Luanne Armstrong, Writer

Writer Luanne Armstrong

Luanne Armstrong, Ph.D., was raised in the Kootenays and studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and U.B.C., where she earned an M.F.A. She is the author of 14 books, including novels and non-fiction. Her latest book is Blue Valley: An Ecological Memoir (Maa Press, 2007), which records her creative and personal journey in the context of the ecology of the Kootenays. Aside from her writing, her literary accomplishments, and her work maintaining the family farm, her research interests include the ethics of autobiography and ecological writing.

1.You’ve published at least 5 young adult novels, almost half your book production [e.g., The Bone House ( New Star, 2002); Annie (Polestar, 2000); Jeannie & The Gentle Giants (Ronsdale, 2002); Pete’s Gold (Ronsdale, 2008); and Arly & Spike (Coteau, 1997)]. What is your view of writing for children and young adults in Canada?

Children’s writing in Canada is healthy. We have a lot of very fine children’s writers and it’s one of the best and easiest markets in which to publish.

2. What is your sense of the Canadian novel today? 

I read a lot of Canadian novels and don’t like most of them. Canadian novels right now seem to be a bit stuck for subject matter. Canadian novel writing is much too controlled by the whole awards industry and shows like CBC’s Canada Reads that have warped the novel market so that a lot of good novels go unread and a lot of not very good novels win awards. I would say the state of Canadian novel writing, with some notable exceptions, isn’t great at the moment. It’s downright dull.

3.Your essays are mainly about place, about farm life, about the Kootenays, about the meaning of ecology in an area like the Kootenays.  In the 1960s and 1970s, lots of counterculture folk settled in the Kootenays, some to homestead and some to engage in new cultural endeavors, like the Kootenay School of Writing. What is it about the Kootenays that has continued to attract people wanting to start over or wanting to engage in some idealistic venture?

The Kootenays are very far away from any big cities and have always attracted idealists and cranks seeking to live out their dreams. It’s very much a crossover area, both geologically, ecologically and culturally. We have had the Quakers, the Mormon polygamists, the draft dodgers, back to the landers  and hippies. Now we are mostly getting rich Albertans.  All of these people have sought to impose their dreams and values on a harshly beautiful landscape without much success but have created a paradoxical and interestingly textured cultural landscape.

4. Were you around when the Kootenay School of Writing was established? What can you tell us about that?

Yes, I was around. At that time, Fred Wah was running a wonderful writing program at the David Thompson University Centre in Nelson (DTUC) organizing conferences and bringing in lots of guest writers. Paulette Jiles, Caroline Woodward and many other writers were living in Nelson as well, although there weren’t many other writers in other areas of the Kootenays. The Kootenay School of Writing grew out of the DTUC program, after the Social Credit government killed the University. When KSW moved to Vancouver, it kept the name but completely changed its nature and focus and has nothing to do with the Kootenays.

 5. Some writers in the Kootenays and the Rocky Mountain area have engaged themselves with what can be called an ecological poetics or an ecological approach to the practice of writing. There is even a set of courses at Selkirk College taught by Almeda Glenn Miller that specializes in such an approach. Barry Lopez used to teach creative writing with an ecological focus in Eastern Washington. With your ecological focus, how do you position yourself within that association of writers and educators?

I don’t really – a lot of these kinds of courses are a kind of romanticized, and not very intellectually rigorous approach that sees nature as ‘inspiring’ but doesn’t have much of a political analysis of ecological issues or the politics of representation. A year ago, I presented a paper on “The New Nature Writing” at a creative nonfiction conference in Banff that got a very lukewarm response. There is very little analytic ‘nature’ writing in Canada right now and what there is, (Harold Rhenisch, Trevor Herriott) gets sidelined.

 6. How has Nelson changed as a hub of cultural activity since the university center closed down?  I remember in the 1980s young people saying in the same fervent tones usually reserved for going to India that “as soon as [I] get the bread together, [I’m] going to Nelson.” 

Nelson still gets a lot of wide-eyed young people (locally termed, ‘shrubbies’) wandering into town, looking for the myth, mostly, and cheap dope. Few of them stay very long. Nelson is still an interesting town with a vibrant art and festival ‘scene’, and many accomplished artists, but it’s always a struggle to maintain it and survive as an artist here. The economy of the Kootenays has always been difficult, supported first by mining, then forestry, then dope growing and treeplanting, plus tourism. All of these have pretty much dried up, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.

7. The issues in Canadian YA fiction range from complaints about too much explicitness to complaints about too much political correctness.  In other words, all over the place. The approaches favored still seem to be historical, paranormal, social realism, and pure fantasy. How does your work fit in? 

YA is changing in the rest of the world; it is becoming more violent, more apocalyptic, more focused on fantasy. Canadian nonfiction, however, is still pretty earnest and contemporary. I have considered writing a fantasy but haven’t yet. But my new YA concerns a young woman on the downtown eastside whose mother has been kidnapped by a drug gang. That’s definitely a change in subject matter for me.

8. YA and children’s fiction also has at times an educational function, as, for example, teaching young people about the values and problems associated with our current ecological crisis, or about the value of knowing the place one comes from. How important is any of that in your work? 

