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Budge Wilson Interview Transcript

Q1 Interviewer: How and when did you come to writing? What is your process? What drew you to the characters and stories you write about?

Budge: I’m glad you split those up; I figure there are five things there. I wish I could say there was a flash of light and I started writing. But I was working as a photographer and I was using a professional reflective camera, the kind that you have to look down into. And this does have something to do with writing; you have to have a very, very sharp focus to see things. And I was taking pictures of children and they weren’t sitting on a bench or something, they were up and running around. And I had to be able to get to the exact moment and the exact time and I had to focus on them to get the exact moment when they had that look or that gesture. And I had to be focusing the camera at the same time and all of this happened so quickly. So your eyes had to perfect and when you get to be 48 or 49 and you start to lose your near vision, when you have to hold the book away from you, and I started taking bad pictures so I knew I couldn’t be a photographer anymore and I thought, “What can I do?”

I thought ok I always enjoyed writing, although I had done almost none of it, I thought I had enjoyed writing in school, I don’t like writing essays but I enjoyed writing in school so I thought like this, “Ok-I’ll be a writer”. Imagine the arrogance. And the other ridiculous thing was I thought I would make money, which is even more ridiculous. That’s why I started. I wish I could say I was inspired by something but I wasn’t. I did it because I thought “I need to do something” and I wanted to do something creative. I had worked at painting for years and years, and loved it, but someone had indicated that I would never make it to the big time and I kind of stopped doing that because it kind of discouraged me a whole lot, so I thought I would do that (referring to writing).

And so that’s what I did. I started by entering a bunch of contests, and I would recommend that to almost everyone, because you never know. And I sent things off to all kinds of competitions and then I forgot about them. And then I got a call one day and it was the CBC, I had forgotten completely that I had sent an adult short story off to the CBC and found that I had won first prize for the CBC radio contest. And I remembered being really puzzled because I couldn’t remember where I sent the thing and I kept saying, “Are you sure?” And when they told me how much money I was getting I said “Are you sure it’s that much?” (Chuckles). The CBC said they had never gotten such a funny response to a phone call like that, except for another person, I can’t remember the name of, I think they were out west, and they said “Oh good, now I can buy that cow” (People in room chuckle). So anyways, that’s how I started. And you really want to know my method?

Interviewer: Yes (chuckles)

Budge: Ok well, over the years, I don’t think I write that differently now than how I wrote when I started. I just sort of plunged in because basically I didn’t know what I was doing and gradually this is what I always did. Until now it’s a little more, um, conscious what I’m doing. What I do when I start writing is intentionally try not to think. I will start with a starting sentence or maybe a general idea. Or a character. And I will just start and if I haven’t got a perfect starting sentence, well too bad, I will just start and then I will just keep going and let the story develop itself. But I do not plan ahead or make a structure; I just let it come out, and the characters move as they logically would move. And I kind of follow along afterwards. And I know that sounds like a really weird way to write, but you’ll find I’m not the only one who writes that way. Someone like Alistair MacLeod, who doesn’t go onto paragraph two until he has perfected paragraph one. I could never, never do that because for me, the flow would go. The flow doesn’t go for Alistair, who writes magnificent stories, but I couldn’t do it that way.

I don’t edit anything until the end, if it’s a novel I wait until the end then go back and do the editing. If I’m writing a novel, every day I will do a chapter. When I was writing Before Green Gables that’s exactly what I would do, I would write a chapter a day. Then the following day I would re-read the chapter to get into the story again and then I would carry on but I wouldn’t correct stuff in that last chapter and that’s the way I do it. The first draft tends to come out very quickly. Writing the first draft, it is exciting and intense and quick but probably without me even realizing it, exhausting, because it’s so quick. I think it’s little bit like an explosion. But the editing part is like cleaning up the debris from an explosion. And I love this part, it’s slow and it’s quiet and I sit on the bed to do more work, because I write by hand, with a thesaurus here and a dictionary here. And one by one, word for word, I check that the dialogue really sounds like people are talking and see if it’s got any kind of rhythm and flow. Or it has a jump in it that I need to fix. Correcting my god-darn spelling, but it’s slow and relaxing and I like it. I had trouble with that in Before Green Gables because I wrote the thing and then, I sent [the handwritten manuscript] to a typist that lived in Dartmouth. But then she moved to Brandon, MB and anything I sent to her, I had to mail. And it took a long time, because it wasn’t online or anything, and I had to send things by mail and that took a long time. I wrote the handwritten text very quickly, it was 600 pages, and I had to edit it just so there wasn’t anything she couldn’t understand. I sent it off [to her], her name was Monica, the only woman to understand my handwriting. And in spite of the fact English is not her first language, she did a remarkable job, and then when it came back I did my editing. But the publishing company dropped over a month from my deadline so I had a very short time in which to edit it. And halfway through we discovered that the Americans who had already bought the rights wanted it a hundred pages shorter. The book is too long. But the kind of parts of the books that my editor chose to remove in order to make it 100 pages shorter were not ones that I thought should go, because they were taking out big chunks. And I fought this very hard and won almost everything because if I had more time to do the editing I could have taken a part in the middle and taken that out, I could have taken out a hundred pages but I would have needed a month more but I didn’t have it. As a result I never read the book.

