Novelist hopes readers find compassion in latest novel

Dave Mathieson
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One Book Nova Scotia novelist, Alissa York, gives reading

AMHERST – In her third novel, Fauna, novelist Alissa York turns to the theme of urban wildlife.

“It’s about the creatures that live amongst us in cities and towns that we often think of as pests but, you know, it’s their home too,” she said.

York gave a reading of Fauna Monday night at the Four Fathers Memorial Library.

The reading in Amherst is one of 12 stops she will make for the One Book Nova Scotia tour, which started earlier this month.

York has lived in Toronto for the last seven years where she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.

“We have a School of Continuing Studies there. That’s where I mostly teach, and I teach at the Banff Centre as well.”

The urban wildlife living in Toronto in in her latest novel included birds, raccoons, squirrels coyotes, and even mice and the rats.

“Sometimes they are pests but sometimes they really enrich my experience of living in the city, and we sort of think that wildlife isn’t part of city life but it’s a big part of city life.”

The juxtaposition between concrete and wilderness found in the Toronto landscape comes naturally to York, who feels a kinship with animals.

York was born and grew up on the edge of wilderness in Athabasca, Alberta.

“I honestly think that all my earliest memories involved animals, living or dead - cats and dogs and animals in the wilderness, so that’s really important to me,” she said.

York is currently working on a novel that’s set in the 19th century, mostly in the Amazon.

While growing up, York says she often dreamed of visiting the Amazon, a trip she recently took.

“A lot of us do dream about the jungle, the jungle is a primal concern,” she said. “Some people have it for the North Pole or they have it for the desert. I always had it for the jungle.”

She spent a week on a boat on the Amazon River.

“It was not a fancy boat but it was comfortable enough,” she said.

Her boat-mates included the guide and his wife, who was also the cook, his son, who was the first mate, and a family from the south of France.

“Just sitting on that boat when we weren’t going anywhere and staring into the jungle could keep me happy for hours,” she said.

On the list of things to bring on the trip were a swimsuit and a towel. She said there was no way she was going in that water with piranhas, anacondas and other deadly animals.

“The teenage first mate was swimming and asking me in Portuguese if I don’t know how to swim,” said York.  “And then he said, ‘she’s timida,’ she’s timid, she’s scared, but something about hearing it in that other language made it so hard not to go in.”

York then jumped in the water.

“It was fine, here I am,” she said. “It was an amazing trip.”

While growing up she admired the naturalist David Attenborough and dreamed of being a zoologist but, instead, tried her hand at several different jobs, including waitressing, working in a bookstore, and acting.

“I discovered that when being an actor you have to work with other people,” she said with a laugh. She also added that it could be frustrating working with actors who hadn’t learned their lines.

York was born in 1970 and started writing stories in her early 20s, eventually becoming a novelist.

She said that as a novelist she could be her own boss.

“I’m the only one to blame when I’m working on a novel. There’s nobody else.”

York tries to write six days a week, when work or travel doesn’t take her away from home, and says it’s important for a writer to find time to write.

“Everybody has to find their own way but the one thing that is really true for everyone is that you have to take writing seriously and make space for it or it just won’t happen.”

Writers also have to write when they don’t particularly feel like writing.

“Writers write when the words are coming and when they’re not. There’s times when the words are flowing and there are the other times. You can’t just do it when it’s flowing,” she said. “Writing is one of those things that looks easy from the outside. It’s like when someone sits down with a fiddle and plays a fantastic song, people think they just do that but it took hours and hours and hours of practice. “

Fauna climbed to the third spot on MacLean’s Best Seller list, but her best-known novel, her second, is called Effigy. It was nominated for a Scotia bank Gilled Prize in 2007.

She says being published is great but it’s not what sustains her as a writer.

“Getting published concerns people too early. The writing itself has to be at the core of what you are doing,” she said. “Too many people, I find, are like, “ok, I’ve written this thing, how can I get it published.’”

She said it’s important to focus on making your story as good as it can be.

“Also, if you’re focused on the publishing and not on the process of writing itself it will never be satisfying for you no matter how well it goes,” she added. “You probably won’t be able to follow through during the tough times if you’re focused on the prize. You have to be focused on the thing itself because that what feeds you in the end.

“I’ve had several books published and I know that’s very ephemeral compared to the actual writing itself.”

York arrived in Nova Scotia Oct. 2.

“We’re here for nine days and we’re doing 12 readings in public libraries and university libraries all over the province,” she said. “We’ve been to Yarmouth and we’ve been to Sydney and every place in between.”

She has lived and worked in every region of Canada except the Maritimes. This is here first visit to the region.

“We love it. It’s beautiful. I think every meal we’ve had has been fantastic. We’ve met so many lovely people. I have no complaints.”

She said it was thrilling to be selected by Nova Scotia Reads.

“It was incredibly good news,” she said. “It’s an honour and a thrill and also a delight to know they wanted to bring me to Nova Scotia because I always wanted to come.”

Asked what she hopes readers take away from Fauna, York said, “I would say a compassionate stance, not just to their fellow human beings but to their fellow creatures. Just compassion.”





Organizations: Amazon, University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies Banff Centre

Geographic location: York, Nova Scotia, Toronto AMHERST Athabasca Alberta North Pole Amazon River France Yarmouth Sydney Canada

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