Writer’s Bloc – Interviews

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Dan Bortolotti

I.M. GreNada : August 9, 2012 5:53 pm : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Dan Bortolotti is the author of both The MoneySense Guide to the Perfect Portfolio, and Hope In Hell — a widely acclaimed portrait of the Doctors Without Borders organization — as well as seven other nonfiction books. Nominated for five National Magazine Awards, Dan’s Canadian Couch Potato blog was chosen by the Globe & Mail in 2011 as the best investing blog in Canada. Currently, Dan is a senior editor at MoneySense magazine. He is also a father, a husband, and damn quick whip with a dictionary. Inkwell reached him at his home in south-central Ontario.

- Canada seems to be ripping itself in half these days — between the haves and the want-to-haves. What quick wisdom do the latter need to adopt — financial or otherwise?

I have really mixed feelings when I see things like the Occupy movement and the recent student protests in Quebec. There are a lot of legitimate grievances, no doubt. Certainly the behavior of the financial industry has been appalling, and it’s clear that governments are powerless to do much about it. But I’m concerned about the message these protests send to young people. As a parent of two teenagers, the last thing I want is for my kids to grow up believing that the odds are stacked against them, and no matter how hard they work, they can’t possibly succeed because there are too many barriers in their way. I just don’t believe that’s true. And I think that people who start with that mindset are almost guaranteeing themselves failure: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t mean to sound like a wise old man, but I have been to lots of places in the world where young people don’t have a glimmer of opportunity compared to what Canadians have. We are a very coddled people, and sometimes I think we need to take a step back and realize that by global standards we are extraordinarily fortunate.

- Statistically, crime in Canada is lower now than it has ever been. Yet, for five years crime has been the number one agenda in Canadian politics. How does this benefit the national economy?

I think a lot of people would be surprised by your statement that crime is less common than it has ever been, even though it’s true, of course. I remember having this discussion with someone not too long ago, and she insisted that my numbers must be wrong. There is still this widespread belief that the world is a more dangerous place than it used to be, even though by almost every measure that’s dead wrong. I’m not sure why the perception is so much different from the reality, but I imagine that the pervasiveness of the media is the biggest reason. When every single act of violence is reported, it’s easy to get the impression that it’s a constant threat.                    

As far as benefiting the national economy, I think we could make a lot more progress by cracking down on white-collar crime and corporate shenanigans that cost Canadians billions of dollars but largely go unpunished. I’m not the first person to notice that if I steal $1,000 from a bank, I’ll go to jail, but if the bank steals millions of dollars the CEOs get a bonus.

- Ereaders and tablets have put the publishing industry on the edge of a huge paradigm shift. What does big Publishing need to learn from big Music’s mistakes?

I’ve always found it interesting that print media and the music industry both screwed up their online business models, but in opposite ways.

The music industry held onto an outdated distribution model (CDs) long after it should have abandoned it. The industry was making buckets of money in the 1990s when Napster came along, and instead of seeing downloadable music as a way of serving their audience, they decided to sue 12-year-olds and grannies to make examples of them. As a result, they completely alienated most of their audience, myself included. They behaved so badly that even committed fans, who are more than willing to pay for the music they love, were happy to see those companies destroyed. If you ever want to read a great book on this subject, check out Appetite for Self-Destruction, by Steve Knopper.

The publishing industry made a different mistake. They just started giving away all of their content for free, and by doing so they have completely devalued it. Even 15 years ago, people were more than happy to buy magazines and newspapers, because they knew they were getting value for their money. Now everyone wants instantaneous access to all media for free. Unfortunately, good journalism costs money to produce, and unless people want it to be completely co-opted by advertisers, they need to be willing to pay for it. The current model just isn’t sustainable, and we are already seeing the consequences. Only the best writers can command a decent fee for their work, and many others have had to change profession.

I think what you’re going to see over the next few years is publishers experimenting with fee-based websites. They will give some content away for free, but to get the good stuff, readers will need to pay for a subscription of some kind. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have already had some success with this model, but those papers are still in the “must-read” category for professionals, and I’m guessing that a lot of the subscriptions are paid for by people’s employers. I’m not sure what level of success other newspapers and consumer magazines will have with this model, but it has to come eventually if journalism is to survive.

- Successful freelance writers — of which you are one — spend a lot of time alone in front of the keyboard. Yet you have a family. How do you balance writing time with human time?

I work pretty long hours, but because I work from home I actually have a lot more contact with my family than I would if I worked nine-to-five in an office. Because I have been doing this for 10 years, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to be involved in my kids’ daily lives—taking them to school, to doctors’ appointments, preparing family meals, coaching their sports teams, etc. Those things can be mundane, but they are also what help you get those accidental moments of connection with your kids.

The biggest downfall of this kind of job is that you sit on your ass most of the day. You really do have to make an effort to get out there and get some physical activity, and I could be a lot better at that.

- What’s the biggest difference between the Canada you grew up in, and the one your children grew up in?


I wonder about this a lot. It’s really impossible for anyone to say that it was better to grow up in one generation versus another. In some ways, I do wish my kids had more leisure time away from screens—like most people my age, I have all of these great memories of playing outside for hours on end, creating elaborate games that didn’t involve computers, and all of that. But I think that’s mostly just nostalgia for one’s own childhood.  

I can’t help but thinking most kids are much better off today. When I think of the amount of racism, sexism, religious intolerance and homophobia that I grew up with, it’s amazing we have come this far. My kids almost never see that kind of stuff: sure, it still exists, but it is absolutely not tolerated in any public space anymore. In many ways, my kids are so much more knowledgeable about the world than I was at their age.

Here’s a more subtle idea that I have come to appreciate in my work over the last 20 years. Before the Internet, a lot of what passed for knowledge was largely urban legend. Even as a journalist, it was quite difficult to check facts reliably, so as long as you wrote something that made intuitive sense, you could get away with it. As one example, when I worked on my book about blue whales, I found all kinds of errors in books that were published a couple of decades ago. These were understandable, because the authors just did not have the resources that we have today.

