When I first began my project photographing writers, in Calgary in the late 90’s, Bob Stallworthy was my first subject. The photo above is from that shoot. The photograph is included in my first book of portraits First Chapter published by the Banff Centre Press.
LP: In Silhouette, Profiles of Alberta Writers is series of interviews but you can’t find them in print. How and why did Bob Stallworthy and Frontenac House decide to publish them online?
BS: In Silhouette began as a series of profiles written for the Writers Guild of Alberta’s magazine, WestWord. As the number of profiles written for WestWord grew, I started to think about what else I might do with the material. I made some very informal inquiries to several publishers in Alberta about turning the profiles into a conventional book. There was interest but the conversation always ended with the comment, “You should put these on a website.” I don’t have and didn’t have a website of my own.
I was talking with Rose Scollard, publisher of Frontenac House Ltd. and told her about the profiles and what I was getting as a response. Her initial response was similar. In frustration I said, “well, would you put them on your website?” To my surprise she said yes! From that point on In Silhouette began to take shape. To be fair to every publisher I talked to, including Frontenac House, I think the main concern was whether or not there would be a strong enough and prolonged enough market for a conventional book to make it viable.
LP: Will the collection eventually be printed?
BS: In the Frequently Asked Question section permission for use of the material has been given provided the specified conditions are met. Permission includes the downloading and printing off of a hard copy of the e-book. At the moment, there are no plans to publish In Silhouette as a conventional book. If I would ever consider this, I would negotiate with Frontenac House Ltd.
LP: What criteria do you use to establish someone as an Alberta writer? You’ve recently added an interview with Tom Wayman and one could say, despite the fact that he’s now teaching at the University of Calgary, he is considered a B.C. writer.
BS: There is no real firm criteria for determining who or who is not an Alberta writer. In my mind a person has to be a resident of Alberta for at least a full year before I would consider them an Alberta writer. Having said that, there are several writers who no longer live in Alberta who will be included in the e-book because they built the majority of their career in this province. I can make a strong case for each of those writers to be included in the e-book. In any event, the decision would always be on a case by case basis.
LP: Do you conduct your interviews, in person, by phone, email?
BS: The majority of the interviews have been done in person. A few have been done over the phone. I went out and bought a tape recorder that would plug into my phone line in order to be able to do interviews this way. So far, I’ve done one by e-mail. I much prefer the face to face interview but that isn’t always possible or practical.
LP: How often do you add profiles to the collection?
BS: There is no set schedule for the addition of profiles to the e-book. Because adding to In Silhouette means shutting the website down while making the changes, I only add profiles when I have a number of them done. When I’m ready I contact the web master and arrange to have them posted to the website.
LP: How much research do you find yourself doing before you conduct an interview?
BS: I’ve been around the writing community in Alberta for 23 years so I have come to know a lot of writers in that time. To date, all of the people I’ve profiled are people I’ve known well so the amount of hard research I’ve had to do is minimal. If I’m unsure of the titles of books or the number of books I will do a search to make sure I’ve got that kind of thing correct. Similarly, I will check on what awards may have been won, especially if I think I want to talk about a specific one. However, so far I’ve found that not knowing a lot about a person allows me to follow the conversation where ever it will go without having to impose my own knowledge on it.
LP: Have you or the publisher considered expanding the series to other provinces?
BS: There have been no formal discussions about expanding the e-book beyond the borders of Alberta. Obviously, I’ve fantasied about it. This is an ongoing project that could keep me writing until I get too old or too forgetful to do it any more.
LP: The profiles are wide ranging covering everything from biography to writing habits. As a writer yourself what do you enjoy hearing about the most?
BS: As a writer, hearing about the writing habits of others is obviously interesting. But, I must confess, I’m more interested in the person’s biography. It is the biography that tells me who that person is. I like knowing what issues each writer feels are really important in their lives and how or if those things influence their writing.
LP: During interviews people can sometimes reveal unexpected facets of their lives. Any moments like these that stand out for you?
BS: I think the most unexpected finding of doing these profiles is how many people who I’ve looked up to as writers have all of the same fears about their careers that I have about mine. Many of them have now over come those fears but when they started out, they were just as unsure of whether they could get the stories out there that they wanted to tell as I was about whether I could tell the stories I wanted to tell.
