No Writer is An Island
A Circle on the Surface
In the Wake
Carol Bruneau and Nicola Davison sit across a table from each at the Halifax Central Library’s fifth-floor cafe. Along with their drinks, each has a copy of the other’s forthcoming book in front of her.
Nearly three years ago, Davison was an excited and terrified aspiring writer who had just been accepted into the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. Bruneau—the mentor she was paired with—was an award-winning writer working on her eighth book.
Now, both those novels—Davison’s In the Wake and Bruneau’s A Circle on the Surface—are about to be published by Nimbus’s Vagrant imprint. And while they started off as mentor-protege, that relationship quickly evolved to one between peers, and then to a full-blown friendship.
Davison, a professional portrait photographer with a keen eye for observing people, started working on In the Wake in 2013, and submitted the manuscript’s opening scenes for her mentorship program application. She was turned down, but got what she calls “a lovely rejection” and an invitation to apply again.
“I was just lost. I had this gigantic manuscript. It was from three different points of view, and I felt like it was all sagging in the middle, and I didn’t know what to do. I needed somebody to guide me—a mentor who could say let’s clean this up,” she recalls.
So she applied again in 2015. And this time she got in.
“I was so happy and frightened. I thought Carol is this seasoned writer and she’s going to look at my manuscript. It was such a mess at the time, and I wouldn’t let her see it. Remember that?” Davison says, looking at Bruneau.
“I had no idea,” Bruneau replies.
“When they called and said I got the mentorship, I screamed, and then I said oh God, someone’s going to read it.”
“I had no idea,” Bruneau says again. “You hid it very well.”
In 2001, Alistair MacLeod won the Portia White Prize, which recognizes artistic excellence and achievement by a Nova Scotian. He designated$7,000 of the award money to the brand new WFNS mentorship program, which now bears his name.
Linda Hudson, the Arts Education Officer for WFNS, says the program is aimed at “people who have been honing their craft for quite some time and need direction.”
Depending on funding, the federation offers three to five mentorships a year. Applications are due in October and then a peer assessment jury goes over them and chooses the winners based on “the merit of the writing, the direction they want to go in, and their commitment to the project,” Hudson says.
She explains: “When we have decided on our apprentices, then we match up with a professionally published writer as a mentor. We connect them based on style and genre, but also their personalities—hoping they will get along and also challenge each other.”
Jonathan Meakin, who was WFNS Executive Director at the time Bruneau was mentoring Davison, says matching up mentors with apprentices involves weighing experience, interests, projects, and distance—but is also “part hunch.”
He says, “The jury suggested several mentors for Nicola Davison, but the decision to approach Carol Bruneau came into focus from several, shared angles: an influence of the visual arts, to a degree, on matters of theme and craft; a gravitational pull to tell stories about Nova Scotian communities and families; and (perhaps extremely hunchy) a humble and yet steadfast, hardworking commitment to the craft of fiction-making. On paper, they seemed a perfect match.”
On paper and in person too.
During the five-month mentorship period, Davison and Bruneau met every two weeks, usually on the library’s top floor—drawn by the place’s openness and a sense of almost being outdoors, while still protected from the winter weather.
Davison knew going in that she had to cut about a third of her manuscript. And her first chapter was problematic: “It was almost me telling myself the story—here we are, here are the characters.”
Bruneau told her she needed to pick up the pacing too. Davison’s photographer’s eye was lingering too long in the early going. “I started out quite slowly, more descriptive, scenery and things, and then started moving more into the plot of the story,” Davison says. Looking across the table at Bruneau, she adds, “You had me pace that better.”
Mentors and apprentices in the program are free to set their own terms for how they will work together and how often they’ll meet. In December, before the formal mentorship begins, everyone gets together to discuss expectations and get to know each other. Without any formal publishing credits, Davison felt intimidated. “I had very little to say. The first part of the mentorship was so scary. And then I got to meet Carol one-on-one and sit and talk.”
Bruneau tried to reassure her, telling her she had mentored three writers previously, and all had been published. (One, Catherine Cooper, was a finalist for the Amazon First Book Award for White Elephant.)
Davison remembers half-joking “that I have to get published now so I don’t break her track record.”
Unwilling to show Bruneau the whole manuscript, Davison ruthlessly edited her work and sent it to her mentor in chunks of 50 to 75 pages at a time. Bruneau would email suggestions, and before their next meeting Davison would incorporate them and send the next chunk of text.
“It was a lovely rhythm, and it worked really well,” Bruneau says. “The combination of emailing stuff, critiquing stuff and meeting in person. It was a really good balance. You can use email, and that’s fine, but it is really different when you can hang out and have coffee and laugh about other stuff. It feels more organic.”
Bruneau took to the manuscript right away, and saw the strong influence of Davison’s background in photography. “Nicola’s a very visual writer, and that gripped me. I found the manuscript very sharp and precise and vivid.”
She also felt a connection between Davison’s work and the new novel she was working on. “I love your story,” Bruneau says, speaking to Davison. “It’s contemporary Nova Scotia rather than…” she pauses to touch the cover of her own book, on the table between them, “something that’s romantic and in the past. But I think there were parallels in our projects that were interesting too.”
The program allowed the pair to take a wide-ranging approach to aspects of writing going far beyond craft. “Carol talked to me about applying for grants, getting published—all sorts of side things I always wanted to ask an author but was afraid,” Davison says.
Davison even got coaching on how to elevator-pitch her book. “I still struggle with what to tell people,” she says.
“What’s your book about?” I ask her.
She laughs. Then says, “Oh, you really do want me to answer that question, don’t you?
“Well. It is about a young family who is coming back to Nova Scotia after having lived in Alberta for about 10 years, and they buy a house that’s a little bit beyond the price range that they had hoped to pay, and it’s this big modern house with a glass wall that faces the sea, and when they move in they start to make friends with the closest neighbours and they simply don’t realize how entangled they are going to become with their lives. It’s a little bit of a suspense, and it’s a lot to do with families, grieving, there’s some wonderful foggy sailing scenes, and it all ends up in a storm.”
Bruneau describes the mentorship process as being very different from teaching, “because you really are peers.” The pair would chat about characters—it almost felt like gossiping about people they knew—and, Davison says, “that would bring out aspects of them I hadn’t thought about.”
At a certain point, Bruneau started talking about her book too. She says, “Writing fiction can be sprawling and feel aimless. I never really like to talk about it when I’m working on something, because explaining stuff can be just like killing it. It was really cool that I got over that when I was working with Nikki, because I would talk a little bit about my story as I was working things out for myself—in a way that I would never do with anyone else. It’s a really lovely, inter-connected way of seeing story and the process.”
The mentorship period ended more than two years ago but Bruneau and Davison continue to meet regularly. “Last year for my birthday, my husband asked me what I would like, and I said I would like to have Carol Bruneau to drink wine with,” Davison says. “He called Carol to ask her to come over to the house, and she was my birthday present last year.”
The mentorship program is funded by the Canada Council, and accepts applications until October each year. It is open to all genres of writing except graphic novels and children’s picture books.