One Strong Girl
The Tides of Time
Pottersfield Press publisher Lesley Choyce admits he was simply seeking out new writers and higher-quality manuscript submissions when he created an in-house literary prize last year that promised the two top winners not only publishing contracts but also cash advances against their book’s royalties.
Choyce had landed on creative non-fiction as his prize category of choice because he himself had become “more and more excited about the possibilities of creative non-fiction, the bending of traditional categories and the infusion of new styles and content” into non-fiction. (Publisher Choyce, you probably know, is also Writer Choyce, one of the world’s most prolific authors, with 87-and-counting books published himself in virtually every genre imaginable to librarians and booksellers.)
“We mostly wanted to try something new—for us at least—and it paid off,” Choyce says. It’s also paying off handsomely for five first-time creative non-fiction authors.
Pottersfield’s competition attracted 50 book-length entries from Newfoundland to British Columbia. “While the number doesn’t sound that impressive,” Choyce acknowledges, “what was impressive was the quality of the manuscripts that came our way. Two won; three more entrants were accepted for publication and now have books in the pipeline.”
Choyce describes the first-prize winner, One Strong Girl by British Columbia writer Lesley Buxton, as “a gut-wrenching, honest, heartfelt book about the loss of a daughter. The writing is powerful… a difficult story well told.”
The second-prize winner, The Tides of Time by Suzanne Stewart, an Antigonish-based academic with a PhD in English literature and a specialization in Romantic poetry, is a very different project, “a gem of a manuscript by a lover of literature who used her literary skill and knowledge to write a most evocative book about everyday life in rural Nova Scotia.”
Buxton’s book began as a blog, Fall on Me, Dear, which she wrote to cope with her daughter India’s serious illness, and eventual death.
“I wanted to share what it was like to mother a very sick child—the isolation, the heartache, but also the beauty. From the start,” she adds, “readers responded positively. People wrote me from all over the world sharing their experiences.”
The blog evolved into book form during Buxton’s two years in the University of King’s College’s MFA in Creative Non-fiction program. (Full disclosure: both Buxton and Stewart are 2016 graduates of that MFA program in which I teach, though neither were students of mine.)
“King’s was the perfect fit for me,” Buxton explains. “I needed the intimacy of a small university… We all hung out together, cheered for each other during readings, talked about our projects.
“The hardest part of the process was actually re-reading the drafts. While I was writing, Lesley the Writer was in charge, and I was able to keep some distance, think of the story as belonging to someone else, but when I read the chapters it really affected Lesley the Mother.”
Buxton first heard about the Pottersfield prize last year when a fellow grad—with whom she still meets weekly to share and critique work and with whom she is now collaborating on a children’s book—wrote to her “basically telling me to apply.”
But when the good-news email from Choyce eventually arrived, Buxton was so nonplussed, “I remember opening it up thinking, ‘Oh, damn, I guess it’s time for Plan B.’”
She says the book’s publication will be bittersweet. “This is my first book and I’m very proud of it, but it’s also a book I wish I’d never had to write.”
Stewart’s challenges were different. “While working on the project, I kept it largely to myself,” she says, “thinking that my creative writing fell outside of the bounds of academic life and might not be of interest to, or accepted by, my colleagues… But I was wrong, and that realization became my greatest joy.”
Her book idea “sprang from my interest in rural life and natural beauty, and I wanted to treat these subjects uniquely by tying them to my study of 19th-century [Romantic] poetry.” While the book is a kind of “conversation” between those poets and present-day rural seasonal labourers, “I, too, entered this dialogue, as I struggled to reconcile my own search for beauty with the purely practical concerns of rural labourers.”
Like Buxton, Stewart didn’t allow herself to imagine her manuscript might actually be chosen. “Having hardened myself to the many rejections that writers receive… the gratification was immense,” she says. “My self-doubt suddenly lifted, and I felt that I could enjoy my project—and creative writing—again, after having lost my confidence in both.”
While their successes are already spawning next steps—Reader’s Digest is excerpting Buxton’s book and both authors have begun follow-up projects—Choyce says the prize has boosted Pottersfield too.
Founded in 1979 in Lawrencetown Beach, NS, Choyce’s book publishing empire grew out of Pottersfield Portfolio, a series of his 1970s magazine-like anthologies of new regional fiction and poetry. Since then, Pottersfield Press has published more than 200 books by authors ranging from iconic Maritime literary figures like Thomas Raddall, Harold Horwood, George Elliott Clarke and Charles Bruce to new works by first-time book authors like Vietnamese refugee Thien Tang and spoken-word artist/poet Abena Beloved Green.
Although Pottersfield has always considered itself a regionally based publisher with larger ambitions—“We’ve often branched out,” Choyce notes, “with things like one of the first anthologies of Canadian science fiction, a memoir by Neil Peart of Rush fame, the story of a young BC man who hiked solo across the Himalayas and a book about food politics and culture in sub-Saharan Africa”—the fact Buxton is BC-based helps make his case anew.
In the large publishing landscape, Choyce adds, “I think smaller prizes like this help offset some of the rigidity of the big money prizes in Canada, which tend to go all too often to writers published by big publishing houses.”
One Strong Girl and The Tides of Time will both be published in November.
As for Pottersfield, Choyce has already announced plans for its second annual Creative Non-fiction Prize.