I recently had the privilege of interviewing Lori Straus about how she’s created a profitable business through both fiction and nonfiction writing. She’s the author of the Between Worlds series, a historical modern mashup for 12-year-old girls and their moms. She’s also a translator and copywriter for international brands in Germany and Canada.
We spoke about creativity, genealogy, marketing, the struggles of running a solopreneur business, the importance of hiring partners to grow and how hard it can be to define what it means to be Canadian.
Listen to our conversation or read the transcript below.
For more about Lori’s fiction writing, visit http://loriwolfheffner.com.
For information about her copy writing services, visit http://loristraus.com
Tracey: So today we are speaking with Lori Straus. Lori, how are you doing?
Lori: I’m doing fine, Tracey. How are you?
Tracey: So, you are what I like to call a creative entrepreneur. What would you call yourself?
Lori: A writer. I like it simple.
But you have two kinds of writing, because you do nonfiction and fiction. Can you talk a little bit about why you do those two types of writing?
Lori: So, the freelance writing was my first foray into “being a writer.” Writing was a childhood dream of mine, but I thought that meant you had to write novels and you had to be published by a publisher, because back in the eighties, that’s the way it worked, right?
Lori: But I never realized that that writing could also mean writing nonfiction type things and writing marketing material and such. So I think in 2010, I don’t even remember anymore. I was at least pregnant with my first child, but I think it could have started before, which should actually back in 2008. I don’t remember.
Anyways, I finally start looking into at least writing magazine articles. I thought the very least I could write about dance and just gonna kinda start there, except I danced myself for twenty years, fifteen or so in competition. So I had a decent background and I found a dance magazine that was published out of my city here and, through you know, through connections, I sort of knew the editor or the publisher is probably more accurate.
And so, I started writing for them, and I got my first cheque at ten cents a word, I was so ecstatic. I felt like Winona Rider in Little Woman when she gets her two dollars or whatever and she runs through the house yelling “I’m a writer.”
So at that time I was still working full time at a company, a tech company. And long story short, I just started looking for more writing opportunities within whatever company I was working for. I was at that tech company for four years. I finally finished the marketing, where I worked for eight months before getting laid off.
I did whenever, whenever continuing education I could, just to start learning more about writing today, because, certainly the writing I love doing, was really attached to my ten-year-old self, which doesn’t work when you’re in your thirties.
And then the novels, that just sort of happened. It didn’t just sort of happen. It was in the back of my mind for a long time, but it stopped creative writing when I went to university.
A couple of years ago, an event came up and it was at the Schwab Club, a local German club in Kitchener. And all the people from this aspect of German culture from the entire continent, not all, but many, were going to come to Kitchener for a weekend to celebrate altogether. Some from Cinncinati, some flew in from California, from Chicago, from all over the place.
I thought well, the idea I have for this book, that’s the time to release it. So it was like shoot, I should start research.
So the book “Between Worlds” was put together. Book 6 is coming out shortly.
That was a first novel.
There was a project in-between. I was part of the mentorship programme of the Canadian senior artist resource network.
So there was a small project between, but in terms of thinking of it more commercially, Between Worlds was the first step into fiction writing as an income stream.
It’s about two teen girls: Juliana who lives today in Kitchener. Kitchener’s my hometown. I live in Waterloo now, but you don’t know there’s a border unless you see a sign.
Juliana has just moved to Kitchener from Calgary with her parents. Her grandfather’s in the early stages of dementia and all the other extended family around are too busy to be able to look after him as much as he needs it now. So Juliana and her parents move in with him.
She finds in his basement an old book of drawings that belonged to his mother Elizabeth that she had completed when she was fourteen years old.
So the books alternate between Julianna’s life today in Canada and Elizabeth’s life in Eastern Europe after World War I.
Tracey: Is it based on a true story?
Lori: Inspired by, not as much based on. I don’t count them as historical fiction, because half of each book takes place in modern day Canada.
With historical fiction, you expect the entire book to take place in a period of history.
Elizabeth is inspired by a great grandmother of mine. Her name was Catalina, Catherine, if you will. Catherine.
She was my great grandmother so her grandmother’s name was Elizabeth.
Elizabeth the character, her personality is inspired by Catherine, who I guess was a bit feisty. Elizabeth the character is a bit calmer, but she still speaks her mind even when she’s not supposed to.
But her name came from this great great great grandmother named Elizabeth, who my great grandmother spoke quite fondly of in a postcard to my mom.
The whole thing is really cool actually.
So as I did more family research—I’ve been doing research for a long time—but my mom’s dad’s side, we hadn’t…I didn’t know too much about because we don’t know who his biological father is. So when you’re doing standard genealogy, it’s hard to locate somebody when you don’t know who his biological father is.
So, anyways to make a long story short, I found these postcards in my grandmother’s closet, a bunch of old photos, and these postcards…
In here, my grandmother Catherine, she talks about her grandmother, Elizabeth. As I did genealogy, you’ve done genealogy yourself, too Tracey, and you know how the data is so stark right, someone died, someone was born, they died, born married, right.
I finally found the patriarchal line and this woman who had given birth to sixteen children and four survived adulthood. Four. And what makes it even sadder was, the German culture that I stem from, and I’m sure other cultures have similar practices, it was common that you would name children after people in your family. It’s a way of honouring your family, right?
Often that would mean naming children after the mother, as well as the father, and then godparents and grandparents, and what have you, but the mother was certainly bonafide. So, this woman had—was it three daughters or four—each one named Elizabeth,. None survived into adulthood. What they would do is, if a child died than usually the next child of that same sex was given that child’s name.
So a name, in my opinion, wasn’t viewed as something individual. It was viewed as honouring your family.
Tracey: Well, we have that in my family too. Both on the males and females side. If a younger child died and then another child got that name.
Lori: Okay. It’s been common at least historical.
I don’t know but that has got to be painful. I mean, I think if you live at a time when children die, I presume you develop some sort of I’m going to call it emotional immunity to it, because otherwise your entire inside would fall apart.
That being said, 16 births, four turned to adults, and three or four that you name after yourself, none survived. That’s gotta take a toll on you somehow.
So, that’s why this series is not based on true stories but it’s inspired by it.
I’ve had to hire researchers in Eastern Europe to help me because my German only goes so far and once you go beyond World War II historically, your suddenly getting into material that might be Hungarian or Romanian and I can’t read those languages.
So I research what I can. It’s fiction, so I do make up some things when I need to, but I stay as close to historical fact as I can.
Tracey: And you’ve got book six in the series coming soon.
Lori: Yeah, it’s coming out in a few weeks.
Tracey: And what age group does it appeal to?
Lori: This iteration of the series is for ages twelve and up, but readers have been everyone from parents reading to their preteen daughters so far that I know of, and also there’s a ten year old boy from my kids’ school who loves the series, and I know there are women in their nineties who are reading it as well, so its a huge age range.
I write with the twelve year old in mind, because when I started the series I wanted to write for a twelve year old me.
In my teens, I had a hard time finding anything to read, because I wanted Jean Little style topics to deal with, but my reading level was increasing, so I wanted something a little more complex reading-wise and I couldn’t find it. So after a few years of reading Nancy Drew and Star Trek, I stopped fiction reading for a long time because I couldn’t find it. This series is meant to act as that bridge.
I start going into PTSD in soldiers in World War I. I have one character who is dealing with what they called shell shock at the time. And I bring that into the present day. Juliana is trying to figure out why her mom keeps avoiding her grandfather, so the mom’s father. She as a teenager doesn’t understand how a grown child suddenly sees their ailing and deteriorating parent. Right. She doesn’t get that.
I deal with a lot of different topics.
I’ve had people ask if it’s suitable for an eight-year-old. I’ve recently learned that there are parents who have kids as young as eight who want something more complex to read, but don’t have the maturity to deal with stuff that’s really written for a fourteen-year old.
So, the language is relatively easy, but I do deal with some pretty deep topics but trying to keep it age-appropriate, which is also enjoyable for adults too.
Tracey: Can you give me a bit of background on how you are marketing it? Are you on Kobo writing life? How are you selling your work?
Lori: A lot of it, honestly right now, is in person, which is not a good way to make money. I’ll tell you that much.
The hardest part when you’re starting out is visibility.
I’m a copywriter by day basically, and so in theory, I should be able to market my own stuff, but the problem with being the creator of what I’m trying to market, I see every single detail. Even though I know what the crux of this story is- and I know why I wrote the series—I know those basic questions that any copyrighter would ask a new client.
At the same time, I see the areas where it might appeal to other people as well. For example, Juliet is a dancer, so it would appeal the dancers, hopefully right end with PTSD, there’s all mental health aspect in there. That veteran gets bullied quite frequently in his village and stuff, like that he’s pushing thirty. Racism, teenage bullying.
So, marking has been difficult for me. I publish wide. Im on Amazon, I use it as it uses me. I am on Amazon, Kobo Writing Life. I use Ingram Spark for most of my print distribution, except for Amazon, I use KDP for print on Amazon. You earn more per book that way. I use Draft 2 Digital as my aggregator for the smaller ebook platforms, and some not so small. I tried uploading to Apple directly once and I kept going circles and I gave up and Draft 2 Digital goes directly to Apple. So they do that as well as Nook.
Marketing wise, I’ve got Facebook going. I’m finally get the hang of marking to the Facebook crowd.
