Alumni Spotlight: Todd Babiak

What Are We Doing This For?

Photo supplied

Photo supplied

From a very young age, all of Todd Babiak’s teachers and mentors have encouraged him to write—except one. Every Monday in Grade 6, Babiak would write short stories along with his classmates, and the teacher would take them all in to review. One day, she brought Babiak’s parents in to talk about what their son had been writing, and, as he explains it, “before they even sat down…she started crying and said she was haunted by me and that my stories kept her up at night and she was worried about me and that I either had to go see a psychiatrist or move to another class, because she couldn’t have me in class anymore.”

His parents, obviously concerned, took the story home to see what had frightened the teacher so much. But instead of crying out in terror, his parents laughed as they read it. The story begins with Babiak’s family gathering at their cabin near Skeleton Lake. “Billy Smith the hockey player has escaped from a mental institution after hitting Gretzky too many times,” recounts Babiak. “And he starts murdering my family—gruesomely murdering them. He starts eating them after he kills them—each person was killed in a different way specific to their personality. And the hero, Todd, saves them, punches him in the stomach, and then he saves all the family members and they dance over his corpse.” His parents loved the story so much, they photocopied it and shared it with the rest of the family, who got as big a kick out of it.

Since that moment, Babiak has enjoyed writing stories, but the path to becoming a published writer wasn’t clear to him. At the University of Alberta he majored in Political Science and minored in English. “But I did exactly thirty credits of [my major],” says Babiak. “I had a very, very broad BA, and I did as many things as I could do.”

He was set on going to law school and began asking his favourite professors for letters of recommendation. In a Nonfiction Creative Writing class, his professor Ted Bishop had written only one comment on one of his essays: “You are a writer.” When Babiak asked him for a reference letter, Bishop said, “I don’t think you should be a lawyer. Why don’t you go to a graduate school in Creative Writing and be a writer?” Knowing he’d always wanted to write a book someday and that he may be haunted by his decision if he became a lawyer and couldn’t find time to write, Babiak took Bishop’s advice. Babiak admits, “If it wasn’t for Ted, for sure I’d be a lawyer.” 

He moved to Montreal to earn his Master’s in English Literate at Concordia University. Since then, he’s written several best-selling books, including The Garneau Block, from which this magazine got its name. In the novel, neighbours on a block near the University of Alberta band together to save their neighbourhood from being annexed by the university. To do so, they decide they will build a museum in the shape of a glass buffalo head, and ask the citizens of Edmonton to bring their objects of “mythic power”—anything with a significant story to it—to be stored in the museum. It’s a humourous book, filled with many quirky characters that could only live in Edmonton. These characteristics are common across most of Babiak’s books as he notes one question he always asks is, “What makes a community unique?”

In his other books, the theme of violence comes up a lot, particularly in his most recent ones, the political thriller Come Barbarians and its sequel Son of France. The change in tone in his books—from humour to serious crime—was spurred by what he was reading at the time. “I was reading a lot of John le Carré and more sophisticated European thrillers, and I’m interested in politics too. So I was able to put politics and fatherhood and crime novels and France all together in a book.” The process of writing these fast-paced books has changed how he writes. He explains, “I’d probably have way less patience for scenes that did not turn…for clever dialogue for the sake of dialogue, cuteness for the sake of cuteness. Does this advance the story or not?”

On top of writing popular books, Babiak also runs his own business: Story Engine. “We’re more of a core strategy company,” he explains. “We create a master story for the organization: why they exist in the first place, which involves a lot of research and interviews. So we bring in journalism and we bring in the skills you gain as a fiction writer. We develop this master story and we develop tactics to make it come to life in a very consistent way.” Babiak and his company bring a Liberal Arts way of thinking back into business. “It fits,” he says. “It never feels weird—it’s not like we’re banging drums or playing with crayons.”

Babiak encourages emerging writers to be curious and put themselves out there. Volunteering is one way to do so. “You start to meet people who are outside of your normal sphere,” he says, “and, if you’re bold, you can ask them for a coffee or for a drink and just suck up years of experience and success and failure.” And no matter whether you take on a full-time job or pursue writing as a career, try to carve out time in the morning to write. As Babiak says, “I’m filled with chaos at the end of the day, and in the morning when it’s quite, I can really focus. I’m sure my best thinking happens in the early morning and I get to give it to myself.”

