books have you sold.”


Ahh! Yeah! that too. That question is just HARD to answer

I have no idea. And if people knew the real math behind books, they would be bewildered at the number.

I think it’s awesome you were in a Chicken Soup book – it’s kind of random/amazing


Well, then, you’ll be pleased to know I was in two issues. The second story was true. True enough. The first contract didn’t state that it had to be, and I didn’t know any better.


So after all the nervousness for book launches, I gather you ended up enjoying them?


The launches, yes. Doing the readings, meeting truly wonderful readers, signing copies. Amazing! I just don’t know quite how to say how expensive they are, personally. This urban hermit is used to closed doors.


Haha, I understand. I think I fall somewhere between you and our pal Lisa… so while I loved it and would do it all again in a second, it was still exhausting!

Note: Lisa wrote Snowdrift, a memoir about dropping out of Oxford to become a Canadian ski bum. Read her uninterview with Teri here.


She had so much fun. But then, I didn’t exactly write a fun book!


Definitely. Your book isn’t exactly a romp in the park. Black humour. A universal sadness


My mom told me that a pair or Mennonite ladies were splitting their guts laughing over the scene of the whole chicken in the soup pot, with the feet sticking out. Mennonite humour!


What does your family think of the book now that it’s out?


My mom is pleased as peas, selling more copies, personally, than I am. But still… It’s a lot of roughage to digest.


I feel bad for my parents’ friends: for Christmas, they all got the same present: one copy of my book, and one of Andrew’s




It’s cute getting emails from them.

Where have all my probing questions gone! Teri, being a better uninterviewer, kept dangling such good bait.

Sooooo how have things changed now that the book is out?


I guess I feel like I fit the cutout I imagined for myself now. Instead of the pigeon hole wannabe writers have to live in until they prove themselves. Don’t get me wrong, though. Pigeon holes are useful. Everyone should have to spend time in one.

Now, tell me, accountant by day, author by night. What has this book changed about your life?


On the surface it hasn’t changed anything. Things are very different than they were last year, but that’s just because other aspects of my life are different (i.e. living back in Montreal, changed day jobs, etc.)

If anything, it’s made me more motivated to finish my next book, and it’s made me really grateful for the supportive folks in my life who’ve made the experience so much fun, from my family and close friends to my publishers and online friends (like you!)


So what’s up next in terms of touring or reading close to home?


Right now I’m working on a few days in Halifax.

We’re going to visit Andrew’s parents in Cape Breton, and Robbie from Invisible is in Halifax so I think we’ll have a good party.

I would like to do something in Ottawa too


Having helpers seeded here and there is so nice.

Like here in Kelowna, where your friend, Darcie, would arrange something, even though she’s a hermit and doesn’t know many people.


Haha… I would love to go out west! Canada, you’re too big!


Small world. Big country.