We were breaking strict rules, heading towards the high, crumbling hillside that was the northern face of this valley called Cedar Vale – Sharon Berg*
What happens next for Elke, the young protagonist in Sharon Berg’s fictional tale “Trespass” is a heart-wrenching account of how quickly innocence can slip into a dangerous and dark abyss. The tension builds and as a reader, I am left scarred similar to my feelings after reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Will the horrors between bullies and victims never end?
However with shadows comes light and for this Sarnia writer her ability to shock (and move readers into action) is offset by her caring and strong interest in portraying the human experience in its painful as well as its tender, healing moments.
For almost a year, Facebook followers have received teasers about Berg’s upcoming short fiction collection Naming the Shadows to be published by the established trade publisher The Porcupine’s Quill based out of Erin in Wellington County. She’s proudly shared the cover depicting a painting by Alvinston artist Liana Russwurm and has created on-line posters for her upcoming book tour. “Trespass” is part of this new book which includes 9 short stories and two novelettes.
Now the real work will begin!
Advance orders for Naming the Shadows are being taken by the publisher, bookstores, and other on-line sellers. The book will be released in mid-September and officially launched in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada on September 29, 2 p.m. at the Book Keeper (500 Exmouth Street). Admission is free. Everyone is welcome.
I haven’t seen an advance reading copy (read just the one story, “Trespass”, which is an excerpt from her novel in progress). However, London poet Penn Kemp had this to say about the manuscript:
“Sharon Berg follows the rich Canadian tradition in moving from poetry into prose for her collection, Naming the Shadows. “Storytellers also preserve fragments, brief glimpses of the gestalt, puzzled together within their collection.” Though the author’s sensibility is Impressionist, her attention to telling detail is specific in these (sometimes) linked stories. Naming the Shadows draws you into an enticing colour field of intriguing characters and set scenes. In the shadows lurk hidden stories that emerge through Berg’s passionate prose with intimate, unflinching honesty. The constant is Berg’s attention to language and perception, a poet’s eye and ear alongside a painterly delight in the sensory world as witness of the passing scene, “the glossy sheen”. “
Over the long weekend, I had a chance to chat with Sharon about her new book and her experiences as a writer.
Sharon, what a journey it has been since you first moved to Sarnia in August 2016. You had just retired from teaching and were hoping to re-start your prolific literary career from the 1980s. You have certainly done that. Let’s chat about the changes. For example, over the years, you’ve had several full collections plus smaller chapbooks of poetry published. Naming the Shadows is your first collection of short stories. How difficult was it to transition from poetry to short stories? Or did it happen the other way around?
Yes, a lot has changed for me, but the truth is there really was no transition. I have always written stories as well as poems, starting way back in Grade Four. My first publication was in The Telegram, back then. But in the early years of writing I just wasn’t as successful in finding a place in magazines or journals for my prose as I was with my poetry. There were a couple of cases where my story submissions were returned with rude notes attached, such as ‘stick to writing poetry’, things I would never have said to another person during my own time as an editor. I now put those comments down to rude editors and being labeled as a poet. Editors at the time were mostly male and they all seemed to think authors wrote either poetry or prose but rarely both.
However, in the thick of the 1980s as my poetry was published by traditional book publishers, I simply stopped sending fiction out to be considered. That didn’t mean I stopped writing stories, though.
What was difficult is finding the nerve to put these pieces together, to call the collection a book and send it out. I guess a piece of me still worries about the critical response I’ll receive. How much have things changed? But I actually think that editors, and people in general, are open to stories about things that just weren’t being written about in earlier times.
Getting a trade publisher’s attention today is proving to be more competitive than decades ago. Certainly short story writer Alice Munroe has paved the way for other short fiction writers but the markets seem to be saturated by writers from all genres. How easy or how difficult was it for you to secure a publisher for this collection of work? Do you have any advice for writers seeking their first publication?
No one likes to receive a negative response. As I said, I worried that I’d still receive nasty notes. Yet, far from that happening, the second publisher I sent it to accepted this book. And far from being difficult, they accepted it just six days after I sent it to them! Of course, that was extremely encouraging, but I think it was mostly just the luck of finding a receptive press. Our separate goals coincided. There is a saying: The only way to get an acceptance is to send your work out. It’s true. The key to getting that acceptance is you need to send your work to a press that’s interested in publishing the sort of writing you do, whether it is poetry or prose. Stephen King’s novels would be rejected by Harlequin Romance, after all.
You’ve been working hard to promote your book and the literary media like Quill and Quire have certainly taken notice. You will be doing readings in British Columbia, Ontario, and in the Maritimes. I’d be happy to post some of your posters with this feature but could you share some of the highlights. What are you expecting to accomplish with all these readings?
My last book of poetry, apart from chapbooks, came out with Coach House Press in 1984. Things in the publishing world in Canada have changed tremendously over the past thirty-five years or so. I don’t recall any of my work gaining media attention before it was released in the early 1980s. So I was surprised by the attention this book received prior to its publication this month. It was highlighted among just six fiction books in Quill and Quire and The 49th Shelf called it one of their ‘most anticipated’ fiction books for Fall 2019. Plus, the pre-release book review written by Irina Moga, which is quoted on the back cover, will appear in the online version of Prism International soon.
