canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Emily Pohl-Weary recently completed the "autobiography" of her grandmother, Canadian sci-fi legend Judith Merril. Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril is published by Between the Lines (2002). Pohl-Weary is also the founder of Kiss Machine and co-editor of Broken Pencil. A Toronto-based freelance writer, she is completing her first novel, Sugar's Empty, a coming of age tale about a young woman named Sugar who loves the actor Parker Posey. 

Michael Bryson interviewed her by email in February 2002.

TDR: Who was Judith Merril and why did you finish her "autobiography"?

EMILY POHL-WEARY: Judith Merril was my grandmother – a science fiction writer and editor, feminist, cultural theorist and anti-war activist. During the 1950s and 60s, she wrote three novels, dozens of short stories, and edited twelve years’ of “best of” anthologies, which acted as catalysts that launched the careers of many important writers. Her contribution to science fiction can be summed up by a quote that J. G. Ballard (author of Crash and Empire of the Sun) wrote about her in 1992: 

“Science fiction, I suspect, is now dead, and probably died about the time that Judy closed her anthology and left to found her memorial library to the genre in Toronto. I remember my last sight of her, surrounded by her friends and all the books she loved, shouting me down whenever I tried to argue with her, the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men.”

In 1968, she moved to Canada with the draft dodgers, because she didn’t want to be an American citizen anymore. She stopped writing fiction (which often contained thinly-veiled social commentary) as well as editing anthologies. For a while, she lived and worked at Rochdale College, an experimental student-run university, and then started to make documentaries for CBC Radio. Later, she produced mini-documentaries that aired on TVO after Dr Who episodes, in which she discussed the social and cultural significance of events that occurred in the television program. She was an influential public figure and cultural critic, who wrote non-fiction articles and frequently spoke on current affairs shows.

In September 1997, Judy passed away, leaving me with a partially-completed manuscript, 12 tapes of interviews we’d conducted during her last year, and complete instructions about everything she wanted me to include in the finished book. Over the last four years, I worked on the book in spurts. At first, it was difficult to be surrounded by her voice and thoughts, because I missed and also had some mixed feelings toward her, due to unresolved family dynamics, but it got easier as time passed. Now, with the final page proofs sitting next to me on my desk, I am ecstatically happy with the results of my work. Her life story is an important one – it chronicles not only the birth of science fiction, but many of the important radical cultural and political movements that happened over three-quarters of a century, through the depression, the second world war, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam war, emerging feminism, and into the corporatization and globalization of the late twenty-first century.

TDR: What was your relationship like with your grandmother? For example, has your writing or literary outlook been influenced by her in any way?

EPW: As a child, one of my strongest memories of her involves frequently being dropped off at the science fiction library she founded (then called the Spaced Out Library, and later renamed to the Merril Collection of Speculative Fiction and Fantasy) and being let loose to read through and borrow all the books on their shelves, as well as their overstock items. This was her way of babysitting me.

She was a crazy old broad. She loved to argue and shock – would burp at the dinner table, say exactly what she felt at all times, and swore freely. We were very close during her last four or five years. I wouldn’t say our relationship was easy – she challenged me at all times – but it was filled with love and she encouraged me to follow my inspirations. At the end of her life, when she was unable to get around much, I became her main caregiver, and brought her news of things going on outside her apartment.

TDR: You co-edit two different magazines and also find time for your own writing. Don't you feel pulled in 100 directions at once? Separate for us a little the difference between Kiss Machine & Broken Pencil. How does your own writing relate to the mandates of each of these magazines?

EPW: Sometimes I do feel pulled in a thousand directions, because I co-edit the two mags and also write cultural articles and reviews for several other magazines, including Shift, NOW, This and Lola. I have to juggle all these different projects, while still somehow finding time to do my own writing. It's not always easy. Growing up as a care-giver for my much-younger siblings and my grandmother, working two part-time jobs and going to school has prepared me for this kind of lifestyle. Seriously. It's all about multi-tasking.

I’m co-editor with Hal Niedzviecki of Broken Pencil (, a magazine about the alternative arts in Canada. More specifically, we review zines, small press and independently-published books, film and video, music and printed art works. We also print articles about the creators of innovative, marginalized art and literature – the people who don’t usually get covered in corporate media.

