Lisa Bird-Wilson Interview - Freelance
Reviewed by: Shirley Byers
At this year's Sask Book Awards, Lisa Bird-Wilson picked up three awards and her publisher received another for her short story collection, Just Pretending. Her eye for detail has been compared to Margaret Atwood and her voice has been described as graceful, dark, authentic, funny, and true.
In her review in Prism International Kim McCullough writes, "This collection of short stories explores the multifaceted theme of identity. Bird-Wilson brilliantly exposes the Metis experience in a way that's both critical and loving, but she also universalizes the struggles of her characters across race, gender and age. The narrators in these stories range from young women discovering their sexuality and maternal instincts, to drunken men well-past any prime they may have experienced."
Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon and obtained all three of her degrees from the U of S. Since the mid-nineties, she's worked at the Gabriel Dumont Institute, in various positions, including Principal. Currently, she is the director of Training and Employment.
"When I went to university first I didn't think I would gravitate toward English literature but I did - right away. I knew that was for me. Later I thought I wanted to be an English and Native Studies high school teacher; but I soon discovered I was mistaken about that. I stayed in the field of education though, and most of my jobs have been in administration for Aboriginal education," she said.
She was first published in Grain in 2008. She vividly remembers fiction editor, Dave Margoshes, calling her to give her the news.
"I was so thrilled and I think he was too. That was also my first experience working with an editor, which I loved."
Since then her short fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, Geist and in an anthology of Aboriginal love stories: Zaagidiwin is a Many Slendoured Thing.
Her story, Blood Memory was a finalist in the Western Magazine Awards and later included in Tighrope Books "Best Canadian" anthology series. Her short manuscripts have also won the 2008 and 2010 Sask Writers' Guild Short Manuscripts Awards.
In 2005 and 2006, Bird-Wilson was a contributing writer to the provincial ABE (Adult Basic Education) curricula, and has presented at provincial and national conferences on the topic of curriculum and Aboriginal learners.
Bird-Wilson and her husband have a large family of seven children, that they have raised over the past 15 years. "We have two or three left at home, (depending on the day,)" she said.
"I read somewhere that every artist has to have a sliver of ice in her heart (I wish I could remember who said that). I take that to mean that you sometimes have to be a bit merciless about your time and take what you need to make your art. I'm not always good at that, but I try to remind myself of the importance of dedicated writing time every time I take a weekend away to go to the cabin and write. Or close my office door with the strict instructions that no one is supposed to knock unless there is a fire or enough blood to make somebody faint. But for the most part my kids and this big family have been a great source of inspiration over the years."
"I write because I feel like I have something to say and because I love the process," she said. "There's nothing more rewarding than being in the moment with a story and the characters and the plot (if I'm working on fiction), or with the words and rhythm of a poem dancing abuot in the room and my head if I'm working on poetry."
"Also, when I write I really hope my writing will impact an imagined reader the way I'm affected by literature. One line a story can pack such a punch, depending on your background and past experiences. I know how siginifcant those moments are for me as a reader and I can only hope to maybe have a similar impact on a reader myself."
Bird-Wilson said she isn't sure where her stories come from. But she's ready to catch them when they do come, with notebooks all over the place and a habit of constantly jotting down ideas and little notes of inspiration.
"Some stories are just inside you - something you've known forever that you wanted to write about but you're just waiting to find the right way to tell it. A lot of the stories I want to write are not going to work if I just say them; I look for a way to get at what I want to say from another angle. Sometimes I'm surprised to find that two stories are really one, they just mesh so well. Or, sometimes I hear little snippets of interviews or other commentary that just stick in my head and I want to build a story around that - like once I heard a broadcaster being interviewed and when he talked about his childhood and his relationship with his mother it was so poignant and sad. He ended by saying, 'I think she loved me? I'm quite sure she did love me?' As if it was a question and not a statement. I want to write about that childhood and relationship. Those parent-child bonds are so complicated. Someday I'll find a way to work with that sticky little comment."
In the years before she was published she wrote prolifically - stories and poems. When her children were babies she wrote while they slept. But apart from the poems, she never finished anything and she thought that she wasn't a writer. Writing, she assuemd, was some kind of magic. You either had it or you didn't.
"It was only much, much later that I realized that writing is a lot of hard work and perseverance," she said. "And that everythign you do, related to writing, is an opportunity to learn. When I understood that is when I got the confidence to say I'm going to write a story/a book/a collection of stories/whatever."
She reads "a lot" of Canadian literature. She tries to read the books shortlisted for prizes and pays attention to short story collections. She was thrilled when short story writer Alice Munroe won the Nobel Prize and Lynn Coady received the 2013 Giller for her short story colelction, Hellgoing.
"I also pay keen attention to the Aboriginal writers and artists because I think what they've done over the past few decades has been phenomenal for the rest of us. They've opened up the spaces in the publishing world for some of us who come after. And also, I like hearing what the more established writers have to say; I love hearing Richard Wagamese say, "I'm not a Native writer. I'm a f___ing writer." Yeah. And the young Aboriginal people doing the spoken word. And the young women who started the magazine kimiwan, and the writings published from Idle No More, and Neal McLeod's collection from Saskatchewan Indigenous authors coming out in June. These are all things to keep an eye on. It's all so smart and fresh, what these writers are doing. It feels like a good time to be a writer."