‘Interviews’ Archives

“Once the stories were collected, it was obvious I was grieving”: Interview with Plum Johnson on her memoir They Left Us Everything


Plum Johnson


“I love to write stories (I call them “scenes”) and often write them without regard for a narrative thread. For me, it’s like putting different colours on a palette before I start painting; I don’t know which colours I might need later, but I want all the options.”


PLUM JOHNSON is an award-winning author, artist, and entrepreneur living in Toronto. She was the founder of KidsCanada Publishing Corp., publisher of KidsToronto, and co-founder of Help’s Here! resource magazine for seniors and caregivers. Her best-selling memoir, They Left Us Everything, won the 2015 RBC Charles Taylor Prize for Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the 2016 OLA Evergreen Award, shortlisted for the 2015 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Nonfiction, and longlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour. Published in Canada in 2014, it will be released in the U.S. this July.

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Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Disquiet and Experimentation: Interview with writer Chloë Catán, first-prize winner in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest


Chloë Catán



Chloë Catán’s poem “Uprush” (read it here) received first prize in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. She received private online mentoring sessions with contest judge Stuart Ross, who had this to say about her submission:

“It was wonderful to award the first prize in a contest for unpublished poets to a poem that begins with an epigraph by Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese writer who published very little during his lifetime. With few words that stretch beyond a syllable or two, ‘Uprush,’ a beautifully paced, economically crafted poem, is rich in sound, language, and image. Like a dream, this poem tumbles disorientingly down the page, both celebrating itself and at war with itself: it exalts; it contradicts. There is tension between the stuff of nature and the stuff with which we have burdened nature. Each reading of ‘Uprush’ reveals new nuances, new phrasings, new possibilities.”


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Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Traces of What Was: a memoir by Steve Rotschild

Inspired by a line from novelist Lydia Millet — “We live in what we leave behind” — Steve Rotschild began writing his memoir, Traces of What Was, at the age of 70.

It was 2003, and he had realized he was the only one who knew the full story of what had happened to their family, “who were among the 70,000 Jews of Vilna during the dark days” of the Second World War.

“I had carried the story with me for a long time,” he tells me in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to get it off my chest and to tell my children and grandchildren, so the stories wouldn’t get lost.”

“Young people,” he adds, “can’t imagine these things.”

Rotschild, who now lives in Toronto, was born in 1933 in Vilna, Lithuania. He immigrated to Israel with his mother and stepfather in 1949, and from there to Canada. In 1956, in Montreal, he married Lillian Blumenfeld; they later moved to Toronto, where they raised their two daughters.

But this brief biography doesn’t reveal what his memoir does.

In Traces of What Was, “Ten-year-old Steve Rotschild learns to hide, to be silent, to be still — and to wait. He knows the sound of the Nazis’ army boots and knows to hold his breath until their footsteps recede. Rotschild takes us on a captivating journey through his wartime childhood in Vilna, eloquently juxtaposing his past, furtive walks outside the ghetto with his long, liberating walks through Toronto fifty years after the war. Vividly evoking his experiences, this story of survival and a mother’s tenacious love leaves the reader indelibly marked by Traces of What Was,” writes his publisher.

Launched in a ceremony at the Markham Flato Theatre, Traces of What Was is published by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian philanthropic organization that supports a range of initiatives, including Holocaust commemoration and education. The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program “is guided by the conviction that each survivor of the Holocaust has a remarkable story to tell, and that such stories play an important role in education about tolerance and diversity.”

The program’s fascinating website offers a multimedia look at the memoirs in the series and their authors, featuring excerpts, maps, photos, video interviews, and historical context. There are also educational resources for teachers.

Before he began writing, Rotschild read many stories of the war that were tragic, but he was determined his memoir would be different. His favourite writers include Canadians Gregory Clarke and Rohinton Mistry, whose works he read for inspiration. He eventually decided on a structure for his book that juxtaposes thoughtful and evocatively described strolls in various seasons through his Toronto neighbourhood, representing for him moments of freedom and relative happiness, with reflections on wartime. His teenage granddaughter Michal helped with the wordprocessing and editing to pull the manuscript together.

“I needed to tell the story,” says Rotschild, who has since suffered a stroke resulting in some paralysis.

