Q&A with Sharon Butala

September 6, 2017 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

by Nancy Pearson

Nancy Pearson: Where I Live Now portrays how the unique solitude of your life on the ranch offered you the opportunity to become a writer. Following Peter’s death and your move to Calgary, I wonder if you are writing from within a different kind of solitude, despite being closer to family and friends and in a large city?

Sharon Butala: Yes, it is a different kind of solitude. It has a purpose that is more in trying to block out the city. And writing Where I Live Now was pretty painful and difficult because I had to go back through things that I didn’t want to think about, and was so glad when it was done. I was so happy to be writing material that didn’t take me through that misery.

NP: Your memoir navigates through the complexities of loss, grief, understanding and “rebuilding.” Of the many elements I admire about Where I Live Now, one stands out in particular — your use of complex sentence structures to reflect movement between your external and internal realms. I wonder if you could elaborate on this technique. An example from page 147:

I believe that once you find yourself – your real self – still there inside that old-woman exterior, and you begin to see yourself as alive and, indeed, as worthy of a life, a real life (instead of living in a steady state only as a person nearing death), that drabness will slowly disappear as the spirit flares up again.

SB: I am so lucky to have an editor that lets me do that. As soon as I began to feel myself to be really a writer, I knew that I loved nothing so much as long sentences. And most editors just don’t let you do it. I think that’s my natural mode, so it’s not as if I spend a lot of time thinking I’m going to write a long sentence; it’s just how my brain works.

NP: In looking at the lengthy list of the fiction and non-fiction books you’ve published, there’s almost an equal number of each, and it appears that you were probably working on more than one at a time. What do you see as being the key differences and similarities between the genres?

SB: More than once I have said and believe that there really isn’t a difference between the two. In nonfiction you use all the fiction writing techniques. When you’re writing in fiction, you are often drawing on real life. The difference for me is in intent and in the contract, the unspoken contract, that you make with your reader when you say: I am writing nonfiction. Your reader has the right to believe that what you write is factually true. The reader of fiction, on the other hand, recognizes when something is true. As Farley Mowat said, “I never let facts get in the way of a good story.”

NP: When writing memoir there can sometimes be a fine balance to maintain in order to preserve and respect another individual’s privacy. Peter was very present for me when I read Where I Live Now through depictions of his actions (such as his kindness towards neighbours in need), his world and his support of your writing – this allowed me to develop my own sense of his character and individuality. What would you recommend to writers who want to tell a very personal story but aren’t certain how much detail to include about others involved?

SB: The more personal you are in what you have to say, the more impersonal your writing needs to be. And then the opposite is true – the more factual, cut and dried, the more you should write in an intimate and personal way.

Sharon Butala will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at What the Journey Brings, 1:30 at Intrepid Theatre and Saturday, September 30th at the Voices Lifted | Where Art Begets Art | Evening Gala, 7:30 at the Metro Theatre and Sunday, October 1st at Writing the Memoir | Workshop with Sharon Butala, 10:00am at GOOD.