Visitors have 50,000 years to visit Niagara Falls before it disappears – Elizabeth F. Hill*
She’s a walking encyclopedia! Canadian author Elizabeth F. Hill’s love for reading, researching, and writing is evident in her latest project All ‘Bout Canada: A Compendium of Canadiana. Recently released by Nimbus Publishing, her 200-page non-fiction book is being described as “a resourceful, quirky, and illuminating read, featuring vibrant illustrations….an abecedary of Canadiana for all of us.”**
The back cover states: “Using a blend of prose, poetry, posters, jokes, and quizzes, and featuring dictionary-style entries and witty poems for each letter in the alphabet, this collection of Canadian facts and anecdotes takes readers on a cross-country cultural tour from “Aurora Borealis” to “Zellers”, with delightful detours along the way.”**
Talk about conversation starters! Her ABC book tempts the reader with trivia: “Did you know? …On average, the inside of the igloo is 65 degrees warmer than the outside air with wind chill.” (p. 69)
I could chat with this author for hours and I have. She is most entertaining and because she’s my sister-in-law (big disclosure here which is why I will refrain from posting a review), I know how hard she works behind the scenes to expand her knowledge about Canada and other parts of the world. Ever since I have known her, Beth has had an amazing capacity to remember details: she’s an academic researcher who holds a master of library science and a PhD in intercultural education. Yet, her interests and mannerisms are down to earth, and her writing is infused with a touch of dry humour. She makes me laugh.
A few days ago, I chatted with Elizabeth (via e-mail) about her new book, her journey as a writer, her writing space, and her plans for the future.
Elizabeth, do you mind if I call you Beth?
Of course, you can call me Beth.
First of all, congratulations on your new book.
You have been an avid reader all your life and now the tables are turned and readers will be reading your work. How did it feel when that parcel of books first arrived at your doorstep?
It was surprising! I was expecting a shipment from Amazon and was relieved when a parcel of books arrived. I didn’t look at the return address, so I was shocked when I opened the box and discovered ten copies of All ‘Bout Canada. I took one look at the cover and was filled with delight because I love the artwork and the design of the book. And then I felt extremely grateful that so many people—the staff at Nimbus Publishing and artist Alex MacAskill–had been willing to devote their talent, time, and energy to the book. It was very exciting to turn the pages and read the finished product.
What inspired you to write about your home country? And how did the idea for the book come about?
This book was written for Canada’s 150th anniversary. I wanted to celebrate by wearing my 1967 Canada toque (which I still have) and by writing a book about Canada.
What section or sections of the book did you enjoy writing the most? What was the most interesting fact that you discovered during your research?
I enjoyed every single entry that I wrote about. It is hard to single out one particular fact. Here is a sampling of some of the facts that I personally find memorable:
- Sgt Gander, a Newfoundland dog (one of the four dog breeds recognised as uniquely Canadian by the Canadian Kennel Club) was a hero of World War II. During the Battle of Hong Kong, he retrieved live Japanese grenades and threw them over a hill, away from the Canadian soldiers. The story has a sad ending because he died when a grenade exploded in his mouth. However, he has been honoured with a statue in Gander, Newfoundland.
- Frederick Banting sold his patent for insulin to the University of Toronto for $1.00, claiming that insulin was for the world, not for him.
- Beginning in the 1890s, for approximately 50 years, heavily guarded silk trains carried silkworm cocoons from Vancouver to New York and New Jersey and they had the right of way over all other trains.
- Linguist Elaine Gold, founder of the Canadian Language Museum, has discovered ten ways Canadians use the word “eh”.
- Beaver hats were thought to cure deafness and improve memories.
How did you decide what would go into the book?
The focus of the book was diversity and inclusiveness. I tried to cover all the provinces and territories, geography, flora and fauna, Indigenous people, women, ethnic groups, and all aspects of culture—academic achievements, the arts, business, education, food, industry, history, inventions, language, law, sport, and technology. To get into the book, the entries had to fit into the rhyme schemes of the poems.
Yes, the poetry caught my attention! (Smiles here.) In the book, you introduced each letter of the alphabet with two rhyming quatrains and your publisher added striking illustrations created by Alex MacAskill. Tell me a little about the artist and what it was like to place your work into the hands of a creative team.
Alex MacAskill is an extremely talented artist and the proprietor of Midnight Oil, a specialty print and design shop in Halifax. He designed the front and back cover images and produced interior illustrations for each letter of the alphabet. I have no idea how he managed to do it all.
It was extremely exciting to place the book in the hands of such a creative team because I had absolute confidence that the end product would be fantastic. I love the editing process because it offers a new and different interpretation of the work and because the suggestions are usually very inspiring. I also love the dialogue and exchange of views because the camaraderie offsets the aloneness that the writer experiences in the writing process. It is also very interesting to see an artist’s representation of the work.
Why are these types of books important?
I suppose books like this can serve as a brief introduction to Canada for people from other nations who perhaps don’t know much about our country. For Canadians, I think books like this can pique an interest in Canadian history (which we all snored through in high school). Sometimes we Canadians are too insular in outlook and I like to think that books like this can inspire Canadians to explore Canada, to appreciate Canada, and to go out and help make Canada a better place. Failing that, books like this are quite a good way to while away an afternoon when house-bound because of COVID-19.
