Busy Women on Writing Books
This is the 12th instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.
This week, I'm pleased to introduce Canadian author Alexis Kienlen.
Alexis is originally from Saskatoon, but currently lives in Edmonton. She has published four books, most recently the novel, Mad Cow (Now or Never Publishing), as well as a biography of a Sikh civil rights activist, and two books of poetry, She dreams in Red and 13 (Frontenac House).
She currently works as an agricultural journalist for Alberta Farmer newspaper. Her poetry, fiction, non-fiction journalism articles have appeared in numerous publications across Canada and on the Internet.
Alexis has an Honours degree in International Studies from the University of Saskatchewan, a Graduate Diploma in Journalism from Concordia University, and a certificate in Food Security from Ryerson. She plays classical guitar, watches a lot of movies and reads a lot.
I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!
I’m really a multi-genre writer who does a little bit of everything. I started with poetry and fiction as a young person, and then I figured I needed a skill, so I went to journalism school. I’ve been writing journalism style articles for over 20 years now!
I do some freelance work, but I’m employed as a staff writer at Alberta Farmer newspaper, and I specialize in agricultural journalism. I have won three writing awards for my agricultural journalism, and I’ve also gone to overseas conferences and reported on agricultural issues in Sweden and South Africa.
In addition to that, I was a book reviewer for 11 years for “The Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune”, and a youth creative writing teacher. I’ve also taught creative writing workshops, and served as a mentor for a poet.
My first published books were poetry. I published two collections of poems “She Dreams in Red” (2007) and “13” (2011) with Frontenac House.
Then I got contracted to write a biography of a Sikh civil rights activist named Gurcharan Singh Bhatia. We self-published that book, which called Truth, Love, Non-violence and it’s available through Amazon. It got a lot of attention in the Indo-Canadian community.
After that book, I decided to write my first novel. I became fascinated with the story of what happened during the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) crisis in Alberta. I learned about the BSE crisis through my work at Alberta Farmer, and then I researched it obsessively. Basically, the American border closed to Canadian cattle, and the bottom fell out of the cattle market. Marriages broke up, a lot of cattle farms went out of business, and it was a very stressful time for ranchers.
I got really interested in the story, and there were no novels written about it. That became Mad Cow, which came out April 15, 2020. Around that time, I was reporting on the Cargill meat packing plant outbreak, and so it was very weird/hard to be reporting on a livestock crisis, while promoting a book about a previous livestock crisis.
What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?
The pandemic has really affected my writing output. I’m not writing as much as I used to because I just don’t have the brain space to commit to writing right now.
I wrote the biography and the novel by using a few tricks. I would often try to sit down, usually before I start work (I have worked from home for 13 years) and I try to write 500 words. Often, it turns into 1,000, and I let that carry me through the day when I’m working regularly. I write poems in spare moments. I write on weekends.
Since I work from home, I will often structure my day so I can do some writing work during the day as well. It’s a hodge podge, I guess. I often have deadline articles to do, so I finish those around my work time. So I guess what I’m trying to say is- it depends on what type of project I’m working on. One of my rules for myself, especially during the pandemic, is that I try to take one full day away from my computer every week.
When writing both the biography, and the novel, I did take some time off and go on retreat, or take some time off from my day job in order to write the book that I was working on.
During this pandemic, I’ve actually gotten more freelance work than I normally do. I still managed to write 80 pages of a new novel, but I got really tired because of COVID exhaustion, so I’ve been taking a break from it.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
I started writing and publishing when I was 17, mostly because I had strong mentors in Saskatchewan, and they encouraged me. I had to go back and look at my early publications and most of them are in lit magazines than no longer exist, like “Zygote” and “Jones Ave.” I won a provincial award for writing from a teen magazine (Windscript) in Saskatchewan when I was 17 and a national award for a short story from the Canadian Authors Association when I was 21.
I think those early publications encouraged me to keep going, and to build up credentials. I think I was too young to be afraid when I started publishing. I just sent stuff in all directions and tried to see what would stick. I loved publishing. I love the feeling of having my writing out in the world, and seeing my name attached to a piece of writing. I guess I’ve spent most of my life chasing that.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
I went to teen writing camps in Saskatoon as a teenager. I wanted to be a writer for years.
When I was 21, I took a fiction class with Guy Vanderhaeghe and at the same time, I got a mentorship with Ven Begamudre from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. So at that time, I was working very hard on my fiction and still working on poems.
Then once I graduated from my undergrad, I realized I would have to find a way to make a living. I had no clue what I wanted to do, except I knew I liked to write. I went to journalism school in 2000. Since then, I’ve always been doing some form of writing, except during periods of illness.
What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?
I’ve had some major obstacles in my life. I struggle with depression and I’ve had several bouts of depression throughout my life, and one of them was particularly serious. I didn’t really write anything then, except for journalism pieces.
My creative work also suffered once when I was underemployed in my 20s. I couldn’t make a lot of money selling poetry or fiction pieces, so I wrote a lot of journalism articles. Sometimes my creative work suffers because I will still take on freelance projects. I tell myself that it is a form of writing and I try to be open to the career that I have, and the pieces that I am carving out. I also suffer from the writer’s demon- self-doubt. I have to fight with that one a lot. I doubt my own abilities.