Why does Babiak believe we write? “I’m interested in helping businesses find meaning and individuals find meaning,” says Babiak. “I think meaning is what I’m seeking, more than a mass audience. Not to say I’m not a total whore and I don’t absolutely want millions of people to read my stuff, and I don’t someday want to write that book that everyone reads… [But] I want to move people. What are we doing this for? We want to move people—I really think that’s what we want to do.”

—Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Emma Hooper

Fewer Flying Dolphins

Photo by Martin Topkins

Photo by Martin Topkins

Emma Hooper, the best-selling first-time novelist of Etta and Otto and Russell and James (E&O&R&J), embodies the whimsy of her plots and characters. When we meet over Skype for this interview (as Hooper resides in Bath, England), she sits cross-legged in her neighbours’ home, her body framed in a compact hallway. She explains that the Internet in her home is down, so she had to rush over to use her neighbours’ after mowing the lawn. Hooper fusses over sweat and grass clippings in her dark hair (accented by a strip of grey), but she looks as put together and effervescent as in her author photo.

Hooper can’t recall a specific moment when she decided she wanted to write, “It was just a thing you do. When you’re a kid and you’re drawing, no one’s like, ‘Oh, why do you draw, Timmy?’” Growing up with a mother who worked as a librarian, Hooper remembers loads of books piled around the house and that she was always reading. On top of her writing, Hooper has other outlets for her creativity, such as playing viola, violin, and other instruments for her string quartet, The Stringbeans, and her solo project, Waitress for the Bees. “I like to think that everybody has some sort of instinct to create at some level. And some people knit and some people play electric guitar and some people kind of tinker with cars—there’s lots of outlets for that.”

Hooper finds it easier to write music than she does stories, “writing’s not ridiculously hard or anything, but it takes more work because words are so specific,” she says. “They mean exactly what they mean. Whereas with music, there’s a lot more fluidity of meaning and you can play around with it a bit more.” Taking a break from one also helps her work on the other;  she mentions that if she ever feels backed into a corner while writing, she leaves it to play the piano. “It’s a nice way to unclog whatever is the problem,” she explains. “Whether it’s for music or writing, they’re like two different languages. If I don’t know the word in this language, I can go use this other one.”

Another trick she has for inspiring her writing is flipping open her copy of Alessandro Baricco’s novel Ocean Sea, which she keeps on her desk. “I open it to a random page and read two or three sentences and that’ll get me kind of in the right tone, the tone of being really careful about word choice,” she explains. “I take it in really small chunks; it’s like really dark chocolate.”

In her writing, Hooper says she likes to add in whimsy and playfulness, and make her characters be good. “I find in literature, often but not always, you get sort of a focus on darkness, which exists and is fine and adds tension,” she says, “but I can get a little bit frustrated by reading about all of these people who are empty and horrible and sad all the time. Even though a lot of those books are great books, I think that actually in real life, people are mostly good. People are mostly trying to do and be the best they can.”

E&O&R&J is a complete mould of her fantastical style. In the novel, Etta, an eighty-three-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s, decides she wants to see the ocean, so she leaves her Saskatchewan home and starts walking east, and soon meets a talking coyote named James. The novel has been incredibly well received—it was a nominee for the First Novel Award, but perhaps most impressively it only took  twelve hours for Penguin Canada to offer her a contract. “People in publishing are crazy; I don’t know how they read it so fast—or skim read it. Four people skim read it in those twelve hours. The first person did and was like, ‘Wow, I really like this,’ so she fired it off to everyone else.” She then received a hearty advance in exchange for not shopping the manuscript around to any other Canadian publishers. When I ask her if she thought about holding out, she responds, “To be honest, I’d been trying to sell my other book—it had been like two, two and a half years of just trying to get someone to pay attention—and so...they could have offered me $20 and I would have been like, ‘Wahoo!’”

E&O&R&J is actually the third novel that Hooper has written. She says of the whole experience, “Writers just have to be prepared to be both really humble—because you’re going to get loads of rejections—and be really self-centred the whole time where you think it’s really worth you writing through all of that.” She doesn’t regret writing the first two novels though, as they helped teach her how to write one. “Some people in my [Master’s] course and some people in general write amazing first novels, but the vast majority write a first novel to learn how to write a novel. And they turn around and look at it and go, well, that’s how it’s done and this is embarrassing. I’m going to throw it away and start again for real.”