Now, with the Internet at your fingertips, there is absolutely no excuse for making factual errors anymore. Think of the implications that has for kids growing up today: the bar is set high for them, but they also have the resources that will allow them to clear that bar. I think that’s a great combination: we should expect a lot from young people today, and they should expect a lot from themselves.

 - You’re an advice guy. What advice would you have for a freelance writer in a small market like Canada?

It’s hard for me to give advice to freelance writers who are just starting out, because they probably can no longer follow the path that I did: the industry has changed too much. When I visit journalism schools today, they don’t look anything like they did when I attended. But I think there are a few things that haven’t changed. 

The first is that you probably need to pay your dues with some low-paying (or even non-paying) jobs at the beginning. As a magazine editor, there really is no incentive for me to give an assignment to a new, unproven writer. There are just too many talented people out there who will get the job before you, and no magazine wants to train freelancers. Your apprenticeship used to be writing for community magazines or other small publications, but today it probably means writing a blog or something else to hone your skills and get your work in front of people. Once you demonstrate that you can do the job, better opportunities should follow.

The second piece of advice is that you need to be easy to get along with. Anytime you work in a creative business, there will always be opinionated people with personality clashes. You need to be able to navigate this kind of culture. If you’re dependable and enjoyable to work with, you’re probably going to get a lot of repeat assignments. If you have a huge ego or an abrasive personality, then you’d better be Pulitzer Prize-winning calibre or people will just call someone else.

Finally, if you want to last in this business for a long time, you have to keep pushing yourself to get better. It is very easy to feel complacent as a writer, but as soon as you do that, I guarantee your work will suffer. I see it all the time: you read mediocre work from a veteran writer and you know he is thinking, “I’ve been doing this for so long that I can do this assignment in my sleep.” That’s poison. Even after 20 years, I look for opportunities to get out of my comfort zone and to write about things that are unfamiliar to me. Of course I like well-paying assignments that I can do in a short time, but I also like to take on more difficult assignments that force me to keep my skills sharp. I am fortunate to work with demanding editors who won’t let me get lazy, and I appreciate that.

 

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Diana Gabaldon

Mercedes : July 20, 2012 3:17 am : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Diana Gabaldon is the award-winning author of the Outlander series, a regular #1 on the NY Times bestsellers list, and a generous patroness of Canadian prison writing programs. Her encouraging visits to some of BC’s Fraser Valley penitentiaries have inspired prisoners to take their writing seriously, and use it as a tool for personal reformation. While her deep forays into academia have earned three separate degrees in science — Zoology, Marine Biology, and Quantitative Behavioural Ecology — and an honorary Ph.D in Human Letters, it is her keen insight into human imagination that has carved her a permanent heart space for readers in 26 countries. Inkwell reached Diana at her home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

1.  Arizona doesn’t strike me as a big con-hugging state — especially after the assault on Congresswoman Giffords. What made you buck public opinion to work with prison writers?

Well, 1) I’ve never yet paid any attention to public opinion about anything, so I see no need to start now; 2) even Arizonans are capable of distinguishing between a lunatic and a person struggling to learn something; and 3) nobody’s ever said anything to me one way or another about it.

2.  Before fiction, you wrote articles and textbooks with a very technical slant. How hard was it to unleash your mind from the strict disciplines of academic writing?

You know, people ask this all the time—and I get letters from technical writers bemoaning their inability to “change gears” to write fiction…and I don’t understand it at all.   You write letters, you write emails, you write grocery lists, you write an essay for school, you write a poem to your beloved…everybody does these things, and I don’t think anyone sits there staring at their blank sheet of paper, going, “Gee…I’m so used to writing texts on my phone…how the heck am I going to change gears and write a <gasp> grocery list?!?

I mean…they don’t.  Writing a different thing is just…writing a different thing.   Thinking that because you often write a particular type of thing that you can’t write something else—or that writing something else requires some huge cleansing ritual and intensive instruction is just one of the silly mind games people play as a way to avoid taking risks.  It isn’t that they can’t write a novel because they’ve spent twenty years writing textbooks—it’s just damn words, either way.  If you know one end of a sentence from the other and you understand the basics of grammar and punctuation, then you can figure out how to use those tools to address emotional issues as well as technical ones.  The basic principles are the same, no matter what kind of writing you do:  Clarity,  Content,  Euphony.   Make sure people can understand what you’re saying, make sure you’re saying something worthwhile, and make it sound as good as you can.

Look—if you teach pre-school, you get really used to talking to little kids; short words, short sentences, lots of repetition, commands, explanations, persuasion.   So you go home to your spouse and your teenage daughter.  Do you talk to them the same way?  Probably not for more than a minute or two.  The human mind is very flexible.

I think one big mistake beginning writers make is that they think you have to be “ready,” before you start writing.  Nobody’s ready.  Ever.  You just start, and the work teaches you.

3.  Your Facebook profile reads like a writer’s wet dream — international bestseller, monster advances, huge and loyal fan base. What’s the not so pretty side of being a top-run author?

I can’t say there’s anything really awful about it.  The necessary promotional activities take an ungodly amount of time—book-tours, Facebook, blog-posts, Twitter, guest blogs, interviews <cough>…but those are mostly fun, and at worst, a momentary nuisance.

Actually (thinking about it)—the biggest pain in the neck is people constantly wanting to cast “the movie” of my books, and making endless Really Silly suggestions, all of which they want me to approve/comment on.  I don’t mind if they want to play that kind of game, but leave me out of it, OK?

4.  Twelve years into the 21st century, and it all seems so much of the same — more prisons, more war, more Scrooge McDuck. What advice would Buck Rogers have for the G20 these days?

