Poet Earle Birney began a new chapter in Canadian literature when he established the country's first Department of Creative Writing that operated separately from an English Department. Fifty years later, the University of British Columbia program's graduates – who include Zsuzsi Gartner, Charlotte Gill and Lynn Coady – have published stacks of award-winning books and helped build what's arguably the most prestigious creative writing program in the country.
On Saturday night, some 400 literary types will gather to mark this milestone. (Among the highlights: a live auction with attendees bidding on a literary chat and home-cooked meal by author/faculty members Joseph Boyden, Steven Galloway, and Nancy Lee.)
To mark the occasion, the Globe and Mail asked a current student in the program to interview one of its star graduates. The questions are posed by Ellie Sawatzky, 23, of Kenora, Ont., who is in her first year of the Master's Program at UBC. The answers are from Victoria-based writer Lee Henderson, 39, whose novel The Man Game was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Award.
What drew you to the UBC Creative Writing Program?
I was in Saskatoon and wanted to be living in Vancouver where it didn't get so cold. I did some creative writing in high school with my English teacher, Al Forrie, who is the publisher of Thistledown Press. When I got to UBC I took Shannon Stewart's workshop, then Zsuszi's summer fiction workshop, and I was hooked. After that, all I wanted to do was write. I had no idea that it was possible to get published. I didn't know anything about the publishing world in Canada. I just knew I loved hanging out with other wannabe writers and taking classes with pros.
What was one of the most important things you learned during your time in the program?
Well, I learned how to write! Ha ha. Also I learned to value my friends. I made so many lifelong friends in the program, before any of us were published, and that friendship is what counts the most.
If you could go back, is there anything you would do differently?
No, I'd even keep the panic attacks.
Your first book, The Broken Record Technique, was also your MFA thesis. What was it like getting that book published post-graduation.
My thesis proposal was my novel, but I didn't finish it for another six years after graduating from the MFA … and so I ended up compiling the stories that would go into my book instead. In September of my first year of my MFA, I got an offer to publish a collection, so I ended up spending my two years in the program prepping that instead, and my book came out in the April that I graduated. For my thesis, I just gave my super-supervisor Keith Maillard a copy of my book. Crazy.
What advice would you give me about taking my first steps into the world as a writer once I've graduated?
Write like mad. Write as much as possible. Have fun, too, and be patient with your prose and consider the merits of every word. Cultivate your obsessions. Don't be fooled into rehashing borrowed ideas – do your own thing. Send your stories out to the literary journals when you think they are ready and keep all your rejection letters. Celebrate with your writer friends when you or they are published, then get back to writing your own stuff. When somebody wants to publish a book of yours, or an agent wants to represent you, that's awesome, but don't lose your cool – run to your trusted writer-friends for advice. The weird thing about the MFA is that you're so desperate for the validation of publication, but then you get published and you realize that nothing validates you more than the process.