Essayist Dorothy Nixon has a way with words
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.
Dorothy on Genealogy Ensemble
Dorothy’s Articles Elsewhere
Bobby Gimby’s Expo ‘67 Song
Listen to the CA NA DA song on Youtube.
Read Bill Waiser’s profile of Bobby Gimby
Transcript of our Conversation
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?
How school teachers influence learning
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.
Becoming an expert in Edwardian Montreal
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.
Facing exponential change
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?
Margaret Nicholson’s Suffragette Support
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.
Wales Home and Automobiles
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.
Social Butterflies of the Times
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.
Not Bonne Over Here
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.
Homefront Activities in WWI
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.
Social History Revealed
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.
Essay Writing Advice: It’s not about you
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.
England’s Influence on Montreal
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.
Creating Fiction from True Anecdotes
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.
Growing through Genealogy Ensemble
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.
Future of History Writing
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.
Genealogy in Schools
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.
Family Essays and Satire
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.
Dorothy identifies as Canadian
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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About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.