People don’t change that much.  It pretty much comes down to economics; a prosperous society tends to be a stable society; a prosperous world has fewer wars.   Everyone, of course, has their own ideas as to how to make society prosperous.

For my part, I think wasting billions of dollars on “fighting climate change” has to be one of the most idiotic moves governments have made recently—does it never occur to anyone that the climate changes all the time?  It always has; it always will.   Whether one thinks human behavior has an impact on global warming (maybe, maybe not), or whether it’s likely due to solar flares (the geologic records would kind of support that school of thought; the earth has been through five enormous Climate Changes—going from a virtual ball of snow and ice to tropical jungles and back—during the time period before human beings even existed, so I sort of don’t think our puny little carbon footprints are making all the difference here), the fact remains that any effort to stop climate change is pretty obviously doomed to failure.  (Even if we knew for a fact that every bit of climate change was due to industrial processes—and even the most pig-headed activists wouldn’t go that far—2/3 of the industrial processes are taking place in China, India and Russia, none of whom are about to risk their economy by trying to stifle CO2 emissions.)

What governments should be doing—and I’m sure Mr. Rogers would advise this—is using their resources to figure out how to alleviate the consequences of change: establish international food banks to help with the rolling famines that will result from changing agricultural zones, construct secure delivery systems for food (most aid sent to African countries never reaches the people it’s intended for; it’s stolen and sold by war-lords), research better methods for forecast, evaluation and communication of climatic behavior instead of doing this constant Chicken Little Computer Model Dance (does anyone outside the scientific community realize just how limited the value of a computer model is?  For the most part, a model predicts nothing but the a priori assumptions of the person who built it).

But don’t get me started.

5.  It only took a hundred years for the codex to replace scrolls. What will a Diana Gabaldon ebook feel like a decade from now?

Oh, they’ll almost certainly include video, music, linkages to supplementary material (Gaelic-language sound files, historical references, images of historical characters, costume details, etc.) and anything else you can render in bytes.   It won’t matter all that much, though, unless the basic story is good.

6.  Stephen King pounds out prose to the beat of AC/DC. I’m more of a Zeppelin-Floyd-Fleetwood Mac guy myself. What rhythms drive a Scottish historical-sci-fi-adventure-romance writer?

I’m very eclectic in terms of music—classical, C/W, Celtic, ballads.  Hate “smooth jazz,” though I like the Count Basie/Duke Ellington and Dixieland varieties.  I don’t really listen to music very much while writing, though sometimes I’ll hit a piece or composer that strikes an emotional resonance and will use that for a few days.  The Highland Scottish band Run-Rig is good for that, but so is Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” or Mason Williams “Classical Gas.”

7. Will you come back and visit us in the Big House again?

Sure!  (Never know whether to say, “It’s good to see y’all here again” <cough> –but I do enjoy my visits with you.)

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Jean-Pierre Bellemare

I.M. GreNada : June 23, 2012 9:05 pm : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Forty-five-year-old Jean-Pierre Bellemare is an incarcerated Quebecois writer with a flare for peeing in the warden’s poutine. But decades behind bars has brought him far more than powerful enemies. In 2008, he was chosen as Quebec’s top magazine columnist by the French-language magazine association, l’AMECQ. This year, after again being nominated for a second time, he won third prize in the same category. He is a regular contributor to the prestigious Quebec social interests magazine, Reflet de Societe. Inkwell reached Mr. Bellemare at the tail end of a twenty-six year sentence.

What got you started as a writer?

I have always written. Being the smallest of four siblings, I usually had to fight to get some of my parents’ attention. And even when I was able to get to my Mom, there wasn’t a lot of energy left for me. So I would write my thoughts down, and work things out that way. Later in life I wrote to girlfriends.

What did it feel like to get published your first time?

The first time I was published was in the joint newspaper in LeClerc Institution (Laval, P.Q.). It felt natural to write about things going on around me, to provide commentary on the prison experience. Then one time a group of people came to the prison for a  Gambler’s Anonymous meeting. I went just so that I could report on what it was about. It turns out I was the only prisoner there. So we got talking and I learned that the coordinator for the meeting was also the editor of a Quebec magazine. I showed him a couple of my articles, and he asked me to send him some of my stuff.

Was that exciting?

It was a big boost to my self-esteem. You might not think that a guy who has robbed banks, been involved in kidnapping, and escaped from prison would have a problem with self esteem. But all my life I was trying to impress people with how bad I was, how much money I had, or how sharp I could dress. All that time I was scared to death to just be myself. Now, here was someone who had no interest in my criminal life, but enjoyed the sound of my writing voice. For the first time in my life I felt heard. It felt like I went from ten-years-old to a man in just a few months. At the same time, when you become a recognized writer with a large readership, you realize that what you say is being dissected, so you really have to be on your game. You become aware of your ability to influence – and your vulnerability.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your life?

Recognition from fellow writers and industry professionals. When I won the Les Prix de l’AMECQ in 2008, I wasn’t permitted to go to the awards ceremony. The Warden wouldn’t even allow them to bring the award here to the prison and present it to me. I didn’t care. In prison, all you have is your word and your reputation. And now I had a reputation for words. When LaPresse reporter Patrick Legacy came to the prison to interview me, for the first time in my adult life I didn’t feel like a criminal.

What do you like the most about prison?

Prison is a hard place to like. But it does have its advantages over the so-called “free” world. There are less distractions here. No shopping. No billboards. No constantly ringing cell phones. Because everyone here has so little, there is no pressure to keep up with the Joneses. At the same time, there is a lot of time to think, which is great for a writer.

What do you hate the most about prison.

The hypocrisy and the lies of “the system.” The same system that supposedly condemns violence is extremely violent in itself. The guards are armed for maximum violence, wearing body armour and carrying pepper spray, automatic rifles, etc. They enforce their will through maximum violence, while at the same time punishing any inmate that does not immediately comply. This can be frustrating – especially after twenty-six years of it.

