New Writer in Residence

Diane Schoemperlen talks to the Journal about her own creative writing and the challenges of teaching

Kingston native, author Diane Schoemperlen, has studied under writers like W.O. Mitchell and Alice Munro. She’s since taught creative writing at St. Lawrence College and the Kingston School of Writing.
Kingston native, author Diane Schoemperlen, has studied under writers like W.O. Mitchell and Alice Munro. She’s since taught creative writing at St. Lawrence College and the Kingston School of Writing.
Supplied by Joanne Page

Diane Schoemperlen is the new Writer in Residence at Queen’s. She’s one of the most acclaimed authors to take the position.

Schoemperlen published her first book, Double Exposures, in 1984 and has since published 10 more short story collections and novels. She was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 1990 for her fourth collection of short stories Man of My Dreams and went on to win the award in 1998 for her short story collection Forms of Devotion. The Queen’s English department has hired a Writer in Residence every year since the program started in 2006. For one term, the Canadian author comes to the university to mentor and advise students and community members interested in creative writing.

Canada Council and Queen’s each fund $10,000 to the program. The money goes directly to the author. In the past, authors from out of town have been allowed around five per cent of the grant for transportation. Schoemperlen, who lives in Kingston, can use the program’s grant at her discretion.

“It’s a great opportunity for emerging writers as well as more established authors and I really encourage people to take advantage of it,” said English professor Carolyn Smart.

Smart, co-ordinator of the Writer in Residence program, said she hopes Schoemperlen’s unique approach to literature will elicit more engagement among the school and community.

“[Schoemperlen] has her very individual style, at the moment she’s mixing visual art with the written word, and I thought that would be an interesting draw among the characters at Queen’s,” Smart said. “She’s a brilliant short story writer and is also very personable.”

Before Schoemperlen officially steps into the job in January, she talked to the Journal via email about her new role.

1. What prompted you to accept the position of Writer in Residence at Queen’s?

I’ve always been interested in being a Writer in Residence somewhere. Many of my writer friends have done it and enjoyed it immensely. But I’ve never been in a position where I wanted to leave home for three or four months at a time: my son, my pets, my general dislike of being away from home. So I was delighted when Queen’s began the Writer in Residence program and I’m thrilled to have been chosen to take the position this year.

2. You’ve taught creative writing at other institutions, such as St. Lawrence College and the Kingston School of Writing. What challenges are there in teaching creative writing?

There are some general challenges involved. I don’t think that creativity can actually be taught. It can be encouraged, directed and/or fostered. I can provide instruction on the mechanics of writing, I can give my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t, I can offer suggestions for reading and so on.

Some teaching experiences are more difficult than others. Many years ago when I was teaching at St. Lawrence College, I had a student tell me that the only reason she took the course was because it was on Tuesday nights and that was the only night she could get a babysitter! She had never written anything and she wasn’t much of a reader either. A group with such diverse levels of interest and experience are very challenging.

3. You’ve been acclaimed for writing everyday stories in unconventional narratives. You use the 100 stimulus words of the standard psychological Word Association Test to tell the story of your first novel, In the Language of Love (1994). What inspires your writing?

That’s a hard question! Anything and everything. I am a great observer of people, and sometimes a very good eavesdropper. I get inspiration from other people’s stories. Also from reading which I do constantly with no particular plan, just letting my interests lead me from one book to the next in a random way that often finds me reading exactly the right book at the right time.

If I’m writing short stories, I read a lot of short story collections. If I’m feeling stuck, I return to books that have inspired and encouraged me in the past. I have often said that the highest compliment I can pay to a book is that it makes me want to sit down and write.

4. Growing up in Thunder Bay, what attracted you to settle down in Kingston? How does the area/community influence your writing?

After graduating from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in 1976, I went to the Banff Centre for their summer writing program. I then moved to Alberta and lived in Canmore for 10 years. My son was born there. In 1986 I came to Kingston to teach at the Kingston School of Writing. I then decided to move to Kingston and I’ve been here ever since.

Back in Canmore I was the only writer. Here in Kingston I found a community of writers — that was what attracted me in the first place.

5. At the Banff Centre you studied under Canadian writers like W.O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind) and Alice Munro (Runaway). What did you take from those experiences?

Alice Munro had been my favourite writer for some time before I studied with her. What I learned from her was how to be humble. There are a lot of very large egos in the writing business and I have never wanted to be one of them.

6. You published your first book in 1984, and have since published 10 more, including the short story collection Forms of Devotion (1998), which won the Governor General’s Award for fiction. Are you still learning?

Absolutely yes. Each book presents its own set of challenges. Whatever I may feel I have mastered in the previous book does not necessarily apply to the next one. A successful book, sadly, does not come with a guarantee that you will be able to do it again … and again.

7. You’re most recent book, At a Loss For Words: A Post-Romantic Novel (2008), is about a successful writer who gets caught at a crossroads between language, love and imagination. I have to ask, is it autobiographical?

Ha! I get asked that question a lot, not only about this last book but about all of them. The answer is both yes and no. Oftentimes a lot of the details in my writing are autobiographical although the general story is not. In the case of At A Loss For Words, certainly the writer’s block parts are autobiographical enough.

My usual answer to this question of autobiography is: Some parts are and some parts aren’t and I’m not going to tell you which is which! (But I will say that no, I have never seen the Virgin Mary!

[Schoemperlen’s second novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001), is about an encounter between a middle-aged writer and the Virgin Mary.])

8. What do you hope to accomplish as Writer in Residence?

I hope to share my experience and ideas with as many people as want to bring me their work. I hope to encourage them and foster their literary growth as we go along through the semester. I hope they will feel comfortable enough with me to share their work in an open and hopeful way.

This interview has been condensed and edited for space.

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