March 2021. I am so pleased to announce that my eighth book, Bread & Water: Essays, will be published in Fall 2021 by University of Regina Press. I will put up cover art as soon as I get it. Thank you to the great team at U of R PRess; they are a dream to work with, and I am honoured and humbled that they are giving voice to my new work.
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Our neighbours are one of the reasons Dave and I are able to live in the country. Admittedly, as writers, we have the wrong skill sets for rural life. Dave can edit a short story like nobody’s business, and he’s a fabulous writer, but he’s not so good at manual labour or at troubleshooting failed machinery. And me? Well, I am good with animals, a screwdriver, a hammer, an axe, but give me a crashed septic tank or a misbehaving water pump or stalled snow blower, and I revert to Plan B: call the specialists.
Our neighbours help out – with friendship and moral support, by keeping our long driveway ploughed out each winter, and with practical advice to bolster what we learn from our hired-gun specialists with the hefty price tags.
But our neighbours really shine when the chips are on the table. Not long ago, my brother the metal sculptor came rushing in from his shop where he’d been grinding metal, shouting, “Call 911! There’s a fire!” When I stepped outside, a column of black smoke marked the spot for the entire countryside to see, and the flames were already visible as they roared through the shop.
The volunteer fire department arrived within twenty minutes of my call. I know that in nearby Saskatoon, the fire department’s emergency response time is under seven minutes, and twenty minutes can seem like a terrifyingly long time when you are face to face with a ravenous fire, but that afternoon, those minutes flew by.
Half a dozen of our neighbours showed up in advance of the firefighters. We all muscled what tools we could reach out of my brother’s shop, then retreated when the fire advanced. I’d never been that close to such flames, and its sheer uncontrolability and magnitude humbled me. We moved on to the barn, which was built in 1900. The barn’s timbers were as dry as an old joke, its upper level crammed with straw waiting to torch the yard if the fire spread. The old John Deere garden tractor and the snow blower took several people several minutes of effort to roll out of the barn and across the yard. By then, the dried grass was going up. Flames were creeping northward, toward the house. The flood that had surrounded our yard in 2011 was still in evidence, no longer a lake but enough of a slough to fill buckets. One neighbor went south, shovel in hand, in case sparks flew to the pasture. Two of us split off, running with heavy buckets sloshing and banging our legs until we up-ended their contents on the smouldering grass. Fill, run, repeat, fill, run, repeat.
The fire trucks, tankers and water hoses arrived, and checked the spread of the grassfire, and saved the barn. But without our neighbours appearing on our yard when that plume of black smoke sent up its SOS, the results could have been catastrophic. If the wind had shifted to the south. If the grassfire had spread more quickly. If the fire had reached the barn. Or the house.
Reliable as the changing seasons, those good neighbours all understood the risk a grass fire poses on the prairie. We are beyond grateful, to them, and to the volunteer departments who showed up. I hope I never have to return the favour, but I will if need be. But first we eat my favourite butter chicken, ideal for a crowd of hungry firefighting friends.
Serve this luscious dish with basmati rice, flatbread and lentils. From Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet
4 T. butter
2 onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. grated ginger root
4 T. mild garam masala or curry powder
8 large boneless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
4-6 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 T. tomato paste
¼ c. white wine
1 c. chicken stock
1 c. whipping cream
Lemon juice to taste
salt and pepper to taste
minced parsley or cilantro
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onions and half the garlic, half the ginger and half the spices. Cook over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle the remaining garlic, ginger and spices on the chicken pieces and mix thoroughly.
When the onions are tender, add the chicken, wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, and stock. Mix well. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until tender, stirring from time to time and adding additional stock if the liquid level drops too low. Remove the lid and simmer briskly until thickened if the sauce is too runny, stirring several times. Add the cream and simmer to reduce. Taste, adjusting the balance with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro or parsley.