What is it like to be an artist in prison?

A writer needs a good imagination. But it also helps if he is surrounded by imaginative characters. Prison is full of imaginative characters. All I have to do is look out my window and I have a universe of muses.

What’s changed for you in two and a half decades behind bars?

My understanding of the human condition – including my own. I am not a church goer, but I am a more spiritual person than the nineteen-year-old who came in here. I am no longer disoriented. I am also a much more resilient person – an eternal optimist.

So, four months. What’s next after that?

Girls. I have written to Hugh Hefner and requested to move into the mansion for two years. If he says yes, I will live day and night in the grotto. I will become Jean-Pierre the human prune. Remember, I spent all of my twenties and thirties in prison, but I’m still in top shape. From the waste down, I’m still nineteen years old. The feminine world must rescue me now. After that, I think I will have my own reality cooking show where contestants must create culinary masterpieces using only ingredients from the prison canteen. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just keep writing movies and become rich. Then I’ll probably move in next door to the warden and let my dog loose in his front yard every morning. I will definitely seize the day.

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Interview from Stacey Corriveau

I.M. GreNada : May 14, 2012 3:16 pm : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Uh, Stacey Corriveau is schizophrenic in a good way. Explaining that doing ‘one thing’ would bore her to tears, she is a community developer, social enterprise consultant, technical writer, public speaker, tax preparer, and bookkeeper. When not glued to her desk, she is enjoying good food, and the company of her five cats in an embarrassingly large heritage home. A self-described ‘learning junkie’, she will complete a six-month public policy course in June. An only child who was socialized among supremely interesting adults, she couldn’t relate to kids even when she was one. So her maternal instincts seem to instead have been directed towards small animals… and federal inmates.

1) It’s been a while. The last time we talked, you were preaching peak oil and tending a herd of locavores in the Fraser Valley. What’s blinking on the social justice radar these days?

LOL I’m still appalled by peak oil, but have become markedly more cynical. I feel in my gut (and I want to be wrong!) that we have passed the point of no return, and are now unable (even if we wanted!) to stop the ‘environmental tsunami’ that is headed our way. And strangely, I find myself vacillating between the mundane workings of everyday life (doing groceries, watching TV, volunteering in the community on comparatively teeny tiny projects) and absolute terror of what lies just around the corner. The surreal thing is that if we keep our heads out of research and news on the topics of climate change and resource depletion, the status quo prevails: people (including me!) are still hanging out at Starbucks, going shopping, doing their thing. The fact that we are not directly experiencing much in terms of Mother Nature’s ‘feedback loops’ compels the lemmings to continue with their dogged path. I just read a great blog entry from James Kunstler today: The world gave the appearance of doing nothing and going nowhere over the past month – apart from the sensational liaison of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, which, some believe, augurs a dazzling speed-up of the much prayed-for economic recovery, return to full employment, $2.50 gasoline by summer, and the selection of Jesus Christ as VP running mate by Mitt Romney – but, in fact, so much trouble is roiling under the surface all over the world that it makes you feel seasick on dry land.

 

2) A popular American politico recently proclaimed democracy as the big lie. So why do you think so many are willing to die for it?

I don’t feel that I have any value to bring to this question.

 

3) Everyone agrees that consumerism will destroy the earth — if nuclear war doesn’t get us first. How can we break our addiction to stuff?

That is SUCH a good question! I am inspired by the work of some of the people of Transition Towns, who are trying bravely to imagine — then live — this new reality. What strikes me is that the ‘new’ reality looks more like Little House on the Prairie than any future that we have been conditioned to hope for. And we don’t trust our neighbours – it’s game theory at work: ‘why should I conserve water when the Joneses next door are going to carry on with their long hot showers?’ I believe that it is going to have to get a whole lot more uncomfortable for us before we change our ways. We will change when there is no other choice available to us. And by then, it will be too late. Wow, how cheery my responses are turning out!

 

4) You spent two years teaching small business techniques to prisoners before walking away. What convinced you that it was a waste of time?

Two years??? Walking away??? Those are fighting words, my friend! Good thing you’re cute! It was actually late 2002 through to mid-2009. I guess ultimately, I walked away because I was tired, and felt beaten down by the very people I was trying to help. One of the best relationships of my life was sacrificed (my former boyfriend asked me to choose between him and my work with the ‘filthy inmate scum’ and I don’t do ultimatums well); I had to convince at least five new wardens in the same number of years that supporting an inmate arts co-op at Mountain Institution was a good idea; the fight to create policies to support self-employment within the prison system turned out to be in name only; we ran out of project funds then burned out as volunteers; and the core group of guys ultimately turned on me. I woke up one day, and wondered why I had sacrificed so much. I turned off to the whole project in that moment. Perhaps I should have tried harder.

 

5) Do you think that Canada should re-adopt capital punishment — in certain cases?

You won’t be expecting this answer, Ira. I do think that capital punishment should be enacted in certain, rare murder cases where we are 100% certain of guilt, intent, and sanity. I would like to see animal abusers strung up as well, but I recognize that this is just a reflection of my own queer ideology.

 

6) Canadians always point south when asked what’s wrong with the world. Yet all of our fashion, our music, our opinions, and our entertainment is stamped “made in the USA.” What is it about Canadians that makes us feel superior to Americans?

One word: poutine

 

7) If you could spend a year behind bars with any person in history, who would you pick? Why?

You! Because we would have a good time. Or Charles Manson: because I could always see how people were magnetized by his charisma. I would want to know more about this, er, skill – and would use it for ‘good’ on the street, likely directed to environmental initiatives. Ask a twisted question…

 

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Interview with Michael Jackson

I.M. GreNada : April 26, 2012 6:00 am : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Professor Michael Jackson is a longstanding member of the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia. He is also a graduate of Kings College, London and Yale Law School, a Queen’s Counsel and a greatly beloved grandfather. He has written several books and seminal reports tracking the state of human rights in Canada especially those incarcerated and aboriginal citizens. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Ed McIsaac Human Rights in Corrections award for his decades of work in promoting human rights for Canada’s most restricted citizens. Inkwell reached the professor on an anonymous south Pacific beach watching over his grandchildren.

