Frances Backhouse’s essay “Homing” is part of the special international section “Place & Space in Canada” in Issue 74 of the Bellingham Review. Subscribe or purchase a single issue through our Submittable page here.
What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?
I’ve never been a fast writer, but “Homing,” which was three decades in the making, breaks all my previous records for slow writing. I have to admit, though, I spent most of those years not working on it. The poetry excerpts are from poems I wrote back in the 80’s, when I was living on Hornby and, in some cases, later revised. The essay itself didn’t start to take shape until about six years ago. Since then, it has evolved in fits and starts—and might still be a work in progress if Bellingham Review hadn’t given me a reason to finish it. I owe a big thank-you to Susanne Antonetta and Christin Geall for offering me that motivation, as well as a couple of insightful editing suggestions.
Is there a Canadian aesthetic to writing about place and space? What impact does that have on your writing?
I think Canada is too big and too geographically diverse to contain a single aesthetic to writing about place and space—and for that, I’m grateful. Across our sea-to-sea-to-sea country, there’s room for a multiplicity of approaches to writing ourselves into and out from our landscapes. However, that doesn’t mean the full range of voices is making it into print. The more we hear from marginalized writers of all kinds—but especially Indigenous writers, whose roots go deepest—the more nuanced our understanding of place and space will become.
Tell us about your writing life.
Like many writers, I began writing as soon as I figured out how to shape letters and combine them into words and sentences. My earliest efforts were poems, but by grade four or five, I’d moved onto nonfiction, producing a short, hand-illustrated book about butterflies, among other works. I never considered the possibility of being a professional writer until I’d already completed my undergraduate degree (in zoology) and was trying to decide what to do next. One of the reasons it’s so satisfying for me to have finally completed “Homing” is that my life as a capital-W Writer began on Hornby Island, which gave me inspiration, encouragement and cheap rent—three things that every aspiring writer needs.
The biggest shift in my writing life since then has been my return to academia—first, to get my MFA, which I completed in 2012, and then as a creative writing instructor at the University of Victoria. I love having a job that keeps me learning and growing as a writer, though I wish I had more time to apply what I’m learning.
Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?
Taking solitary walks, especially in places that are far removed from cars, buildings and crowds of people.
What writing advice has stayed with you?
Anne Lamott’s words of wisdom (in Bird by Bird) regarding shitty first drafts. My persistent internal editor hates this concept, but is gradually learning to wait her turn.
Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker) to stir my creative juices; a novel by the marvelous Laurie R. King for entertainment; and a big stack of student essays, which are, in fact, a pleasure to read.
Anything else our readers might want to know about you?
One of the things I appreciate about being a nonfiction writer is that it allows me to indulge my curiosity about the world and people, and exposes me to realms I’d never have known about otherwise. For instance, I was once assigned to write a profile of a man who had a home-based business selling used electronic test equipment and parts—mysterious (to me) items like analog oscilloscopes and Nixie tubes—and who claimed to own the world’s largest collection of slide rules, most of which were also for sale. I still have the neat little German slide rule he gave me as a parting gift, but I have no idea how to use it.
Where can our readers connect with you online?
In addition to my author website (www.backhouse.ca), I maintain two book-related Facebook pages (https://www.facebook.com/MightyBeaver/ and https://www.facebook.com/KlondikeWomenAndChildren/). My Twitter handle is @franbwrites.
FRANCES BACKHOUSE is the author of six nonfiction books, the latest of which is Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver (ECW Press, 2015). Her short-form journalism and essays have appeared in dozens of Canadian and American publications. Support for her writing has included a residency at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, and two Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources fellowships. Frances lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Victoria, where she now teaches in the Department of Writing.