Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Carolyn Muir Helfenstein

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Ten Questions with Carolyn Muir Helfenstein

Open Book talks to Carolyn Muir Helfenstein about reading, writing and her first book, Why Not? A memoir in black and white (Brucedale Press, 2009).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book.

Carolyn Muir Helfenstein:

Why Not? a memoir in black and white is the Canadian story - one of high
adventure in the face of failure. It was on a cold January afternoon in Bruce County in 1986 that I found myself reading and rereading a short note attached to my pay cheque earned for a few stories I'd written for the local paper. It was a preposterous note, an offer any sane person would laugh off and go on with one's day. However that note and that offer to buy the local paper and bring ownership back to the community touched every creative nerve in my body and before long my husband of 39 years jumped in with both feet as well to take on such a challenge.

With no other explanation of why we actually bought the paper than if we hadn't taken the chance we would never have known we could do the job, we did; and why not? We eventually sold our 200-acre dairy farm - the one we had run for 25 years - and we became owners of The Teeswater News.

Over night, the metamorphosis began and slowly, often painfully, we learned the ropes of pumping out 20 and sometimes 24 pages every week, bloopers and all. Within the first 12 months, we covered two stories that went national - the death of an infant left to die in sub-zero temperatures in our area and the disappearance of a local woman - never to be found. Balancing such tragedies, I wrote about a delightful 96-year-old Clara who told me how to make blood sausage ("before the pig dies you begin collecting the blood
and you keep stirring, always stirring") and dear Charles, who wanted his poems published in our paper, charmed me into finding space for them (later I was to be an active pall bearer at his funeral) and we joined farmers from across Canada to make that historic march on Ottawa, 40,000 strong in the late 1990s (and we won first prize in Ontario for that report). For 12 years, The Teeswater News was ours.

So Why Not? a memoir in black and white is that story of a town, the
inhabitants and adventure; and I have been told it is a love story too.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

CMH:

Yes, I felt the rural readers of Western Ontario would find it enticing and I sensed they would laugh and maybe cry with me but overall, enjoy a good yarn about the rush of living in the fast lane of running a rural newspaper.

What I was not sure of was the urban reader who, as it turns out, is equally intrigued to read Why Not? An equally pleasant surprise was that two radio stations in Western Ontario each gave me 45 minutes of air time just before the launch of Why Not? in December 2008 and immediately following the launch, three daily papers (Guelph, Kitchener and Owen Sound) and two large circulation agricultural magazines reviewed Why Not? and gave my first published book very exciting, very positive reviews.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

CMH:

An early morning, at my desk, a cup of hot coffee and the rush I feel when the words begin to settle on the page.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

CMH:

Why Not? a memoir in black and white, published in December2008 by Brucedale Press, Anne Judd Publisher.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

CMH:

Within the past month I attended two unique plays presented by Bluewater Summer Playhouse, the setting an intimate cabaret style theatre on the second floor of an 1872 yellow brick former town hall building. Our table was a matter of inches from the stage and as I sipped my wine and watched the tales unfold, I found myself writing the script for a play based on the tales in Why Not? I could visualize the set - our crazy news office in our farm house, the smell of freshly cut hay through the open window mixed with the pong of manure rising from Harry's farm boots at the door way as I am 'laying out' our first paper; of 'Harry, the farmer ' streaking out past me to the barn to finish the barn chores - then returning in a panic, kicking off his boots and with hardly a comment climbing the stairs to his closet/darkroom, and emerging 'Harry the darkroom technician.' He smiles and holds up his first pmts (pictures) and presents them to the wary co-publisher, layout expert who must fit them into the spaces she had made for them.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a "Welcome to Canada" gift, what would those books be?

CMH:

Wayne Johnston's The Custodian of Paradise Wayson Choy's Jade Peony and Alistair MacLeod's Island and a few short stories from The Vinyl Café by Stuart McLean.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

CMH:

Carol Shields's Postcards.

OBT:

What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?

CMH:

Don't tell the story; let your choice of words make your reader feel the anger, anticipate the blunder, identify the smell, hear the whispers.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to be published?

CMH:

You have to believe in yourself above all else, so find a quiet room, maybe the bathroom, look in the mirror and be prepared to give that image a talking to. Proceed. Throw back your shoulders, chuck up your chin and speak directly to the sad-looking creature and be plain blunt. The image in the mirror will smile back at you. Repeat this advice whenever the black cloud of doubt threatens.

OBT:

What is your next project?

CMH:

Mine? Get back in that bathroom and look at that pleading face again! And after that - the sequel to Why Not? is waiting in line and so is a mammoth project to write about three generations of Newfoundlanders who left behind their stories for me to ponder.


Carolyn Muir Helfenstein joined the work force at age 17 and taught in a one-room schoolhouse followed by a year of Toronto Teachers' College. She married and she and her husband followed their dream to farm. But after 23 successful years as dairy farmers, they sold their herd and bought the local community newspaper.

She handled everything from investigative writing, to advertising sales and page layout, won provincial-wide awards, and covered amazing events of local to national importance. She was elected to the Ontario Community Newspaper Association Board of Directors and eventually served as president. In 1998, the winds of change blew out the candles for small town publishing and like others, the Helfensteins closed the doors of their small paper. Helfenstein said, "I began to write, oh how I needed to write."

Her memoir of these events was published in December 2008. And readers are asking for another.

Carolyn was born in St. John's Newfoundland.



For more information about Why Not? A memoir in black and white please visit the Brucedale Press website.


Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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