Twitter, I’m using more for professional connections but I hope to build that up to readers as well, with time.
Instagram, I’m just building up to readers too.
LinkedIn, I use for my freelance writing, but I will occasionally put up an announcement that a book is coming out for example, that is part my writing business overall.
Tracey: I guess we should now switch to the nonfiction side of your life. You have an active copyrighting business.
Tracey: As you said, it sort of gets fed into by your fiction. You probably get more credibility because you are doing fiction writing is well.
Lori: I’ve had actually had one client, she’s a good friend of mine, like our kids are friends at school, but we’ve know each other for several years and it was only last year or maybe earlier this year, but she approached me because they need a creative writer for project. So it does help that way. I can say: look I wrote a novel in a hundred fifteen hundred seventy hours and I meet my own deadlines. When I say it’s going to be released it will be released. So it does help that way too.
Tracey: What kind of writing do you do as a copywriter? Can you tell me about your favourite project?
Lori: I do mostly B to B, so business to business as opposed to business to consumer. I have written for a range of clients. I had a three year contract with a local roadhouse theatre, so that was challenging because everything that comes in is a different voice, difference audience, different background. I was always relearning that was really challenging.
I do work for tech companies as well. I’ve done some social media coordination. Favourite projects, nothing really jumps to mind.
I find with the freelancing, you certainly look for a project you enjoy, but I also look more for clients I enjoy working with. With fiction, you don’t worth with with anybody except your very small editorial team as you need them, but with clients, you’re often, hopefully frequently in contact with them.
Tracey: If you can talk about the kind of thing that you’ve done. What kind of a writing do you like the best on the nonfiction side?
Lori: I actually enjoy blog posts for other people not myself. For myself, I get too tied up in what do I really want to do with this? and I get stuck in the strategy aspect, but when the blog posts is assigned to me, I can’t question any of that. It makes it easier.
I like blog posts that are a bit meatier, not as in a rock coming out of the sky but one that has more meat to it. So, for example, I had to do one. I guess there had been a study last year, I think, that come out of the University of Toronto about how car emissions are no longer really the big polluter as far as vehicle pollution, it’s actually all the transport trucks. They had measured this by using the 401 as their area. So I had to look into that topic a bit more and that also coincided with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cancel a program that the previous conservatives had implemented whereby used vehicles had to go through a certain inspection to make sure they are environmentally clean enough to be driven on the roads to make sure that they weren’t contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. And Doug Ford, I don’t know what it’s like over in your neck of the woods but in Ontario, we call him mini Trump, so he’s not liked.
Unfortunately, this blog post forced me to agree with one decision he made which was to cancel that programme.
It hurt that I had to admit that I agree with one thing he’s done. That’s the kind of stuff that I like, because, and the reason I had to agree with him was that it was his previous government that put in that programme in the first place. With the Liberals in the middle, I think it was the auditor general had said this program has passed its due date and c. it was because the cars that are produced now, even the really old used cars now, were produced under much more stringent environmental standards so they are nowhere near as polluting as cars are built, in the 80’s or the 90’s for example. Plus in car dealerships it was just taking up space in their mechanic bays, so it would bring in hopefully more money by having more space open for repair jobs and stuff instead of these required inspections that had to be done. Disclaimer, my family has a car dealerships so there’s a bit of bias in that opinion.
But anyway, so that was really enjoyable with that blog post. It took me five or six hours to research and get it all together, but that was gonna cool. I like writing something that makes me go “oh” that challenges me. I don’t those too often.
Tracey: Your presupposed ideas were wiped out by your research.
Lori: Yeah, right and there’s nothing more grounding than realising you were wrong.
Tracey: So you live in the Kitchener Waterloo area. Are most of your clients in that area too, or do you work worldwide?
Lori: I work actually worldwide. One of my best clients is in Germany and I ve been working with them now I think five years or something like that. That came from a connection from that tech company I worked for.
So when I started at that tech company, we’re talking about we’re going back what ten years now I got laid off from there in 2013. So I think I started there in 2009 or so. That’s where I learned about LinkedIn as a social media platform for professionals, because I had I had a front end job so client-facing job and clients wanted to connect via my Facebook page, and I said ah no. So a boss told me about LinkedIn. So I built up my profile there, and then through that network that was heavily based on that one tech company, one woman who had moved on to this company. She and I were following each other on Facebook because we done a little bit of work together or I had done a bit of work for her when she was at our tech company and then she made the connection from with that company.
It was fantastic.
Its a translation and localization company so I get to do research on how the brain changes when it has to work in a foreign language.
The translation company is trying to get people to realise that there are more languages out there besides English, and that is my world view.
The more languages we have, yes it is more difficult to sometimes understand each other, but in trying to figure out what each one is trying to say, you also get closer to each other. Because that’s a challenge that the relationship has to go through.
So a company like that is like heaven for me, because I get to new help broadcast that message, but in a very businesslike way. You talk about return investment, higher performance from your employees or things like that.
Tracey: Do you speak German?
Lori: I do speak German yes.
Tracey: Are your books also in other languages?
Lori: Not right now. Because I self publish, and so I foot all the costs for that myself. I have a graphic designer. I have two editors, one who helps me at the beginning, so call her my consulting editor and then one who helps as a detailed reviewer and then does a copy edit but not a proof read, I have to handle the proofread to me because the budget is long gone by then and so to translate. With these books, I’d love to put them into German. I would feel comfortable doing a first draft myself. I would certainly experiment with machine translation.
I know that Joanna Penn was talking about how fantastic machine translation is, and then she got like lambasted by people who did not agree with her.
There are some authors where machine translation isn’t going do anything at all. Right now, I’m not one of those authors. It can help me with that first draft, because then your reading it and that’s so not natural. That’s not what I want to say. You’re not stuck on basic questions of what version of the do I want because German has sixteen of them.
I’ve got that draft and I can see that does not sound natural. It’s not what I want to say, but the initial draft is done. I feel comfortable giving it that first pass, because I know what I’m trying to say, but I’d still need a German literary translator to go through it and make sure that it sounds natural to them.
On top of that, because I’m dealing with this German community in Eastern Europe and they had their own dialect and my grandparents spoke these dialects. There’s a range of these dialects, so I would need a literary translator to help me give that community its flavour through the dialect, but without looking making them sound like hicks.
Tracey: You don’t want to make fun of them.
Lori: Yeah, I’d want them to sound real and I would don’t want their dialect to be preserved a bit. I don’t speak it myself. I have some written out in reports or poems written in this dialect so if there are ways that we could pick some words out and use them or sit down.
So I would need to work with someone to do that and that’s time and money and first I need to make a bit more money with these novels before I can sort branching into German.
But I think they would work. Canada is quite popular in Germany. My timings off, though, because Canada is the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.
Tracey: I know. It’s exciting.
Lori: It is, but I’ll have nothing to do with it because I’m behind a bit. But at some point you’ve got to start letting go and take your own path.
Tracey: Because you’ve got a series is well, you have an opportunity to get people to read the entire thing. So, do you give the first one away? Do you do some sort of promotion? How do you get people to continue reading the series?
Lori: I’m experimenting with that right now. So I’ve done ninety-nine cent promotions. They haven’t really done much for me. That being said, I wonder if those kinds of motions benefit from a lot of awareness advertising, so my ten dollars here, twenty dollars there might not be enough to keep things going.
I also last year had to redo all my book covers, and that was four books that I had to redo and that was not a welcome expense.
Tracey: Oh I remember that. That was a nightmare.
Lori: That was a nightmare. That being said, I am very happy with who have chosen and she’s out in Victoria.
They all had to be redone because my previous designer changed how she was running her business and the way she had proposed that to me did not strike me as quite frankly professional. So I chose to not continue with her, but that meant—and so I assumed, because as a freelance writer, what I write something for clients, copyright goes to them. That’s just to me an assumption. I know that most magazines and newspapers are different, ballgame, but we’re ready for clients, corporations, copyright goes to them. I even have that in my contract right now.
So I made the mistake of assuming that was the case with the previous one. She said it wasn’t.
I didn’t want to be in a position of a) finding a graphic design and asking them to copy her style or b) having to licence the work. That’s what my previous one offered me, and I thought no.
So I thought well, if I’m going to be redoing them, I might as well just do it right. And I want to work with a graphic designer who feels fulfilled doing these books. Like that’s what you’re hoping for right?
And what artist can feel fulfilled copying someone else’s style. They’re not like copy graphic designers. And she’s running her own business for a reason, and yes, she does corporate work, so she could do it, but the way the previous designer worked is very different,
And I found out later that she was pulling everything from Unsplash so I have no clue who else was using even that sole image of one person and that’s all image of one character. So, for the most part we don’t use people anymore, because with a novel that’s partly historical and I’m not gonna find stock photography with the exact dress and hairstyle and stuff that these people wore. Impossible.
So but that being said, for the sixth cover, because I dedicated to this my ancestor Elizabeth, it fits topic wise. I have a picture of her with one of her daughters, and so that’s on the cover of this one. So I fit those things in here and there as it suits, I hope, commercially the whole series.
Last year was a headache, but it’s much smoother now for sure.
Tracey: Are you distributing them via audio versions as well?