One of the most difficult scenes to set down on paper, he says, happened when he was young, during the war and on the morning after an explosion. He saw feet wearing little white shoes sticking out of the rubble of a building and thought they were those of a doll — until the body of a girl was pulled from the wreckage.

Following that passage, in a rare aside to the reader, he writes: “I hesitated a long time before writing this down. It is something I haven’t described to anyone for sixty years, the most upsetting image from among the other horrible images I carry with me from the war years.”

“I’m not very sentimental — I’ve seen a lot of death,” he says. “But some of the scenes [I remember] were terrible, especially scenes of children.”

Yet Rotschild’s writing is also filled with humour, keen observation, rich description, and an appreciation of life’s beautiful moments. “The war was raging somewhere,” he writes of his last visit to his grandparents’ home, thirty-two kilometres from Vilna,

“but in the small village of Popishok, life went on as before. The girl and her two brothers came again, and we played hide-and-seek. They counted to one hundred, and I ran through the orchard, along a grey wooden fence and into the large barn belonging to the children’s family. It was a huge, dim place with several stalls but no animals, some farm implements and wooden barrels. Against the far wall a ladder leaned up to a loft where a few bales of hay lay. The rungs were too far apart for my short legs, but I managed to scramble up and hide behind a bale, sitting against the wall clutching my knees. Soon I heard them come in. They searched the stalls and inside the barrels and then left. It was very quiet; I heard the buzzing of bees outside, then another sound, of someone climbing the ladder. I didn’t move. Then she was beside me on her knees, her hands on the floor boards, a wide grin on her face, laughter in her dark eyes. She leaned closer and kissed me on the cheek, her black hair brushing my face, and then she was gone – the sound of her bare feet on the wooden floor of the barn and out the door, the pleasant sensation of her soft lips on my cheek and the strange cucumber smell of her hair all a precious gift….

“The next day it was back to the city and the war. I never saw my grandparents and aunt Faigeh again, nor the children I played with for those few memorable days.”

Steve Rotschild (right) with his grandson Cory Austin at the launch of Traces of What Was (Photo: Eric Benchimol)

Ultimately, the miles and memories — some heartbreaking, others uplifting — that Rotschild travels in his contemplative walks bring writer and reader to a place of peace and hope.

He urges other survivors to write their own stories. “If we leave behind written accounts of ourselves,” he says, “[the dead] can still talk to the living on down through  the years.”

Traces of What Was can be purchased at Second Story Press.

Memoirs in the Holocaust Survivor Memoir Program series are published in English and French and distributed free of charge to educational institutions across Canada. They are available in bookstores or online. E-book versions will be available in the near future.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

“There was a writer living inside me”: Interview with memoirist Cea Sunrise Person (part 2)

Watch the book trailer for North of Normal:



Read also Part 1 of Cea’s thought-provoking interview.


As you wrote about your personal experiences in North of Normal, did you struggle to deliver the most truthful version of events? Have others ever disagreed with your recountings?

I have struggled, yes, because there are always missing details that sometimes need to be speculated about or made up. But my philosophy is to always stick to the truth of the event, and the rest will follow. Memoir is a creative art, not a straightforward recounting of events.

I have never had anyone disagree with my written memories. Some have expressed surprise at some of the things that went on within my family, mostly with my mother’s siblings, but I was expecting that, since very few people knew the whole picture of what was going on and the family dynamics.


Have you ever had to deal with anyone being upset about something you’ve written (family or friends)?

Would you believe no? Keep in mind that my mother and grandparents are passed on, and I’m out of touch with my mother’s siblings. My father was upset, but only because he felt guilty for not being there for everything I was going through as a child. I did have one friend who read an early draft and chose to judge me for some of the choices I made in my twenties — needless to say that friendship is over! For the most part, it has been amazing — I’ve had many people who knew me as a child and knew my grandparents and mother back in the day who have really enjoyed the book and been super supportive.


What was the most surprising discovery you made through writing your book — about yourself, or the writing process, or your life’s journey?