 1) You were at the very top of your class at King’s College. Usually those types of students find their clients on Fleet Street, not Hastings Street. What got you so interested in human rights?

 It was while I was doing graduate work at Yale in the 60’s at the height of the US Civil Rights movement that I realized that lawyers had a responsibility to do something more with their lives than make lucrative careers for themselves. While teaching at the University of Chicago Law School I visited several US prisons and mental hospitals and when I came to Canada in 1970 I began research into the state of our prisons, focussing first on the disciplinary system and then the prison’s most severe form of punishment, solitary confinement- “the hole”

 2) In your 1983 book “Prisoners of Isolation” you describe some horrific scenes from your first trips into Canadian prisons. What shocked you the most?

 Initially the extreme physical harshness of the conditions in “the hole” in the old BC Penitentiary. The cells were virtually a concrete vault in which people were buried. The prisoner slept on a cement slab four inches off the floor; the slab was covered by a sheet of plywood upon which was laid a four-inch-thick foam pad. The cell was illuminated by a light that burned twenty-four hours a day. Prisoners only had cold water in their cells. Twice a week they were given a cup of what was supposed to be hot water for shaving, but which was usually lukewarm. They were not permitted to have their own razors, and one razor was shared among all the prisoners on the tier. Prisoners were confined in their concrete vaults for 23½ hours a day. Some prisoners had been so confined for over 3 years. They were allowed out of their cells briefly to pick up their meals from the tray at the entrance to the tier and for exercise. That exercise was not in the open air. It was limited to walking up and down the seventy-five-foot corridor in front of their cells. Exercise was taken under the continual supervision of an armed guard who patrolled on the elevated catwalk which ran the whole length of the tier and which was screened from the corridor by a wire-mesh fence. For the rest of the day prisoners were locked up in their cells. They had no opportunity to work; no hobby activities, no television programs, no movies, no sports, and no exercise equipment were permitted. Any visits with people from family or friends required the prisoners be strip searched, handcuffed to a restraining belt around the waist and that leg-irons be placed on them as they came down almost a hundred steps to the visiting area. Upon returning from the visit, prisoners were again subjected to skin-frisks, even though they never have left the sight of the escorting officer or had any physical contact with their visitors.

As I came to understand the regime better from talking to the prisoners, I realized that the physical harshness was not the worst thing about solitary confinement. What was more profound was the psychological torture that in some of the men (and women at the Kingston Prison for Women)) was manifested in their self mutilation by slashing their arms and throat and most horrifically reflected in the fact that two of the men I interviewed at the BC Pen had in the one case been driven into madness and the other case over the edge of madness to ending his own life. I discovered that in the solitary confinement unit the worst things about prisons -the humiliation and degradation of the prisoners, the frustration, the despair, the loneliness, and the deep sense of antagonism between the prisoners and the guards -are intensified. The images of the madness of solitary have never left me.

 3) Every poll for the past five years shows that Canadians overwhelmingly want tougher penalties for crime, tougher prison environments — even the return of the death penalty. Why do you think that is?                                               

 That is an interesting question but the answer is even more interesting and will be surprising to both you and many of your readers. In 2007, the Department of Justice conducted a survey to measure public confidence during the initial stages of looking at the tough on crime legislation that the Conservative government wished to introduce and which was most recently reflected in the passage of Bill C-10 -the Safe Streets and Communities Act. The results of the survey was published as 2007 National Justice Survey: Tackling Crime and Public Confidence and you can read it on the Department’s website at   http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/rs/rep-rap/2007/rr07_4/index.html

The Justice Department asked people what they thought of the objects of sentencing that are in the law, and those are: rehabilitation, reparation, accountability, specific deterrence, general deterrence, incapacitation, and denunciation. Rehabilitation was at the top, not the bottom of people’s priorities. Most people think if you do not rehabilitate people you have accomplished nothing.  The second priority is reparation; do what you can to repair the harm to the victims.  Third are accountability, then deterrence, specific and general; incapacitation and denunciation.  That is quite consistent in other surveys that have been done.  Contrary to government assertions therefore the public, when not confronted with the exceptional case of a particularly horrific crime, particularly one involving child victims, does not measure justice only, or even primarily, in terms of punitive responses.

 4) You were recently in Ottawa to participate in the senate hearing on Bill C-10. Did you get any sort of feeling that the Omnibus Crime bill is just McCarthyism in a different hat?

 What is most distressing about the government’s pushing through Bill C 10 is that the proposals for more mandatory minimum sentences, severely restricting the availability of alternatives to imprisonment in the form of conditional sentences, making pardons more expensive and difficult to obtain and giving the Correctional Service of Canada greater legislative powers to restrict prisoners’ human rights and privileges and toughen up the conditions of imprisonment -all invoked in the name of safer streets and communities- are not only hugely expensive, but counterproductive and fly in the face of the best social science evidence- including that of the Department of Justice and Correctional Service of Canada’s research branches – of what works to actually achieve that goal. The Government sweeps aside all this evidence by appealing to and heightening public fear of crime and offenders at a time when crime rates, including violent crime, are at historic lows. If your question was intended to suggest that offenders and prisoners have become the new targets and casualties in an assault on human rights. I fear you are right.

 5) You were counsel in Delgumuukw, one of the most important aboriginal land claims case in Canadian history. How have our First Nations communities fared since then?