Lori: Not right now. I looked into that and it was probably going to cost me another twelve hundred dollars or so to do, and that was including a very kind volunteer offer from a friend of mine who volunteered to do the engineering for free, but by the time you pay artists what you would like to pay them, you know you’re looking at twelve hundred dollars and I need the ebooks to take off first before I start looking at audio books for this series.
Because, once you’ve done one, you gotta keep going right, and the money is just not there right now. So I can do it myself, but that’s my time. I would only do that if I did some voice training to help me sound, better and more appropriate for audio books, but then again, you’re looking at trying to build a mini-sound booth somewhere so you don’t sound so echoy or hollow. Trying to do while the kids are at school, but that’s my prime time for freelance writing because that’s when my clients can get a hold of me. So right now, it’s not in the books, but maybe next year.
Tracey: Well, it’s still there now but we didn’t ask about the biggest failure.
Lori: That took me a while the figure out, because you know I talk about failure naturally, or socially but your question was “the most challenging,” those are the ones I’m trying to leave behind, but it took me a while to figured out because I’ve overcome it now and I’d kind of forgotten about until I thought about it.
In 2018 going into 2019, I had this bizarre spree of three new clients who fired me within a few weeks or six weeks. That’s when I started wondering “what is wrong with me?” because I have other clients, like the one in Germany, who are very happy with what I do. What on earth is going on here? They would tell me what they want. I would do it. Then they would say no, we don’t want that, we want this. So I would do that, and they would say no, I don’t want that, I want this. And it was just frustrating to see at the least, because you would give them what they want and they would say, no they don’t want that.
So to get me through it, I actually hired a business consultant. Someone locally, because I wanted to work with somebody I kind of know. There are so many business consultants, you need somebody who stands out and who you could trust. So I went with a woman called Lois Raats and she and I sat down and she helped me find all the holes that I had in my business.
What was also happening at about the same time, is my husband had surgery and he was supposed to be back at work in about three weeks and he returned in six months. It was brutal. And he only returned because he had to, because his short term insurance had run out. I think partly he was going stir crazy as well. He’s an extrovert. He loves working with people. I’m an introvert, so if we stay in the same house too long, I think we can drive each other nuts sometimes.
My business did not tank, that’s too extreme, but certainly my self-confidence tanked, because my business was not meant to support the family. I wasn’t there yet. I want to be there some day, where if something happened, I had enough income coming in that I could support the family, even if only for a few months, just to get us over hump run, but I was not there yet. So I took on any client I could, as long as they were in the country. Sometimes you get phone calls from Peru, no thanks.
So I wasn’t putting these clients through an appropriate vetting process. One I had met while he was giving a presentation and he was looking for help with content creation so we never really had a good “what are you looking for” type of discussion, or if we did have it, then I wasn’t bringing my all to it. Then, with the other ones, yes, you have that initial how’s it going? How do you operate? How do you work? kind of discussion. I didn’t look at it from the standpoint of “do I want this client?” I looked at it from the standpoint of “how do I get this job?” and still being honest, obviously.
I was in job interview mode, not business-building mode, and those are two different modes, mentally speaking. Lois help me figure that out.
Then over the course of a year, I’d get the odd inquiry. I would send them these questions. Do you have a marketing plan? What exactly are you hoping that I do? There is a common misconception with copyrighting in that it means that I can also look after their marketing strategy. Often, small business owners don’t understand that I don’t do strategy. I can do content strategy, but that still comes after the overall marketing strategy has been written down and disseminated to the team.
So you know, when they say we want to increase sales on Facebook. And my question is to whom? how? What have you done so far? I need all this data and it turned out very quickly that they wanted me in this case to do their whole marketing strategy for social media. I don’t do that. Instead, actually I referred him to my business consultant and he signed on with her. So she’s helping him figure those things out. And then if he needs a writer, he’ll know when he needs an actual writer, not someone who, because she writes, she must be able to do all those other things too.
Learning that was huge and I said no to a couple of clients, potential clients, over time just because I had those questions in place. I had cleaned up my business from that. That’s how that worked out.
Tracey: How do you find new clients and bring them on?
Lori: Actually for the past year or so, it’s been mostly referral, or they found me, which is a nice position to be in.
That being said, I am finishing up with one client, because it’s high time that they take what they’ve hired me to do and take it in house. I’m not the right person for the job anymore. So now, I actually have to go out and find a replacement client, because it was a good income I was getting from them and it was very, very fulfilling work. I was just the wrong person for the job moving forward.
So, I met with Lois again. We’ve met a few times this year. I stayed on with her. And I was going through a bit of a funk with the freelancing. I wasn’t sure if that was a funk, because you know, when you go through a life transition because you know you have to go through a transition and life will be good or was it a funk because something has to change and it can change and then it gets resparked.
We just actually met couple days ago and I realized what kind of clients I want to look for now. So I’ll be creating a new web page on my website and there will be a menu item that takes people in that market directly to that spot, and so once I’ve got that up and running, then I’ll go to my network and say hey, you know, I’m looking for new clients. I’m opening up this area of my business. Here’s my background. Here’s how I can help. If you have anyone you know, feel free to pass this on or put me in touch with them. So it will be be an active networking effort.
Tracey: That sounds like a lot of excitement.
Lori: Exciting and work.
Tracey: It is difficult too. Holy cow. That’s an interesting way of going about it. It’s lucky that you’ve had this coach to help you figure out all this stuff out.
Lori: I know that you were saying that part of the reason that we wanted to do this podcast is to talk about creative entrepreneurs and advice.
One thing I would advise people is not to get trapped in that “if it’s not free, I’m not using it” mentality that you can easily get trapped into when you start your own business.
Business consultants are not cheap by any stretch. When you look at their hourly rates, your eyes pop out, like in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Your feet do this run underneath you, because you want to run from the price tag.
At the same time, you talk with them for an hour. They go “you’re doing this wrong,” “do this,” “do this.” Oh. Okay, well I’ve just saved myself ten hours of work, which is twice the amount of money they’re charging me right now. Hopefully that will bring in more money afterwards. So, whereas I can go through numerous self help books in trying to find my calling and all that kind of stuff or I can meet with Lois for an hour, and boom, I know what I’m doing next.
Tracey: That’s exciting. So it gives you a bit of peace of mind for your business.
Lori: One of the recent biggest changes I’ve experienced is when you pay for the right consultants to help, it takes that worry out of your work, and then you can actually focus more on your work.
I hired marking consultants to help me with my books and they helped me sort of get everything together and give me the whole plan.
And I have now signed up for a year-long worth of webinars and such by someone whose name appears to be highly respected in the indie industry. He takes you through like step-by-step all the marketing stuff you have to do. So whereas, Z G Communications had taken me through…they looked at everything I did and said, you’re missing this, you’re missing this, focus on this, go here. So I could finally bring that all in and stop panicking. Now, with this other person, with the webinars and stuf that he offers, I can do that all with a guide in a sense, but without paying the hourly rate that a marketing company would be charging me to walk me through all of that themselves.
Tracey: You’re going to be marketing your books quite heavily in the next year then?
Lori: I will- and I am already experimenting with things now.
I mean last night, it’s kind of funny but I spent two hours on a webinar about Amazon keywords and then a bit on pricing.
And I woke up in the middle of the night panicking because, my God, Amazon keywords. They started coming up in my head. Have I got the right ones? So, you don’t lose all the worry. At the same time, if that happens to me, it’s frustrating, because it’s cold and flu season and stress is what gets you sick, but at the same time, that wouldn’t have happened if my brain didn’t see all the ideas that can come out of that, that I can now experiment with, to hopefully get ebook sales up.
Because once those get up…When I see some of these indie authors saying “yeah, I was selling selling three books a day and that’s not enough.” I’m thinking oh my God, three books a day. I would die for three books a day, because that would be roughly ten bucks a day, end of the month, $300. Good. Yeah.
So, seeing all that, now I have some things I can experiment with, and sit down, figure it out. Do experiment run it for a couple weeks, see what happens and that’s where the worry comes out of it. It’s no longer, is this even the right thing? It’s ok, I’ve got all these ideas. I think these ideas here are the best ones to start with. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go to the next idea. If that doesn’t work, the next one. It’s not “where are the ideas coming from?”
Tracey: Part of the podcast is also about looking at Canadian identity. You know what the last question is, but just before we get to that, was there anything else that you wanted to give in terms of advice for entrepreneurs like us?
Lori: I would say you have to keep learning.
It doesn’t always have to be about your craft, certainly that too. But keep learning about marketing and business practices.
It can get frustrating, because things seem to change really fast, but mean honestly, Tracey, if things didn’t change, you and I would be sitting here in hoopskirts right now with white wigs on possibly, or if we’re not part of that social echelon, then I don’t know. Maybe bare feet. I don’t know.
Things change and things can get worse, but they can also improve. Any change involves both.
In order to keep your business going, you have to stay on top of all that as best as you can, while still running your business.
You have to get out of the “I’m not using it unless it’s free” mentality because that’s a scarcity mentality. I’m not advocating for spending thousands of dollars and stuff like that, because you don’t want to run yourself into a financial hole either, but you’ve got to look at your business as a business.
Whether you’re crafting, drawing, painting, writing, playing music, it doesn’t matter, you’re still running a business.
If you think that a certain piece of software that’s going to cost you five hundred dollars is actually the ticket to help you, you know improve things, then spend the money.
