Five Questions with… Dorris Heffron

Dorris Heffron, author of City Wolves, answered our five questions.

IFOA: City Wolves is about Canada’s first female veterinarian, Meg Wilkinson, who becomes the notorious “Dog Doctor of Halifax,” tending sled dogs during the Klondike Gold Rush. What sparked your interest in her story?Dorris with Ike and Yukitu at totem 2012 by Erika Engel

Dorris Heffron: All my life, I had had dogs from the farm or dog pound.  When our youngest daughter went off to university and our beloved Frausie dog died, living long enough to bark at the postman leaving the contract for my previous novel at the door, I was bereft. I didn’t want to carry on without kids or dogs in the home. I wanted an indigenous Canadian dog I could ski or swim with. The Newfoundlander was vetoed on account of  its size by my husband. Not knowing what he was getting into, he agreed to my second choice, an Alaskan Malamute, which is actually an indigenous Canadian sled dog, directly descended from Arctic wolves. We named her Yukon Sally.

I was so fascinated by Yukon Sally’s wolf-like traits, I researched the history of Alaskan Malamutes, which led me to research wolves and then to decide to take Yukon Sally to the land of her ancestors. By this time, I was following Yukon Sally, not leading her, she so intrigued me. She led me round the Yukon and Klondike Gold Rush trails, including Skagway, Alaska. Clearly, my next novel would be about wolves, malamutes and the Klondike Gold Rush.

Then Yukon Sally and Jake, the companion we knew she wanted, kept leading us to the vet. I thought it was to get their porcupine quills removed so they could carry on teaching porcies not to mess with malamutes. Then I clued in. Yukon Sally wanted my main character to be about a woman vet, an extraordinary woman vet, like hers, but one who would  go to the Klondike. Thus, I researched the history of  veterinary medicine and came up with Meg, the Dog Doctor of Halifax.

IFOA: What is your favourite memory from that time in the Yukon with Yukon Sally?

Heffron: When we lived in Toronto, Yukon Sally was always running off down the street to play with her pal Sacha, a Siberian Husky. I feared that when we went camping in the Yukon, she would run off with wolves, abandon us. No way! She slept by our tent and came into it at night. She escorted me everywhere, making sure I was safe as I walked off to fetch water, wood, go to the toilets, anywhere. When we ate in restaurants in Skagway or Dawson City, Yukon Sally would wait patiently outside and pose regally while tourists took photos of her. In the land of her ancestors, she became a model show dog. Other sled dogs deferred to her.

IFOA: You and your husband sold your home in Toronto and bought 52 acres in Beaver Valley that you named “Little Creek Wolf Range.” What is a typical day like on the Range?

Heffron: I have an easy life now, my children raised, my parents laid to rest. On an ideal day (no chores, meetings or emergencies), I rise with the sun to let out our malamutes, now Yukitu (which I say is aboriginal for Yukon Sally the Second)  and Ikey, and feed them. After my mug of tea and checking out the blizzard of emails that came through to me as TWUC Chair the evening before, I hike our trails with Yukitu and Ike, down to the pond, through backwoods and up Sunrise Hill, back to our home on the Wolf Range. I go to my desk for the rest of the day, taking breaks to go outside and watch the “wolves” sport with each other, wrestling and leaping over each other. At 4pm, I swim or play tennis. In the evening, we say goodnight to the sun, settle in for some reading by the fire, the malamutes up on the couch with me, until it gets too hot for them and they retire to their beds in the garage for the night.

IFOA: As the current Chair of TWUC, why would you encourage other authors to join The Union?

Heffron: So that they might enjoy the company of Canada’s renowned professional writers and join in advocating for copyright enforcement, good contracts and learning how to better promote their own writing in this age of digital and other technological innovations. So that they can help ensure the continuance of payment for the library and other use of their work, and to take advantage of all the programs TWUC has put into place for promoting Canadian writing and insuring health benefits for writers. Mainly, so that they can build upon and give back to the only national organization of professional book writers.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I feel most inspired when….