Whether it’s a first novel, a third one, or just a short story, Hooper says it’s important to trust yourself and not let the editor and the artist interact. “When you’re working, especially on your own like with solo music or writing, you have to be both things—both the person who’s creating and the person who looks at what’s been created and says, ‘Um, that’s ridiculous. Maybe you should have fewer flying dolphins.’” It’s better, she says, to follow your imagination down whatever crazy path it wants to go—no matter how soppy or happy—and then review it later in your editor role. She says to develop that role, writing classes or groups are very useful. “They teach you, more than how to be that artist person, how to be that editor person because of that whole workshopping process where you bring in your work and everybody critiques it. The first time that happens, it’s like someone punching you in the face, and then you get more and more used to it...and by the time you finish, you step away and you don’t need those people anymore. You’ve sort of learnt how to reflect on your own work and analyze it and make it as good as it can be.”

Most importantly, Hooper recommends writers have friends who are writers, but don’t let yourself be competitive. “It can be easy when it’s such a difficult marketplace to just kind of resent other people’s successes and publications, but writing’s a lonely craft and you definitely want to have other novelists or writer friends to kind of connect with sometimes,” she says. “Don’t live alone in your garret.”

— Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Caitlin Crawshaw

Salvage What Works

Photo supplied

Photo supplied

“Holy Fucking Cats,” says Caitlin Crawshaw when I ask her (after an amusing and insightful conversation about her career as a freelance writer and her work on her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia) what the hed of her profile should be. Though she’s given me nothing but writing wisdom throughout the afternoon (and had me laughing at every turn), we both agree it’d be an absurd hed. But as a lede, it has potential….

Ever since she was a kid, Crawshaw remembers that she loved to write. She would sit on her nana’s knee and together they would come up with wild stories. “[Writing’s] a compulsion, honestly. It’s one of the very few activities in which I can lose myself completely and focus for hours on end,” says Crawshaw. Thus, she’d never want to rule out commercial success for herself or anyone with work they love doing.

However, Crawshaw received different advice when she first set out on a full-time freelance career. When her pitches weren’t landing at a magazine in Edmonton, she asked the editor out for coffee to learn what she could do to improve. Crawshaw wasn’t quite expecting the advice she received. “She went on a tirade about how I should get out of the industry now and it wasn’t too late for me to become a lawyer,” says Crawshaw. “She was pulling out every argument for why it was a waste of time: you won’t make more than $50,000 in a year, you won’t be able to retire—it was pretty ridiculous.”

Thankfully, Crawshaw didn’t allow that editor to discourage her, and instead only accepted the advice that allowed her to successfully pitch a story to the magazine. Now, many years later, Crawshaw has established for herself a successful freelance career and never intends to pass on that editor’s advice to any emerging writers. “There’s no point in keeping knowledge to yourself,” says Crawshaw. “It’s served me so much in this world in encouraging people. It makes me sad to hear people who aren’t because it’s hard enough being a writer.”  She is very realistic about what to expect in her writer career, and she’s played hers very wisely. “You can write about arts, and you should write about arts,” Crawshaw explains, “but it shouldn’t be all that you do. It just absolutely can’t. There are better paying niches like writing about science and technology and business, and looking past magazines and newspapers towards different types of communications writing.”

In building her portfolio and client base, Crawshaw balanced it out with all of those different publishing venues. Even if she didn’t think she’d enjoy writing a particular assignment, Crawshaw recommends never saying no—she never knew where it could lead. During her time at The Gateway, Crawshaw wrote the science articles in the newspaper because no one else wanted them, and on top of enjoying writing them, she won an award from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. Crawshaw says, “I was really excited about that, and it sort of grew from there. After that I was like, I can write about anything!”

Crawshaw admits her freelance writing career can be a bit terrifying at times because there is no formula or manual for how to succeed. “There’s no obvious way to move up,” explains Crawshaw, “but there are way to make more income or to diversify or to change directions of what you’re writing about. You just have to be a little more creative in this economy and in this industry. People create opportunities; industries are always changing.”

A graduate of the butt-in-chair school, Crawshaw says that the only way you’ll become good at writing is by doing it. You can’t always hope to ride a wave of creativity, according to Crawshaw, “If you just let yourself wait until you feel like you’re in the mood to do it, you really hold yourself back. It really sucks because I think we’re all perfectionists as writers to a degree, and it sucks to keep going when you feel like it’s a real dog. Eventually you have to go back to it and salvage what works." If you don’t feel good about a piece of writing, it helps to share it with a workshop group as Crawshaw says that the feedback can help you improve it.