And get a bookkeeper.
Tracey: You like your book-keeper, eh?
Lori: I, like my bookkeeper yes. I just had to switch, because my previous bookkeeper, they’re focusing more on larger companies who want the full service, including tax preparation. I’m not big enough for that. So I’ve got a new one. She’s awesome. Get a book-keeper. That’s my advice.
Tracey: That’s good advice. So then, in terms of your role as a Canadian, because that’s the other thing that we were talking about a little bit before the interview.
Do you consider yourself a Canadian and if so, what does that mean to you?
Lori: I do. I think I have the very basic definition, because I was born here and raised here. I don’t mean that you have to be born here to be Canadian, but I just see it as a situation as opposed to a bloodline of any kind.
I know my grandfather would still call me German once in a while…I’m Canadian.
But I think for me I love the vast size of the country. I haven’t been to Europe for a long time, but I still get miffed when you know, ten hours in the car, you’ve through four countries.
I like that as part of our country’s mythology (I’m going to call it that, or maybe ethos might be better), is this idea of sort of being considered fence-sitters. Because if you’re a fence-sitter, it means you can’t decide, and you can’t decide, because you can see both sides of the fence. That can certainly be paralyzing for sure, but I don’t feel like I have to go out there and make a decision all the time just because that’s been fed into me about what being Canadian means or anything like that. It is not part of our culture to be forthright with opinions. I think that sometimes we can be a bit more forthright with opinions. I think a lot comes from people respectfully sharing opinions in the right situations/
I think that being Canadians means diversity. I really don’t mean that as a catchphrase, or I’m not saying it because its trendy. Humans were not meant to be one kind. At its very basic, you need a man and woman to create a new life, biologically speaking. Past that, you need these men and these women who are creating new lives to do that with …
This is where I’m getting philosophical. You can’t have a small little community and keep producing children and not have something happen, because our genome requires diversity. In terms of functioning of the people, if you put yourself out there and discuss different ideas, you come to different realizations.
Like I had to do a blog post where I had to admit that my premier did something right.
You get that through diversity.
Yes, it’s very comfortable to be able sit down and talk with I’m going to call them your own people, people who think like you. It’s nice to be able to say something and everyone knows what you’re talking about. You don’t have to explain anything. It’s nice sure, but it’s also extremely boring really fast.
The one downside to being a writer, is you spend a lot of time at home and you’re not out in the community as much anymore? When you’re working at a tech company, you do come across different cultures and it was refreshing. People were open about their cultures and what they like and don’t like, all that kind of stuff. It was very nice. I don’t have that. I miss that. So I like that diversity, that Canada brings with it as an immigration country with our First Nations as a foundation. Hopefully that’s okay to say. I don’t mean an insult by it if that’s the case.
I think that’s it in a nutshell without doing another whole podcast about what it means.
Tracey: It is a challenging question. It’s not necessarily clear. And of course, I’m in Quebec too, so that’s why I have to ask if you actually do you call yourself a Canadian because people here tend to be quite reluctant about it sometimes.
Lori: I can kind of get that too. But look. We have a bit of I’m going to call it cultural protectionism going on with my grandfather’s generation.
They lived, sort of like the Mennonites, they had their own German enclaves all throughout Eastern Europe and there are different subcultures in there. So they kept these cultures going for some three hundred years, two hundred years, others almost a millennium. That’s how long they’ve been there and they kept the German going the whole time. They come here and poof, it’s gone in two generations. There was a bit of that “you should be because its you’re German, and you should be speaking German. It was pushed. Certainly not on a provincial level as it is in Quebec, but I understand where it’s coming from.
Like I said, I was born here. I consider myself Canadian and I was raised here. But again that doesn’t mean that those who are not born here nor raised here are not Canadian. That’s just why I define myself as Canadian.
Tracey: Yeah, well, it’s your definition. You can use it however you like.
Lori: Yeah, I know, but that can sound horrible. To me, someone’s Canadian because they’re..to me, a Canadian is someone who’s a citizen who lives here. You ve got your citizenship, you’re Canadian. The rest I could care less about. For me, it’s where do you live and where do you have your citizenship. That’s what it comes down to me.
Tracey: To me, it depends on the day. Sometimes I think that if you wanna be Canadian, you actually get to be too. Sometimes it can be like a state of mind.
Lori: It could be. If I moved to Spain, would I start calling myself German after a while, because it’s Europe and you have to have some kind of ethnicity and I don’t know if Canadian is an ethnicity. It isn’t.
So I dont know what I would do in a different context, but the context I’m in is this country, or Germany and either case, I’m Canadian.
Tracey: Well thank you. I really appreciate your time, It was great speaking with you.
Lori: Well, thanks a lot Tracey and thanks for inviting me on the show.
For more about Lori’s fiction writing, visit http://loriwolfheffner.com.
For information about her copy writing services, visit http://loristraus.com
Today is Roch Carrier 84th birthday. I thought it would be a great time to revisit my conversation with him three years ago.
As you probably already know, Carrier is a wonderful author who wrote a series of diverse works from La Guerre, Yes Sir to The Hockey Sweater to his latest novel Demain, j’écris un roman.
He also directed the Canada Council for the Arts in the early 1990s and became National Librarian of Canada in 1997.
Carrier became an officer of the Order of Canada in 1991 and also serves as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Most of our conversation focussed on The Hockey Sweater, which became a musical last winter in the latest of a multitude of diverse creations.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, which took place in early 2017.
So I guess the first thing I would like to say is congratulations. It seems like you’re everywhere these days.
Yes there is a lot of things that are happening and I’m very lucky.
Is there a strategy about this? Did someone reach out to you?
No, there is no strategy around that story. The story is getting more and more popular because I don’t know why. It’s a good story. There was never a special strategy around that story. You know, it was just an anecdote that I turned into a story.
and they have been connecting for sometimes three generations.[00:02:13 I was in Calgary some days ago. And there were grandparents asking me to sign the book that they had when they were kids. The grandmother told me ‘oh I read that story when I was a little girl. I read it to my kids.’ [00:02:43] That’s amazing. There is no marketing that can do that. It just happens. [00:02:58] You captured I think the sentiment of a lot of people in that story
Yes you know when I go to schools by example and before reading, I ask the kids ‘did it happen to you that you had to wear something that you didn’t want to wear.[00:03:23] All of the hands raise, you know. [00:03:28] Everybody has had that type of experience. Maybe it’s because of that that this story is successful. [00:03:55]There’s the book, the NFB film, the play and the musical. It’s almost like every decade or so someone comes up with a new way to present it. [00:04:23] Yes. Every activity is like a gift to me.
I have this symphony thing that I’ve been doing now for five years. Abigail Richardson composed symphony music around the story. And it started very small I think.
So I was I received a phone call asking me ‘would you be free for one evening to read the story with the symphony orchestra.’ I answer yes because I like a challenge I like to do what I never did. I like to do anything that I’ve never done.[00:05:26] And then we were in Toronto. I think we gave 14 readings at the Roy Thompson Hall.
And I’m very happy because am going back to Toronto in two or three weeks from now.
When do you do that?
I would be doing the same thing again. Reading the Hockey Sweater Story with the symphony orchestra. I mean it’s wonderful. You know people come and they wear sweaters.
So for the musicians you know they put the sweaters over their outfits. It’s such a good mood you know. Not once was there tension. There are always multiple sweaters. Everyone has so much pleasure with this hockey mood at the symphony orchestra.
The music is great.[00:07:00] It’s amazing these. Just two weeks ago I was in Kingston, and I think the players in the symphony and so they were hockey boys and hockey girls too playing this music. And having fun and at the same time you know I heard them talking like musicians, between musicians, and talking about the quality of that music. It’s entertaining and at the same time, it’s good music.
For me, it’s a new experience because even if I listen to a lot of music and I know musicians, I don’t have a sense of rhythm. I have nothing as a musician. So for me to be to come into that universe is quite interesting.[00:08:10] Now the Segal will be doing a musical.
Before talking about that, I want to tell you a story. After reading in Calgary, after the Symphony was applauded and all that, somebody came on the stage and I was made a Member of the Order of the Black Hat, and I received a huge white cowboy hat. And I had to make some kind of statement about how I would wear this hat. It was explained that it was like giving this hat was like I was receiving the keys to the city. And I had to declare that Calgary was the Queen of the cow town.
I had an objection. But if I say that, and another city doesn’t agree with that, they can sue me! But all that was made with humour with laughter.
It is a very special project and it’s very exciting. I don’t know much yet about it. This morning, I just received the libretto, the text of the story.
But I told him that I didn’t want to get too involved you know because I want to keep a certain freshness if it’s a word around that story and I don’t want to turn it upside down. No. It’s there and it’s amazing to learn that.
Now it’s many years ago, over 35 years ago, when a publisher wanting to do a book and Sheldon Cohen, the artist would make the drawings and he was asking me a lot of question and I was very impressed by the way this at the time unilingual English speaking man would talk to my unilingual French-speaking mother. I was there with them and I could not talk to them. They were involved in something. I think they were discussing the curtains in my childhood room or something like that. It was a good encounter with Shelton.
And at the end what we were talking about the book and the drawings and I had two young daughters and they were playing a lot in the swimming pool and using another diving board. And so I said to Sheldon, this story is your diving board. And that’s what he did. And it’s just wonderful, inventive, fresh, a lot of action and a lot of humour.