Kiss Machine ( is my baby, and its growth continues to amaze me. I co-edit it with visual artist and poet Paola Poletto. It’s a photocopied foray into independent art, literary culture and political views, that’s an effort to encourage and highlight the surrealist strategies inherent in day-to-day life. Each issue features two seemingly discordant themes, such as elephants and media, bugs and small business, sex and condiments, or hospitals and aliens. Visual art relating to these themes weaves through poetry, short stories, interviews, articles, and interviews, without any clear indication where fiction ends and non-fiction begins, or where disciplines break into new forms.

In order to work on Sugar, or the book about my grandmother, I had to prioritize it completely and clear my schedule for a few weeks at a time. I couldn't get into either of them unless my time was free. In a way, it's like taking a vacation, because everything else must wait until that work is done. It's a hard thing to justify for myself, because the act of writing a book is so ephemeral. I'm the only one who really cares about it getting finished, and there are no hard deadlines for completion. Anyway, I guess it's all about enjoying the process and feeling good about being able to settle into my own work - mining my own brain for inspiration and ideas.

TDR: You're working on a novel called Sugar's Empty. How's it going? What can you tell us about it?

EPW: I’ve been working on the novel for a couple years, and I’ve recently finished a rough draft. I was able to get this far on it, partly because the Ontario Arts Council gave me a works in progress grant of $12,000. What a vote of confidence! I don’t know how working-class writers manage to create works of substance without these subsidies. The grant enabled me to quit my job and focus entirely on it during the summer and fall. Now I have to buckle down and edit it all. 

Sugar’s Empty is a coming of age tale about the main character, a young woman named Sugar. She loves the actor Parker Posey, eats too much chocolate, watches too many late-night movies and thinks she’s a ghost ever since her boyfriend died. 

Sugar gets her first real job as a CD shelver at Record Teen, with the aide of her dead boyfriend’s knowledge of obscure pianists. But it turns out her boss, King Rob, is a creep angling for a sexual harassment charge. Despite the fact that her boyfriend’s ghost is luring her back into the past, Sugar gets the courage to stand up to Rob the Slob and take charge of her own life. She’s going to make movies! 

Sugar struggles to make sense of the sex, drugs and violence that bombard her on a daily basis in a society controlled by profit margins. She goes from being empty to being a super-star of the counter-culture, with a little help from a video activist, a single mom and the sudden reappearance of her biological father.

TDR: Your home page ( includes links to multimedia projects you've been involved with, including videos of your poems. Did working on those projects change the way you thought about your work?

EPW: I've made four little movies. Three of them are linked from my home page, they’re thirty-second digital videos based on my poems "Balls," "Because" and "Coffee." Essentially, video enabled the pieces to come alive visually. The urban settings are gritty, and for me the vids are all about how we can feel lonely, awkward and isolated despite the busy-ness going on around us in the city. The other film I made is called "my scar(e)" and it's an 8-minute super-eight film about coming to terms with having a huge scar across my abdomen.

You know, I’m a writer, but I like to dabble in other media. I almost see Sugar as a multimedia project, because it would work really well if it was accompanied by a digital video on a CD-Rom showing all the places around town where she hangs out, or a snippet of one of the movies she wants to make.

With my talented artist friend Sally McKay, I’m currently scheming up a new project, that will start after I’ve finished Sugar and she has freed up a bit more time. It’s a hypermedia novel with visual elements, that’s loosely inspired by those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, which seem to me to be the first literary incarnations of hyper-text fiction. The novel’s main character will be a young girl who solves real-life crimes, such as the death of a homeless man because of police brutality, or corporate corruption causing the eviction of working-class people, not the jewel heists and heiress-kidnappings of traditional mystery stories.

TDR: What are your current bookish passions?


  • Francesca Lia Block's fiction and novels for teenage girls, including Dangerous Angels and Girl Goddess Number Nine.
  • The old Nancy Drew mystery stories, written in the 30s and 40s, when she was independent and unconcerned by her looks, clothes or boys. 
  • Ann Hansen's autobiography, Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla.
  • Nalo Hopkinson's science fiction, including Brown Girl in the Ring and Skin Folk 
  • Basically anything by Haruki Murakami, because I develop huge crushes on his male narrators. 
  • OK. Now for my ultimate confession. I love to read the pulp series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer books, to feed my Buffy addiction between episodes of the show.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.




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