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Grace Lake – About the Book

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Grace Lake began its book-life as a short play, The Flowers of Alberta, winner of an Edmonton Journal literary award in 1980. I never had an opportunity to get the play produced, and the script remained in my writing file drawer until I received a sabbatical from teaching and went back to university in the mid 1980s. I’d decided to work on a creative thesis for a Masters in English and wondered how the play’s content might work as a novel. Feedback from my writing class and my thesis advisor, Rudy Wiebe, was very positive as I developed the chapters. When the thesis was finished, Rudy took it in hand to NeWest Publishers, where he served on the board. It was accepted for their Nunatak series of first novels, and Aritha Van Herk signed on as my editor. With Aritha’s guidance, I expanded the novel and we decided on a new title – Grace Lake.

The idea behind Grace Lake? When I was growing up in Ashmont, Alberta, my brother and I were sometimes shipped off to a church camp at Lake Whitney during the summer holidays – probably a break for my parents as much as anything else. As a fifteen-year-old, I remember organizing a Biblical play for a talent night around the campfire. I wrote this script involving Christ’s trial (kind of a Jesus Christ Superstar minus the music) and cast the parts with team-players from our particular cabin. Our cabin counselor was a rather fussy, middle-aged man. It is with some shame that I admit to making life somewhat miserable for this well-intentioned soul (correcting his pronunciation of Biblical names during Bible study sessions, organizing pranks, sabotaging some of his team initiatives – that sort of thing; really being a bratty teenager). So, yes, there’s a bit (not a whole lot I hope) of myself in Carroway.

As an adult interested in writing, I found myself often returning to experiences from my childhood and teenage years. Going to the summer church camp was something that remained fresh in my mind. For the Edmonton Journal literary one-act-drama competition, I decided to explore a story centered on a character based on the camp counselor, having him presiding over a group of boys, one of whom – Carroway – is determined to undermine his authority. That children can have an amoral, even vicious side to them was something that intrigued me in books I had stumbled across, books such as Lord of the Flies and A High Wind in Jamaica. A popular movie from my own teenage years had been The Bad Seed, about a sociopathic child.

Another interest from my teen years had been some of the more hair-raising Biblical stories. I loved spectacular films of the day that dramatized the tales of Jezebel and Bathsheba and Salome, who, for her dance of the seven veils, was awarded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Salome’s dance, and a papier-mache head Carroway fashions to resemble the camp counselor’s became central to the climax of the play.

The play won the Edmonton Journal literary competition that year but I felt it needed more work so I tucked it away in a file folder, where it stayed until I had some time off from teaching, returning to the University of Alberta to take a Masters in English. Casting about for an idea to develop for the writing class I was taking with other grad students under the tutelage of Rudy Wiebe, I pulled out the play and wondered how it might work as a novella. Throughout the course, I workshopped the first chapters of The Flowers of Alberta and decided to continue working on it as my creative thesis the following year. Rudy was my thesis advisor and, after I’d graduated, he offered to take the manuscript to NeWest Press where he served on the board of directors. It was accepted for a first-novel series (Nunatak books) and Aritha Van Herk agreed to be my editor. Under Aritha’s guidance, I expanded the novella considerably, and we retitled it “Grace Lake” – the name of the lake at the campsite.

The book was launched at Greenwood’s Bookshop in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona – an exciting day for me. Even more exciting was the shortlisting of the novel for the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. The prize, though, that year went to Nino Ricci for Lives of the Saints. Grace Lake was also a runner-up for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta annual fiction prize.

Grace Lake is available from NeWest Press. :

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The book is recommended for mature senior high school, college and university students – and adult discussion groups.