So I decided to give the same advice and have the same attitude for Emil Sher’s project. I told Emil, I don’t want to be involved. I might give you information if you want, but I don’t want to be involved in the writing. Use it as your diving board.
So they can bring their own creativity to it.
I guess you would never have so many versions of The Hockey Sweater if you had tried to keep control over everything.
Yes exactly. Exactly. But again it wasn’t a strategy it was just what I was thinking at the moment I made a decision.
So it was just a happy strategy without knowing it, an unintentional strategy.
So you obviously enjoy working in new ways to present it.
In St. Justine, Quebec, the small village I come from, they decided—it is a very small village, there is 1,800 population but there is a lot of dynamism there. (Roch recorded his memories of his small town in an NFB film.)
There is a lot of creativity and a group of students and citizens got together and made a theatrical adaptation for the theatre of one of my books. In French, it is called Les Enfants de Bonhomme dans la lune.
It was translated in English as The Hockey Sweater and other stories. They will have a premiere, an opening Saturday. This Saturday. So I’m going to my small village and there will be this opening. There will be 12 actors on the stage. Oh my God, I think they have music all day. It’s supported by the Caisse Populaire and a big company called Rotobec. They do some mechanical arms. You know. Like an arm that could go to the forest clean the branches off the trees and put the tree in the back of the truck. So they are producing that. It’s an invention of a gentleman in the village you know. He started in his small garage, he was building cars and suddenly we have engineers there. We have designers.
I think it will be wonderful.
I’m very very very curious to see them. You know, they make things happen. They are not waiting for somebody else to save them. They do the job.
Oh my God, that’s wonderful. And have you been back there very often?
Yes. Most of the time, I go once a year. Now I must say that most of the people I grew up with disappeared. I think I’m one of the last ones that are surviving so there is less on people that I know. But I still have some family, a sister, a brother. So I go at least once a year.
How old are you?
I will be 80 in two months in May. OK. Well, I think it doesn’t matter.[00:18:22] Oh that’s good to know. It’s nice to be talking to somebody who is comfortable with their age and still have so many adventures. Almost like a new world. Now that leads back to the city. You’ve been living in Montreal for many years now?
Can you tell me a little bit about how you feel about the city and how it’s changed and how those changes have influenced you?
That’s a good question. Yes, the city changed.
My wife and I are big walkers, you know. Both of us, when we do our walking in the morning, sometimes we explore the city. It’s quite interesting to walk on Sherbrooke towards the east and we have to say that most of the buildings that we see now were not there when both of us arrived in Montreal. That’s quite something. You have new areas that are developed.
And there’s St. Henri. It’s an area that I know very well because sometimes I was working with a theatre company and we had our offices in St. Henri. So for three years, I was with that company in St. Henri so I know the place quite well and it’s amazing now to go back to the same streets and to see what happened…the changes that happened in terms of building, in terms of population. That’s really amazing.[00:20:21] And can you tell me how that affected you? Has it affected the projects you take on? What do you think about Montreal these days?
It’s a very pretty city. People are open-minded. There is a lot happening. We have a lot of freedom. I like Montreal.
We have to decide what we want to do. Even though there is a lot of dynamism, there is a feeling of what do we want to do? What do we want to do in ten years from now? And how do we want to reach that? For me, it’s missing.[00:21:31] It’s sort of an ad hoc place of many orange cones.
And when I see what’s happening today in Montreal, and in Quebec, I feel that there is something like that. It’s not a way of having substance.[00:22:39] Yes. We need a vision. [00:22:42] But having said that, Montreal and all of Quebec is enjoyable. We have our kids and they have access to affordable education. When I think that in the U.S. to go to university would cost $60,000 and more. To see the conditions, I think we should be happy and then say, I love those conditions and I’m saying we have to work. [00:24:03] Well you seem to be doing your part.
It was Duplessis time and during the election time, they were building roads.
Like they are now.
So I had my blue jeans. I had brown working boots. I had blisters on my hand. That was painful. I remember one of the workers was not really good to me because I missed my turn throwing my shovel of gravel in the truck. And he asked me what are you doing? Are you a man? Are you made of a mans’ dung? Yeah. So I was 14 years old and had blisters and dirty and all that.
And the boss of that they took that guy and told him that he was a huge big fat nothing with swearing and that.
And then the boss came to me and he said, look you’re working. Your job is to put gravel in the truck. If you can’t put the gravel in the truck, the gravel will not jump in the truck.
Since then, I’ve studied at university. I studied Latin and I studied Greek. But the principle that drove my life came from this one man. “If you don’t put the gravel in the truck, the gravel will not jump in the truck.”
I told that story last June. I received a doctor’s degree from the University of Vancouver and I was speaking to something like 200 students graduating with BA’s and sciences and doctors of sciences. And I told them that story and I got letters and e-mails saying thank you for this. And while many of those students were from Japan or China now you know and I was really amazed, because I was just saying an anecdote but it touched them.[00:27:49] Yeah but the principle of your life. You’re able to accomplish things because you always keep moving forward.
You were saying you were publishing a new book. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yes. It’s done. It’s in French. It’s not yet translated, but I think it will be. It’s called Demain matin, j’écris un roman. [Tomorrow, I write a novel.]
It’s about me that after having spent more than 30 years writing history, doing research, and checking documentation, checking history books. So I’ve finished with that and I’m going back to fiction. About what happens in the head, in the brain of a writer who’s going back to fiction and he’s enjoying so much his freedom.
And everything happens and a lot doesn’t happen too. And when something is not happening is happening you know it’s wonderful.
Thanks to Dorothy Nixon for a great far-reaching conversation about Canadian history, the suffragettes, a freelance writers’ life and growing up in Montreal during the Expo ‘67 era.
Links we mention in the interview follow.
Listen to the CA NA DA song on Youtube.
Read Bill Waiser’s profile of Bobby Gimby
Tracey: Today we are speaking with Dorothy Nixon, who is a good buddy of mine from the Genealogy Ensemble group. She’s also a long time, author, specializing in women’s history and suffragettes and Family Nicholson letters and lots of really fun stories. She’s also one of the funniest people in our group, so I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Hi Dorothy
Dorothy: Hi Tracey. Nice to be here.
Tracey: It’s great to have you. Now you know the question we’re gonna finish with, but I thought that we would start with you talking a little bit about why you became a writer in how you were started off on this journey that you ve been on. Because you ve been a writer for a very long time. What made you would a writer?
Dorothy: Well, i wasn’t inspired early on. I remember my teachers would always give me good marks because I was a goody goody in school and I would always get an A no matter what, but I remember sending a composition to a so-called external marker and it coming back with a terrible mark, so that would have turned me off. I guess I went to college. Well, it doesn’t take much when you’re young to turn you off anything you want to be.
I went to university and by the third year, I got accepted in the more advanced courses, and I was a very good, although I got only in the B plus in advanced seminar for the third year seminar. I asked the teacher why and he said “you came in the best writer, you went out the best writer, but you didn’t learn anything.” I actually took that to heart. I thought that was a very good thing to say. In other words, you’re here to improve, it’s not a competition. That was Professor Malick, who was Kady Malick’s father.
So then what happened? How did I become a writer. I just couldn’t stop writing. I had to write. It just had to come out… and I had little kids…if I was
Tracey: You did live television news for a while, right?
Dorothy: I was a production assistant back in the days of live tv where it was very adrenaline inducing. So I really liked that because you had to be on the ball. You’re watching the time. You’re telling the person to stretch it or to make it smaller. By the end, your heart’s palpitating. A lot of PAs hated it but I actually liked it. I was also floor manager once in live tv during a telethon and I really enjoyed that. I might have missed my calling in that I might have been very good in these high pressure aspects of tv and radio, but you know what. They don’t exist any more, so it doesn’t matter. There are no PAs anymore.
Tracey: And you’re an indie writer because you publish all of your books yourself. You were an indie writer before the indie writer term really became sort of well known. You published your Nicholson book…
Dorothy: Well, I guess you do that when no one was interested. It’s just timing. No one was interested. I think maybe twenty years ago had I had them, people would have been interested, but they just weren’t any more because of the sort of reality of things. English Quebec stories just weren’t appealing. It was really interesting these letters. I had over 300 from the 1908-1913 period, that very pivotal Edwardian era when the automobile changed everything and the Victrola and a lot of immigration. So it was an extremely important era and those letters taught me all about that era. I knew nothing at the beginning. I sensed there was something in them and I researched them to the nth degree, and now I’m pretty much an expert in Edwardian Montreal. That was lacking in my education history. I d never took history.
Tracey: Well, in that period is becoming more popular as people realize. I mean I guess it’s the change of millennium change, the fact that we are in the early part of a new millennium again people like to look at that period as as another time when we were in great technological change.
Dorothy: Exactly and right when I was doing it, Downton Abbey started. There’s always these ups and downs, eh. That’s the whole thing. Plus ça change. You have to wonder.
Dorothy: Except ours is galloping technological change. It isn’t a few things, like the automobile and the movies. The flickers changing society. It’s like a whole universe of things and its galloping. It’s a whole different era. Exponential change I would call it.
Tracey: But I think that at that point it probably would have looked like exponential change too, but it just wasn’t because every time you change technology, there’s there’s so many more levels of technology that can change.