Interviewer: Really?

Budge: No, I’ve edited it, but that’s not the same as sitting down at the beginning and reading it, and I think because of that decrease time in which I was to do the editing, I think I’m scared to read it. So….what’s the next part of your question?

Q2 Interviewer: The next part, the next part I would like to hear is how do you write for so many different audiences? From picture books, to young readers, to young adults? What draws you to different audiences that you write for and how do you choose your subjects for these different readers?

Budge: I think what makes me go from one age to another age is that I get bored with myself, and if I have just finished doing a picture book- I love picture books, I think I’ve only done three, and they are very hard. They do not come out quickly for me. I tend to write the first draft quickly and find I have to reduce it so drastically that it takes a long, long time. I will write 38 pages and think “oh this is nice” and take it to the editor and she will say “oh it’s very nice but it has to be 14 pages”. And you feel all your beautiful words escaping from you and you may argue with it but the fact is you can’t have a very big text for a picture book. So I finish a picture book, and I do not want to do a picture book for awhile. So I sort of at random decide what I’m going to do unless a publisher says, will you please do something specific, and I’ve certainly had that happen. With the book Fractures, which is written mostly for adults, they are adult stories. But publishers don’t seem to want me to write adult stories that are marketed as adult stories. And it’s true I do most of my writing for adolescents and young teen people. But I really do feel as if I’m writing for adults to teens. And that’s tricky, and it’s called a crossover book. But it’s hard to market that as anything else than a children’s book and this has been difficult for me. I’ve often said I’ll have to be dead before people realize who I’m writing for. But that’s ok. What I do if I realize I’m going to write the story is, I just write the story, and I don’t aim it at anybody. And this is what I did in Before Green Gables.

Right, well, so I asked my editor after I went through the two and a half months whether I decided I wanted to write this book or not for various reasons and you can ask me about them or not. And I said for whom am I writing this book now that I’ve decided to do it? She said you’re writing it for anyone who has read Anne of Green Gables and that means, that’s me thinking, that means, that’s anyone from 9 to 89 and I just thought 80 years of readership is just more than I can cope with so I’m just going to have to write this story as it’s coming out of my head and without thinking of who it’s for, and I do feel that the book is mainly for adults. There is a lot of difficult and sad material in there, tragic stuff, and it has to be in there because it’s mentioned later. If you read Anne of Green Gables, in chapter 5, you see a kind of overview of Anne’s life and you know that the parents have to die, and Mr Thomas has to die, and Mr Hammond has to die and she’s ripped from family to family and all of those things have be in there. But it’s strung out more so it makes the pain more, more sad than in Anne of Green Gables which is dealt with in only 4 pages and you’re rid of it but it’s there in the background. And, so mostly if I start to write a story or a poem, I just write it because I’m writing a story and then I decide who I am writing for. But so often I do write about adolescents, um, it just kind of naturally drops into the wide swath, and there I am again in the children’s section

Q3 Interviewer: We’ve already started talking about the books. Given the number of books you’ve written, 33, do you have a favourite?

Budge: Um. Well maybe it’s easier to say favourites in one category. Say picture book I would oddly, I don’t think my favourite one is that well written, but it’s the book I love to read most in schools and kids seem to like it best. If a child won’t go to bed unless the book is read to them, then you know that is a successful book. Whether or not that is what the royalty statement might say. And that is the book, I think, took me 13 tries to get it right, but it’s The Long Wait and it is about a cat and it’s a true story about the cat that got lost between Ontario and Nova Scotia, and kids really do like it, and I think as a result, it’s my favourite- for that age.

I think in the middle years, um Oliver’s Wars is [my favourite] for various reasons; it takes place in Halifax, and I like that. And I even know this house he lives in, he lives in a blue house and there is actually a blue house on Bland Street; I have no idea who owns it, but when I pass it I kind of think it’s Oliver’s house even though it’s his grandfather’s house. It’s also about bullying. And as a result I get a lot of feedback because bullying, I don’t know, it seems to be something that people are thinking an awful lot about these days.