Who is the intended audience for this book?
All ‘Bout Canada is intended to be a book for everyone: those who are familiar with Canadiana and Canadian history and those who are not; avid readers and reluctant readers; Canadians and non-Canadians. Books like this can satisfy a number of different reading styles because they can be read cover-to-cover, front to back, back to front, or from the middle outwards. Readers can also dip in and out at will. It is suitable for ages 12 to adult. Younger children might enjoy the rhymes.
All ‘Bout Canada is your second trade book. Your first book Love in the Age of Dinosaurs was a romance, co-written under a pen name. Tell me a little about this book and why you decided to launch your literary career with this genre.
Love in the Age of Dinosaurs is a love story between paleontologists who are working in Dinosaur Provincial Park. I co-wrote it with a friend, Nalini Unny, under the pen name of Sorcha Lang.
What inspired it? An argument about whether romance novels require skill to write. I felt that they do require some writing skill, but I was losing the argument, so we jointly decided that if they don’t require much skill, we should be able to write one. So we did. If we had known in the beginning all the things we learned in the process, we would never have started the project!
Describe your writing space.
During the summers, my writing space is in our lake cabin on the Canadian Shield. I usually write at a card table which is set up in front of the picture window. I have a lovely view of several cedar and birch trees, some great white pines, an assortment of birds–blue jays, hummingbirds, downy woodpeckers, whiskey jacks–and the lake in all its many moods. Sometimes, when it is very hot, I write at a table in our screened gazebo. The view is much the same, but I am surrounded by the sounds of the rustling trees.
During the winters, I write at a desk beside our dining room table. The south windows provide lots of natural light and the walls are covered with rainbows from the prisms I have suspended in front of the glass.
With All ‘Bout Canada, I got the idea in June and had finished writing two drafts by September. I did eat and sleep and go canoeing, but every other moment I was immersed in the book. This is actually quite a terrible way to work.
I now try to write for a couple of hours every morning. I do sometimes write at other times of the day as well. If I can, I will run with an idea when it occurs or at least record it so that I can work on it at a later time. I used to write all my poetry in longhand in a notebook, but I am now writing more at the computer. I have only ever used the computer to write stories and books. (It’s so much easier to erase and re-write.)
You’ve been fortunate to travel, teach, and live extensively in many places across the world including Africa, Australia, Egypt, and China. Have your travels within and outside the country influenced your opinion about Canada? Please expand your answer.
Living in foreign cultures has strengthened my understanding and critical awareness of Canada and Canadian values. When you are growing up in Canada, you are immersed in Canadian culture and you do not necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be Canadian or being grateful that you have access to clean fresh water, (relatively) clear skies, health care, or education. When you spend a significant amount of time immersed in a different culture, you immediately realise that most other people in the world do not enjoy the same rights and privileges that Canadians take for granted. As well, you constantly interact with people who think very differently and hold different values from yours and you begin to realise that your views and values are not necessarily universal and that they are very much the products of Canadian (and American) culture.
In my case, when living in the Nigerian bush, I quickly realised that almost everything I have achieved in life is through pure accident of birth. This was (and remains) a humbling experience and I feel very grateful for the wonderful things about Canada (including water and winter!)
As well, when you live in the developing world, you become very critical of Canada’s foreign aid policies and its participation in the global arms trade. Simultaneously, you become very critical of colonialism and our own history of colonialism and our treatment of Indigenous people.
My travels within Canada have always strengthened my appreciation for its size, diversity, great beauty, and wealth of natural resources.
Whether you agree or not, you have eclectic talents and interests which brings a richness to your writing. We’ve already chatted about your love for reading and travel. What other artistic pursuits (both writing and non-writing) have you followed over the years?
I like music, enjoy listening, and I play a few instruments. I’ve played flute in several bands in Canada. I also played the tenor horn in a colliery band in Australia (enormous fun!) and have been involved in musical theatre. I currently play in a local handbell group. Other artistic pursuits include storytelling, sewing, weaving, and pottery. As for writing, I am currently editing a dissertation for a doctoral candidate in education.
What’s next on the horizon?
At the moment, I’m working on several children’s picture book stories. I’m also nearly finished one poetry manuscript and I have started two others. I also have an idea for another book.
Is there anything else that you would like to mention to the readers of your book?
I really hope that each reader is amused or surprised by at least one thing in All ‘Bout Canada. I also hope that a couple of people hop in a canoe and go for a paddle in Quetico.
Thank you so much Beth. May you have continued success in your literary journey.
Thank you so much.
Elizabeth F. Hill is a writer of poetry, short stories, and fiction, and the author of the novel Love in the Age of Dinosaurs(Uncial Press, 2012) and the non-fiction book All ‘Bout Canada (Nimbus Publishing, 2020)
Additional information about All ‘Bout Canada can be found on the Nimbus Publishing website.
Additional information about Love In The Age of Dinosaurs can be found here.
Additional information about Alex MacAskill and his art can be found on Midnight Oil, his print and design house website.