Dorothy: I think people don’t didn’t see it back then, so they have a big…the automobile was a toy for wealthy men. The flickers were a fad. They didn’t realize would change society because people don’t realize what new things..they can’t see the future. The few who do become very rich.
Tracey: I guess that’s true.
Tracey: Also, many of your stories talk about women, who are also under-represented as a genre really. Can you talk a little bit about why you focused on the stories about women?
Dorothy: Every genealogist knows that’s harder finding info about your women ancestors because they were sort of invisible in records and things. So I wrote about women because quite simply, I identified.
I read these letters. This is my husband’s grandmother and his great aunts. He didn’t know his grandmother but he knew his great aunts. I read it to a friend who said “oh, they sound so old-fashioned.” But I didn’t feel that way at all. I thought they sounded modern. So that’s why I was intrigued.
Right there, I identified and maybe I would have taken more history classes in college if our history books had had any women characters to identify with.
Because right away, I identified. They were the same as us. They wanted it all. Quite simply, they wanted it all, these young women. They wanted to have work. They wanted to have love. They were hoping for money. They didn’t necessarily get any, but they had good lives. They had good lives. Because they also had a firm foundation of you work hard and you earn what you get. It’s not going to come to you. So they had a lot of troubles, a lot of economic troubles and health issues and no health insurance and everything, and they still managed to have really good productive lives. So that’s interesting too and they lived through these wonderful times.
Tracey: Can you talk about some of your favorite people or favourite person?
Dorothy: Well it would just be my husband’s great grandmother, Margaret Nicholson, because she’s born in 1853. She’s an Isle of Lewis Scot. I have her letter. She’s devoted. So, in 1913 there’s a lot of letters because her husband, they need the money, has to go work, far away in Cochrane Ontario on the railway and she’s basically left alone. So it’s hard managing a house in those days. You have to keep it warm. They didn’t have servants, they didn’t have any help. Her daughters were away in Montreal studying to be teachers, and one daughter was there, but she was also studying hard. So, she had a rather tough life, but she was just such an interesting woman.
She was for the suffragists, and she wrote about it and arguments with her very conservative relatives. She had big arguments and she would write them down just like a script. “I said this and he said this. I don’t care about Saint Paul. I don’t live in the time of Saint Paul. I don’t milk cows.”
Because St. Paul was always brought up by anti-suffragists that women are supposed to live in the home. So she just paints beautiful word pictures sometimes. A lot of the rest of it is a lot of high anxiety too. Because she’s under a lot of economic stress, she writes things that maybe she wouldn’t want to write. She often wrote at the end “burn this letter” or “don’t let anyone see it” because you’ve got to be careful with letters, right.
Tracey: How ironic. A woman who didn’t want her letters read.
Dorothy: I have a lot. “Burn this letter.” Instead, it’s on the internet. “Burn this letter” because she was talking badly about relatives, which often happens. They had a lot of family feuds.
Dorothy: And interesting, she had a huge stress taking care of her own mother, a 92-year-old totally-Gaelic speaker. They were arguing over who was taking care of her, and there was money involved. It isn’t too longer that in Richmond, Quebec, where these people are from, they started an old age home, and I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the trouble they had with their feuds and problems they had taking care of the mother resulted in the Wales Home because they were friends with Mr. Wales, the tycoon who funded it.
You see some things change and some things stay the same.
She also hated the automobile. The neighbours were all getting automobiles. “Mr. Montgomery has an automobile. I don’t want one. They’re dangerous. Who would want one?”
Of course, she’s saying that because they can’t afford one so she’s appeasing her husband. And then, of course, what does she do? Any time she gets a chance to get a lift, she gets a lift in the automobile.
It’s all just a wonderful picture like a movie. Very Downton Abbey. But it’s middle class. Downton Abbey is the rich and the poor but this is the middle class. It’s a totally different thing. The middle class by definition, is insecure. They want to rise up. They want to rise up but they’re always in danger of sliding down, so the anxiety of the middle class is kind of interesting.
They were well connected, though. That was what kept them afloat, with very good friends, very powerful friends.
So they might have been broke all the time, but with friends like that, it didn’t matter. So that’s my favorite character. She was also a feminist.
I also like her because,even though she went to church twice a day as most women did then, she also wrote about dreams and how the dreams were premonitions, so she had a witchy side to her, which is probably some ancient Gaelic thing that filtered down. She talked a lot about her dreams and premonitions, so that’s interesting too.
Tracey: What’s interesting when I hear you talk about her, there’s a few other women that you clearly have no respect whatsoever for. You’re famous for talking about people wasting their lives and being insubstantial. Shopping when a war is going on and things.
Dorothy: Maybe some people were. There are shallow people and hard-working people, and it’s nothing to do with—it’s character, how they were brought up. People generally suffered in silence.
Oh, I know what you’re talking about.
Dorothy: That’s my husband’s other aunt, who was the first cousin of General MacArthur. My husband’s grandmother was the first cousin of General MacArthur Hardy from Virginia.
They were well-off young ladies, but they were sort of–their letters. I don’t see any…they are not profound people. They were brought up socialites. They were social butterflies. They’re in all the newspapers that they cut it out. So and so visited Saint Louis and was feted by all the right people and she’s a wonderful ornamental girl. You know the way that socialites…they were not encouraged to be very deep. These people, because their main job is to find a husband I guess. and nothing else, but it’s important to have thoughts. I wrote about her in a kind of mock way. Yet it was sure must be unfortunate for them because they’re in a cage.. they couldn’t and the only thing that breaks them out is some war or something that would stretch and allow them to explore their other power.
They have no kids that’s why I do it. I only make fun of people who didn’t create any children to make sure that I don’t make fun it anyone’s grandparents. That’s a point I make too.
Tracey: It’s interesting too. You also did a book about World War I, Not born over here…
Dorothy: It’s the same family, Not Bonne Over Here. You know why. That’s a line from a letter from World War I where my husband’s other great aunt Flora obviously had correspondence with a soldier. You know how they did it. They’re helping the soldier get through. She’s saying she’s gonna go over and be a nurse and he says “don’t come over here. It’s not bonne over here.” He’s trying to warn her right, but don’t come over here. He can’t give the details, right. It’s not allowed, but “do not come to the front.”
So these letters are from, actually continuation from 1913 to 1919 and they’re wartime letters. So there were no men in their lives.
There were no direct ancestors who went to war. My husband’s great uncle didn’t go to war, although he kept complaining that he might have to, and the grandfather didn’t. He already was forty and had three kids. There ware a lot of ways to get out of going to war back then.
But they had a lot of acquaintances who went to war. Many many. Some who lost almost all the sons and if they didn’t lose the sons to war, they lost their daughters to the flu.
It’s a very sad situation. So I have these letters that talk about things in the context of everyday life, but they’re more afraid. They’re building victory gardens. They’re worrying about the war. They’re not pro war on any level, at least the father isn’t. He’s very anti war. He says “all the leaders should just get together and work it out amongst themselves.” He’s very afraid of losing their only son.
There are sad letters from American relatives who write long long, sad letters about how they lost their son, their favorite son. It’s a lot of different letters and then this everyday housekeeping type thing.
But what you see is the women spend a lot of time—this is my husband’s great aunt—the women spend a lot of time working for the Victory League. They’re helping soldiers. They’re often nursing sisters. There is constantly, during the war, with their works with their own work as a teacher and, she was a secretary at Sunlife, they went and did a lot of volunteering on almost every front. These young women mostly helped soldiers rehabilitate or whatever, and so you see they had a lot of sense of duty.
But by the end, by the end, it’s over and then when the war ends it’s like oh we’re going to reupholster our furniture. It’s like it’s all forgotten. And they’re worried rate too about the rising cost of food. Is it really went up, especially their staples like butter.
So it’s an interesting picture of a middle class Quebec family because, yes, the conscription crisis is discussed. It’s how they dealt with war in everyday life without being soldiers with just knowing soldiers. It has it all. It has every aspect . So basically, life went on while it happened. Just life went on. They devoted themselves to volunteer work.
Tracey: And reading your stories about these women, you do get not just a sense of a history… So much about what you write about has to do with different people. It’s really important what you’re talking about because you’re basically trying to show basic daily life, and so much of what we read in history is about the decisions made by a very few, usually white, men that get us into all into this trouble, but you don’t see the reaction of the entire population.
The advantage of of focusing on women’s lives and the day-to-day struggle is that you do see the ramifications of every decision on defence on different levels of people.
Dorothy: It’s looking at the big picture and little picture and it’s social history and women have been left out. Now of course, in the last little while, there has been more…people have found usually diaries and letters and diaries that tell the story, but they’re story is was completely overlooked on every level.
So that’s why genealogy so wonderful. If you have letters, it’s always amazing social history. Almost always, except for my husband.
Tracey: Even in the cases where you didn’t have specific letters, what I like about some of your stories is you take a period of time and then your knowledge about what was happening at the time, in part because of the letters, and then you basically extrapolate what what the person in this situation, probably was thinking or doing, and then you take all of these meeting minutes and combine it all together into a story. Particularly you did that very well with some of the stories of the suffragettes.