In the later books, which are crossover books, in my opinion, I would think probably The Leaving [is my favourite] but The Leaving, was written absolutely as an adult book although it’s marketed [as a YA book]. A publisher is going to put out three re-issues this year. One is The Leaving, one is Cordelia Clark and one is Courtship. And thery’re not saying what they are, they are just re-issued books and on the other side of the flyer they say Budge Wilson’s children books; they almost say that the others are adult books but they don’t. I am a little closer to being accepted there. I think The Leaving is my best book although it was written a long time ago, 1990 I think. There is another book that has a lot of The Leaving’s best stories in it, and it’s called Fractures, and it is a story really about mildly or severely dysfunctional families and I think there is a lot of thinking about that now. I certainly think about it a lot now. In fact I wonder if there is such a thing as a functional family, a completely functional family; there have to be some cracks, somewhere and that’s why I call it “fractures,” not broken, but sometimes there are fractures, and sometimes bad ones. And I don’t think [the publisher] asked for it, they asked for the one that came after it, called Friendships, and it was on friendship, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to write a book on flimsy little teen friendships. I know that’s very unfair of me, because teens often form important friendships but I didn’t want to do it so I said thanks but no thanks. Then Hurricane Juan came and did $20, 000 worth of damage to our property on the shore. So I phoned [the publisher] up and I said I would write your books, and that didn’t put $20, 000 in my lap but it did put enough to make a huge difference and although it was nominated for a Governor General’s award, I don’t think it was as good as Fractures. I don’t know what you think?

Interviewer: I prefer Fractures. I like the darker stories.

Budge: Well I do too, and I’m often not crazy about being commissioned to write a book because you often feel constrained by what they want you to do. I prefer to start with an idea of my own and let it go where it wants to go.
Interviewer: Just following up on that, is there a book that was particularly hard for you to write?
Budge: Um, I can’t think of one, I’m one of those rare birds who is a happy writer, I don’t agonize over my work, I know a lot of people do, and you would think that maybe with the editing, because I do pretty careful editing, you might find that agonizing, but I don’t. I love it.

Interviewer: That’s great; you’re lucky.

Budge: I am lucky, that it’s a weird kind of experience writing because I feel like I’m leaving myself, I get so into the story I’m not in myself anymore. It’s almost therapeutic the way meditation would be because you are not concentrating on your problems, like you’ve run out of sugar or when you’re going to fit the laundry in and what not, you’re totally in what you’re doing.

Q4 Interviewer: (chuckles) I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about the importance of place in your books. Most of your stories are set in Canada, Ontario or Eastern Canada, but the majority are set in Nova Scotia. And although the setting is not the main focus, it does seem to be a part of your stories. And you mentioned the house on Bland Street. Do you feel you have a role to play as a Nova Scotian or an Atlantic Canadian writer?

Budge: Well I don’t feel an obligation, if that’s what you mean, it’s not something I feel I ought to be doing, to put Nova Scotia on the map or anything I think it’s just my place and I love it, and it’s natural for me to put my stories there, even when we were in Ontario and we were in Ontario for, over time, not all the same time, 33 years, and that’s a lot of time. And during a lot of that time I was writing and I was still writing about NS. We came home every year for one or two months and we were coming home to a place on the water. And that whole feeling about the sea continued without any interruption. And I know the people down here, and I know both simple and complicated, rural people and city people because we live so much in a rural setting, even now it’s 6 months by the sea then 6 months in the city. Even now all those experiences, are the realist experiences for me, but I don’t [set my books in Nova Scotia] because I ought to do, sometimes I put them in different places or sometimes I don’t put them anywhere at all. I think “The Metaphor” that’s in both Fractures and The Leaving which has been anthologized a lot, I don’t think there is any setting in there, I don’t remember, maybe you do?

Interviewer: Maybe just the schools she was going to?

Budge: But does it mention anything?

Interviewer: No, not really.

Budge: I don’t think there are any places. In fact, when she runs out, after she discovers that Mrs Hancock dies, she runs out the front door and goes home. And I always visualize that as the front corridor leading to the front door of the school that my kids went to in Peterborough [Ontario]. But I don’t mention it I don’t think because it isn’t relevant. Sometimes the setting is relevant or sometimes it is a kind of rich decoration, texture is what the academics call it.

Q5 Interviewer: I know you’re very well connected with the writing community in Nova Scotia and in the region. I was wondering if you had any thoughts of any defining characteristic or feature to Atlantic Canadian writing? [Q5 reframed by editors: In your experience, what are the advantages of being a children’s writer in Canada, and of participating in book tours?]