Writing groups are also useful for inspiring you to write if you don’t have any deadlines, Crawshaw says. But that group should contain a very special type of people: “Find yourself some reasonably polite assholes—smart assholes.” She explains, “You really don’t want idiotic feedback. You don’t want people who will say, ‘Well, that reminds me of this thing that happens with my dog.’” If your group cares more about your feelings than offering constructive feedback, she says, you won’t progress in any way.

Currently, Crawshaw is working on her Master’s thesis, which is a collection of essays about motherhood as a queer woman. In writing her own stories, Crawshaw admits she finds it easy to regurgitate personal information, but it’s often hard to find the appropriate creative way to structure an essay. Also, she admits that sometimes her memory’s not that great. Though events and details may not always occur in her essays as they do in real life, Crawshaw says, “the emotional truth is what matters…or what the vulnerable piece of it is. Because you have to be vulnerable or what’s the point?”

One of Crawshaw’s best pieces of advice for emerging writers is, “If it makes you feel uncomfortable, do it.” For her, that’s what’s at the heart of writing, as she explains, “It’s all about going for it when you feel paralyzing anxiety—though obviously, if it’s paralyzing, you can’t go for it. But that’s writing: keep going until you hit a rock. Then stop. Then keep going.”

— Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Mary Pinkoski

Stand in Your Light

Photo by R Edwards Photography

Photo by R Edwards Photography

Edmonton’s Poet Laureate Mary Pinkoski believes that “no matter what it is, your story is important—so tell it.” “Stand in your light,” she often tells the youth she mentors for YouthWrite (a writing camp for kids), and the expression corresponds to her personality as Pinkoski appears to cast her own warm light. Her bubbly persona is infectious and radiates in her speech as she almost skips across sentences, the speed of her words rising with her enthusiasm as we discuss her passion for poetry.

Her zeal for writing and sharing stories began in Grade 12 during a work experience class for which Pinkoski worked as a freelance reporter at the Sherwood Park News.  “[It was] a way for me to tell the stories that are important to people,” she says, and that aspect of the job has remained a focus in her writing. She continued at the newspaper all through her undergrad at the University of Alberta, writing during the summer and doing some ad features during the winter when the paper needed extra help.

When she had first started her education at the U of A, Pinkoski majored in Physical Education but soon realized it wasn’t for her. She’d taken some Canadian Studies courses during that time, though, and chose to switch her major. “I was drawn to [the program] because of its interdisciplinary nature,” she says. “I didn’t have to focus on one thing: I was able to look at Canadian literature, Canadian history, and Canadian politics.” After her degree, Pinkoski found a job at the University of Missouri through the International Council for Canadian Studies, which sends people around the world to work in places with Canadian Studies programs. While doing research for professors and living in Missouri, Pinkoski happened upon spoken word poetry for the first time. Her appreciation for the art form was immediate: “All these people were telling their story in a way that’s accessible, and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire listening to a story.”

“With spoken word poetry,” she continues, “I could tell all of these stories that were important to me and I could put it into a format that was accessible to people.” Pinkoski believes that spoken word poetry has a different type of power to it than page poetry because “the writer’s able to actually see those connections actualized” in the audience as she’s performing on stage. A spark had been lit in Pinkoski while she was in Missouri, and she now had this new shape to fit her stories in.

Pinkoski returned to the U of A in 2004 to earn her Education degree because she wasn’t finding many jobs related to Canadian Studies. And it was back in Edmonton where her poetry ignited as she did her first readings with the Stroll of Poets. “And then I would drive once or twice a year to Calgary because we didn’t have a slam scene in Edmonton,” she says. Soon after, she began attending the Raving Poets nights. “That community really helped me grow as a writer,” Pinkoski says, adding that Thomas Trofimuk—Glass Buffalo’s featured alumnus in the Winter 2014 issue—was one of her most encouraging mentors and facilitated many events for her to read at. Pinkoski also lists Sheri-D Wilson, a spoken word artist from Calgary, as another super supportive poet during that time: “I’m so grateful for those two who were mentors to me from an early stage.”

Edmonton’s slam scene picked up with the Breath In Poetry Collective. Pinkoski joined as a member of their slam team in 2010. And in 2011, the team won the national slam competition. “What we did was unique and something the national community hadn’t seen before. We took some risks in how we performed our poems...that was a team and a creative venture that I was really proud to be a part of.” At the competition, Pinkoski also took home the Most Valuable Poet title, which was chosen by a vote from her peers in the competition. “As a writer, I just went in to try and give my most honest poems and the poems that had value to me, and I guess that resonated with people,” she humbly admits as the reason for the win.

