Local authors balance moods at dual-reading
Tuesday, Jan. 8 was a stormy day. In Nanaimo there was a blustering blizzard that gradually transformed into an icy rainstorm down the highway towards Parksville. Wind warnings were raised by Environment Canada across the Island, and it was a miserable day to be outside. However, in the back of the Parksville branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library and away from the biting air and vicious wind, all weather was forgotten. Family, friends, and interested locals like me filled the rows of chairs in the presentation area of the library for readings by two local authors from their new books: Judy Millar’s short stories, Beaver Bluff: The Librarian Stories and Pat Smekal’s collection of poems in Small Corners. Millar and Smekal are members of the same writing group and decided to embark on a co-reading tour because they published their works around the same time. Though their subject matter is not related, the balance of Millar’s humorous anecdotes and Smekal’s thoughtful verse created an atmosphere of both hilarity and insightfulness. As Smekal said after the reading when the two authors took the time to sit and talk to me, “we bounce off each other.” Millar began the presentation with a teaser from one of her stories, “G. K. loves C. K.,” a jocular and engaging story about an anonymous message left for a librarian in the restricted section of the library. After Millar’s reading, Smekal took the floor and read selected poems from her collection, sharing family portraits in “Mother” and “The O’Reillys of Dunbar Street, 1946.” The two switched once again, and Millar read the wonderfully cheeky “I’ll Tell You Mine, If You’ll Tell Me Yours.” Smekal closed the presentation with another selection of poems, including “Lhakpa Sherpa” and “Near Fremantle Station.” After the hour was up, they answered questions from the audience and signed copies of their books, and then kindly sat and answered my questions. Millar, who lived in Ontario until moving to the Island after her retirement in 2007, says she has been writing all her life. She worked as a communications writer, and, for a time, toured as a puppeteer with her brother, a children’s entertainer—she wrote the lyrics to an album they created together and began working on short stories when she had time after her retirement. “I like writing funny, short little things. It’s kind of my thing,” Millar says. She began winning awards for her humorous and serious works of short fiction, including one in 2009 where she was granted $2000 and enrollment in a Creative Writing course at VIU. Under the direction of instructor Susan Juby, Millar developed her writing talents and her creativity. In the years that followed she continued to write and win awards, including the Kerry Schooley Memorial Award in 2011. Millar decided she wanted to put out a collection of her works, and Beaver Bluff: The Librarian Stories was published in late 2012. While she says the self-publishing route was a lot of work, Millar says the overall result is rewarding. Her book has sold across the world, from Canada through to the U.K., and Switzerland, and is used in Japan as a tool in teaching students how to speak English. Her stories take place in Big Beaver County, the fictitious town she invented that exists “somewhere in the Great Pacific Northwest.” The six works in her collection are based on the experiences in life and love of librarians, and the complicated and compromising situations the stacks-workers get themselves in. “I get a kick out of my own characters,” Millar says. The Beaver Ridge library team is made up of a colourful bunch, and Millar uses her lighthearted, witty prose to navigate them in and out of awkward, wacky, and altogether amusing situations. Just as Millar’s stories revolve around Big Beaver’s bookish bunch, Smekal’s poems have a common factor as well. Titled after the black corners that were used to hold photographs in place in old albums, her poems are written about the people that have come into her life and left an impression on her. Each is its own tale, a snapshot captured in verse and stored in her book. Originally from B.C., Smekal lived with her family in Australia for 52 years. Now retired in Nanoose Bay, she and her husband often travel and explore places around the world. Because of her adventurous spirit, Smekal has had many characters come into her life, memorable people that have found their way into her poetry. “Wherever I go, it’s people,” she says. She published her own chapbook, Praise Without Mortar, in 2009. She is a regular participant in poetry retreats, workshopping groups, and writing clubs throughout B.C. Her poetry has been published in magazines and anthologies across the world. Small Corners began to take shape while she was trying to get organized by clearing out old photo albums, scraps of paper, articles from newspapers, and other such clippings from her home. Instead of sorting, Smekal found herself writing, and the result is a touching and personal collection of both local and international stories. Small Corners was published by Ascent Aspirations Publishing in Oct. 2012. In each poem, whether it is an anecdote about a character she met in her own Nanoose, such as in “Cruisin’ with Bentley Medd,” or her own imaginings of what might go on in the mind of someone in a faraway part of the world, as she writes in “Last Man,” Smekal conveys individuality. The tone varies from bittersweet, as in the description of a loving relative in “Nannie James,” to foreboding in “Dan,” and playful in “On the Beach at Bol.” Each of her works is specific to the subject, and whether she works in a structured format or flows in free verse, readers and listeners are granted a sense of closeness and acute understanding of the importance of the featured character. Millar and Smekal believe the delivery of their work is an important aspect of the writing and publishing process. “I want my poetry to appeal to…people. I also think that poetry needs to be read aloud,” Smekal says. They both enjoy presenting their stories and poetry to audiences, which was evident from Millar’s theatrical and Smekal’s heartfelt readings. “I like to know that they hear it the same way that I hear it in my head,” Millar says. In terms of what is coming next, both Millar and Smekal have projects on the go. Millar says she is looking to publish more tales about Big Beaver County; Smekal is working on a book of response poems with a friend, and they plan to put out an anthology of work from their six-member writing group.
“Writing’s a struggle,” Smekal says. “It’s hard damn work.” Both authors value their workshopping groups, what Smekal refers to as “the tribe” she has become a part of. “Writers get each other,” Millar adds. When asked what advice they might offer to aspiring writers, they both suggest removing distractions and staying motivated. “Don’t check your email,” Millar half-jokes. To poets, Smekal says, “read poets, read good poets, hang out with poets, hang out with writers and write. Make yourself write.”