Moose Jaw Independent Interview - Sharon Butala
Reviewed by: Nick Murray
Sharon Butala is one the most well established authors to come from Saskatchewan; originally from Nipawin, she's written more than 15 books; many of which have gone on to receive prestigious recognition and awards.
She is an acclaimed writer in both fiction and non-fiction alike and has twice been short-listed for a Governor General Award. Once for Queen of the Headaches, a collection of her short stories and once for The Perfection of Morning, her memoir about leaving the big city hustle and bustle and moving to a cattle ranch on the Great Plains.
With forty-plus years of writing under her belt and at the age of 77, she has decided to finally test the waters of crime fiction, with her latest novel, Zara's Dead.
Zara's Dead is the story of a woman who dedicated much of her time in researching the unsolved, violent murder of a high school classmate to no avail; but long after the protagonist thinks the case has run cold, something appears under her door and she is thrust back into action.
Butala has covered a topic similar to this before. In 2008 she released a non-fiction book called The Girl in Saskatoon: A Meditation on Friendship, Memory and Murder. It details a story about Alexandra Wiwcharuk; a beauty queen and a nurse whose body was found in a shallow grave, on a Saskatoon riverbank in 1962, her skull had been smashed and her body sexually assaulted and like the case in Zara's Dead, no killer had been charged.
That story was one in which the horror of it captured the city of Saskatoon, and even to this day it still captures the minds and hearts of many.
"This is NOT a novel about the murder of Alexandra Wiwcharuk. Obviously, my experiences in gathering material about that murder and the world in which it occurred stirred ideas in me about writing a murder mystery, which I had never tried to do" Sharon said.
"I began to shape in my mind an actual murder mystery about an unsolved murder of a beautiful young woman not from a powerful or wealthy family, but from an ordinary Saskatchewan family, and herself notable mostly for her unusual beauty, although she would also be a person of character and intelligence, as Alex was" Butala added.
"When I began to try to find out what had happened in Saskatoon in 1962, I was never trying to solve the crime of the murder of Alex Wiwcharuk. I had no illusions that I could do such a thing from a remote corner of southwest Saskatchewan, and without the slightest training or experience having to do with how one did such a thing. I merely wanted to tell a clear story about what had happened that night now fifty-six years ago. That people assumed that I was trying to solve the crime was always a frustration to me. I was never and am not now an investigative journalist" she admitted.
"Of course, during the years I was interviewing people and asking questions about what had happened to Alex, I grew frustrated at my inability to grasp any firm narrative about that terrible occurrence, or even to really locate the 'real Alex' from those years in any but the most general terms. And, of course, as with all Saskatoon people, I hoped some day the crime would be solved, although clearly, this wasn't going to be done by me" she stated.
"One day, in order to work out of my system not only my frustrations about the 1962 murder itself, and the fact it hadn't been solved, and because I had been told so very many stories from people resident in Saskatoon at the time of that crime, stories that I couldn't verify and often just dismissed as not directly relevant to my book, and odd happenings that I couldn't explain and didn't like much, I got the idea of sitting down and writing a crime novel, letting my mind have free rein to invent a story about the murder of a beautiful young woman in a small city called Ripley, and I decided to create a sleuth who was female, and not a bit young."
Best of all, Sharon admits, is that in Zara's Dead she actually got to solve the murder.
"I had choices about who I would make the killer or killers and I debated for quite a while which one to go with. So that ending in Zara's Dead is a complete invention too. All of this served to finally give me a feeling of closure that I sure didn't get when in spring 2008, my book about the 1962 murder of Alexandra Wiwcharuk was published."
Although Zara's Dead was greatly inspired by Alexandra's story and the work Sharon did regarding The Girl in Saskatoon, Sharon insists that the new book is a novel first and foremost and an invented story that she had great fun in writing, thinking about and creating.
"I think it is true that it couldn't help but be "informed" by my experience trying to find some true information about the murdered girl of 1962 and her life and her horrific death. And I was also intrigued by the murder mystery genre and how one goes about writing a book in it. So, in that regard, this was very much a learning experience for me."
Asked whether she thinks Alex's murder will ever be solved, Sharon said "I used to think it would be, but now doubt it."
Sharon has a collection of short stories about old women coming out in the spring of 2019, that will be published by Coteau Books and she is currently finishing another novel.
You can order Zara's Dead here:
This article originally appeared in the Moose Jaw Independent.