A second revelation is the sudden contrast between those writers who’ve had support from their families from the very beginning and those who have had to work at their craft with little or no emotional support from those closest to them. Part of the reason for this to stand out for me is that I’ve had total support from my wife since the very beginning. It is somewhat amazing to me that those who have not had any support have continued to work hard at their writing and have turned a tough situation into a successful one.
LP: Do you have any personal favourites among the profiles?
BS: As with my poetry, my favourite profile is usually the one that I’m working on at the time. There are some which have been a bit easier to do than others, simply because I knew that individual better than others. But no, in the end there isn’t one that I could pick out as being a favourite.
LP: Who can we look for in the future?
BS: I have such a long list of people who I would like to include in the e-book, I’m not prepared to give specific names right now. It might be a surprise to the individual to find their name mentioned here before I have had a chance to talk to them about being in the e-book. I can say that I have been in touch with some well known Alberta writers who have yet to appear in the e-book. I hope to include their profiles in the e-book as soon as possible.
LP: Give us a brief profile of Bob Stallworthy.
After working as a social worker for a number of years, Bob left that field and began writing professionally at the age of 37. His poetry has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies in Canada. He has self-published two chapbooks of poetry, had a nonfiction chapbook on the history of the Old Y Community Center in Calgary and three full-length books of poetry published. His fourth book of poetry will be launched in April 2009. His work has been read on both CBC1 and CBC 2. He performed his poetry at the first Spoken Word International Writers Festival in Calgary in August 2004. His third book, Optics, Frontenac House Ltd., 2004 was short-listed for the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize, 2004.
Bob has been active in many areas of the writing community in Alberta over the last 23 years; participating on the Executives of several writers organizations, as a member of the Literary Festival Committee for the 1988 Winter Olympics, as a member of the Steering Committee for the first Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival, as the first Writers Guild of Alberta’s Regional Co-ordinator for the Southern Alberta Region, and the founding co-chair of the Calgary Freedom to Read Week Committee. In 2002 he was the co-recipient of the Calgary Freedom of Expression Award.
He has given workshops and readings in schools all over Alberta as well as readings in Sackville, NB, Halifax, NS and Toronto, ON. He was the Writer-in-Residence at the Drumheller Public Library in February 2005.
Bob is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, a Lifetime member of the Writers Guild of Alberta and a member of Young Alberta Book Society.
LP: What, apart from the profiles, are you writing now?
BS: I’ve put aside writing the profiles in order to complete my 4th book of poetry entitled, Things That Matter Now. This book will be launched by Frontenac House in April 2009. Once I’ve finished working on it I’ll return to writing profiles.
LP: You’ve been involved in the Alberta writing world for a long time, any general thoughts on the state of the Alberta writing community?
BS: When I worked for the Writers Guild of Alberta in the late 1980s as Book Display Co-ordinator I was often asked, “Are there writers in Alberta?” And, of course, the answer was, “ Yes, there are a lot.” Back then I believe the display that I took around the province had less than 100 books in it. When I stopped traveling with the display after five years, in 1990, the number of books was well over 200. At that time, Alberta’s writers were just beginning to garner some real national attention, albeit that attention was still a bit hit and miss.
I think it is safe to say that the number of writers now working in this province has increased phenomenally. And now national and international recognition of Alberta writers is a regular occurrence. To the point, there are five Alberta writers short-listed for the Governor General’s Awards for 2008.
The increase in the number of writers and the number of awards being won needs to be viewed against a backdrop of political disinterest with regard to culture in general and writing in particular during the 1990s. To be sure, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts was maintained by the government of the day but the lack of interest was demonstrated year after year by the lack of increased funding for the Arts. During the same period of time there was a dramatic increase in the desire to control what was being published by Alberta publishers by controlling the funding that they received. Thankfully, this never really came to fruition.
Since the last provincial Conservative leaders’ race and the last election, and with the huge increases in revenue due to the oil patch, there seems to be an increased interest in government support of the Arts in general. The current Minister of Community Spirit seems to be making a concerted effort to show support for the cultural industry in general and writing specifically in the province. In spite of the increase in optimism, unfortunately, for Alberta writers, over the last few years a number of Alberta publishers have moved out of the province or been swallowed up by bigger organizations. This does make getting published by an Alberta publisher that much more difficult.
Despite all of the problems that seem to still be associated with a genuine support of the Arts in general and writers specifically, I believe there is good reason to be optimistic. I certainly don’t expect the number of writers in the province to decrease nor the attention that they receive.