Dorothy: Yeah, I can. But first I’ll say that I’ve been an essayist for a long time and it’s very important, and when I write for online—I think I was one of the first paid writers on the net, maybe one of the last too—but it’s important not to be about you. It’s important even when writing genealogy, it’s not about you or your family, because no one’s interested. You have to actually find where the political and personal meets for someone to relate to it. As you know as a writer, you’re, not writing self indulgent.
Editors would often say, well at least you’re not self indulgent, because a lot of people I guess. A lot of people can be and that’s not good. Who wants to read that?
The suffragists was interesting. And I knew nothing about it. They didn’t teach about that in school. I have Canada and All, a history book from everyone in protestant Canada had for forty years, and it has nothing about them. It has a tiny bit on Laurier with a picture. So basically I knew nothing.
What I knew, was a little bit about what I saw on tv like Upstairs Downstairs. The clichés off the BBC.
So, from one letter from Edith Nicholson, his great aunt. In 1913, she wrote to her mother and said:
“I’m going to see Missus Snowden speak, but she is not militant and for this, I am very sad.”
That line led me to do an enormous quantities of research. Again I think I’m pretty expert in this. There’s one other expert. It’s not a subject many people research.
I studied the suffragists movement in Montreal, which is to say not much of a suffrage movement, to understand that actually, in 1908, one of Missus Pankhert’s militants, Miss Sarah Kenny, came to Montreal because she married a Daily Mail reporter. They got in trouble at a rally, where I think Winston Churchill was, and they had to scoot. They came to Montreal and got married. I discover that.
And then her younger sister Carolyn Kenny came in briefly in 1910 and tried to start a militant movement, but the fact was the Montreal suffrage movement was extremely conservative and very much tied up in the English French politics of the day. So they were very careful. And the leader of the movement was a McGill Professor. And many of the movement’s leaders were McGill professors, male ones. This is a female one, Carrie Derick. She was savvy.
Again, everything in Quebec is different. So the suffrage movement in Quebec was very different. These women themselves were probably for the militants, but they couldn’t say it. They had to be careful.
So in Canada, the short of it is in the States and in Britain, the suffrage movement was a very broad movement that encompassed working class, all kinds of people, whereas in Canada, in Montreal, it was just an elite group. So Edith Nicholson, being a secretary at Sunlife who had become a teacher at a private school in Westmount, she was allowed to be for the suffragists, but she wasn’t allowed to join the movement. They didn’t want young “hysterical women,” women with high ideals. They didn’t want them coming in and having marches. My God, they would have fainted. Actually, it was Carolyn Kenny who tried to start a march from Montreal to Ottawa.
So this was very scary to people. So they were also been ambivalent about Missus Pankhurst. Some people just despised her and hated her and actually Carrie Derick and some women really liked her. And one Montreal woman, the wife of a Westmount businessman, she had gone to England and participated in these rallies, where people were fainting from hunger—the hunger strikes.
So there were some underground suffragettes, who were the militant, but most people were suffragists.
And a lot of that was all about getting women out to vote in municipal elections to keep the French faction out. That’s a whole other thing. So it’s very complicated business.
Because women with property could vote in municipal elections. So they didn’t really want women to get the vote nationally, but they wanted them to use it at the city level to keep cities clean. You know from vice, and all that.
So that’s a whole complicated business. What we consider feminist today, these women generally weren’t.
The one woman who would be is a Canadian called Denison and she was a full-fledged suffragists in the way we will think of today. She supported herself. She wrote, she was all for the militants, but she was about the only one in all of Canada.
If you’re confused, it’s confusing business.
Tracey: I just know that Quebec as a province got the vote later than the rest of Canada did, and I always wondered why…and some of your work sort of shows that the family compact, which is, I think, still exist today, basically moderated a lot of these kinds of movements.
One of the things that has also maintained in Quebec is the links between family members. This is one of the places where people are very happy to have conflict and live with it as part of their life and family members keep their influence, even if there is conflict in the family. That’s what I get from reading your work. I’m no expert in this area, I just get to read you.
Dorothy: I have one leter from the Nixon letters, it’s from 1917 and they had a noisy neighbour who also spoke her mind. So apparently they’re about to give women the federal vote in order so that they’ll vote in conscription, that’s another thing.
So, they’re having a rally in Richmond Quebec and with the MP from federal and the Quebec MP and my husband’s great grandmother is there because they are all proud of it because they say they’re gonna give women the vote federally.
Then one woman, the neighbour, speaks up and says “how come we’re not getting it provincially either.” which is like rocking the boat and saying a no no. She dared say it. My husband’s great grandma goes “we were also so embarrassed” because she wasn’t supposed to bring up that topic. Then the MP said oh it’s because of the Catholic Church.
He blamed the Catholic Church. He just spluttered and said something.
They weren’t supposed to ask that question. Thanks the whole point. So even though she loved Missus Pankhurst and was a died in the wool suffragette, whe instinctively knew that Quebec politics was different and you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions just come out for rallies.
In my other book, Service into Service, I wrote about the conscription crisis using lots of newspaper articles. Luckily, Google news archives was on a database, so easy to look it up, and so there I was able to decipher the mess of the conscription crisis and the involvement of the suffragettes, including Carrie Derick a Montrealer across Canada.
In other words, they suffragists were mostly Protestants, so the promise was, you can have the vote as long as you make conscription, because the protestants were already sending their kids to war and they thought everyone else should too. So they wanted conscription, so they fought for conscription so that they can get. It was a partial vote, so it is just another complicated business. Only women with close relatives in the war got to vote. A lot of people thought that wasn’t exactly democratic. And that was the suffragettes.
Tracey: So it was really tied to conscription.
Dorothy: 100%. That’s why we got it. Some people said well, that’s not great, but at least we’ll get it later and they did. Other people said it’s awful. You’re just trying to get through conscription and you’re using the vote to get it. You’re gerrymandering. It was of great gerrymandering time. There’s never been a better example of gerrymandering in Canada than that. And that’s all forgotten.
I’d never read about that, and then even it was the anniversary when I’d written the book, a hundred years after. I thought media or other people would be interested. No one was interested. I didn’t see one tiny story anywhere about it. That’s not the history they want to tell.
Tracey: I’ve never even heard of that before.
Dorothy: There’s an Ottawa scholar who has written a book about it: mothers of martres.
Tracey: So many of us have the Two Solitudes story in our head right. The woman in that one, there’s one woman, the daughter of the main character, basically reports the son of one of the local french families to the authorities, just emphasizing the English French divide. They didn’t emphasize the religious divides not just language divides.
Dorothy: The mayor was also French and they were really concerned. There was a lot in there. Not nice stuff under any circumstances, but what can you do, it was a time and place.
Tracey: You’ve been continuing to publish books and stories on Genealogy Ensemble about that, but recently, you’ve been exploring some fiction in a really interesting way. You did a fabulous narrative about a husband and wife exploring alzheimers. What got you interested in exploring that topic?
Dorothy: What I’ve loved since 2006, BBC Radio 4 came on line and I fell in love with it. I was listening to every story they ever had, and they had a lot of money in those days, so there were new stories every day. So I just fell in love with the genre of radio drama. Not that I was a radio copywriter. Some people say it’s sort of like a natural extension to be a radio copywriter, which is writing ads for thirty seconds, to writing radio drama. Of course, I think it’s a huge leap. It takes incredible ability. But anyway, so after 2006 it came on or 2008 perhaps, so I’ve been listening for almost ten years. Now they’re cut back and they have a lot of reruns.
So I decided to try it myself. Radio drama. You know, I would really like to do that. If I could go back in time, I would go back to radio drama. There wasn’t any. There hasn’t been radio drama in Canada for a while, even though the CBC at once was a world leader, superior to the British. So it hasn’t been a popular genre, but in England, it’s still a very popular genre.
Some of the best dramas, some of the best art I’ve heard in any genre has come from the BBC radio plays. They are just fantastic. Mind-bendingly so. There was one the Idiot, an adaptation of Dostoevskys “the Idiot” came from that. That among many others. It was just the best thing. It gave me great pleasure for ten years.
Tracey: Well I remember when Peter Gzowski, when his show was on, there were a lot of radio dramas. Stuart Mclean made his mark on that. There was also a mystery series I used to love and I think that that ended up creating Murdoch Mysteries, because it was very close to that and by the same writer.
Dorothy: The British admit that the Canadians were better at it. I have a number of books by British writers that say that Canadian radio drama was A number 1.
Tracey: I’m looking forward to your podcast exploring that side of things. I am exploring profiles, but we definitely could use some more radio drama. Your initial example of that…
Dorothy: You mean my little reference on Genealogy Ensemble.com—I just produced it myself. There were no actors and then direct them. When I worked in radio, I wrote the ads and there were people there who were very creative and they would after hours use the facilities to put on silly little radio dramas, radio comedies usually, that often played on the tv. These people went on to work on in writing shows, but I wasn’t that creative. I wasn’t part of that group, so I didn’t get to do it.
Tracey: You sill have time. I think it was fabulous.
Dorothy: Thank you very much. You know. I feel that way too. You still have time. Why should you stop trying to do something? What do you want to do or learn something. I’m all for it and I still have time.
But I need to get my husband on board because he’s a technician and he’d be able to help me, but he’s not that keen. Imagine that. It’s me.
Tracey: Well, he’s also relatively newly retired, so he might be in that honeymoon retirement stage where you don’t want to do much from what I’m told.
