“Author Sylvia Gunnery on learning, writing, eavesdropping, teaching”
by Kathleen Martin
(reprinted with permission from Canadian Children’s Book News Vol 36 No. 2, Spring 2013)
Sylvia Gunnery had to turn her writing desk away from the ocean. “I was getting distracted too much,” she says. There are trees outside the window next to her desk now, and on the day we talked, a group of ducks wandered past, peering in at her in an inquiring way.
Above Gunnery’s desk in her home at Crescent Beach, Nova Scotia, there is a small basketball hoop and ball. “They were on a huge cake (fellow writer) Nancy Wilcox Richards had as part of the launch for my book Out of Bounds at Bayview Community School in Mahone Bay.”
The hoop hangs on a framed print from the Writers’ Trust of Canada that is signed by Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Graeme Gibson.
“They are the writers who did the groundwork for the rest of us to continue on,” says Gunnery, her tone momentarily serious. “It is a big reminder for me that they made space for us.”
Gunnery built her writing studio after she retired from teaching and after years of working in “a little corner of a space.” This studio, she says, “is wonderful. And it is full of nice things that remind me about what I care about and who I am.”
In this space, Gunnery completed her most recent novels, Emily for Real and Game Face. And, in this space, a stone’s throw from the Atlantic, Gunnery is — even after publishing 15 books — working hard at continuing to develop her skills.
How has being retired changed your writing process?
I taught because I loved teaching young people. Still do! I was not a teacher to financially support my writing. But there are lots of bonuses to being a retired teacher. The biggest bonus is time. I loved teaching and made sure I always did the best job I could possibly do to inspire my students to care about reading and writing and all the other ways in which we get to know who we are and how we fit into this world. That meant a big commitment of time. Looking back, I have no idea how I managed to write all those books during the 80s and 90s. The two months of summer were a gift! Now, I come to my writing studio in my home every day to write, to read, to research, to revise, to connect online with other writers, and on and on… And that’s a gift, too.
But you have lost daily access to your target audience!
In the late 70s, I had a few stories published in literary magazines, so I thought I was on my way down that path. Then, a close friend changed my direction when he said, “You’re always telling stories about your students. Why don’t you write teen fiction?” Two weeks later, a new student was brought to the door of my Grade 8 classroom. Immediately I wondered what might have brought her to our school halfway through the school year and how might she feel about what’s happening in her life. I’m Locker 145, Who Are You? started at that very moment and it was published a year later (in 1984) by Scholastic. I’ve been stealing stories from students’ lives ever since!
As for having daily access to my target audience, like any other writer, I watch and listen. No matter where I am — in an airport, on a bus, in crowded school hallways, walking on the beach, waiting in a line-up — I’m always eavesdropping on teens, wondering why they’re saying what they’re saying or doing what they’re doing.
When you first began writing, you had the good fortune to bump into some of Canada’s greatest writers.
In 1976, I went to the Banff Centre for the five-week summer writing session. My focus was on short fiction for adults, and one of the session mentors was Alice Munro. Serendipity multiplied by 1,000! I’ve had so many lucky gifts in my life. Budge
Wilson, who lives less than an hour away in the summers, and Joyce Barkhouse were two of them. I met Joyce Barkhouse first, in Halifax. She was 30 years older than me. We lived in a little house on Birmingham Street where my apartment was in the basement and hers was the middle one. She could hear my noisy parties, and she’d say to me, “I’ll just put my good ear to the pillow.” When I had my first short fiction published in
Canadian Fiction Magazine, she said, “Sylvia, you are a real writer.” My spine straightened up because Joyce Barkhouse had said this. We had a wonderful friendship. We spoke of writing so much. Writers don’t come out of a vacuum. You come out of your experiences and the support of your community.
Did you always plan on writing?
Being from the north end of Halifax and reading only British and American authors in school, the idea of becoming a writer didn’t occur to me. I didn’t go to Banff until I was 30. But I always wrote, even as a little kid. I am from a storytelling family. We would sit around the table until the leftover food turned to glue because we were talking. There was constant storytelling. And when I was little, my older sister, Barb, would read to me from thick hard-covered books at night. And then we’d turn out the light and she’d say, “Okay Shrimp, tell me a story.” I’d make up stuff to tell her — always about hope and strength and moving on and joy.
You have done a lot of writing about how to teach young people to write. You’ve written two books on the subject for educators. What is your advice to people — teachers and mentors — trying to inspire new writers?
At Banff during that summer writing session, I discovered a significant barrier to successful writing in schools — choice. As well meaning and thoughtful teachers, we were always trying to come up with the best writing topics to engage our students and make them care about writing. But they were our topics. Our choices. Unless the writing themes truly belong to the students — not as a group, but individually — the writing will simply be an assignment done for marks in a course. There’s not much room for the kind of commitment necessary to real writing. When I go to schools to do writing workshops, teachers sometimes say that I shouldn’t expect much because the kids just don’t like writing. Those teachers always seem really happy when I prove them wrong. It’s not magic — it mostly comes down to choice.
I’m interested in why we choose to write the stories that we do. What do you think it was that drew you to Emily for Real?
What I started with, before I even imagined Emily herself, was the idea of family secrecy, especially the effects of secrets on the people who don’t realize the secrets even exist. My theory — and I had enough evidence for this in memoirs I’d read or from personal stories shared with me by acquaintances — was that secrecy would eventually rot a family from the inside out. But as Emily told her own present-tense story, my theory about family secrecy changed. I came to see that the family would not necessarily rot from the inside out if they all truly loved each other and demonstrated that love.
Emily’s extended family does that. Like my own did. Our house on Hillside Avenue in Halifax was home to Mom, Dad, my older sister, my grandfather Gunny, and my godmother we all called Tettie. If I fell backwards, there was always that cushion of love there to break my fall. As Emily tells her story, she comes to see that her life will not always make sense and that there’ll be lots of surprises, but she also recognizes the support that love offers.
You’ll be talking about Emily for Real as part of this year’s TD Canadian Children’s Book Week. I have also heard you speak passionately about Nova Scotia’s Writers’ in the Schools program. Why do you think these kinds of opportunities matter?
When people can see that somebody values something enough to call it a “Week,” that’s a gigantic huge message in itself. I think it’s important for the public — people going to libraries, kids in schools — to hear the language around author visits, illustrator visits, storytellers, and to realize that it’s part of their environment too. A friend visiting me said recently, “When I was in school, words were everywhere. But now — words aren’t anywhere anymore.” That’s true for a lot of people. And unless we have these celebrations and they are not token — not “book minutes” but “book weeks” — people in Canada can lose words. If we don’t say these things, they will be gone. And to be one of those messengers sent out across the land — it’s just thrilling!
—Kathleen Martin is a writer living in Halifax.
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