All of this was part of the inspiration to line up a tour through lower BC in November 2019, and I hope to tour with the book in the Maritimes during 2020. I feel this book has a broad appeal, for both rural folk and those who live in cities. It is a book about the challenges faced; the shadows that cross our paths as we struggle to bathe our lives with light. Some of the characters are children, others are adults, and then there are adults dealing with teenagers. Several of these stories are linked through their characters, but they are all linked by the fact that they are dealing with those shadows. I want to introduce the book to a broad audience because I believe readers will find the stories easy to relate to.
In order to concentrate on the promotion of this book as well as your own writing, you’ve had to temporarily shelf your involvement with your micro-press Big Pond Rumours Press as well as your international zine by the same name. These are huge sacrifices. How does the writing life that you experienced in the 1980s differ, or not, from today’s literary environment?
I’m smiling because I was a much younger person in the 1980s, with a lot more energy. So there is that, which helps to colour the difference. Also, I took a thirty-five-year hiatus from the publishing world, and pretty much all of my previous literary connections fell away during that time. In the 1980s, I was known by and connected to the writing community across Canada, which was also a much smaller group back then. Right now, I’m in the process of re-connecting, at a time when we are losing many authors who were just five and ten years ahead of me in the 1980s. When I retired from teaching in 2016, except for the magazine, I was almost unknown, almost forgotten. So I am truly starting over once again.
The literary world can be punishing, in that, if you stop writing and publishing no one believes in you the same way any longer. It is that old publish or die attitude. I’ve had to prove myself, once again. I decided to retire from magazine publishing because, however much I did enjoy it, however much it kept me connected with the writing world, at this point I feel I am running out of time to accomplish what I have always wanted to do in my writing. I am not a person who can easily divide their attention, so the magazine represented a big distraction from my own process, my own work. I am sixty-five. If I only have ten years, perhaps fifteen years left, I still want to do about thirty-five years of catching up on my writing projects.
The Writers’ Union of Canada continues to emphasize that the majority of Canadian writers are living beneath the poverty line. To survive, some writers must forfeit their writing careers to work in non-writing fields. As the population ages, I’m beginning to see more and more retirees returning to their true love of writing. Is it too late? Can older writers compete with younger writers who are graduating with their fine arts degrees? What strategies have you used to keep your optimism and energy levels high?
Yes, that is what I am talking about. I was teaching, and that job required all of my attention. Other people may be able to divide their focus, but I couldn’t. It isn’t too late, no matter how old you are, but there is far less time to contemplate every step you take when you come back to your love of writing after you retire. There’s no time to hem and haw, you have to be brave enough to leap. Older people have a lot of experience under their belts that they can draw on, which often makes them a different sort of writer than a younger person. Hopefully there are publishing houses that still recognize this. I think I’ve found one, though they won’t serve all of my needs because they are focused only on literature and literary criticism, and I am not.
You’ve been extremely busy gearing up for your new short story collection but I know you are already thinking ahead and sending out manuscripts for future books. What are you currently working on and what are your future goals?
Currently, I have several manuscripts that are seeking publication.
I’ve sent out a third book of poetry and I’m already writing the fourth one. I have additional stories, which will eventually become another book of short fiction. I have a novel-in-progress, in that I have completed its first draft.
Plus, I have an important nonfiction book I’m putting most of my focus on at the moment. That one is a multi-threaded, cross-genre book called The Name Unspoken which lays out the history of Wandering Spirit Survival School and a man whose name wasn’t spoken for nearly 100 years. This book evolved over the past several decades, but it began when Elder Pauline Shirt asked me to write the story of the school she founded. She wanted to correct history for her Grandfather several generations removed, and she wanted to record the history of the school as she meant it to be.
It is the history of urban Natives in the school community really, told through interviews with Pauline, teachers, volunteers, a principal and students from the school’s hey days. All of their stories are backed up with research into Wandering Spirit the man and the damage done by the residential school system. The school still exists and now offers high school.
The foundation for this book was laid when I entered the Native Studies program at Laurentian University in 1988 to study with Elder James Dumont and Thom Alcoze. It continued to be strengthened by my apprenticeship to Pauline Shirt for about ten years. She and I entered York University together, and Pauline became my teacher and research partner as I wrote the story, first as my M.Ed. thesis.
As I have said, the book has evolved since then, and I found a parallel between the man whose name was not spoken and the school because it was called First Nations School for almost 30 years and has just officially been renamed Wandering Spirit School.
Congratulations again Sharon. I wish you continued success with all your literary projects. Let’s get together again to chat more about The Name Unspoken. In the meantime, I look forward to picking up a copy of your short story collection at one of your readings.
Check out Sharon Berg’s new website.
Additional background re: her work as the founder of Big Pond Rumours Press appears here.
Check out the Porcupine Quills’ website for more information about Naming the Shadows.
Follow Berg’s Naming the Shadows Facebook page here.