Budge: Well, I would have trouble answering that one. Um, I’m not well enough read in the books across the country or even in the province. I know that Newfoundland is crammed with excellent writers, and I know something about that, I do know a lot of writers right across the country and I have certainly read a lot of their books, but I ‘can’t say that we in this area write any better or even differently except that our subject matter tends to be different because people bring a lot of the scenery, and the different culture of this area, but I can’t really give you a very satisfactory answer about this.

Interviewer: Well, that’s fine.

Budge: But children’s writers are very fortunate that unlike adult writers they get invited all over the country with children’s festivals or things like Children’s Book Week. I’ve had 6 invitations to Alberta, and, well, you see the country and as you see the country you become a much stronger and knowledgeable Canadian because I’ve been up north a lot. Now adult writers are not invited up North and why would they be? Why would someone fly them in, in order to speak to who? To whom? (chuckles). But if you’re doing children’s book week or if you’re involved in the Labrador art festival, then you get sent out to the North Shore of Labrador or to the Yukon or to way, way, way up to Northern Saskatchewan. I’ve been to all of those places. Particularly Labrador, Northern Labrador, I’ve been there a lot. I can’t tell you what those experiences are like for getting a feeling of what the country is. It’s marvellous. I don’t think I’m answering your question.

Interviewer: No, that’s totally fine. More just a reflection of whether you think there is any feature to Atlantic Canadians?

Budge: No, I’m well, I know what I was setting up to say that while I was running around the country, in the process you go to so many festivals or go to a library conference in Toronto . They aren’t just bringing me in, they are bringing me and six other writers, if it’s something that is centred on children writing- well you do this enough times you find you know children’s writers across the country and this is a very enriching thing todo; I don’t know, I find it’s a privilege to be a children’s writer from that point of view. Never mind the pleasure it is to talk to the children, that is marvellous and seeing how sometimes the children differ from different parts of the country and different levels of economic comfort. You go into a slum area or an inner city school you are going to get a different response from Rosedale, Toronto or from native communities, and they are all different and they all receive you differently. And it’s great because you have a wonderful almost one-on-one relationship between you and your readers and I think that’s rare for adult writers.

Q6 Interviewer: Now for some last questions. Would you consider yourself a feminist writer, is the feminist movement important to you?

Budge: That’s really funny, you would think I would have thought about that a thousand times but I really haven’t. But I do know that in the story “The Leaving”, which was the very first adult story I wrote and sent into the CBC and won that thing. That’s a kind of a feminist story, it’s the reading about the Feminist Mystic that makes the reader kind of sit up and take notice. And think “What can I do about my life?” And she doesn’t get a chance to do a great deal, but she does enough to make her life a different thing and her daughter’s life is a totally different thing. And I suppose this sometimes comes in, but often women are not all that marvellous people.

Interviewer: Yes, I would say it’s not always women because you have some distinct male characters.

Budge: Well I had a friend, about 20 years ago, and he was probably 10 years older than I was, so he was probably around 70 and he had been very ill so I thought I would send him a couple of my books, short story collections, and he write me back and said “Thank you very much for the books. I enjoyed them- but why are you always writing about horrible men?” He was offended. So I went through- I think I sent him The Leaving but I may have sent him two- I went through and I put BW or BM- in the table of contents, bad woman or bad man- and I found it was almost equal. I don’t know I ever wrote him back to say “Hey, guy, you’re wrong”. But I know I have to be careful not to talk too much about women or write too much about girls. Because I think it was after I wrote Fractures that I got a sheath of letters from some high school or junior high and they were all saying they liked the book, they liked the books and two boys wrote and said “We hate your books because you never wrote anything except girls, never about boys”. So when I wrote Friendships I was very careful to make it half and half- half about girls and half about boys. You know I do know girls so much better than I do know boys. I had one sister and no boys, and I have two daughters, no boys. So I’ve seen girls much more closely than I’ve seen boys, but I have seen lots of boys so I could write about them but I was so much more interested in writing about girls than I was boys. But if I’m going to think about readership, which I almost never, do I have to think a little about that, think of a story about a boy before I start a collection.

Interviewer: So that means sometimes, you do you set out to write a story about a boy? Or when you set out to write do you just set out and write?