 That is a very large question and I think we may have to leave it for another interview. However, I can comment on what has happened to Aboriginal peoples in the criminal justice system. Two years after the Supreme Court of Canada made its judgment in the Delgamuukw case, recognizing that Aboriginal title had not been extinguished in British Columbia and was a legally protected interest in the land, the court in 1999 in the Gladue case, citing a report I had written for the Canadian Bar Association, entitled “Locking up Natives in Canada”, referred to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian prisons as a “crisis in the criminal justice system ” and “a staggering injustice”. In the 23 years since that judgment the crisis has deepened and the overrepresentation has doubled. On March 23 of this year the Supreme Court in the Ipeelee case reaffirmed in strong terms the requirement that in sentencing Aboriginal offenders, courts must take into account the unique circumstances of Aboriginal peoples, including “cultural oppression, socially inequality, the loss of self-government and systemic discrimination, which are the legacy of the Canadian government’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples”. It is both a cruel irony and a measure of the government’s indifference to the best evidence of what contributes to public safety and justice, that one of the provisions in Bill C-10, enacted just a week before the Supreme Court of Canada’s judgment, severely restricts the use of conditional sentences, the principal sentencing tool judges have to address overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples.

 6) The 20th century Canada led the globe in promoting human rights. How are we doing so far in the 21st century?

 In 2007 Canada had the undistinguished record of being one of only four countries that voted against the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was only in 2010, following considerable international and indigenous criticism, that Canada, with reservations, endorsed the Declaration. With the passage of Bill C-10, in its embrace of greater, longer, deeper and harsher use of imprisonment the government has undermined 40 years of progressive non-partisan criminal justice and corrections legislation and policy reforms. We do not have to labour over the hard lessons learnt from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay to understand the essential relationship between human rights and imprisonment. In Canada our own legacy of abuse, most recently exposed in the Correctional Investigator’s report on the death in segregation of nineteen year old Ashley Smith and in the continuing and increasing over-representation of Aboriginal prisoners should make it that we need constant vigilance and commitment to a culture of both law and practice that respects human dignity. Yet in the face of the documented record of the costly failure of other countries, particularly the United States who have gone down this path of escalating punitiveness, Canada is embarked on a deeply regressive path that will compromise and undermine our reputation in the ongoing struggle to promote and protect human rights.

 7) What’s your favourite thing about babysitting grandkids?

 It’s timely that you would ask that. The week in February that I was asked to go to speak at the Senate hearings on Bill C 10.  I was spending the university midterm break with my grandchildren in Hawaii. I left them, flew back to Vancouver and went straight on to Ottawa. I began my presentation to the Senators by saying that when I told my grandchildren that I had to leave them and come to Ottawa to talk to some important people they said, “Papa, why do you have to go?  Stay with us.”  I tried to explain to them, not that I was going to talk about the importance of human rights and the Canadian criminal justice system; I said to them, “I have to go and talk to these important people about how we act in a respectful way to each other, how we treat each other with decency.” There was, however, a common element in talking with my grandchildren and talking to the Government these days; both don’t listen to what I have got to say, but my grandchildren are a whole lot more fun to be around.

  

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Interview with Joan McEwen

I.M. GreNada : April 1, 2012 11:59 pm : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Joan McEwen is a writer, a lawyer, and a volunteer/advocate for prisoners, including helping long-term offenders to reintegrate back into society. It was while conducting research into her second (yet-to-be-published) novel, entitled Entangled (the story about a white male parolee and his Indo-Canadian female parole officer) that Joan began volunteering in Ed Griffin’s creative writing program in Matsqui Institution.

Her current writing project is a a non-fiction book about Ivan Henry, a self-represented man convicted in 1983 of ten sex offences. After spending 27 years in jail, Mr. Henry was exonerated by the BC Court of Appeal in 2010. At age 65, he has yet to be compensated and is virtually penniless.

In her book, Joan investigates the failures of the justice system—police, prosecutor, judge, Corrections, etc. As a result, she is increasingly passionate about “Innocence” work. Tweet her @ joan1mc.

1 – With a million injustices in the world, why a book about a Canadian convict?

Many people hold Canada up as a beacon of democracy and social justice. I first contacted Ivan Henry in 2010, after reading about the exoneration decision, because of my curiosity about doing time as a sex offender. The inmates I’d become friends with included drug dealers and bank robbers; murderers and extortionists—but never, ever, the “lowest of the low” in prison-speak, sex offenders. At our first meeting, however, Ivan presented as the man-possessed that he is—intent on proving to the world that he is innocent. The more I peeled away the skins of his story, the more shocked I became at the travesty of justice he has endured: police, prosecutors, judges. 

2 – Canadians seem to have lost their taste for rehabilitation. Why do you think that is?

I don’t believe Canadians have lost their taste for rehabilitation. The story of the economic benefits of rehabilitation needs better salespeople! Yes, the public sees red at stories of blood & guts & gangs, but I truly believe that—if more stories of restorative justice, forgiveness, rehabilitation, etc., found their way into the public consciousness—public opinion would change and adapt. I recently spoke to a senior, much-respected criminal lawyer in Vancouver. He said that the institution he’s found the worst to deal with in his career is the CSC. Why? Because they’re so secretive and so seemingly obstructionist. What needs to change before society holds them accountable just like any other public institution?

3 – What does your man think of all the con-hugging volunteerism you do?

My husband, Irwin Nathanson, is a respected litigation lawyer and a big supporter of my work in the area of long-term prisoners’ reintegration into society. Indeed, we work together on many voluntary endeavours in this regard. Though Irwin jokes sometimes about how happy he is that we don’t share the same last name, I like to think he’s not serious. :-)

4 – Last year’s Occupy movement shed a lot of light on North America’s disappearing middle class. Does this have anything to do with Canada’s prison building obsession?