The thing that surprised me the most was how open, willing, and excited people were to hear my story. This goes for my friends (who knew very little about my past), my family, my agent and editors, and my readers. I knew I had a crazy story, but I’d always seen it as a liability rather than an asset. Putting it out there changed that perspective for me. It also made me realize that I had preconceived notions about people and their expectations of me. I realized I hadn’t given most people enough credit for their abilities to be accepting and even admiring of my challenging and unique past. I was surprised by how it strengthened existing friendships and forged new ones. I was surprised by the stories I heard from others about their own struggles, people I’d always imagined had lived charmed lives. I was surprised that females from teenagers to seniors connected with my story, and that men did too. I had never thought of myself as inspirational, but it makes sense to me now, because the people I admire the most have come through a lot in their lives.

It also surprised me that I was able to learn to write in such short increments, amid chaos. I didn’t think my brain worked that way, but I guess I trained it to!


I sense love for your mother but also a frustration. Did this memoir — specifically regarding the relationship with your mother — begin to form in your mind before she died, or did you decide to write it after?

I began writing my book a year before my mother died. The funny thing is, she knew that I’d dreamed of writing it for years and had always encouraged me to do so. She was really excited when I told her I was finally doing it, and that’s when I started to get nervous about it! I realized that she and I had such opposing views of my childhood that she would likely be very hurt by what I was going to write. She saw my childhood as a wilderness nirvana and felt she had given me the ultimate gift of personal freedom of expression by not restricting me or disciplining me. Obviously, I saw it differently. I remember telling her that it would probably be hard for her to read, that it revealed the bad along with the good, and she smiled at me and told me she was okay with that. I had a lot of questions about the details and chronology of my childhood, so she sat with me and helped me put it all in order. She also filled in a few stories — for example, the time we slept in the abandoned farmhouse, which I hardly remembered at all.

She never did get a chance to read it, because her health deteriorated rapidly after that. I also did not have a draft I was willing to show to anyone, let alone my mother, within that time frame. Part of me is grateful that she never had to read it, though I know she would have been proud in the end. Her death also gave me a sense of added responsibility to make sure I told both my story and hers from a very human perspective — letting the world see her wonderful qualities as well as her flaws. Since she is not here to speak for herself, I wanted to be sure she was honoured that way. Many people who knew her have told me that I did a great job of capturing her spirit, and that means a lot to me.


Which traits of your family do you hold dear or consider strengths? Which have you chosen to let go of?

Great question! I really value my family’s courage to go after their dreams and create a new world for themselves against the odds. Courage and tenacity are traits that I value in people probably above all else. Their love of nature and willingness to live minimally and non-commercially are things I aspire to, but have not succeeded with as they did. Narcissism and selfishness were my mother’s and grandfather’s worst traits, so it’s probably not surprising that these are trigger points for me in others. I also try hard to give my own kids guidance and boundaries, which are things I never got.


When you became a mother yourself, did you view your childhood memories, and your relationship with your own mother, in a different light, and if so, was this helpful for your writing?

I believe that becoming a mother did change my perspective. I remember when my first son was born, I held him on my chest and suddenly understood how my own mother could never give me up and just chose to do the best she could. At the same time, it made me furious that she hadn’t done more to protect my childhood innocence. So I guess you could say I simultaneously had more sympathy and more anger toward her, which probably made my writing more emotional as a result. But my past was my past, and becoming a mother did not change my purpose in writing my story and the way I remembered how events had played out. When I was writing, I would always try to transport myself back to my childhood self and how I would have seen things at that age. I will say that having children myself who were at three very different ages — baby, toddler, school kid — helped immensely in terms of listening to how children speak at certain ages, and getting clues into how they think. I imagined that my thinking would have been similar to theirs in terms of level of understanding of what was happening in my life at the time.


Do you think of yourself as a writer, or more specifically as a memoir writer? If the latter, do you ever worry about running out of material to write about? (This worry would keep me up at night!)

I guess I think of myself as a memoir writer who is transitioning into a regular old writer! I’ve written two books on my life now, and may have another one in me as a book for teen girls. Beyond that, I know that my story is done and told, which fills me with both relief and dread. The relief is that I was able to get it out and be proud of the finished product and how it has helped others. I am also, quite frankly, sick of writing and talking about myself! The dread, of course, is that whatever I choose to write about next won’t be as good, because it is not my own experience. I want to write nonfiction books about other people’s lives, and I hope that this will be a new, challenging, and exciting genre for me.


Were there times when you felt unprepared emotionally to write about certain experiences?

