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BLANK CANVAS: Leesa Dean on leaving and finding her way back to the Kootenays

Dean is an author, poet and Selkirk College instructor
Krestova resident Leesa Dean is a published author, poet and instructor at Selkirk College. Photo: Submitted

by Sydney Black

Hello arts lovers!

This month we are diving into a chat with local literary star Leesa Dean. She took the time to chat with me about her life here as a writer and what living rurally as an artist means to her.

What’s your background/training/story?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer. I was reading chapter books as early as Grade 1 and by Grade 3 I started self-publishing a series I wrote and illustrated called Allie the Alien. I drew stick figures of myself, put a box around it to make it look like a photograph, and wrote third-person biographies on the book jackets!

As a teenager growing up in Cranbrook I had a story published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III. Despite these early successes, I ended up graduating high school, moving to Montreal, and becoming more interested in French than English. I spent 11 years there, working and living mostly in French, but then I took a writing course through the Quebec Writer’s Federation in my late 20s that changed everything. I immediately changed my program to Creative Writing at university and then a series of lucky moments and hard work landed me where I am today.

One of those lucky moments came in the form of a phone call from a magazine editor on Christmas Eve, 2010. I was still in my undergrad and had started sending short stories to magazines.

“We didn’t like the story you submitted that much, but we really liked your cover letter,” the voice on the phone said. The voice belonged to Susan Scott who became one of my greatest mentors. The magazine, The New Quarterly, has published a lot of my work over the years (including the story they didn’t like very much — I had to revise it a few times) and their editors were instrumental in encouraging me to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing. All of this led to me being here, now with two published books and a regular teaching position at Selkirk College where I’ve had the opportunity to mentor many young people the same way I was mentored.

Why did you end up in Nelson?

I grew up visiting Nelson and was always envious of the arts culture and environment here. As a teenager, I don’t think I could have ever imagined moving back to the Kootenays as an adult, but in 2010 I went to a writing retreat in Saskatchewan where I met the writer and poet Almeda Glenn Miller who jokingly said, “When I retire, you can move back home and take over at the college.” We kept in touch, and when a position opened up in 2015, I actually had the qualifications for the job. As soon as I heard about the position, I thought, yes. It’s time to go home.

What keeps you here?

So many things keep me here but mostly I love my job at Selkirk College. I also really love where I live, in Krestova. There’s a creek bordering our land and that is just so good for my heart and for my poetry. I also think the Kootenays is a great place to raise kids, and I have a five year old. She loves it here as does my husband Matty Kakes, whose murals you might recognize on the side of Thor’s and other places around town. This is a great place for all of us.

Any hot tips for people who want to live rurally but be a professional writer?

I don’t know if this is qualifies, but I think people should know this life can generally be a hustle — you have to chase down the work, and often that work will be remote. I got lucky with a regularized job teaching in post-secondary, but those jobs are rare. That said, there are lots of writers living and working here in various capacities. Most writers have jobs aside from their creative writing practices — you might be a copy editor or work in communications or something totally unrelated to writing. If you come in with the mindset that you’ll make a living in a variety of ways and that you might have to work online, I think this can be an amazing place to work, live and write.

Any upcoming projects?

The two biggest pieces of news at the moment are how this month I am travelling to Nova Scotia to deliver a keynote talk at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village. The talk relates to my last book, a novella in verse titled The Filling Station that re-imagines the life of a Brazilian squatter who captured Bishop’s attention in the 1950s while she was living in Brazil. It’s an incredible opportunity. If you’re curious about the book, copies are available at Notably Books. The second piece of news is that I am in the process of signing a book contract for a Fall 2025 release!

Sydney Black is executive director of the Nelson and District Arts Council. Blank Canvas appears monthly.