The disappearing middle class is a big problem. I read two articles today—one about the over-inflated pensions of judges, the other about the over-inflated pensions of police. In the past, these would have been hands-off stories. Today, the public demands answers. As for whether that widening rich/poor gap is related to the federal government’s “prison building obsession”, I can’t say. What I can say is that neither the NDP or the Liberal parties have come out strongly with a “pro-rehabilitation platform” when it comes to caring for our inmate population.

5 – 74% of Western Canadians favour a return of the death penalty in certain cases — such as Robert Pickton, Terri-Lynne McClintic or Michael Rafferty. What’s so bad about this idea?

Read Sacha Baron-Cohen’s latest book, “Zero Degrees of Empathy” (referenced in my Twitter account, joan1Mc). He writes that the concept of “evil people” is an unscientific construct. What we have, instead, are people with varying degrees of empathy. At the “bottom” end, there are people historically referred to as psychopaths. The good news? Empathy can be taught. I’d love to see more research in this area. Instead of writing people off, why not fund this kind of research? Though I am not “religious”, I truly believe that no person is irredeemable.

6 – Most people want to see last year’s Stanley Cup rioters behind bars for the property damage they inflicted. What would you like to tell British Columbians about prison?

I do not want to see last year’s Stanley Cup rioters imprisoned. The vast majority of the rioters were kids, just like my two boys, ages 21 and 22—not downtown at the time, but they could have been. There but for the grace of ….

I am not impressed with the provincial LIberal party’s rush to judgment on this issue. A “restorative justice” model (community service) for most of these kids would make way more sense.

7 – What’s the thing you like most about living in Canada?

Canada is a wonderful country, and I wake up every day grateful to be living here. However, there is much work to be done on the road to achieving social justice for all citizens. Sadly, Ivan Henry is one of many cases in point.

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Interview with Louise Penny

I.M. GreNada : March 25, 2012 6:00 am : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Louise Penny is Canada’s pre-eminent crime fiction writer. She has won the New Blood Dagger Award for mystery writers, the Arthur Ellis and Dilys Awards, and is the four-time recipient of the prestigious Agatha Award for best novel. She is also the patroness of the Yamaska Literacy Council, where she volunteers time and financial resources to teach Quebec federal prisoners reading and writing in English. Inkwell reached her at an undisclosed location out of the country.

1) You are Canada’s most prolific and decorated mystery writer. Your books have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list, yet many Canadians have never heard of you. Did the Kardashians have anything to do with that?

Actually, I am a Kardashian, as anyone who’s seen me from behind will attest.

 

2) Your most recent offering Trick of the Light tips its hat to both the Alcoholics Anonymous culture and the Montreal art scene. Which of the two has shaped you more as a writer?

I have to admit, until I met my husband, Michael, I knew very little about art. it wasn’t part of the ‘conversation’ when I grew up. My parents talked about (and were passionate about) music and literature, and while we had art on the walls I suspect it was pretty pedestrian stuff. Having said that, after my father died and we were left pretty well penniless, my mother had to go back to work. The only job she could find was fill in work as a secretary – barely making ends meet….but when she got her first paycheck she got the three of us kids together, took us on the bus to a small art gallery and she used that check, not for food or heat, but to buy a piece of art. As we looked on, astonished, she explained that art and creativity and beauty were nourishing too, and vital to the soul. And we needed to find what we considered beautiful and make space to it in our lives. When she died, that painting was the first thing I chose from the house. Now, what AA did for me, as a writer, but certainly as a person, was it gave me the grace to see the power and courage and beauty in what my mother did.

 

3) With all the problems facing modern society, why did you get behind literacy?

You and I’ve discussed this before and share a passion for the problem – the great handicap of illiteracy. The anvil it becomes. There is a direct link between much of misery in people’s lives, and not being able to properly read and write. It’s not a philosophical concept – it’s a multilane expressway. If you can’t read and write, you can’t fulfill your dreams. You can’t get an education, can’t get a decent job. You live in fear and shame. And poverty. The vast majority of low income people are illiterate. The vast majority of the prison population is illiterate. Drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, crime – all have many causes – but illiteracy is often one, and a big one. And a solvable one. We can do something about it. How exciting is that?! Now, being able to read and write is not a guarantee of happiness – but not being able to pretty much guarantees a life that is frustrated and stunted. It seems such an easy fix – teach kids to read and write. Teach them to love it, even, as more than a necessary skill, but a joy. Teach their parents how different life is when signs and documents and newspapers and job applications and medicine bottles make sense. And let them pass it on to their children. I could go on and on, but will stop – because I know you yourself are deeply committed to helping people read and write.

 

4) Last summer, Amazon passed the tipping point where it has now sold more e-books than paper. What future opportunities and challenges will e-reading bring for Canadians?

This is also, like so many things, a mixed blessing. I think young people might be drawn to books they can read in a medium they understand and that isn’t foreign or threatening. E-books have so much potential, and added value. My next book talks a fair amount about music – the e-version can have a link to the exact music I’m writing about. So the lines between reader and writer, between fiction and reality, can be blurred. That’s very exciting. It’s also a wonderful tool, for people who otherwise would be weighed down with paper. Travelers, for instance. But it has already cost us a number of bookstores (what’s now known as ‘bricks and mortar’ stores). I don’t own an ereader and have no plans to get one. I suspect the people who invented it had no intention of wiping out ‘paper’ books, or bookstores or libraries….but that is what might happen. And I would be devastated. There is no way an ereader or a download could ever replace the personal service and contact of a local bookstore or library. People who know your taste, who host bookclubs, who are themselves passionate about the written word.

I suspect (and perhaps this is more a hope than a rational thought) that eventually, once the thrill had died down, many people will go back to bound books – and use e-readers as a great tool. Just like movies and TV didn’t wipe out theatre. I just hope bricks and mortar bookstores can wait it out. And I hope I’m right, and there is a place for both e-readers and bound books in our lives. I remember interviewing a prominent scientist, when I was on the CBC, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that we never really understand what we’ve invented. I think the e-reader’s a great example. As is the internet, the cellphone, tablets. All exciting, and all with applications that are growing, for better or worse.

