I’m a writer of fiction – novels and short stories – and drama for stage, radio, television, and film. I grew up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the place Peter Gzowski called “that most Canadian of cities.”
I lived on South Hill, a.k.a. Garlic Heights, among people who worked for meat packers, oil refineries, flour mills, stockyards, and railroads. Moose Jaw was highly industrialized, given that it had only about 35,000 people. But although it was small, I always knew it for a city.
From my house on South Hill, I could walk to the end of the block – which ended in a cliff above a creek, a valley, and a railway trestle – and look out to smoky blue hills. When I looked south I took in the creek, valley, and trestle, but really, all I saw was The Ranch.
photo: Victor Bull
The Ranch was the home of my mother’s people – grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my many cousins. A family village. Once I dreamed of the place and in the dream they had their own grain elevator.
They raised cattle – Herefords – on rolling grasslands. My older brother and I were wild to go there. The drive into the hills was magic. We were going to the South Country.
Sometimes we rode the train, stepping down an hour later at a tiny station. My uncles would meet us and drive us up and down the hills to Grandma’s. At Easter, my brother Tim and I hoped for blizzards so we’d be “snowbound,” or that spring floods would wash out the tracks.
I stood in awe of my cousins. They did real work. Hauling pails of water, feeding chickens, cooking, gardening. I was just a city kid.
There were always cattle, and sometimes buffalo or donkeys, and always there were horses. My uncles and cousins rode horses to herd and tend cattle, and they worked on their skills as riders. I saw early on that they weren’t just good at it, they were brilliant. My cousin Vernon is an amazing rider, internationally known, and so are his children. Vernon is the reason I thought to make my central character in Blood and Salt, Taras, a wonderful horse trainer.
It might seem like a stretch that Taras, a man from a small village, would be so gifted and so skilled. But I’d read about Ukrainian men who’d worked with horses in the Austrian army before coming to Canada, and that they readily found work training horses here. I imagined a young man who’d learned horse skills from his father – who’d been in the Austrian army – and then developed his own ideas and methods.
Being a Writer
I always read a lot and I always had some idea or hope that I could be a writer. When I was maybe ten, I sent a poem to a weekend paper called the Star Weekly, and although it wasn’t published, a dear, kind editor sent me an encouraging letter. In university I came second (or was it third?) in a poetry contest won by Ken Mitchell - also a writer from Moose Jaw.
About a dozen years after leaving Moose Jaw at the age of seventeen, I got my first story accepted. I’ve gone on to make writing my career, although I’ve worked at other things. I think that coming from that small, industrialized, culturally and politically diverse place, and looking out to the hills, made writing seem possible. Or even natural.
I’ve written fiction and drama, and most of it comes out of Western Canada’s history and landscape. My play Matty and Rose examined the struggles of black porters on Canada’s railroads in the 1940s. My novel Secrets in Water explored a young woman’s search for family secrets in an old tuberculosis sanatorium.
South Hill Girls, a collection of stories of women in a small prairie city – not unlike Moose Jaw – comes out of my reimagined memories. My novel Dry, published in 2005, zoomed right up not just to the present, but beyond, examining a possible future in a prairie landscape undergoing climate change. I have been nominated for a number of awards for fiction over the years, and won a couple of awards for plays, but Dry was a first in getting nominated for an international science fiction award, the John W. Campbell award.
I’ve also had the good fortune to co-create and write for a preschool kids TV show, Prairie Berry Pie, on Global, SCN, and the Aboriginal People’s Television Network. And I wrote a one-hour script called “The Blessing,” for the Mythquest fantasy series on PBS and Showcase.
Blood and Salt is my fifth book of fiction. It’s taken me about six years to write. The research was almost overwhelming; and I could still be doing it, because there’s so much to read and experience. But I also had to write a book, and now here it is.
To buy the book...
If you'd like to buy my book, you can find it at bookstores across Canada, or you can contact my publisher at coteaubooks.com. It is also available as an e-book.