The Incarcerated InkWell

Federal Inmate in a Canadian Prison with a Life Sentence writes about prison life

Interview wth Heidi Greco

Heidi Greco is a writer and editor, a long-time board member of the SubTerrain Collective, and a volunteer who enjoys working with BC prisoners who write. Her most recent book, Shrinking Violets, co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Novella Award, was published by Toronto’s Quattro Books in 2011. She keeps a sporadic blog called Out on the Big Limb. We reached Heidi in a well-loved RV called “The Rattler” somewhere under the biggest plants in California.

1. You and your guy are big fans of the Redwoods. What’s the appeal?

For me, I suppose a big appeal is the fact that they’re older than I am. Beyond that, I have to admit that there’s something undeniably spiritual about standing beneath them. They’ve been part of the planet for such a long time, they fairly reek a kind of wisdom. Far more awe-inspiring than any church I’ve ever been in.


2. The Canadian media makes much to-do about the US economy since 2008. Yet, we also read that there were $800 million worth of e-readers sold in the US in 2011. How are folks really doing down there?

That’s difficult to say, as we tend to avoid cities – and cities remain, as in Canada, where most citizens live. But because we did a marathon tour last year, riding ‘The Rattler’ coast to coast, mostly through the U.S., we did see a lot. In particular, we saw a lot of ‘for sale’ signs and broken-down small towns.

Since we got home last summer, I’ve been working on-and-off on a long, extended poem with the working title, “America Abandoned.” And sure, plenty of people are still buying e-readers and I-pads and smart phones, but I wonder how many of them are doing so on credit cards with interest charges that flutter around 20%.


3. Did you release your latest book for an e-reader?

My publisher, Quattro Books, has published parallel editions. Shrinking Violets is available as an e-book and also in old-fashioned paper. With the e-book, the cover might be difficult to appreciate, as the colours are muted and subtle. But hey, good reminder – where my family pitched in and got me a Kindle for Christmas, I should request an e-copy for myself.


4. Shrinking Violets visits some hard taboos. What was your inspiration?

You sure know how to ask the tough questions, Ira. Long story. Shrinking Violets started out as an entry in the 3-Day Novel Contest. That’s a Vancouver-based (though open to the world) competition where insane people like me sign on to spend their Labour Day long weekend in front of a screen. And talk about nutty, we even pay to undergo this ordeal!

When I began writing my 3-Day Novel, all I knew was that the main character was a young woman with bright orange hair. Her name arrived almost immediately: Reggie. I knew that she needed a job, so I gave her one I knew something about – supermarket cashier. From there, Reggie led the way – crosswords, hot chocolate, taboos and all.

The manuscript didn’t win that year’s competition, so it went into the desk drawer where so many of those incomplete projects languish. When a friend became gravely ill, I found myself facing a massive case of writer’s block (or, more likely, overwhelming depression over my lack of control when it came to his illness). Then, because I get pretty stressed when I can’t (or don’t) write, Reggie called out for my attention. I immersed myself in major revisions – all I could handle, writing-wise at the time. Although my friend succumbed to his cancer, Reggie managed at least to save me.


5. What brought you to volunteer in prisons?

Again, this gives me pause. I’m not too sure how this came about. I won’t joke about a ‘captive audience’ though will say that maybe after working in public schools for many years, prison sounded like a breeze. More realistically, I suspect I may have been invited by Ed Griffin, the local patron saint of creative writing for the incarcerated. I knew that BC writer Andreas Schroeder had been a pioneer in writing programs for prisoners. I also had a passing acquaintance with Stephen Reid, another successful writer who’s done time. And who knows, as would be true for just about anyone, there are likely elements of ‘there but for the grace of whoever.’


6. A recent poll showed that 74% of British Columbia respondents favor a return of the death penalty in Canada at the same time that some American states are rejecting it. What happened to the “Left Coast”?

I don’t know who they asked. They certainly didn’t phone me. I can’t think of any of my friends who would support the return of capital punishment – okay, maybe one, but I’m never sure when he is kidding with his right-wing opinions.

As for the “Left Coast” it may well have left the building. If our elections are any indication of what people actually believe (and I shudder to consider such a possibility), any notions of true liberalism have been swallowed by the forces of greed and corporatism.

Further, I believe that our current first-past-the-post electoral system makes it impossible for the wishes of the citizenry to be represented. When’s the last time we had a prime minister or a BC premier whose numbers corresponded to more than 35 or 40% of voters? Since the right has become unified in a single party (federally, the Conservatives; provincially the so-called BC Liberals), the forces of opposition are stranded in disparate segments. I for one am ready for a coalition of some sort. Truly, it seems our only hope.


7. What’s your favorite thing about the west coast writing scene?

I never really imagine myself as particularly well connected, living out in the wilds of the southern suburbs as I do. Still, when I do venture into the city or to the islands for an event, I always feel incredibly welcome, as if I have been reunited with my ‘tribe’ somehow.

So I suppose my favourite thing about the scene is its attitude of acceptance. Spoken word artists don’t seem to sneer at those of us who are more traditional, non-fiction writers mix just fine with those who write fiction. When I think of it, so many of us cross genres all the time. And no, that’s not to be confused with crossing gender, though there are quite a few out here who have done that as well.


8. Playboy recently paid Lindsay Lohan a million dollars to pose nude for their magazine. Who would you like their next million dollar model to be?

Gosh, Ira, from what I’ve been able to glimpse of your fantastic body art, I’d have to propose you be next in line. Only, oops, the pages of Playboy are lined with women, aren’t they.

It may seem odd, but I had a subscription to that magazine for quite a few years. It always arrived in these slinky black plastic wrappers which must have frustrated my letter carrier no end. He didn’t even get to see the name of the month’s foldout, to say nothing of ogling her better bits. Weirdly, I guess I was one of those who read it for the articles.

But really, a million dollars for posing nude? I can think of at least a thousand ways a million bucks could be put to better use. Besides, I don’t think putting my name forward for the job would do any good.


9. Which of your books would you most like to see turned into a feature film?

Considering that most of my books are collections of poetry, I’m easily restricted to nominating Shrinking Violets for such adaptation. Yet in many ways, even its mostly-linear story would be tricky to interpret, as so much of it consists of internalized thoughts or convoluted dreams.

Besides Violets, the other candidate would be A: The Amelia Poems. It’s only a little slip of a chapbook, but the poems are composed as if they were written by Amelia Earhart, the pilot who’s alleged to have disappeared in 1938. I’m often attracted by conspiracy theory thinking, and my ideas about Amelia are right up there in the clouds of the bizarre. I take a page from the playwright Arthur Kopit and reckon she ended up in an asylum, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner – denied even her identity.


10. Is the view out your window stirring up any writing prompts this week?

The Redwoods? You betcha. Though considering we live in a house that’s pretty well surrounded by trees, you’d think that I’d get sick of looking at branches and bark. But no, the moods of trees are endless, their solidness an unshakeable inspiration.


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