Dorothy: He wants to hammer. That’s all. Hammer floors and hammer things. He doesn’t want to work in what he used to work in, that’s tv editing. He doesn’t want to do that.
Anyway, I’ll figure out a way and besides there are so many devices and apps so there will be something that will be idiot proof so I’ll be able to use it.
Tracey: Well I’m looking forward to it and I’ll definitely link to that show, the radio drama that you wrote, in the show notes because I think it’s worth hearing. It made me…what I liked about it is it pulled us into the moment of people dealing with these kinds of issues like most of your stories do. You’re very good at pulling us into a particular moment in time.
Dorothy: Well, I took it from one anecdote where my father’s grandfather woke up one day and looked at his wife and said “woman what are you doing in my bed?” and it’s been a family myth. Funny, but not funny because you’re got Alzheimer’s.
And then I could use—because my own father got Alzheimer’s—so I got first hand experience. So I tried to use that kind of experience to figure out how it she they might have felt. Like she’s me. How I felt with my father is how my character feels with her husband. So confused and upset. Depressed and trying to laugh at the same time because you have to keep your self sane.
So that’s why I think, maybe I achieved something good there, because I had experience with it.
And plus you get to put in geology information. That’s why try to …All the genealogy information is in there. While they’re talking, I’m explaining what I have learned, from the internet usually, about these ancestors that I knew nothing about. My father probably knew nothing about, except their names. So that’s interesting too. These ones specifically were in Cumberland.
So I try to do that—mix the story with the information. But I think I’m better at the information. It’s hard to write a good story. It’s hard to be a storyteller, isn’t it?
Tracey: It is. That is the big challenge of it. I’m also a researcher type writer. Telling the story is the first point or people don’t get the rest of it. I just think that that’s a craft that you just have to develope for your entire life.
Tracey: It’s it’s a wonder. Some people are naturally good at that side and they’re not so good at the research side. That’s why our group…Actually we should like a little bit about our group. It’s so invigorating to have so many different…we’ve got nine women with very different skills all connected together. We meet once a month. Can you talk a little bit about how you feel about that group?
Dorothy: As a writer you’re told to take a lot of courses, so I’ve been in quite a few writing groups. I’ve never been in one like this. One where everyone is so talented, but actually where they grew, thanks in large part to you and Janice, the leaders, how they grew in their writing.
Then once they grew in their writing, they started to express their own personalities unabashedly. So you get so many different styles. So some people are…like Lucy is so creative because she’s a creative person coming out with a new way to say something- and it’s just wonderful. Sandra always does perfect stories that mix the big picture with the little picture, the political with the personal. But she’s very succinct, and that’s because of her business background I guess. I try to do that but I go on and on and on.
I find that every month when I read the stories, I just enjoy them all. They’re all fantastic social history. Marian who wrote about her time in the RAF in the sixties. Fascinating. I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know that girls were not just running around with miniskirts and go go boots, but some of them were actually entering the military and learning life skills that will help them have jobs the rest of their lives. That’s fantastic.
I learn so much and I love learning, right? Writers tend to want to learn a lot. So I’ve learned so much and it’s all interesting. I think everyone should be interested.
Tracey: Well, and because all of us are such strong writers now, every week you have basically a bunch of different stories…all of them are historical, we’re all obviously history buffs, but they’re so different. Some people are exploring fiction. We’ve had poems. We ve had …we have some beautiful….Then just the asides. Barb is one of the women leaders in DKG and we’ve been hearing about her experiences. You just get the many different facets of what being a woman in Canada today is. I just think that’s fascinating as well.
Dorothy: We’re totally enriched. We’re enriched and—okay, there’s lots of info on the Internet but this group has totally educated each other. We’ve enriched each others’ lives with funny stories and interesting anecdotes and I never knew that. I love it. What a great way to learn. What a great way to grow. To have a club like we have.
Tracey: Because we’re sharing our stories every single week on the Internet as well, we’re actually working on what it means to try and express things that are very important to us personally in a way that will encourage other readers to be interested as well. So I think, we’re part of a wave of new history writing.
Dorothy: That might be true. That might be exactly true. My books are used—it’s not everyday people who read my books. No one cares, but academics who use them. I’ve seen them in reports and all kinds of things cited. That’s who uses my books. It isn’t that they don’t think of them as useless because she’s not an academic. They actually find them interesting. So the same with all our stories. People will use our stories to build up their bodies of knowledge. No question.
Tracey: And people who are just looking into trying “what do I do with my family history research” by trying to turn it into a story, you become a better researcher more than anything else.
Dorothy: And you’re invested. One of the reasons this group has grown so much is that people are really invested in their stories. If every student were as invested in their stories as we were, everyone would come out of school a great writer. We care about it and we work hard on it.
Tracey: Part of it is trying to connect people with something that they care about first and then getting them to write about that. That’s not necessarily easy to do.
Dorothy: Yeah, it’s very hard. Genealogy writing is perfect for that. It’s ideal. And I think they have explored in schools having kids write about their ancestors. To mixed results I guess. No time either.
Tracey: Actually the hundredth anniversary of World War I helped with that a lot. I saw some fabulous research projects coming out of schools, because people took on individual soldiers or a classroom would take one particular unit or something. I’m hoping that that kind of historical classroom management continues because it certainly has been interesting to read as an outsider.
Dorothy: Yeah, that would be interesting. You’d have to get it on the curriculum.
Tracey; Before we get to my final question, which talks about you as a Canadian, was there anything about your body of work that we didn’t get to discuss, because I know that you’ve done a lot of things that I might not be familiar with.
Dorothy: No we did well.
When I first started writing for the internet in 1997, I wrote family essays. I used to write movie reviews from a kid’s point of view and family essays. Then that parlayed into work for Chatelaine. I did both humour essays and both “statistic anecdote” essays. I prefer doing the humour ones, they’re easier. They’re easier in that I like doing them so I work on them while I upset somebody. And then you see the lonely freelance writer without insurance. I got myself in hot water a couple of times. Half the people love it and half the people, oh my gosh.
So, I don’t do it. I did a little bit and then I stopped. So humour essays. Another thing I used to write were satirical essays. I convinced Chatelaine or Today’s Parent to write satirical, but they don’t go over well here because people don’t understand satire. I’d write something I’d think was funny…
Tracey: They thought it was true. Oh no..
Dorothy: That’s why they are reluctant to print satire without writing satire over the front page so people get it. Then they get people all mad at them. So, I used to like that. You have to be versatile, Tracey, to be a freelance writer, especially in Quebec. You have to be versatile.
Tracey: Yeah, that’s just the nature of the beast too, it’s true. Actually, my husband says that there should be a satire meter or an irony meter, so that people actually know what it is they’re reading.
Dorothy: Johnathan Swift—off the charts. It’s very weird when you think about it. I wrote for Salon.com too. I wrote some satirical essays there and should have continued. I had a chance to continue with them, but I was in a bad space. I didn’t want to deal with the American taxes.
That was around the 2000s. I was very prolific then because my kids were old enough so that I could get some work done.
So that’s basically it. I’ve done everything in writing because I have too.
Tracey: I hope you’ll also explore that in future as well because you’re definitely the comedienne amongst us.
Dorothy: Oh I’m not alone. Mary has a droll sense of humour. It’s more subdued but she’s funny.
Tracey: It’s always entertaining too.
Tracey: The final question as you know is “do you consider yourself a Canadian and if so, what does that mean to you?”
Dorothy: I do. I consider myself a Canadian. Although I grew up I had a British father, a French Canadian mother, I didn’t identify with either of those groups.
I just I was a Canadian. On my street were people from India and Colombia, all kinds. It was kind of a mixed street for some reason in Snowden, and so I got to meet people from all over.
My classes was I would say mostly Jewish, and Greek, all kinds of people, so we were just Canadians.
It was also the era of Bobby Gimby and Expo 67 where patriotism was, especially in the schools, was being promoted. I still get chills when I hear that Canada song. We used to sing “CA NA DA. One little too little three Canadians.
Then there was Expo ‘67, the best year of my life. I spent more time there than at school. My teachers said I could. It was amazing. Twelve is a very impressionable age, so I got stamped with that kind of Canadianness–Centennial Year Canadianess. So I have to say I am. That’s why I feel that I’m Canadian and nothing else really.
Tracey: Thank you very much. I really appreciate exploring your body of work with you and I look forward to seeing you at the next writers’ group meeting.
Dorothy: Yes, see you then. Thank you.
Tracey: Thank you for listening to unapologetically Canadian.
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This is a diary episode of what I am experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t mention worry, but it’s there, as is uncertainty. When I recorded this, I hadn’t checked recent stats but we actually now have 1,629 cases of COVID-19 in Quebec, with most of those in Montreal where I live. I’m trying to adopt a positive mindset, get enough sleep, eat well and build good habits. How are you coping?
Szrejber successfully retired from his corporate job when he was only 33 years old.
We spoke about his podcast, his investment course, his new life as a creative entrepreneur, his mission to improve the financial literacy of Canadians, the financial independence movement, his history as a Polish immigrant raised in Canada and his appreciation for our country’s diversity.
After you listen to our interview, I highly recommend listening to his podcast too. Some episodes I recommend include:
If you’re interested in investing, I also recommend my interview about Alternative Investing with Bradley Semmelhaack.