 

5) So you and Chief Inspector Gamache are on the road right now. How would the Chief Inpector save the Eurozone from a meltdown?

I think he’d send Kris Kardashian to head up the EU. So simple it has been overlooked.

 

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Interview wth Heidi Greco

I.M. GreNada : March 19, 2012 4:25 am : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

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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Interview with Ed Griffin

I.M. GreNada : March 11, 2012 6:00 am : The Writer's Bloc - Interviews

Ed Griffin is a former Catholic priest, a full-time writer, and double-decade volunteer who teaches writing in various prisons in the Vancouver area. He is the author of 3 novels and 2 non-fiction books: Dystopia, The Story Of Prison he co-wrote with an inmate, Mike Oulton. Once A Priest is his autobiography. All Ed’s books are available as Ebooks.

Why did you write a memoir?

I wrote little segments of my life and laid them out on a table, as it were. When I put the pieces together, I saw a pattern. I may have left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1968, but the priesthood hadn’t left me. I kept many of the values I learned in the church – caring for the poor, working for peace, struggling for a better world.

It’s very interesting to write your own story. You discover that you’re not the hero you thought you were. As you look back, you get a fairer picture of reality.

It’s also humiliating. When I left the priesthood, I was 32 years old and I had never been on a date. I was a 32 year-old virgin. I had to learn all about sex and dating. For awhile I dated an ex-nun who could have written her own sex manual.

All the things I had once preached against, like pre-marital sex, went poof into thin air.

I made mistakes, but I survived, mostly because I believed in myself.

What led you to take off the roman collar?

Reason one. I marched from Selma to Montgomery with Doctor Martin Luther King. It was the high point of my life, an inspiring march, led by this hero of a man, who was hated by many in 1965.  We marched, we sang freedom songs and we ignored the threats hurled at us from the crowds along the way. I was shocked to see the National Guard with rifles in my own country.

On that march, I felt like a Christian, maybe for the first time. Even though I was an ordained priest, I don’t think I was a Christian. I mean, I didn’t do things because of my commitment to Jesus Christ. But I participated in that march because I believed God made everyone and loved all of us, black or white.

When I returned to my all white parish, I discovered that people had gone to the pastor and the bishop and said, “Either you get rid of that nigger-lover priest or we will never give another dime to the church.”

The bishop caved in and moved me to a parish in Cleveland’s ghetto. This church that was supposed to speak the truth had given way to racism. I was shocked.

Second reason. It’s very hard to leave a job that you love and you spent twelve years preparing for. I entered the seminary when I was thirteen, just going into high school. But someone helped me, gave me the push I needed. I fell in love with a beautiful black woman, a youth worker in the new parish. I was 31 and had never been in love before. I didn’t date the woman, hold her hand, or ever kiss her, yet loving her helped me to leave.

 Who is your favorite Catholic?

Pope John XXIII, the one who called the second Vatican Council. He wanted to throw open the windows in the church and let in some fresh air. Popes since him have been trying to shut the windows. All my life I’ve been opening windows in my mind. It’s a wonderful way to live.

What advice would Martin Luther King have for our era?

Discrimination and racism come in many forms, against Indo-Canadians, against gay people and against people in prison.

You mention being a refuge from Reagan’s America. Any future plans on fleeing Harper’s Canada?

Ronald Reagan tried to tear down the America my wife and I had worked for. He favored the rich and built up the military. We came to a Canada in 1988 that seemed to stand for peace and for caring for the poor. Canada was respected in the world. Now Stephen Harper builds new prisons, refuses to sign the Kyoto accord, hurts Canada’s image in the world, and helps the rich while he screws the poor.

My life is here in Canada now. I can’t leave. I’m embarrassed by Harper.

You’ve been teaching creative writing to convicts for more than 20 years. Aren’t there other Canadians more worthy of your talents?

I also teach creative writing to adults in Surrey. But the arts are sadly missing from our prisons. No music, no painting, no theatre and in many prisons, no writing. The prison system believes in programs, Anger Management, Substance Abuse etc.

The arts come to a person and say, “You’re talented and we’re going to help you develop that talent.” Programs approach an inmate and say, “You’re sick and we’re going to cure you.”

Both approaches have benefits, but right now the score is Programs – 99.9 %, the Arts .01%

In your memoir, you talk about you two decade battle with cancer. What’s your favourite thing about cancer?

I think my favourite thing about cancer is that I’m no longer afraid. In 1996, my urologist operated and took out my prostate. I was weak after the operation, but I was happy. He had cut out the diseased part of me and thrown it away. Amen, brothers. Cancer was gone.

Ten days later my doctor came to me and said, “Ed, I’m sorry. We didn’t get it all. It’s spread beyond the prostate.”

After I absorbed that message, I don’t think anything else can scare me.

And I appreciate medical science. It’s doing great things. My doctor always has another pill or another treatment in the background in case the one I’m on fails.

Cancer has brought Kathy and me closer together.

If you knew you had 50 years of healthy life starting today, what would you do with it?

Become a famous reformer and change the prison system. They’re just warehouses now and they’re costing the public billions. I won’t put inmates in cages, but I’ll insist that they change, which is far, far harder than ‘sitting in a cage and doing your time.’

Grow tulips for a living

Become a criminal lawyer and help some inmates I’ve met who’ve been screwed by the system

Become a family doctor. I watch my family doctor and I like what I see. I could do that.

Become one of the first colonists on Mars. Carl Sagan said we should not be a one-planet species.

Start my own church. The  “not sure about anything, but always asking questions and seeking the transcendent” church.

Marry my wife again and get another 42 years. Have the same two kids again, but adopt a whole mess of kids that nobody else wants.

Every morning for those 50 years, I will write for an hour.

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