Kim McCullough will be reading at Winnipeg's McNally Robinson on Thursday with urban fantasy novelist Ashley Maclennan and poet Katherena Vermette.
Most writers who live outside of the major centers dread the label 'regional writer,' but McCullough is the most western Canadian writer I've ever seen: she's lived in Regina, northern BC, northern MB, and Calgary.
Don't think that's remarkable? Well, her first novel, Clearwater, is set in northern MB and was published by Regina's Coteau Books. (See?)
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What do you want people to know about Clearwater?
Clearwater is a book about place, and how some places can both hurt, and heal. Clearwater touches on mental illness, and suicide, but it also shines a light on family and friendship the confluence of those two things.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
I teach junior high, so I spend a good deal of my day in front of what can be a very tough audience. To me, speaking with a room full of students is an opportunity for dialogue, whereas readings are more performance-based. Readings require more preparation in terms of choosing what to read, and how to read it. Jerry Auld, a writer from Canmore, encouraged me to mark up my reading copy as though it’s a script and not be afraid of changing words or adding notes for pauses and dynamics. I’m still learning what works, but I know I’m a lot more comfortable with the Q&A portion of a reading than the reading itself. I prefer interaction, and back-and-forth conversation.
I suppose what I get out of readings is similar to what I get from a class during a lesson– instantaneous feedback – are they listening? Do they care? Are they enjoying it? What do I need to change up to make the reading/lesson more engaging? This allows me to refine what I’ve done in order to do it better the next time.
You’ve lived all over western Canada. Why did you choose to set Clearwater in northern MB?
Each place I’ve lived has left an impression on me – Regina is, and always will be, home; Prince George is where I spent the two best years of my teenaged life; Calgary is where I’m raising my kids. Clearwater Lake in Northern Manitoba is probably the most beautiful place I’ve lived. It’s unforgettable. It’s also where I had the most freedom. My friends and I roamed everywhere up there, and were rarely supervised. To live across a highway from a big lake, at the edge of a runway, near wild animals, and still be able to play and run and rarely have to tell anyone where we were going, was the purest freedom in the world.
To learn, when I was older, that there were so many dark stories associated with the area was a shock: the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, and the fact that there was a residential school within a half-mile of my idyllic home, made me question everything I knew about Clearwater Lake. And it made me think a lot about the idea that a place, like life, like family, can be both stunningly beautiful, and horrific. And both the beauty and horror are amplified by their opposites.
Clearwater is a novel that explores that gray area in between opposites – friends/family, good/evil, love/hate, right/wrong, belonging/being an outsider. Clearwater Lake represents that dichotomy to me, like no other place I’ve lived, or visited.
Clearwater includes domestic violence, teen suicide, and racism. As an educator that works with youth in your other life, did you feel any qualms or pressure to write a certain way about such difficult subjects?
I never planned for a specific audience as I wrote Clearwater. It wasn’t until it was accepted for publication and we started the editing process that the idea of also targeting a young adult audience even came up. There was some concern during the editing phase, but mostly in terms of foul language and sex. In my experience, young adults seek out and embrace difficult subjects and themes.
Many of my students wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward a book like Clearwater; they want to read it just because their teacher wrote it, so I do suggest that they mention to their parents that it’s an adult novel. I personally don’t believe any of these themes should be sugar-coated, or simplified, for young adults. Those who play violent video games and watch 18A movies should, in my opinion, be able to handle racism, suicide and violence. But, at the end of the day, my responsibility as an educator is different than my responsibility as a private citizen, and as a writer. It was hard to put the educator hat away while editing, and I’m grateful it never came out at all while writing.
You’re about to graduate from UBC’s opt-res MFA in Creative Writing. What did the program do for your writing and your writing life?
Above all, the program has allowed me to be a part of a community of amazing writers. It was fantastic to work with some of the big CanLit names as my profs – I’m grateful for that, and learned a lot about craft. The connections I’ve made with many of my fellow students, though, are really worth the weight in gold I spent on the degree.
I also really appreciated the chance to work in different genres. If not for UBC, I never would have attempted to write a play, and I never would have realized how much a translation class could improve the lyricism of my writing.
Now, I’m looking forward to finishing up, and being able to write whatever I want, whether it’s a short story, or a blog, or some non-fiction. I’d love to spend more time on poetry, too. Lots of post-MFA plans!
Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
I have been to Winnipeg. In fact, while living in Northern Manitoba, my whole class came down on creaky, jam-packed school buses to visit the important historical sites of the city. I still have a pile of blurry pictures from my old 110 camera – zoo shots, Fort Garry, The Royal Canadian Mint, Saint Boniface Cathedral, the Golden Boy. I remember having breakfast at McDonald’s in Saint Boniface and everyone was freaking out because the menu was in French and English! We’d never seen that before.
I’ve heard all the smart-aleck comments people make about “Winterpeg.” But really, Regina receives the same kind of disdain (yeah, yeah, I can see my dog, three days, blah blah), and it’s a great city, so I take comments about Winnipeg with a grain of salt. I’ve heard over and over that Winnipeg is one of the best cities in Canada when it comes to supporting the arts, and that’s a great reputation to have even if Winnipeg does have the dubious honour of also having the windiest intersection in the country.
Oh, growing up in I Regina, I also heard a lot about your terrible football team. (Go Riders!)
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading as many short story collections I can, as I’m working on a series of interviews for PRISM’s online magazine. Three standout collections I’ve read recently are All We Want is Everything by Andrew F. Sullivan, Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert and Just Pretending by Lisa Bird-Wilson. I’m on the editorial board for PRISM’s print magazine, so I’m reading lit mag submissions. The novel I’m currently reading is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.
What are you writing right now?
My thesis. It’s a novel that tells the story of Jake and Rita, two characters in Clearwater. Other than that, I have a few short stories on the go. Waiting in the wings is a YA novel set in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan just after World War II.