Interview: Jenna Butler

Sunday, 6 March 2016
One of my favourite books of 2015 was A Profession of Hope by Jenna Butler (and published by local publisher Wolsak and Wynn), so I was thrilled that Jenna agreed to be interviewed on Not My TypewriterRead an excerpt from A Profession of Hope here. 

1. What can you tell readers about A Profession of Hope, and the adventure that inspired it, that they won't read on the book's back cover?
Initially, many readers assume A Profession of Hope is about two young newlyweds striking out for the land to live some sort of Walden-inspired existence. It's definitely a different sort of adventure. My husband got into farming a few years off retirement, and I settled into it after major surgery. Our time building Larch Grove Farm hasn't been a mad nature idyll at all; instead, it's been a real balancing act between dreams and real life, which can be pretty tough in a Zone 2 growing area. So we have some great times out there, but we also have times when we struggle being off grid and organic in the midst of conventional farms, and also being two aging people. At the end of the day, the book is about creating dreams while never losing sight of reality.

2. I'm a lover of quotations, and A Profession of Hope is quote-heavy. In fact, its title seems to have been inspired by a quotation by Brian Brett. Did you have this this title in mind as you were writing your book, or was it an after-thought? 
Yes, the book really sounds back to key quotations, both within the essays and in epigraph form, throughout. These quotations came from books and articles I was thinking about and casting back to while I was writing the manuscript. I can never manage to write a book that avoids sounding back to other writers — I find, whatever form I'm writing in, that I'm always in dialogue. I found the quotation by Brian Brett about halfway through the creation of the manuscript, and it crystallized the entire collection (as well as much of the work we do out at the farm) for me. It's become more than an epigraph, a kind of affirmation. We farm, and that in itself is an act of hope, with the number of small farms at a fraction of what it used to be in North America. We also teach about the land when we're off the farm, and that too is an act of hope, choosing to see a desire for change in young people instead of writing them off as disconnected from the world. Both working on the land and working in the classroom gives me and my husband a great deal of hope.

3. The land and nature surrounding it really is a character in itself in A Profession of Hope. What advice would you give to writers struggling to write a memorable, dynamic setting? 
The land is so much a character in the book, yes. It's a place I feel I've come to know intimately over the years, every quality of light, every sort of weather. I think perhaps that's something we can translate to works of fiction, that attentiveness to place. If we don't know the places we're setting our books, we need to make the effort to capture them in their most minute essence — the scent on a hot summer day, the feel of the wind in October. We might not use all these details in the manuscript, but they add an awareness of place that we can draw on in our fiction. Once those roots are established, the landscape just unfurls itself. The internet is an incredible resource when researching place for works of fiction — there's so much immediately available. But the same rooted quality can be created in fiction set in imagined landscapes, also. It just takes that same close attention to detail, fleshing out the places that we're holding in our minds.

4. You faced many challenges farming the Grizzly Trail. What was the greatest challenge you faced?
Learning to understand and accept contrasting ideologies. We're resolutely organic and human-powered on the farm, but we're surrounded by large-scale agriculture. Some of the farms are still family run, but they're huge, with families renting out quarter after quarter to run cattle and plant canola. They're pretty much Big Ag. So we've had some fairly major ideological clashes with some of the neighbours, but we've also learned to talk about what we're doing and why, from both sides. Ultimately, nobody gets into farming to harm the land, and some of our large-scale farming neighbours are even looking for ways to become more sustainable in their practices.

5. What was the greatest challenge you faced writing A Profession of Hope

Giving myself permission to write in a different form. It really took a while, and a lot of editorial nudging! I always say that poetry is my first language — it's home. I hadn't anticipated writing A Profession of Hope; it came about purely through the insight of my editor, Noelle Allen, who told me that she thought we had a great story on the farm and I needed to start writing about it. And probably not in poetic form. So there was a period of time where I needed to give myself permission to try this new form, essays/memoir, and either send it up in a cloud of smoke or succeed. Part of the challenge was that I couldn't see how I had any right to craft a series of memoir-essays at the age of 35. So what I did was stay as close to the land as possible, and as you mentioned earlier, let the land reveal itself a character itself in the book.

6. What's next for you writing wise? 
I'm always writing about the land these days! I'm finishing up a collection of prose poetry about the Arctic; I spent several weeks there during the summer of 2014, travelling and living as a writer in residence aboard a barquentine sailing ship at the Arctic Circle off Svalbard. It was a very intense time, living in such a tremendously confined space like the old explorers and whalers, and in such a male-dominated culture and history. Foreign men are drawn to that land to try their luck against nature, and it kills them, more often than not. So I had a pretty intense experience as a modern woman coming into the Arctic landscape and those histories, and the new manuscript of poetry is the result. I've been processing the experience for the past year and a half, and I'm just about finished with the writing. I'm also working on a second book of essays about women, beekeeping, and international community-building called Revery: A Year of Bees. The research for that book will take me to Cameroon, Nicaragua, and Turkey to meet up with groups of women who have begun keeping bees to better their communities and to educate themselves and their children. Ultimately, the book will link back to my home province of Alberta, which is a major global honey-producer itself.

Jenna Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980, but has spent most of her life on the prairies of Western Canada. The varied landscapes of the prairies and mountains — their intense harshness and incredible richness — feature prominently in her poetry, fiction, and essays. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award, the Canadian Authors Association Exporting Alberta Award, and the James Patrick Folinsbee Prize, and has been featured by the CBC. Abroad, Butler’s poetry has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the International Salt Prizes (UK), among others. Her writing has appeared in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies around the world, and she is the author of ten short collections of poetry and fiction. Her trade titles are Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), and the collection of essays A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail (Wolsak and Wynn, 2015).

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