Pinkoski’s belief that everyone should tell their story led her to work with YouthWrite. “Ever since Gail [Sobat, its founder and coordinator] invited me to be in the program, it’s been so rewarding for me as a writer and as a teaching artist...I grow every year working with youth.” Through that program, Pinkoski organized Yours: Edmonton Youth Open Mic Series, which was run out of the Untitled Bookshop for a year. Pinskoski says she’s inspired by youth, by “their fearlessness in telling their stories and their willingness to try new things.... They’ll dive into things whether or not they know they’ll be successful at it. They’ll do it without fear; I think that’s very noble and brave.” Those are the qualities, Pinkoski says, you need to be a writer.       

With all of her accolades and experience in the Edmonton poetry community, Pinkoski was chosen as the city’s Poet Laureate in July 2013. “Officially, my role is that I’m supposed to produce three official pieces per year, and that’s pretty much it and then you’re able to make of it what you want. For me, I see the Poet Laureate as someone who makes poetry more accessible to Edmontonians.” She’s made it her goal to expose citizens to poetry in places they wouldn’t expect it. To this purpose, she’s performed poetry at several different events, such as the City of Edmonton’s three-day forum on bike lanes. “I listened to the discussion at the forum and at the end of each night, I performed a poem,” Pinkoski explains. “It provided a new way to engage with the topic and a new way to understand the dialogue.”

Furthermore, Pinkoski sees the laureateship as a bridge for connecting and growing the community, and she plans to continue fulfilling this role in her final year as Poet Laureate. She believes that stories are “fundamental to our existence and more than that, more than in the telling, I believe that actively hearing other people’s stories forms us as a community and is how we grow. So when I hear your story, I grow an understanding of who you are as a person and we grow together because we’ve shared this story and connection.”

— Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Trofimuk

Thomas Trofimuk invites me to Bistro Praha, a gourmet café in Edmonton, to share his creative writing experience. The spot holds much significance for Trofimuk: he spent many late nights in his early years writing there among a scene of inspiring characters. Trofimuk shares with me stories of that time, including a tale of the late Frantisek Cikanek, who believed that champagne was best enjoyed by guzzling the whole flute at once and appreciating the tingly release of the bubbles with a large belch.

Trofimuk is brimming with stories—a great trait for any writer—but what I need to pass on from our meeting is the advice he offers while we enjoy coffee and wine. (And sadly, I drank the former as, while wine eases the tongue, it fogs the memory.)

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Alumni Spotlight: Caitlynn Cummings

Caitlynn Cummings stands atop a high pile of accomplishments: she’s the managing editor of filling Station (an experimental literary magazine based in Calgary, Alta.), the coordinator for the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, and the published author of several short fiction pieces and poems in various literary magazines. It’s a long list for someone who, only a few years ago, wasn’t sure what she was going to do with her double major in English and Classics.

Cummings was in her penultimate semester when she chose to take a couple creative writing courses to broaden her degree. She found it “exciting to participate in a community” of authors, with whom she could chat about her writing. She took fiction and poetry classes that broadened her perspective about writing, with profs asking things like, “What is your tactile sense of this word?” Through these courses, Cummings says, “I realized that writing could combine all of my interests into a single career trajectory.” Literature, travel, women’s studies, classics, and art history could all coalesce into a single medium.

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Alumni Spotlight: Jason Lee Norman

What advice does Jason Lee Norman have for student writers? “Try to get better at writing.” It seems simple, but young writers often don’t focus on it. Don’t worry about what other writers are doing or how they determine success, he says. No novel deal yet? Not even a short story in a lit mag? Doesn’t matter. “Write, read, submit,” he continues. “You have to submit at some point. Rejection will happen. Feedback will happen.”

Norman’s not one to push a person down the traditional publishing path, possibly because he hasn’t followed it himself. “I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer—I just enjoyed sharing stories,” he says. At eighteen, Norman moved with his family to Argentina and, with less responsibility in this foreign country, he had more time to think about his life. As he looked back on his youth, he realized how much he’d enjoyed reading and writing, and how often he’d spent time on those activities. So he made them his focus and started by searching out the great books to read. “The more I read, the more I wanted to do what that was.”

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