For the past seven years, we’ve greeted the New Year by throwing makeshift curling rocks across the icy lake that surrounds our home west of Saskatoon. The lake arrived in spring 2011, eight months after we’d taken up residence on what has been my family’s farm for decades. Continue reading
Here’s some news… I am the 35th Writer in Residence at Saskatoon Public Library; my term runs from 1 September 2015 until 31 May 2016. Some very big shoes to fill, including some of my favourite Canadian writers! Guy Vanderhaeghe, Yann Martel, Anne Simpson, Patrick Lane… these are just a few of the writers who have preceded me in this chair. Humbling, oh yes.
In addition to consultations with other writers, a good part of the Writer in Residence’s time is devoted to writing. This morning, during my walk with my dog [his idea of a walk is to gallop, wild-cannon-like, through the fields while I walk, tea in hand and rather more sedately, along the driveway, observing the waterfowl], I think I originated an interesting idea for a new writing project for my library term. I want tannins, backbone, edginess, a little roughness around the edges, from an idea in early stages. This one needs time to ferment a bit, but I am hopeful.
My WIR office hours:
Tuesday, 10 Am – 6 PM.
Wednesday, 12:30 Pm- 9 PM.
For the duration of my SPL Residency, to book an appointment, please contact me directly at d.hobsbawnsmith [at] saskatoonlibrary [dot] ca or call my SPL direct line at 306.975.7598.
I’ll see you at the library!
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Chez L’Arabe by Mireille Silcoff
Forms of Devotion by Diane Schoemperlen
Lake of Two Mountains by Arleen Paré
Leaving Howe Island by Sadiqa de Meijer
Today I sent my final edited short story manuscript, What Can’t Be Undone, to my editor for forwarding to my publisher, Thistledown Press. Before I did that, I went through my editor’s notes and comments over the last few weeks, re-writing and polishing and fretting about phrasing and meaning and searching for each story’s meaning, and the best way to say it. Sometimes it meant hunting for understanding nuance, looking for a single word, the perfect word missing from one particular phrase or scene. In one case, as I pondered, I had to re-examine my understanding – of grief, of mourning, of the pain of loss. It put me into a near-trance. Then I began to fret about the calibre of my work: maybe I should hold onto it indefinitely, re-write each and every phrase, re-examine the stories, some of which I began ten years ago. It had the makings of writer’s block: when is a piece good enough, ready for release? When does a writer need to let go so she can move on to other work?
Of course a piece reflects the writer’s development. Should a writer re-visit her earlier work and re-cast them in light of her improved skills and craft?
The truth of writing, and publishing, to some degree, is contained in what my editor said to me when I expressed my angst. He told me we grow as writers; that if we are lucky, we may outgrow what we wrote; that if we are lucky, we become better writers (and, I inferred, maybe better people). Doubts go with the trade. How good a writer I was, how good a writer I am, will become… That all stops mattering when I remember why I write. Tell the story the best you can today. Honour the story.
I’ve been communicating via email with Seán Virgo, my editor for What Can’t Be Undone, as we work our way through the process of fine-tuning the stories in this collection prior to publication by Thistledown Press in spring 2015.
One of the rewarding details of this process is how acute a reader Seán is, and how respectful of my process as a writer. “Loving and fierce” is what he promised me he’d be as an editor, and he is. No punches pulled, no hidden clichés left to fester.
So I’m learning that sometimes I learn the story as I set it on the page. All that backstory and flashback is sometimes just for my benefit, and if it slows the story on the page, it’s time to exorcise it.
And this: trust your reader! Right, don’t spoonfeed those smart folks.
Another cool result is how clearly I see the emerging common threads and themes in these stories. What are they, you ask? You’ll have to wait just a few more months. It makes me wonder, though. What writers are drawn to set down on paper, over and over, in different forms. What images and ideas haunt us.
Partway through the process, I received an email from a friend. As I read it, I found myself thinking, “Oh, there’s the start of a new story!” Ha. Everything is grist for a story, an essay, a poem. Art, imitating life. Or is it the other way around? Can’t tell sometimes…
Thank you for your patience. Won’t be long now…