A First Book — Thirty Years On

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Welcome, dear readers, to a new chapter in Thoughtful B’s story — this blog is now available to thousands more of you on my brand-new Goodreads page. To celebrate this link to a great book site, I thought I’d explore what I’ve learned through writing books, through digging deep into the subjects of my writing. Uh-oh, beeps your b.s. detector; this is back-door book promotion, more crass hawking of “product” across all platforms. In fact, most of my books are out of print (though still available online and soon to appear, I hope, in e-book format). And, in the case of my two “first-born” — and only — nonfiction works (The Nuclear North: The People, The Regions and The Arms Race and Down To Earth: The Crisis in Canadian Farming, both published by Anansi) — don’t buy them! The information they contain is twenty-plus years out of date.

I’ve never said much about my first two books. My resume lists the titles and publishers of all my fiction and then mentions two nonfiction works, as if I were an ex- goody-goody on her way to literary hipness, eager to shove aside these two awkward orphans with their nerdy titles. Yet I love those books for what they taught me, how they rocket-propelled me out of my comfort zone into both physical and emotional wilderness, into the confusion and suffering of people I would otherwise have never known. Snapshots of the times in which they were written (the arms race of the early Eighties and the troubled farm sector of the same period), they pushed me into deep reflection. It was because I wrote them that I understood myself to be a writer.

9780887841361_p0_v1_s260x420The Nuclear North is thirty years old this fall, and for most of those years, it sold and remained in print. Yet nothing I’ve written as a fiction writer has ever left me feeling quite as vulnerable as that first book. The subject-matter was so raw: conflicted city people whose jobs had them producing guidance systems for Cruise missiles; native people whose stolen land was the testing ground for the weapon; all of them caught in the dark shadow of the cold war. Good people — I met them all; I travelled by small plane through the treacherous winter weather of Northern Saskatchewan in order to be driven (in a lead-shielded truck) through an open-pit uranium mine. Where did the stuff end up? I wondered. The question wasn’t welcomed. Later I found my way to the native settlements where men were setting out traplines (illegally) on the lands now claimed for weapons testing. One of them drew me a map to show the location, which seemed a remarkable act of trust — or perhaps he felt he had nothing more to lose.

I listened harder than I’d ever listened in my life. My whole body listened. I saw goodness in people with whom I disagreed, intolerance in those whose views I shared, and  the unacknowledged suffering that lay buried in all of them. Worse was the horrific poverty I saw among our native people. Concern for their grievous mistreatment was not in fashion then. Despite its connection to missile testing, no one thought the plight of native people relevant, but for Canadians, the theft of native land seemed to me the greatest “peace issue” of our time.

The book was controversial. The nuclear industry balked; peace movement people were annoyed that I’d spoken to their opponents. For a while, I was distressed, but not for long. “You’re a journalist, and this is your journey,” said my editor. I was a changed person at the end of that journey, hoping for change to continue, driven to understand the flawed and struggling humanity to which I belonged. Writing became my teacher and my guide.  My work is now as long-standing as my marriage, and like it, a deep love.

Seven months after the book’s release, I’d left my job at CBC Radio to write another book. More on that adventure soon.

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