The last of the tenth anniversary interviews is with me, Debra Martens, the founder and editor of Canadian Writers Abroad. This tongue-in-cheek interview hails back to an article I did on the art of the literary interview, for Paragraph magazine, which was published in interview format. I know I have missed people, and to them I apologize, and remind them that this is a volunteer project, where increasingly, authors offer content, submitting well-written pieces and generously sharing photos. I thank you all.
Many are the authors we’ve covered over the years. By “we” I mean not only the engagement between me and a writer, but also those who’ve stepped up to write book reviews and do interviews. For the three-questions for the tenth anniversary, a dozen writers have done interviews. That means over 80 were not interviewed, in addition to the poets who shared poems with us seasonally. Of those 80, about 30 are what I think of as lifers — people who live permanently in other countries or are spending half their time in another country. The rest were abroad to teach, to research, to work, to study, or to do whatever else life offered them away from home. Nor do these figures include those writers who lived abroad but are no longer living. Who is missing? Over the past ten years, I’ve not been very good at finding indigenous or black authors who live or lived abroad; I’d like to increase this to more than the few that have been covered. But I often wonder if there is something privileged in seeking life abroad, a privilege unattainable to many.
CWA: What were you doing ten years ago?
Martens: In 2011, I moved to London, UK, with my husband and daughter, and soon after our arrival I saw that I needed a project to get me out of the flat and to meet people. As the spouse of a federal government employee/diplomat, the option that would normally fill these needs — a job — was littered with obstacles. Besides, I’m a writer and editor and didn’t want to be stuck in someone else’s office — I had my own to get out of. And that’s how I came up with the idea of tracking down where other Canadian writers had lived while in London, and sharing photos of these little expeditions. It meshed with a piece of advice I’d taken in at a TWUC seminar: create a niche online platform. Well, you can’t get much more niche, in the literary world, than Canadian Writers Abroad. So I began posting photos with write-ups, and when I finished with dead people, turned my attention to the living. After a while, the baseball movie saying came true: if you post it, they will come. I am very grateful to Canadian Writers Abroad for giving me something to do through illness and loneliness, and for putting me in contact with people who have become friends. The first of whom was Barbara Richardson, the woman who introduced me to the WordPress platform, which made this whole enterprise manageable for a non-techie. And of course, I was writing, plugging away at my short stories (collection now available to keen publishers…), and I’d started an expat novel about a woman named Martha (still unfinished, in part because of time wasted trying to give her a different name).
CWA: What advice would you give to a writer considering a move abroad?
Martens: Do it. Do it however you can. Do it even if you intend to carry on working on your novel about a small region in Canada. Leaving Canada for an extended period of time is a great way to learn about Canada, about yourself and your place in the world. Yes, what they say about perspective is true. Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. All that. Before you go, learn the language, and while you are there, read the local literature. If I were in charge of the Canada Council, I would create a grant that encourages writers, especially those who can’t afford another degree in a foreign country, to live abroad.
CWA: What are you working on now?
Martens: This fall I began working on a historical novel based on a court case in Toronto in 1907-1908 that ended with a woman being sentenced for witchcraft. Yes, in 1908! I hasten to add that she was not burnt at the stake. Christmas and a bout of Covid temporarily halted progress, but I will return to it in 2023. This project has been so absorbing that I have let my other pet project slide a little, and every month I ask: should I keep going with Canadian Writers Abroad? What do you think?
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