I have had several really difficult health problems over the past few years. In 2017, I hit my head on a palm tree while riding the “Hop on, Hop off” bus in Cape Town, South Africa. I ended up with a really bad concussion that slowed me down for a few months. (I’ve since turned this terrible experience into two essays, one that was written for “Avenue Magazine” and another that will be coming out in a new book called Impact:Women writing about Concussion, published by the University of Alberta Press in September 2021.)
Following that, I had severe, debilitating depression for a year that made me sicker than I had ever been. I did take a writing class during that time, but I didn’t write anything of value.
And when I was mostly recovered from that, I was in a bad car accident. My car got rear ended and I ended up with Grade 2 whiplash. I was very fatigued and in a lot of pain and had a hard time sitting, so I didn’t write much during that time. I do remember that when I was feeling better, I started working on a few pieces, and ended up writing my concussion essay for “Impact” while lying on a bed propped up by pillows, holding my laptop.
When I’m suffering from depression, or just a lack of confidence with writing, I try to work on shorter pieces. I take freelance assignments. I play around with poems in a notebook, and I try to write short stories. I like writing short stories, but I haven’t done a lot with mine, so I don’t know if they are any good. They’re kind of weird. I write them to keep myself writing.
I also try to take classes, and sometimes I edit friends’ manuscripts or shorter pieces. That keeps me in the game and makes me remember that I do know a lot about writing and how to write. And I read a lot and go to readings and take workshops.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
Yes. During my depression in 2018, I wanted to give it up more than anything, which is hard when your job is writing newspaper articles.
And I’ve thought about just walking away sometimes. I wonder why I do it. But the thing is that I don’t know what else I would do. If I think about quitting writing, the first thing I want to do is write an essay about quitting writing, and why I want to quit writing. But writing is my life, and it’s also my work, and it pays all my bills.
I’m rare, because I’ve actually spent most of my working life as a journalist! I really do love being a journalist, and I love doing freelance work. I love fiction, and poetry, and novels. I like writing them and I like reading them and I want to engage with literature. I think of writing as a conversation that I’m having. I’m reading the work of other writers and I’m trying to put my own words into the world, into that conversation.
And when I read books, I realize I have stories I want to tell. So I’m going to try to tell them. When I want to write a longer work, it’s usually because there’s a story that I want to tell that I haven’t ever seen before in print.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
Well, I wish I was writing more, but “Mad Cow” came out during the beginning of the pandemic, and I was learning how to promote it virtually, and that took a lot of effort.
And I have a day job that requires me to write and use my brain a lot, so there’s not a ton of brain left over for my creative work.
I’m trying to learn to be gentle with myself, and just do a bit of creative work in the spare moments, because it all adds up.
And I guess this period of doing less creative work is not permanent. I’m learning how not to beat myself up! Living through a pandemic is difficult.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books?
I really love connecting with readers. I love it when people told me that the story I wrote affected them.
With Mad Cow, I really wanted to capture rural life and the plight of the rancher, and farm families, and I really worried about getting it right. I had several people from rural Alberta and several ranchers tell me that they loved the book, and they recognized the setting, and the language and the people in the book and that meant a lot to me.
I love it when people tell me that they laughed or cried at something I wrote.
I’ve had people come to my journalism from reading my books, and people who have read my books because they are familiar with my journalism, and I really love that crossover.
I’m really proud to be a mixed race, western Canadian writer, and I think that influences the kind of stories I want to tell.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
Yes, I’ve been stuck and I avoid writing. Usually when that happens, I just open my laptop and start typing and usually, I just try to get myself going.
I tell myself I’ll just “start it” and then I keep going. also take classes or workshops to keep my creative juices going. There’s always something to learn, especially since I work in so many genres.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
Oh gosh. I’m always reading new ones. I read A LOT of craft books, also because I’ve taught a few courses.
I have used “Overcoming writer’s block” by Jenna Glatzer, “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro, and “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. Jack Hodgkins’ “A Passion for Narrative” and Fred Stenson’s “Things Considered”.
I recently read Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This” and really enjoyed it. I like Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car.”
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
I was lucky to get a lot of mentorships from people in the Saskatchewan writing community when I was a teenager. I was really, really lucky that Saskatchewan was so supportive to its young writers in the 1990s.
I attended Sage Hill Writing Experience in 2014, and Lawrence Hill was my mentor. He was a really good fit for me, and gave me a lot of good advice, and sometimes I still hear his voice when I’m writing fiction.
My current boss at my day job, is a great editor and mentor, and I’ve learned a lot from working with him.
I consider myself lucky to have a lot of friendships with other writers, and I consult them a lot and talk to them and they tell me their struggles too, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Writing, and publishing are hard and weird, and so it’s great to have a community of people you can talk to, bounce ideas off and turn to for support.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I’m playing with a new novel and I’ve got about 80 pages. It’s set in Edmonton in the 2010s which is different from my last novel, which was set in rural Alberta in 2003.
I’m also researching for a project that I wanted to do that has been postponed because of the pandemic.
And I’m working on a series of poems about my experience as an amateur dancer when I was a child.
What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?
Just do a little bit at a time, and keep at it.
Just be dedicated to finishing it. (I see a lot of people who flit from project to project and that doesn’t work, because you learn things by finishing them.)
Just try to do 500 words several times a week, and chip away at it. Then edit it yourself and give it to about 3-4 people who read a lot, who are good editors, and who you trust.
I made a major mistake with my first novel, and I took it way too seriously and made myself ill over it. I need to remember that writing isn’t a life or death situation, and that I’m just telling a story. So I’ll give that as advice to other writers too.