I like to think Alice Munro enjoyed this view of Elephant Mountain when she traveled to Nelson to teach creative writing in the 1970s.

COLUMN: Building the Nelson Lit community

There has never been a more exciting time to be a writer in the Kootenays.

Eleven years before I was born in 1984, Alice Munro moved to Nelson to teach creative writing at Notre Dame University. Her marriage was crumbling and the 42-year-old was looking for somewhere to crash that was “well away from Victoria and indeed from just about anyplace else,” according to her biographer Robert Thacker.

In one of her drafts for the unpublished story “Creative Writing”, Munro’s main character is asked why she came to the Kootenays.

“I wanted to get away somewhere for a while and it seemed like—I remembered driving through here once and I thought it was a nice place, with the lake,” she says.

Munro had published her first short story only six years earlier, and her literary superstardom was still years away. Always ambivalent about teaching, the opportunity nonetheless gave her a chance to support herself financially during a time of vulnerability.

Munro’s time in Nelson was short-lived—she moved to Ontario shortly later—but I like to think Elephant Mountain provided the magical refuge she needed during one of the toughest periods of her life, and made her future trajectory possible.

A university town

I moved to the Kootenays last year with my partner Darby when we were in a similarly tight spot, glomming on to a newspaper rather than a university, because I figured it would give me a chance to practice my writing in public.

I’d spent eight years pursuing post-secondary education in creative writing—first at Douglas College, then UVic and UBC. As soon as I moved here, I was struck by Nelson’s similarity to Victoria—my home for more than 5 years—and couldn’t help but fantasize about a similarly bunny-infested campus right here on Kootenay Lake.

When I interviewed Padma Viswanathan, the author of The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, which later went on to be short-listed for the Giller Prize, she expressed the same sentiment.

Her novel, which features a fictional version of Dorkmyer the Front Street grotesque, takes place in a version of Nelson called Lohikarma, and it’s here that the main character spends most of his time at an imaginary local university.

Viswanathan, like so many people in this area, thinks of Nelson as a university town—this despite the fact that David Thompson University shuttered in 1984, the same year Munro gave her last reading in the area.

According to Tom Wayman and Verna Relkoff, the duo behind the push to re-establish creative writing education in Nelson, it’s been a 31 year fight that has been exhausting, political and at many points seemingly hopeless.

But last month they contacted me with exciting news: they had successfully teamed with UBC Okanagan to bring a community-based course called Writing from the Ground up back to the area.

Tom and Verna said the course was their first step, a toe-dip in the literary pond, to see whether there was sufficient interest to support further programming. They were hoping to attract 15 students.

Days after my story on the announcement ran Tom sent me a celebratory email to let me know all 15 spots had already been shot-gunned by a variety of community members chomping at the bit to get writing.

The future of Nelson Lit

Around this time, Selkirk College announced the hiring of a new creative writing instructor—Leesa Dean, author of the upcoming collection Waiting for the Cyclone.

A cursory Facebook search revealed that we shared a number of Toronto writer-type friends, as well as a publisher: Brindle & Glass, where I worked before moving here.

I called Leesa while she was driving across the country with her friend Kathy Friedman—another amazing writer who’s planning to spend the summer working on a book.

Right away we were excitedly chattering about the growing lit scene here in the Kootenays, engaging in writer-gossip and fantasizing about our vision for the future of Nelson Lit. I can tell already that she’s a kindred spirit, and I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes here.

Dean will be joining a faculty that has been teaching first and second-year courses in creative writing in the Kootenays for many years, under the guidance of celebrated author Almeeda Glenn Miller.

With these two institutions now offering first, second and third year courses, we now have more opportunities for aspiring authors in Nelson than any time since David Thompson closed.

And now that UBC has announced it will be moving into its learning centre headquarters at 266 Baker Street—only a handful of blocks from my house—this literary dream is starting to finally come true.

Tom and Verna have teamed up with the West Kootenay Teacher Education Program—a 26-year fixture in the area—which will use the classrooms during the week while all us writer-types get together on Fridays and Saturdays.

Giving thanks

I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in a number of different lit scenes across the country, but nowhere have I felt as embraced and encouraged as here in Nelson.

Earlier this year Verna was the judge who selected my story “Paisley”—a flash piece about murderous lesbians on a Gulf Island—to take second-place in the Kootenay Lit Competition.

The gala at Touchstones Nelson was one of the highlights of my year, and now I’ve been invited to read at the upcoming Elephant Mountain Literary Festival, an opportunity I’m stupid-grateful for.

And most recently, I found out the Columbia Basin Trust approved my grant application to finish my fiction collection This is how you talk to strangers, a financial shot in the arm that couldn’t have come at a better time.

(Like most people my age in this area, I’m barely making rent despite holding down three jobs.)

Like Alice Munro back in the 1970s, I came to Nelson during a period of desperation and now that I’m a year in I feel like I’ve benefited incredibly from the healing powers of this magical refuge.

This is a very exciting time to be a writer in Nelson, and I feel privileged to be even a small part of it.

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