Article Category Archives: Conversation

A Conversation with Lesley Crewe

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Kin by Lesley Crewe

Kin by Lesley Crewe

Cape Breton mother and author Lesley Crewe has published six acclaimed novels, including her latest, Kin. Lesley’s first novel, Relative Happiness, will be released as a feature-length film in 2014. Lesley spoke with Understorey editor Katherine Barrett about motherhood, grief, and creativity.

How did you start writing novels?
I was working as a newspaper columnist in Cape Breton when I started my first novel, Relative Happiness. I wrote that story to be with my son, Joshua. We’d lost Joshua twenty years earlier, when he was just an infant [see Forever below]. I wanted to write his name—to see his name in something other than granite. So I did, over and over again. I didn’t intend to publish the story—I wrote it for myself—but a friend suggested I send it to a publisher and I’ve been writing novels ever since.

How has motherhood influenced your writing?
It’s who I am. Motherhood has influenced my life so of course it has influenced my writing too. My children are grown and live away from home but the mothering never stops. I don’t write about my kids in my books, yet the experience of being a mother—that love, empathy and worry—shapes all of my characters and stories.

You wrote your first five novels in two years. You’ve now published six and have another due out this summer. How do you it?
Please don’t be too impressed or daunted by how much I have written! Everyone has their own process and a right time in life to be creative. I didn’t write anything when my kids were small; I didn’t have the energy. Now I write just to avoid housework…. Actually, I walk every morning and that’s when I think of my stories. I then sit down and tell those stories, usually in short bursts of intense work. I write books that are easy to read, books that can be enjoyed in the tub or on the beach. I tell the kind of stories I like to read myself, and I draw a lot from my life and from the people around me.

Although the characters in your books often leave Nova Scotia, they seem compelled to return. There’s a pull, especially back to Cape Breton. Do you feel that too?
I spent the first six months of my life in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, and then grew up in Montreal. I have always felt a connection to Cape Breton and was fortunate to have the opportunity to move back, even when so many people have had to move away for work. I’ve lived here 30 years now and everyone I know who has left can’t wait to get back. I think that pull stems from the people here and in the Maritimes in general—the people and the connection we have to each other.

What advice could you give to new writers?
I’ve given workshops in high schools in Cape Breton through the Writers in the Schools program of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. I tell my students that you don’t need to travel to some exotic place to find a good story. We have lots of great stories—and fantastic characters—right here at home. I also advise new writers to write for the love of it, not out of a desperate need to be published. Write for yourself and trust your characters, too. Sometimes they take your story in new and unexpected directions. Listen to them.

What’s next for you?
I have a new book coming out in August. Chloe Sparrow is a lighthearted novel about a TV producer. The story was my daughter’s idea so I wrote it for her. I also finished another book this winter called Amazing Grace. I fell in love with the main character of that story, Grace. I miss her now. It’s strange the way that works…. This fall will be busy with Relative Happiness, the movie, coming out and with promoting Chloe Sparrow. But I love to meet my readers. They’re always so kind to me.


A Conversation with Alice Burdick

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holler I met poet Alice Burdick on a snowy morning at the Biscuit Eater Café in Mahone Bay. We sat in winter sun made cozy by the scent of baking, Latin tunes on the CD player, and shelves stacked high with books, including Alice’s latest collection, Holler.

We planned to talk poetry and motherhood but first took a few minutes to enjoy lattes, muffins, and marvel of leaving the house. It has been a cold winter in Nova Scotia with a lot of storms and school closures, times Alice spends at home with her children, Hazel, aged 6, and Arthur, 4.

Alice Burdick: I usually write at home, even when the kids are at school, but I do miss those days of leisurely writing in cafés like this one.

Katherine Barrett: When did you start writing poetry?

Alice: I took an extra-curricular writing course in high school called The Dream Class. It was run the by the Toronto school board, taught by Victor Coleman, and introduced me to the major poets and poetry movements of the twentieth century. I got hooked and later started making my own chapbooks—complete with hand-painted covers and pages—and selling them at book fairs and bookshops.

Katherine: And you’ve published a lot since then.

Alice: Yes, several chapbooks, three full-length poetry collections, and poems in literary magazines across Canada.

Katherine: How has motherhood changed your writing practice?

Alice: Other than spending less time in cafés? I’m much more focused than I was before kids, I just sit down and write. I treat it like a job and that way I’ve kept writing straight through motherhood, even when the kids were babies. I have to write to feel fully human.

Katherine: Your latest collection, Holler, contains many poems about children and mothering.

Alice: More than my previous collections, yes, and readers have said Holler is my most accessible book. I’m not sure how those two points are linked but it likely has to do with the immediacy of motherhood.

Body House
(from Holler)

Hazel stands in front of me
and points to her eyes.
They are windows, her ears,
they are windows, and her mouth,
she says it’s a door.

Her body is a house,
and she’s home
for now.

Katherine: Tell me about “Body House.”

Alice: My daughter, Hazel, was about three when she came to me with these pronouncements about her eyes, ears, and mouth. I saw her trying to situate herself, her body, in the world; trying to process the information that flows in and out. Three is such an innocent age, free of insecurities about bodies but I know that she’ll one day become aware of how others see her. That’s why I added “for now.”

Ghost Feet
(from Holler)

Please make me a book
from salad and tears. I cry at condiments.
My ghost feet light up the sidewalk.
Will you forget a book or a person so easily?

Arthur makes a series of sounds
that will one day be words.
He gets his point across
the floor, straight to the cat’s dish.

Katherine: To me “Ghost Feet” is about that crazy headspace of motherhood. Why am I crying at condiments? No, my kid is crying at condiments. We’re both crying. Never mind because there goes Arthur to the cat dish….

Alice: I’d say a lot of the poems in Holler share that quality: the brain on tangents brought home by the physicality of parenting. But “Ghost Feet” actually started with Michael Jackson. A friend challenged me to write about him; a “literal” video for Billie Jean and the line “my ghost feet light up the sidewalk” stuck in my head. So the poem is a reverie of sorts: the beauty of life; our quick acceptance of its disappearance; and the everyday strangeness of kids and parenting.

Katherine: What are you working on now?

Alice: I have a new poetry manuscript in the works. I’m also trying my hand at collaborative fiction, co-writing with another author. And now that the kids are a little older, I’ve started carrying my notebook around again, taking notes. We’ll see where it all goes.