Memoir is unique in that it tests not only our writing skills but also our memories and the emotions that go along with them. I think it’s important to think of the first draft of your memoir as the one where you get everything out, almost like a diary that you know no one will read. Do whatever you have to — place blame, rage, hate yourself or your life choices if you have to. Expect a lot of emotions during this time — some call it the “diarrhea draft,” but of course I’m classier than that.

At some point after that first draft, it’s imperative that you stop seeing yourself as the you in your story and start seeing yourself as the protagonist. This was key for me in getting the distance I needed to write objectively, without malice or fear of my memories. It was an interesting transition, because I then felt like I was writing about a fictitious character named Cea, and I wanted to make her as compelling and three-dimensional as any of my favourite fiction heroines. Writing with the reader’s desires in mind instead of your own therapeutic needs really helps during this process.

It’s also important to remember that it is not necessary to reveal all in a memoir. If some memories really make you squirm, it’s okay to leave them out. Interestingly, I wrote a few scenes for North of Normal that I ultimately deleted because of the way they made me feel about myself — ashamed, dirty, and unlovable. In my second memoir, I decided to release these previously deleted scenes to the world because of the acceptance I had found through readers in my first memoir, which made me even more willing to take risks in my writing.

All in all, it is a leap of faith and a test of courage to write about the really tough stuff. I always remind myself that if there is something I’ve gone through, there is someone else out there in the world who has gone through something very similar and will identify with my experience — and that is enough for me. That may not be enough for you, and that’s okay. We all have our personal standards for acceptable divulgence. What I can tell you is that laying myself bare has been more rewarding than I ever thought possible, and I never would have been able to say that had I not taken the risk.


Has writing about difficult events in your life been cathartic, and did it bring up other issues that you may have forgotten until you started writing these books?

It has been extremely therapeutic, yes. In fact, my second memoir [to be published this year] is about the healing process I went through as a result of writing North of Normal! I wouldn’t say that writing my books brought up many new memories, but it did make me understand why I was the way I was and gave me a lot of insight into my choices in life, good and bad.


When describing times of your youth — I’m thinking, for example, of the party scenes — what techniques did you use to reconstruct dialogue?

Dialogue seems to be one of those things that writers either find comes very naturally or really struggle with. I definitely started off in the latter group, but now it’s one of my favourite elements.

First of all, it is important to determine if dialogue is needed at all within a scene, or if the message would be better conveyed through paraphrasing or narrative. My rule is that if the dialogue is not moving the plot forward, it should be replaced with one of the above techniques.

Obviously, it is not possible to recall conversations from years ago with much clarity. What I do personally is to think about the gist of the conversation, the most important bits of information that were exchanged, and the general demeanour of the participants. I also try to recall key snippets of what was said, because this gives important clues about the speaker’s tone of voice, mood, etc. I then build a scene around what I absolutely do remember, with supporting dialogue, actions, and settings that make sense to both the scene and the people speaking. If my mother had a habit of tugging on her hair when she was nervous, for example, I might bring this movement in as she is speaking about something difficult, even if I can’t exactly remember her doing that during this particular conversation. If it’s a tough conversation, I might mention that it’s raining, in keeping with the mood, or that the sun is shining despite the gloom in the room, even though I don’t remember what the weather was doing that day. Also, keep in mind that speech is not perfect — there are accents, mispronounced words, long pauses, “ums” and “ahs,” and your dialogue should reflect this.

Knowing where to begin and end your dialogue is also important. I like either to start the dialogue with a provocative statement or question, and then let the ensuing conversation explain how we arrived at that statement, or begin my dialogue more quietly and lead up to a compelling point and end the scene there. Be careful not to bore your reader with mundane exchanges of information that have little impact on the plot. Keep it tight. I like to think of dialogue as lively pops of colour amidst the greyer shades of narrative.


What books or authors have influenced you most?

Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle was the most influential — I actually started writing my memoir the same night I finished hers! Also Angela’s Ashes, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Never Cry Wolf, She’s Come Undone, White Oleander, Fall on Your Knees, and Look at Me by Jennifer Egan were all very inspiring for me. I actually read a lot more fiction than memoir before I started writing my own story, and now I read almost all memoir.


What compels you to continue writing?

