Editor-writer recognized for cultural work

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April 23, 2015

Third-generation British Columbia resident Betty Keller will receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence at the B.C. Book Prizes gala on April 25. Keller, who has edited almost a hundred books about British Columbia in her 40-year editing career, is an award-winning author herself, with biographies of such cultural figures as Pauline Johnson and Ernest Thompson Seton. Her book on Pauline Johnson (Douglas & McIntyre, 1982) won the Canadian Biography Medal. She co-authored Skookum Tugs (Harbour, 2002), which won the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 2003, and co-authored A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour, 2004), which won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize in 2005.

Keller is also the author of Pender Harbour Cowboy (Touchwood, 2000), a biography of BC fisherman/novelist Bertrand Sinclair, as well as a tongue-in-cheek history of Vancouver, On the Shady Side (Horsdal and Schubart, 1986), a history of the Sunshine Coast, and a novel set in Vancouver, Better the Devil You Know (Caitlin Press, 2001). Her most recent book, A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury and Trial by Newspaper (Caitlin, 2010), is also set in Vancouver.

Keller began her career as a high school drama and English teacher in 1963, then worked as a faculty associate in education at Simon Fraser University and as a sessional lecturer in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. When she “retired” to the Sunshine Coast in 1980, she took up a whole new career as founder and producer of the Festival of the Written Arts (1983 to 1994). In addition, she co-founded the SunCoast Writers Forge and the Sunshine Coast Writers-in-Residence Program. Countless writers cite her support and mentorship as essential to their careers. Keller recently discussed her career with Lynne Van Luven.

Betty, congratulations on your award. Can you talk a little about your response when you heard the news?

I was thoroughly overwhelmed. I also feel a bit guilty to be accepting an award for doing something that is ample reward in itself.

You have been both a writer and an editor simultaneously for so many years. Can you describe the different joys and challenges of each role?

I am a substantive rather than a copy editor, so I am generally called in to work on manuscripts that have “substantive” or basic problems. In my first reading of a manuscript, I ask myself whether it communicates the message that the author was attempting to communicate. Is the information or the story line accessible to the reader? Do I have to reread sentences and/or check back fifty pages to find the beginning of the author’s argument in order to understand what he has to say in later chapters? Since lack of accessibility almost always depends on structural problems, I then have to isolate the spine of the work and help the author to reorganize the material attached to that spine so that the reader can move easily from concept to concept or, in the case of most fiction, from event to event. So structure comes first, but it’s always a joy to begin an edit job and realize that, although the manuscript may have problems, it already has “good bones.” So then it’s a matter of looking at the author’s style. While it is vitally important to nurture the writer’s style, sometimes a unique presentation can overwhelm the lines of communication to the reader, so here the editor has to walk the fine line between nurturing style and promoting communication. Then comes grammar and syntax and usage and punctuation, areas where a distressing number of writers have little or no knowledge whatsoever, so I experience pure joy when I edit a manuscript in which the author obviously understands parallelism and restrictive clauses and hasn’t even dangled modifiers!

When I am writing, I have to wear both my editing and creating hats, and then the pleasure comes not in the initial writing but in the rewriting and revising until I get the effect I am striving for—or at least as close to it as I can get before a great editor comes along and gives me the final nudge in the right direction! But that, as Hugh MacLennan (Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes) once wrote to his student Marian Engel (Bear, Lunatic Villages, The Tattooed Woman), is what a writer’s life is like. (See Dear Marian, Dear Hugh, University of Ottawa Press, 1995.)

What has been the most interesting change in the publishing world, in your opinion, within your years of engagement?

For most writers I think the answer to that question would be the introduction of ebooks and downloading and Kindles and all the technological changes in book publishing in the last 20 years. But for me it was the initial introduction of the personal computer. The pure joy of simply deleting or moving a passage instead of typing it all over again is impossible to describe to those who never composed a book on a typewriter. As one who literally cut and pasted her first seven books, I think that a computer is a lovely, lovely thing indeed.

When you relax, and just read for pleasure (you are so busy, I am not sure you do that!), what authors do you turn to?

These days at least 80 per cent of my reading is manuscripts, and I have to admit that reading for pleasure has become an indulgence I reserve for trips by ferry or plane and for holiday visits to my sons and their families in the U.S. and U.K. My Saturday mornings, however, are always devoted to newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, and my bedtime reading begins with The New Yorker (even though the punctuation style is maddening!) and extends to “must read” books recommended by friends. These are usually non-fiction in the environmental/political category.

Can you tell us about the power of writers’ festivals and writers in residency, with respect to the creation and recreation of writers?

When we created the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt in 1983, our original goal had been to provide a forum for writers to talk to writers, but we decided to welcome readers as well because it allowed us to introduce more Canadian writers to the reading public—and also because it made better financial sense! However, in my years at the helm of the festival it was always a pleasure to see the number of novice writers in the audiences taking notes and absorbing inspiration, and this was the stimulus behind the festival society’s introduction of the writers-in-residence programs that we ran from 1987 to 1994. Our goal was not to “make” writers but instead to help writers find their voices. But critiquing by a professional writer is only part of the benefit of such programs; there is also invaluable input from the other members of the class and in the informal discussions of writing techniques and problems that occur between classes.

In the last 20 years I have moved my own teaching to very small classes—three is my preferred size—that meet on a weekly basis for eight or 10 weeks. This format allows in-class time for a thorough exploration of each member’s work, and the limited term means that writers (and I) can take a writing “breather” before signing on for another term. The intensity of the sessions also means that everyone in the group is completely focused on finding his/her voice and on overcoming writing problems in a limited period of time.  

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