canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Marjorie Anderson

Marjorie Anderson has a Ph.D. in English literature and taught writing and literature at the English Department of the University of Manitoba before moving to the Faculty of Management, where she was Director of Communication Programs. Her teaching specialties included writing and speaking skills, interpersonal and intercultural communication, mediation and negotiation strategies and conflict management. She was awarded the University’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and was chosen to teach in a number of international programs, including an MBA program in the Czech Republic. She is the editor of Dropped Threads series (the first two with Carol Shields).

Nathaniel G. Moore conducted this interview in May 2006 through electronic means.


TDR: Can you tell us a bit about your background, your early experiences, influences, education and artistic development.

MA: I am the seventh of eight children born to Icelandic-Canadian parents and raised on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, our "prairie ocean." Books and story-telling were central in our family. My father wanted to be a poet and a philosopher, but made his living as a fisher and mixed farmer. His talents ran more to poetry though—a window would break and he’d patch it with cardboard and sit down to write an "ode to a broken window." There was certainly inspiration for me there, but also a few chilly days as the cold lake wind whistled through the cardboard!

My strengths academically were in literature and writing, which led me to a first degree with a double major in literature and history. I started my career in high school teaching and, after earning my masters degree over a ten-year period while I was home with small children, I started teaching literature at the University of Manitoba on a part-time basis. When my first husband died in 1985, I needed to immerse myself in something to take me through the intense grief period. I started my PH.D then and when I finished I taught at the university full time until 2001.

I taught various forms of writing while at the university—academic, business and some creative. I also wrote short stories and poems, most of which I kept in a drawer. I’ve since published a few of these in journals and one in an anthology. (I always had an inclination towards anthologies.) All along my passion has been for narratives, fiction and non-fiction.

I read, read and read and find endless joy in discovering the magic created by writers in their inventive ways of arranging something as ordinary as words on a page.

TDR: It must be a truly organic experience to meet some of the contributors during the promotional tour for Dropped Threads 3. What have some of the highlights been?

 MA: The magic of the transformation of life experiences into art that the Dropped Threads contributors have accomplished has captivated me for the past five years. I work with these women through cyberspace most of the time, so it is at launches of our books that I meet many of them for the first time. And yet, I feel as though I’m meeting intimate friends. In the two weeks I was on a cross-Canada promotional tour for DT 3, I met most of the contributors and found them all engaging, delightful women. One of the highlights is to see the joy and excitement writers experience in being part of this collection. Another is to witness the connection between writer and audience member when a contributor reads her story. These personal stories elicit personal responses, and time and time again, I’ve watched profound connection happen. For example, at a reading in Burlington, Barbara McLean read her beautiful essay about a sister who had died before Barbara was born and how she needed to circumvent her parents’ silence about this sibling and discover the details of her sister’s brief life. Barbara then closes her essay with a statement of understanding regarding the silence her parents maintained over their dead daughter’s life. She had come to realize that her parents did the best they could, perhaps what they were counseled to do at the time. A woman in the audience told Barbara that this story had given her a new way to look at a similar experience in her life, to see beyond blame and accept that she had a journey to take if she wanted more details of her dead brother’s life. This exemplified for me the connection that happens with these stories: they resonate in reader’s lives and set up a double understanding—one, of the writer’s experience and the other, of some aspect of the reader’s life.

TDR: How long did it take to go through the hundreds of submissions you received?

MA: There were approximately 300 submissions and I spent close to a year making my selections. Many of them, those that aren’t commissioned, come to me in the form of proposals. I select from the proposals and ask those writers to submit full essays. I explain to the writers that each essay has a 1-in-3 chance of being in the anthology—similar to the chances on a short-list for a job opportunity. All those contacted chose to submit full essays and take their chances. Then the hard work of reading, re-reading and pondering begins…

TDR: Can you tell us what led to the publication of the original Dropped Threads anthology?

MA: The idea of dropped threads in the fabric of women’s conversations came about one day in 1999 while I was having lunch with my friend and colleague, Carol Shields. I was suffering from a plummet in energy related to menopause and wailed to Carol that the women’s network had let me down—nothing I ever read and nothing anyone had ever told me prepared me for the shocking changes of menopause. This quickly led us to an examination of what else we as women weren’t told or, conversely, dared not speak. The topic caught fire and spread to our other women friends who responded as thought this was a discussion they had passionately wanted to have, for years. Carol and I had the feeling that we had taped into a rich vein of stories that were bursting to come to the surface. That was how the idea for an anthology of personal stories on the topic was born.

TDR: What was it like to work with the first 2 anthologies with Carol Shields?