Writing has become a creative outlet that fulfills my soul. I am not nearly as happy when I’m not working on a writing project.


What’s the best thing about writing a memoir? What’s the worst? 

The best part has been helping others with their own life challenges, and coming to feel that I’m going through life without any secrets anymore. I used to hate for people to know where I came from, but now everyone does, and it has opened doors for more new friendships than I could have imagined. It has also given me an outlet to express myself and connect with others through public speaking, the media, and teaching.

The worst thing? Knowing that because I’ve written two stories about my life, memoir writing is pretty much over for me. Writing about my past helped me reconnect with it and relive some cherished moments and feelings, so it does bum me out that I’ve mined and depleted most of that ground, even though I did so in a way that was meaningful to me personally.


What advice do you have for a budding writer? 

Get lots of honest feedback on your drafts from friends and acquaintances who read a lot of memoir. If the feedback is consistently good, don’t give up! If it’s mixed or negative, rethink your strategy. Maybe your story needs to be told in a different way, or maybe memoir isn’t your forte but fiction is. Also, don’t think you need huge chunks of uninterrupted time to write. Don’t make excuses — just do it!



(For Cea’s bio, book information, and additional links, see Part 1.)


Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

“There was a writer living inside me”: Interview with memoirist Cea Sunrise Person (part 1)

News: Plum Johnson will be my guest for the Winter session of Memories into Story: Life Writing II (online advanced workshop), at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She’s the author of the bestselling and RBC Taylor Prize–winning memoir They Left Us Everything and a former student in Memories into Story II. The next course begins online on January 11. Space is limited. (Check out “Women’s Voices Are Crucial” on this website.)

♦     ♦     ♦


Cea Sunrise Person

Cea Sunrise Person


CEA SUNRISE PERSON is a returning guest of Memories into Story and a favourite with my students. I had the pleasure of copy editing her bestselling memoir, North of Normal, and I was sure she’d have insights aplenty to share. Thanks to Cea, once again, for her considered and candid answers, and to each of my students — though I wasn’t able to include all their questions here — for their input. What follows is an edited version of one class’s collaborative interview (part 1).


Cea, did you always know that you would be a writer, or was your path more indirect?

Both! Let’s say that I’ve always known there was a writer living inside of me, even as a child, and then later, much more strongly, in my teens and twenties. The funny thing is, I didn’t write a thing during that time . . . I was busy with modelling, marriages, and dealing with my issues, and I used to write in my head a lot, but never on paper. I just knew the day would come when I was ready to finally write my life story down, and I was right. As it turned out, it took a deep frustration and unhappiness with where my life was at in my late thirties to get to that point. Read more about that in my second book!


How long did it take you to write North of Normal? Was it done over long periods of time or in one shot?

It took me six years to write and about twenty-five to thirty drafts. This was done in sporadic starts and stops. But my second memoir took me less than a year and three drafts — proof that writing is a skill that gets much easier with practice.


Did you approach a publisher before you had written your book or after you were ready to present a first draft? And how many publishers did you meet before HarperCollins agreed to publish North of Normal?

For a first-time author, it is very difficult to sell a memoir on a book proposal. I knew this going in, so decided to write the whole draft before trying to get a literary agent, who in turn seeks out the publishing deal. I did, however, have some false starts. I actually queried agents after I’d completed my first draft, which was a mess, and as a result, no agent wanted it. I rewrote, and one year later got an agent. I was super excited and thought it was all but a done deal, but my book was rejected by every publisher in New York. Disheartened to say the least, I nonetheless had a lingering suspicion that I could still do a lot better in my writing.

I proceeded to write many more drafts over the next few years, until I really felt in my heart and soul that it was as good as I could make it. When I queried agents that time, I got offers from five within a week! After signing with my dream agent, my agent submitted my book to Canadian publishers, and HarperCollins bought it in a pre-empt (taking it off the market before any other publisher can offer a competing offer). It then sold to HarperCollins USA in a bidding war among three American publishers. This was by far my dream scenario and does not always happen, but I can tell you that I held very tightly to my dream through all the rejections, and was determined that I would find success with my book even if I was still querying agents on my deathbed!


Why did you want to tell your story? For whom did you write it?                       