Kids love adventure and that is what I try to give them. They also have a keen sense of justice and want to see wrongs put right. So there is lots of room to embed lessons on values and caring in there without any visible preachiness. My last YA was deliberately written as a boy’s adventure book because I saw that as a hole in the market.

 9. In the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon  (“Darkness Too Visible”) writes that contemporary YA fiction is too dark and may lead young people to self-harming behavior.  She cites Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as an example of work that may lead some young people into dubious territory.  I know that Alexie is a good writer and respect his work. Should literature concern itself with the moral outcomes of its production? Does that concern you personally?

I absolutely loved that book of Alexie’s. I think YA was pretty dull and a bit preachy for a long time, and kids started reading dark fantasy on their own. The writers are following the kids, in this instance. Kids have always liked dark, violent material, but until Harry Potter, no one was really writing to this market. Now everyone is.

10. As you know, the root of the word ecological is from an ancient Greek word that means the study and care of one’s place or home, and home in that regard includes everything from the ancestral to the social to the biological and geological dimensions. Many of your essays take on that idea. Your memoir Blue Valley, subtitled An Ecological Memoir shows the ground of your beliefs and your direction. You were born to a farming family and knew the meaning and value of work at a very early age. For you, having a connection to the earth was not a lifestyle choice. Your environmental beliefs stem in part from that upbringing as well as, of course, from your thought and education. Much of the energy today of the ecological movements derives from an urban population. What do those of us who live in the big cities have to do make it real, so to speak?

I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity of urban people who care about ecology but it is a very theoretical caring without a lot of grounding in practical everyday understanding of how ecology works. Nor do I think that farmers necessarily have any more understanding or sympathy for ecological issued than urban people. But urbanites don’t have the ability to actually care and fight for the places they live; they live in an ecological desert that they largely ignore and thus are able to sentimentalize and romanticize nature with little understanding of how it really works. Because where they live doesn’t matter to them, they don’t fight for it. But I’m not sure what they can do about it apart from getting the heck out of the city once in a while. But it requires time to ‘get’ the fact that wilderness isn’t a postcard. And it is very hard, if you haven’t been brought up to it, to learn to farm. Farming is easy but it is the habits of care and work and attention that take time to develop.

11.  Thoreau set a standard with his work inspired by Walden Pond—an idealistic stance that seems to reject the controlling socioeconomic structures. Yet his “wilderness” was very close to town, and his writing assumed the presence of an interested readership. Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is set fairly close to suburbia. Both are iconic figures who provide a sense of living in nature. In North America, it seems there are few (Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder come to mind) who write insightfully about the human/wilderness encounter. What female writers write about that edge? Gretel Ehrlich? Anyone else we might know?

The tropes of ‘nature’ writing are so strong; ie, it is a place of spiritual healing or a place of adventure or trauma, in any case, a place to which a writer ventures and then returns. I would say Rick Bass, David James Duncan, William Kittredge, and Edward Abbey have all written compellingly about wilderness.  But it is hard to be a writer and live in the wilderness; for one thing, most writers teach at colleges or universities and are largely urban based and educated.

12.  You have written an essay about the value of teaching creative writing, the essay a response, I believe, to the anti-teaching stance taken by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut seems to suggest that many courses are for the mediocre or for people looking for therapy rather than publication.  Your many students at U.B.C., and elsewhere, would say otherwise. Can you tell us again about the important principle your essay was defending? 

In part the essay was a response to a number of attacks in the Guardian, Salon and other places, on creative writing teaching by people who don’t teach it and have never actually studied writing. I thought I had a bit more authority with which to write about it. I do think the techniques and specifics of writing can be taught and I don’t understand why that is questioned. I do think, however, they are often taught very badly because it is assumed, wrongly, that if someone can write, they can teach.

13.  Some teachers and writers are confused by the special status of creative non-fiction, insisting that one is writing either fiction or non-fiction. They say that we have always had the “personal essay,” so why do we need the distinction of “creative” non-fiction?

Because it is such a big field and because it is so interesting and because good ‘creative’ nonfiction uses all the same techniques and strategies as both poetry and fiction and because good CNF is very exciting to read.

14.  Other than your own work, of course, what creative non-fiction can you recommend for readers new to the genre?

Self-serving or what? Slice Me Some Truth, the new CNF anthology edited by Zoe Landale and myself that came out in August from Wolsak and Wynn. But that is why we did it, to produce a comprehensive anthology that could be used as a reader in CNF.

15.  What are you working on at the moment?

I am involved in revision of three new books coming out next year, a YA about a girl living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside titled, I’ll Be Home Soon, (Ronsdale) a book of essays about land and farming titled Home Ground, (Caitlin) and a book about the ethics of nonfiction, titled, The Weight of a Story, (Pacific Educational Press). When these are out the door, I am probably, maybe, going to write a book about how to teach creative writing, and perhaps a big novel that has been bouncing around in the back of my mind for a while. And another YA of course. I love writing YA, I do it to entertain myself.

Or I might buy a little rowboat and go fishing.

Thank you, Luanne.

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