MA: It was wonderful collaborating with Carol, a dear friend and a wise, creative woman. She was the one who first took the idea to the publishers and opened the door for all of us who have been happily connected to the project ever since. She had great wisdom regarding how to respond to writers’ stories and how to guide them to smoother prose or clearer details. Creating scenes was important to her and, as an editor, she often planted "seeds" of a narrative shift, for example, by asking the writer to consider beginning the story a paragraph— or a page— into what had been already written. She felt nothing needed to be wasted. The writer would likely be able to use the omitted material another time in another story. In editing DT 3 alone, I often called upon what I had learned from Carol.

TDR: How have the audiences (male or female) been responding to the collection at the readings?

MA: The reader response has been more powerful and passionate than I ever expected. The impression I’ve received from this latest tour is that there is a following to these books that is wide, deep and growing. Women readers have embraced all three anthologies as places of conversations and connections to other women’s lives. They claim these stories make them feel less alone and, as one reader stated it, "less crazy." Having spaces for the stories of relatively unknown women alongside well-recognized, well-established national voices tells readers that all human stories are of worth and interest. This translates into "my story is of worth and interest" for many of the readers.

Now, with this third anthology, I’m seeing a widening of interest among young women and men. Women in their 20s and 30s tell me that there is much guiding wisdom in DT3. They mention in particular the stories by Tracey Ann Coveart, Heather Mallick, Judy Rebick and Patricia Pearson. These deal with those momentous decisions about sex, relationships with men, mothering, and approaches to feminism—all issues most young women face. Men claim the stories are more about human than specifically women’s experiences, that these accounts provide pathways to a gentle understanding of many of the contingencies of life. One male interviewer and reader said, "These stories are our stories too. We are the fathers of dead or dying children, the husbands of women going through menopause, the children of aging parents, also the ones who connect with joy to animals, the world of nature and physical activities." Another man spoke of the great potential of learning about women in this anthology: "I’m 64 years old and no woman has ever sat me down and told me what menopause was like. I learned an incredible amount about the raw, authentic experiences of women by reading these stories." One bewildered young man claimed he was buying the book because he had to "figure out what women have in their heads"! Men also expressed a wistful longing to have a male version of Dropped Threads and I said I’d consider that when men’s stories started pouring in. I know men have stories like these but would they tell them in this open, revealing way? One man responded to this query, "Nah, and even if some men did, the other men wouldn’t read them." Men out there, what do you think?

TDR: You mention in a editor's note that these stories are "blueprints for being and surviving" which I think is a great panacea for the sarcastic nature of our decaying culture. Do you think that people in general, perhaps more than ever, need to be reminded of the human spirit, and get inspired to live a good life? Perhaps, writers can provide this refresher course to moral improvement or just get refocused?  

MA: I remember reading a comment by a wise person who said that all the brutality in the world came from a failure in imagination, the inability to place ourselves in another’s circumstances and see things from their human perspectives. In order to condemn, injure or kill others, we have to turn them into "its"—the loser, the enemy, the fag, the bitch—never the person, the man, the woman. Once we’ve de-humanized them, we can injure them with impunity. Individual stories are our pathways to an interior view of another, to the heart of the human experience where we have a greater likelihood of connection and empathy. Once we see a life from the inside, we are less likely to think of that person as an "it." Think of the picture of the young girl Kim during the Vietnam War. The image of her running down a road, crying, with her burnt skin hanging off her in ragged patches—the individual, personal consequences of dropping a bomb—had a great part in stopping the War. The stories in these anthologies take us inside a wide range of human experiences and allow us access to understanding, which is a basis for empathy and good moral choice.

As well, generally, whose story gets told indicates what is worthy of consideration. Many "ordinary" people who have extraordinary courage, insight or wisdom don’t often get a national voice. In many of these stories readers stretch their understanding of what is worthy, get a peak into acts of nobility or survival that may never been known. For example, in the story "Larry’s Last Resort" by Winnipeg writer Susan Riley, we get to witness a quiet act of nobility and sacrifice that is as momentous as any and may never have surfaced if this story hadn’t been written and published. This is but one example of how the DT stories are reminders of the human spirit and leave us inspired to do and be good.

TDR: With the success of these past 3 anthologies, is there another one planned down the road? What else are you at work on in the near future?

MA: I see these anthologies as part of an organic process. The second and third ones came about because of an on-going interest by writers and readers who had more stories to tell, who wanted more stories to read. I’ll see where this book takes me, leads me, and what stories flow in to me.

I’m also just starting research for another type of book, one in which I will write up my findings on a question about relationships that I’ve been pondering for years now. I’m setting up a website in my name where I hope to connect with people who have experiences I want to hear about. Keep posted…

Meanwhile, I will continue to work as a freelance editor and organizational communication consultant—how I earn my bread and butter.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the features editor at TDR.







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