My reasons for writing my story changed over time. In the beginning, it was definitely born of a need to try to make sense of my past and the people who had raised me, who were so different from me. In my late thirties, when I started writing it, I still had a lot of anger toward them, unanswered questions about myself, and a lingering, low self-esteem that I was pretty sure had roots in my early childhood. I was hoping that writing would offer insight and healing. It did — but also so much more. As I moved through that process and began to allow more space in the world for myself while my confidence built, I realized that my true calling was actually to write the story for others — people who may have had similar experiences in the counterculture, or who simply understood what it was like to feel they didn’t fit in with society or their own family. Judging from the overwhelming number of messages I’ve received from grateful readers, my instinct that there were many of us out there was correct — and being able to connect with them and offer them hope has been my proudest accomplishment with this book.


How did decide how the memoir would play out?

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing my first book. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up. This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing. I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book. Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

My second memoir I wrote mostly as separate, non-chronological scenes that I then connected together, so either way can work. For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude! Also, since I did a lot of deleting of some original scenes, I needed to go back and fill in new ones, so a lot of it was written out of order. I really do believe that any method can work, as long as it is working for you.


Given that you had no formal writing experience before penning North of Normal, what supports — personal/inner or otherwise — did you rely upon to keep plugging away at it, not knowing if it would lead anywhere?

I can only say that I had a strong instinct that if I could get my story right, it would be successful. I felt that my story was too unique not to tell. All the same, there were many times I was frustrated enough to want to quit. Wanting to quit is fine — just don’t act on it! I’m lucky that I have always been a tenacious person by nature who likes to see things through, but I must say that six years of writing and rejection tested that to the max. I have a very supportive husband who believed in my project, and I asked friends who did a lot of memoir reading to read my drafts. They really encouraged me to keep going, which helped a lot.


What is your creative writing process? Do you write every day, at certain times of the day, keep a notebook, go for walks to generate ideas, freewrite?

Hahaha! Seriously, my writing process is a joke. Before I started writing, I always had this idea that the house had to be quiet and perfectly clean, the grocery shopping done, and my mind clear to be able to do it. When I finally realized that this ideal likely to never happen, I decided to just dive in anyway and see what happened. What happened was a lot! When I started writing my book I had a one-year-old, no childcare, and a design company that I ran from home. When I finished writing it, I had a baby, a two-year-old, a seven-year-old, and no childcare. I was chronically sleep-deprived, so I could not do early morning or evening writing. As a result, I learned to write in the eye of the storm, with a lot going on around me. I would write notes on my phone throughout the day, when they occurred to me, about things I wanted to change or include in my story, and then consult that list when I finally got to sit down and write. It was incredibly frustrating, but also a gift, because I have learned to get “into” my story within seconds and can pound out a paragraph in a few minutes. My husband would often give me a few hours over the weekend when he would take the kids out of my hair, which was of course my most productive time, but the bottom line is, I never would have finished the book if I hadn’t learned to write in ten-minute increments. North of Normal took me six years to complete. I wrote my second book in exactly the same manner, and it took me less than a year — which goes to show how we can train our brains to do anything.

Freewriting is a wonderful tool for many, but it has never worked for me. Because I am very outcome-oriented, I need to write with a specific reward in mind, and that reward is always creating a scene that I am excited to read back to myself. But that’s just me — it’s important that all of us writers learn what works for us.


How much research did you do in order to properly describe geographic places, topographical details, etc.? Or did you simply work from memory and/or photographs?

I did not do a ton of research. Mostly, I relied on memories and photos. I was also required to change some location names. A few times, I did go on Google Earth to look at topography.


Approximately how much of your memoir is “truth” as you remember it, and how much is “creative writing”?

The way I write is to always stick to the integrity of truth when it comes to the actual event, and to fill it in with creative writing details. In other words, all of the scenes in my book a hundred percent happened, and of course I’ve never fictionalized or hybridized characters. There is, however, a lot of fiction in my settings, i.e., time of day, weather, scenery, dialogue. It’s impossible to remember all of this, and yet ironically, these details are needed to add credibility to a memoir. Many names, physical features, and locations were also changed in my book. Some of the chronology is off, as even my mother couldn’t remember all of our nomadic moves. I think that it’s fine to do the best you can in these situations. Memoir is about recording the truly memorable and meaningful experiences in our lives and how they affected us, and I think that if you always stay true to that, the details will almost fill themselves in.


