by Ariel Gordon
Jenna Butler teaches English and creative writing at Red Deer College. But most weekends, she makes the three-hour drive to her farm in the boreal forest near Barrhead, Alberta.
The story of that journey, literally and figuratively, was told in her last book, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail.
Her latest book—which launches Wednesday (November 21) at McNally Robinson Booksellers—takes readers from a farmhouse in the bush to a berth in a ship travelling to Svalbard, off the coast of Norway.
Winnipeg Free Press: What do you want people to know about Magnetic North?
Jenna Butler: Magnetic North looks at lands under threat — the Norwegian Arctic, the northern Canadian boreal. It asks, "What are the stories under the surface", and "Why is it that some voices are privileged in narratives of land, exploration, and connection to place, while others must find subversive outlets from which to speak?" It looks to the resilience, deep strength, and strong bonds of women in the building of community in northern climates.
FP: What are your goals for this book?
JB: I hope it conveys a little of the extraordinary beauty of the Norwegian Arctic, a beauty you have to work hard for as a visitor to that place, and I hope it makes readers consider the ways in which the places they call home are being reconfigured by climate change. There’s no "maybe" about it any longer; it’s happening, and the lands we love and resonantly know are shifting in tremendous ways. I hope readers will also be challenged to think carefully about the importance of women’s narratives to a balanced sense of place. Women are canny observers of power dynamics and of connection between the body and the land.
FP: You’ve done a variety of retreats and residencies over the years, but spending two weeks confined to a tall ship in the Arctic must have been interesting...
JB: Ha, it certainly was. I’m an introvert, and being in company 24/7 for two weeks of 24-hour daylight was intense. Not only is your body undergoing a reprogramming of sorts to deal with this rewiring of your circadian rhythm, but there’s NO privacy whatsoever. Every space is shared, from where you eat and pass the day to where you sleep. I gained a new appreciation for the ways in which humans adapt to living in close company, especially in an environment that can quite easily kill you, should you misstep or go overboard. Living on the ship was like being under a searchlight, in every sense of the term, from the blinding sun on snow all hours of the day and night, to the constant company and the inability to follow your own routines of solitude and seclusion. I did a lot of people-watching and learned to recognize when my colleagues were going through similar cycles of fear, boredom, anger, homesickness, awe, and so on. Living on the ship gave me new insight into the various faces we wear in others’ company, as well as the concept that darkness and its accompanying privacy, wherein we can think and process emotion, are actually great privileges.
FP: You’re written five books of poetry and non-fiction since 2010, when Aphelion came out with NeWest Press. What have you learned about your process?
JB: I’ve become much better at reading my body for cues about the writing process and where I am in it. I don’t worry about where the next book will come from in the same way that I once did—I know it’s there, and I can often see or sense it around the corner of the current project. Then it’s a case of writing toward what’s coming down the line at me, meeting the new work halfway. I’ve learned to pinpoint where I am in the creative process, whether that’s the rather omnivorous gathering of research or listening to music or taking photographs — the pre-writing — versus the insistent, behind-the-sternum push of needing to sit down, clear the decks, and actually write.
FP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
JB: I’m reading Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, and I’ve only just finished Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men and Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, so they’re still living in my head. Shraya is incisive, brave, and honest, and Miller writes historical fiction with these beautiful, poetic turns of phrase. They couldn’t be more different as writers, and yet there’s much to love in each one.
I’m writing in and around end-of-term marking at work and winter prep out on our farm, so everything is happening in these curiously curtailed little jerks of productivity. I’m working on another non-fiction book, this one about women, beekeeping, and community-building — what draws them to the work, what they find in it for themselves, and how they create belonging. I’m also researching for a novel set in 19th century London during the rise of early feminism, and making some strange gestures toward a text about women of colour, loss, and land.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.