Heffron: ….I see or hear about something that happened in the real world I can’t stop thinking about. When I’m dogged by an important reality, I feel the need to explore it further in a novel.

Dorris Heffron is an author and Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada. She will be participating in The Writers’ Union of Canada Showcase on September 25.


Five Questions with… Farzana Doctor

Farzana DoctorFarzana Doctor, author of Six Metres of Pavement, answered our five questions.

IFOA: The protagonist of Six Metres of Pavement, Ismail, is a good person haunted by a horrible mistake. When he accidentally leaves his baby locked in his car, she dies. Unfortunately, tragedies like this are not uncommon. What would you want to say to someone who has experienced a similar heartbreak to Ismail’s?

Farzana Doctor: I sought to answer the question “how do you get over the worst mistake of your life?” in this novel. For Ismail, the cracking open of grief and regret comes when he begins new and unexpected relationships with people who challenge him. He has to love and be loved again. So, I’d offer this sort of advice: find people who love you and love them back.

IFOA: What has been your most unusual source of inspiration?

Doctor: After Six Metres of Pavement was published, my father revealed to me that I’d been left in a hot car for an hour when I was six months old. I went into some physical distress, but recovered. When he told me, I felt chills down my spine and wondered if an unconscious body memory had been my inspiration for the book. Which is possible, but kinda spooky.

IFOA: What is the best compliment a reader can give you about your work?

Doctor: One reader told me that they read Six Metres of Pavement on the subway and laughed out loud and later cried. I love it when people do that on public transit.

IFOA: Along with writing, you provide psychotherapy services. Has this affected your writing in any way?

Doctor: As a psychotherapist, I open myself to being attuned to people and can swim in emotions all day.  Writers have to do a similar kind of “opening up” to their characters to write emotionally believable stories. Also, the psychotherapy pays the bills, which makes writing less scary.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

Doctor: I’m working on my third novel. I’ve also discovered that my intermittent poetry writing has yielded half a collection thus far, so I’m coming out of the closet as a poet.

Farzana Doctor is critically acclaimed author and psychotherapist who will be reading at The Writers’ Union of Canada Showcase on September 25.

Five Questions with… Natalee Caple

Natalee Caple, author of In Calamity’s Wake, answered our five questions.Natalee Caple

IFOA: Why did you choose the “Wild West” as a setting for your book?

Natalee Caple: I chose, partly, to do a Western because I was living in the West and the connection between landscape and culture was palpable and awesome. Awesome to see coyotes hunting in my backyard and grizzly bears ambling through the trees beside the highway. To get stuck because 30 elk are hanging out at the bottom of the street. The indigenous presence and the land as contested history is much more clear in the West in some ways because of the bigness of nature (the Rockies for example) and the visible encroachment on nature that cities represent. While in the West, I suddenly saw how diverse and how magical the people and their stories are. I felt like so much more diversity existed there than I had seen in literature and I wanted to add those stories in.

IFOA: What kind of research did you need to do in order to write In Calamity’s Wake?

Caple: I lived in Calgary and Canmore for seven years and travelled to small townships and to the badlands of Alberta and across the prairies many times. I researched a lot online and at museums like the Glenbow. I explored the Blackfoot land and history at the fabulous Blackfoot Crossing cultural centre and photographed the plants and land. I did a lot of seeing, smelling and tasting. I read and watched Westerns and studied the genre and feminist theories about writing. It was a massive process.

IFOA: Why did you choose to use no quotations in the text?

Caple: That’s an interesting question. I was very interested in the rhythm and sound of the book. I was trying for a very fluid, highly simplified punctuation style that embodied some of the magic of the story in a very natural way. Quotation marks seemed to interrupt the text, and I really wanted the reader to fall in and swim with the language. I think the style will work for some people, and for others it won’t, but for me, it helped maintain a certain suspended disbelief and aided in the poetic rhythm I was trying to balance.

IFOA: What is the most compelling thing that you learned about Calamity Jane?