Did you ever feel a conflict between your truth and your imperative to tell your story or how it may impact on others you wrote about?

Absolutely. This is such a tough subject and fine line in memoir writing. What I ultimately decided was that a) many people in the book had either passed on or couldn’t be identified unless they identified themselves, b) humanizing them by revealing both their positive and negative traits in an objective way left for little argument in the court of truth, and c) if you’re going to do bad shit in your life, you may have to live with the consequences — like someone else writing about it in a memoir!

Having said that, I actually did NOT reveal all. It all had to do with my level of comfort, because I can’t measure anyone else’s. After writing a few scenes, I checked in with myself and realized that I did not feel good or comfortable with what I had written. This was my cue to hit the delete button — which I did, several times.


Is there a primary theme, a fundamental human dilemma that you are orbiting around, delving into, in all your writing?

I feel like I have so many varied experiences in my life that I can find one or more to suit almost any theme. I am, however, forever fascinated by the mother–child bond, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the subject of childhood resilience, so I definitely gravitate toward these themes in my writing. There is no way I can write about a topic that doesn’t interest me, such as politics or finance! I find it interesting to explore the spiritual world and karmic energy and how they relate to the choices we make and circumstances we find ourselves in as human beings, so a lot of my writing has to do with looking for those answers. This may not be obvious to the reader, because I don’t wish to engage in a debate with anyone who feels they do have the answers. I definitely don’t, but I appreciate the luxury of being able to explore and express my own views on the topic, however subtly.


Did you find some parts of your book harder to write than others? If so, what parts and why?

It’s funny, because the hardest parts are not what you’d expect. Some parts I LOVED writing — all the scenes with Karl, for example, because he was such an interesting and ultimately big-hearted character. I loved reliving all the wilderness stuff with my grandparents, and I enjoyed writing about the modelling. Even the stuff about Barry molesting me wasn’t really difficult for me write about. The hardest part for me was the period right after we moved to Calgary, before I started modelling. This time in my life feels like a well of hopelessness and powerlessness, even today, because I had lost my mother to her married boyfriend, and I finally realized that I was helpless to force her to parent me. I was very unhappy and saw my future as bleak. I desperately wanted escape from my family but wasn’t sure how to go about it at such a young age. I realized my grandfather was a total narcissist concerned with little more than his own desires. I had few friends at school and felt like a freak from the wilderness. Reliving all of this through my writing was very unpleasant for me, and as a result it took me many rewrites to get it to an acceptable place. Each time that point in the book came up, I would skim over it and move on and procrastinate some more, because I hated how it made me feel. But I do believe that if a subject doesn’t evoke an emotion in you as a writer, it’s probably not worth writing about.

There’s more:  read Part 2 of Cea’s interview.

 ♦     ♦     ♦

CEA SUNRISE PERSON’s bestselling first book, North of Normal (HarperCollins), chronicles her wilderness childhood and dramatic move into a decades-long modelling career at age thirteen. She makes regular appearances at book clubs and other venues to speak about her unique life, and teaches memoir writing at the university and secondary school levels. After living in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Munich, and Milan, she is now happily settled in Vancouver with her husband and three young children. Her second memoir, a follow-up to North of Normal,will be released by HarperCollins in early 2017.

North of Normal is currently on sale throughout Canada, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Find out where it’s available here.

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

“I just have a quirky way of looking at the world”: Interview with three-time memoirist Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner

CATHERINE GILDINER is the author of three memoirs and a novel. Too Close to the Falls (1999) was a New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller. This was followed by two sequels, also bestsellers, After the Falls (2009) and Coming Ashore (2014). Catherine lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Visit her at www.catherinegildiner.com, or at her blog, http://gildinersgospel.blogspot.com.

Catherine was a much-anticipated guest for a session of Memories into Story I, the introductory online course on memoir writing I teach through University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. The following is an edited version of my students’ collaborative interview with Catherine about her memoirs and her writing life.


 “I learned as a psychologist that almost everyone feels the same things and that people spend the majority of their lives dealing with their own vulnerability and defending against it. In my writing, it was easier to reveal things in my own unconscious knowing that almost everyone is dealing with the same conflicts.”

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Tuesday, July 28th, 2015