Budge: Well I think after those two letters (chuckles) I would probably think that much, if this is going to be about a boy or about a girl. I wrote Oliver’s Wars without any of those thoughts. I wrote Oliver’s Wars because the first Gulf War was going on at that time, around 1990, and I was terrified by that war, strangely enough more terrified by that war than the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because I thought it was going to turn into a world conflict. And I was very alive and aware during WWII and I know what it is like to live during those times. I disliked it especially in Halifax because you are so much closer to any wars that are going on. Because of it being the gateway to Ontario of our country and a means of getting overseas with troops and ammunition or food and all this kind of thing, and I didn’t want another war so I wrote Oliver’s Wars as a kind of intentional therapy for me to keep my mind on the book so I’m not watching the newscasts and wondering if this thing is going to proliferate into something more huge, and it turned out to be a short war but it looked for a while like it was going to be something pretty difficult. And I just said it look liked it were going to be something more difficult and I was reminded in that Before Green Gables the editors, I guess it was the copy editors, took all my subjunctives out which bothered me a lot- I like the subjunctive, but she said nobody uses the subjunctive anymore. And I noticed in the UK version of the book, you might be interested to see the foreign editions, for the covers and what not, and they put all the subjunctives back in, you never know what other countries are going to do with your book. Sometimes good or sometimes not good.

Q7 Interviewer: That’s interesting for me, since many of your books have been translated. Are you aware of other strange things that have happened to your books? [Q7 reframed by editors: Many of your books have been translated or released in new editions. Are you aware any changes that have been made to the stories in that process?]

Budge: Things do happen. A Chinese guy came over here at one point and stayed with us for eight days. He wanted to translate The Leaving into Chinese. And we had everything set up for it, he had the covers here in China, and he was going to translate it, and all the odd bits that are involved in a translation and the publisher- wouldn’t -I guess wouldn’t let it go. I guess they were frightened of piracy? I don’t care about piracy. I would have liked to have [The Leaving] in China. Um, but that was one interesting thing that happened. Now they’ve done an animation in Japan of Before Green Gables. And it’s awful.
Interviewer: It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the book at all.
Budge: You’ve seen that awful thing? (Chuckles) I can hardly speak about it, I had to go through all the 39 episodes about that thing (Chuckles).

Q8 Interviewer: Are there any books that have had an effect on you as a writer? Maybe it’s The Feminine Mystique. [Q8 reframed by editors: Are there any books or life events that have had an effect on you as a writer? Maybe Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique?]

Budge: (chuckes) Well that had an effect on my life. I don’t know, I think possibly reading Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence made me know that you can write great material about ordinary people. Now that’s what I have always done. No fantasy or kings and queens- although some but there hasn’t been anything done with them. Because you can write stories about people other than kings and queens. Now I admire the writing of both those women, and also oddly Shakespeare, because although he does talk about kings and queens, he also talks about ordinary people and often those are people who are very moving and reach you at a different level.

Interviewer: Thank you so much for the interview. You have been so generous with your time.

Budge: I think interviews are kind of interesting to do. You have people who, one assumes, are interested in your work. In other circumstances say you’re in a big party and ask what you do and you say you’re a writer and they offer to get you a drink (loud laughter) because they don’t know what to talk about. People talk to writers in different ways. Sometimes when you go on the road, it’s often for schools. It’s very tiring, and kind of accelerating. You go out and someone drives you. I’m thinking of the last time I was on children’s books week. But I have a bad back, I have scoliosis. I’ve lost 8 inches in height. Picture it, that’s a lot. And it’s all in my body which means my spine is shaped like and s. I knew if I went to Baffin Islands, and I had already wondered in Labrador if I was doing the right thing. I had already gone on the back of a snow mobile on the sea, it’s water, thinking it would be smooth, how stupid water has waves in it, 55 km, it was just before my 65th birthday and I would have had this scoliosis and I think maybe I thought it was an irresponsible thing to do, well when at the age of 68 they asked where I wanted to go, and I thought I’m dying to go the Baffin Island, but a lot of these places had no roads so you end up in an all terrain vehicle or snow mobile and its bump, bump, bump, bump. And a lot of them are hard to get to and you take those little planes, and I love those little planes even though I’ve had some hairy experiences with them. So I said, “Nope, PEI.” And so you go and they give you a drive. And I said I wanted to see the whole island so I had a driver I did not know, and with a driver you do not know you have to talk to them, and then you go out and talk to the kids, then someone takes you out to lunch and no one knows what to say to you and then you find yourself like the host at their party. You have to work all afternoon and you get to stay in a hotel or otherwise you go through all this performance with the tongue tied people who are hosting you. But you go to Newfoundland and golly those people, no one is impressed you’re a writer and they have no problem talking to you. They take you out to the rocker and give you the baby to hold and they feed you in the kitchen and it’s local food not because they are trying to impress you but because that s what they eat and maybe in the evening a guy in the family will take you would for a drive and show you pretty places. But it’s all so natural and wonderful.