Caple: Well, that it was impossible to ascertain anything about her for sure, not even her birth date or who she was at birth or even if there was only one of her. There is so much about her that is braided into dime novels and Wild West shows, movies and comic books. Biographers lied and she told her story many different ways. But she was kind. She risked her life over and over again to care for people that other people had abandoned. She was unconcerned with violent heroics but deeply concerned with precious bodies.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “If I lived in Deadwood I would be…”

Caple: …the luckiest writer in the world!

Five Questions with… Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane, answered our five questions.

IFOA: You describe yourself as an author and an activist. Were you both whilst writing On Sal Mal Lane?

Ru Freeman: I define my activism as a deep engagement with the world, so in that sense, yes, I wrote as I live, with my heart completely given over to the characters, really absorbing their experiences, and my mind simply translating what was “felt” into what was written. But at another level, no. A lot of what I do when I’m engaged in advocating for a cause—better public education, a positive environment for girls and women, justice for Palestine, space for the process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka—is to take out everything except what will further the cause. That isn’t always the complete story, though, and it disregards many other, often conflicting, voices. I don’t do that when writing fiction. When I write fiction, I let myself be permeable to all those other voices, taking all of them in, and maintaining compassion for each of their positions. It is why, I believe, fiction is the more truthful, transformative work that I do.

IFOA: Was there a book or author that made you want to be a writer?

Freeman: I never thought of a writer as a title, or as being someone who only wrote. I cannot remember a time when I did not write. My parents both wrote—poetry, scripts for documentaries, features etc.—and my brothers and I grew up reading and writing. Writing was something that we did as part of living. We ate, we drank, we had refugees of one sort or another living in our home, we were involved in politics, we read, we wrote. It wasn’t a job, or something to aspire to—it was what was done. So I guess I can’t say I wanted to be a writer so much as that perhaps I wanted to write books, but it was an extension of what I was already doing, and something to do alongside other things, not something to be separated from life.

IFOA: How did you choose the people who live on Sal Mal Lane?

Freeman: I knew the lane would mirror the composition of most lanes down Sri Lanka, where there is so much diversity—socioeconomic, religious, ethnic. I also knew there was a piano teacher and her father, I knew there was a family with four children. Beyond that, people just came into the story as it went along. I had a family move into a neighbourhood, and that led to other people living in that neighbourhood and interactions with those people, and so I followed the children and found the people they did. Whatever weight and place those other characters had, it reflected the weight and place given to them by the four Herath children.

IFOA: You write in many forms—essays, novels, short fiction, poetry—do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?

Freeman: As a writer, I love the novel best. I love the way it permits exploration, the unfurling of language, character. I like complex sentences, and the novel allows for that. But as a reader, it is poetry that has my heart. I buy and read a lot of poetry, and what appeals to me most as a reader is the precise opposite of what appeals to me most as a writer: the way poetry condenses human experience, the way each word works so hard and yet sits so easily among the few others to convey that. It is just beautiful.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “Home is where…”

Freeman: …people speak the language of my heart.

Five Questions with… Rhidian Brook

Rhidian Brook (c) Nikki Gibbs

(c) Nikki Gibbs

Rhidian Brook, author of The Aftermath, answered our five questions.

 IFOA: You’re well travelled. What’s your favourite place in the world, and why?

Rhidian Brook: It’s a toss up between the Arizona/Utah canyons, Burgundy in France and my hometown, Tenby, Wales. But then there’s Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, Noosa (Australia)—and I can’t leave out the Dalmatian islands of Croatia. This isn’t fair. Do I have to choose? Okay… The canyons. Why? Because you know when you look at them that there’s nothing like them on earth and because the time taken in sculpting them gives the ego a necessary realignment.

IFOA: Who is your perfect reader?

Brook: Me.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Brook: HHhH by Laurent Binet. Although Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain runs it close.

IFOA: The Aftermath is set in postwar Germany in 1946 and based on your grandfather’s experiences. What can you tell us about the research process for this book?

Brook: This deserves a longer answer, but my father and uncle were key in supplying the texture of those times; a visit to Hamburg and the house that inspired the story was vital; a key text was A Strange Enemy People by Patricia Meehan—a brilliant history of a very under-served piece of history.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

Brook: …have walked round the block once and had a coffee.

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