Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
In terms of sales, the “perfect storm” children’s book is one which achieves not only critical recognition for its literary quality, but it also achieves broad, continuing popularity with its intended juvenile audience. Such was the case with The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter which adult juries awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award, The TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the CLA Book of the Year Award, and the Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Young readers from across Canada, via their provincial or regional readers’ choice awards, four times selected it as their favourite book, and adults learning to read presented it with the Golden Oak Award. While Pamela Porter, who had only published one juvenile novel prior to The Crazy Man, may have seemed to have been an overnight success, the “overnight” was more like almost three decades of being devoted to her craft of writing.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 14, 1956, Pamela was the younger of two girls in the Rice family. “I lived in Albuquerque until half-way through kindergarten when my father, who worked for an insurance company, was transferred, and we moved to Dallas, Texas. With the exception of one year, I then lived in Dallas until I finished my undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University.”
“When I was 12, though, my father was transferred to Monroe, Louisiana. It was 1968-69, the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Living there was quite an eye-opening experience for me because Louisiana was fighting very hard not to desegregate and only desegregated by a Supreme Court order. It was a very ‘interesting’ place to be at an impressionable time of my life. I think that notions of justice and tolerance and the nastiness of injustice became indelible in my mind. Just ordinary experiences in that place were extraordinary for me because I hadn’t been used to seeing such blatant racism. I remember feeling shocked fairly regularly.”
“In Monroe, I attended Robert E. Lee Junior High, and we were strictly told that we were to address our elders as ‘Yes, Ma’am, No, Ma’am, Yes, Sir, No, Sir.’ While we were taught to be very be polite, the janitorial staff, who were all African Americans, were always addressed by their first names by the students who kind of ‘played’ with them. The PE teacher was an African-American woman, and the students had no respect for her. She had a really tough job, and she had to have a lot of courage. Texas was racist, too, but, living in a large city like Dallas, we lived in a white suburb, and the problems of injustice and segregation were largely abstract. I’m sure there were ‘Whites only’ water fountains and ‘Whites only’ bathrooms, but I didn’t see them there.”
“It wasn’t until I was 12, right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, that I really came face to face with all of that in Louisiana. I must have been an odd child because I watched the evening news every day, my parents often oblivious to what I was doing. I would sit on the floor and watch the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights Movement play out in front of me on TV. I’d see the marches and hear young girls, my age or just a bit older, saying, ‘We waited a hundred years. When is justice going to come to us?’ The Civil Rights struggle was visible for me.”
“I had first discovered poetry while flipping through the back of my English language arts book when the teacher was talking about something else. At some point in moving to Louisiana and then moving back, slowly but very surely, the child who had formerly read everything that she could get her hands on became a nonreader. I would flip through the English book and look at the short stories and say to myself, ‘That looks like it would take too much energy to read.’ I think I’d gone through a monumental change in my awareness of the world during my time in Louisiana, and, at some point, something I had loved so much, reading, seemed suddenly to require too much effort. I couldn’t manage to read a whole book anymore.”
“By the time I was in grade 8, I would find a page with lots of white space and words in a little square and think, ‘I can read that much.’ I was amazed at how much the poet could put in eight lines or three stanzas. I would wonder, ‘How could a writer, in just 14 lines, create a world in which the reader can see, hear and smell – a few words could be so evocative.” I thought it was magic that someone could put words on a page in such a way that a stranger could open the book, start reading, and soon not hear anything that was going on around her.” During the time that I was a voracious reader, I was notorious for not hearing the teacher and being ‘lost’ in class. I’d look up from a novel and see the whole class doing math or some other thing, and I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing.”
Reading poetry, however, did not immediately lead to Pamela’s writing it. “I first started collecting little pithy things. I would pick up books from the library, books of poetry and pieces that usually were short, the length I felt I could read. I had a notebook and when I encountered little verses or statements that I thought were worth noting, I would write those down. When I was about 15, my father gave my mother The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. The book sat on a high shelf in the living room above the TV, and the unwritten expectation was that no one was to touch it. One day when everyone was out of the house, curiosity got the better of me. I got a chair, took the book down off the shelf and went into my room. I closed the door and opened up the poems of Robert Frost. I remember reading the poem “Desert Places.’ I started memorizing Frost’s poems, and I still recall ‘Desert Places’ that goes like this:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
And he goes on to say
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”
“Even now, I still think, ‘Wow!’ If a teacher had introduced that poem to me in school and there had been a quiz asking, ‘What’s the rhyme scheme of this poem?’ I wouldn’t have been able to tell her, or if the quiz had asked, ‘Is this poem a sonnet? Why or why not?’ I couldn’t have cared the least. What I cared about was that suddenly I realized that I had ‘desert places’ and that I had no words to articulate it. In this poem of just 14 lines, an old white-haired guy named Robert Frost had shown me what I had inside. That was magic to me. Then I thought, ‘How do you do that?’ and then I had to find out how one makes poetry.”
“As a child, I think being an author was always there for me in the back of my mind. There used to be a board game called ‘Authors.’ I never owned it, but my friend, Wendy Lentz, who lived across the street, did, and every time I went over to her house, she would ask, ‘Do you want to play “Scrabble”’ or some other games she’d name, and I’d reply, ‘Could we play “Authors?”’ You’d land on a spot and have to identify who the author was. I’m sure they were all American authors like Mark Twain or Emily Dickinson. I loved that game.”
“I was a good musician and played the piano well, and I probably could have gone on in music. I was also interested in languages and, by the time I got to university, I had studied German for a few years and was interested in becoming fluent in some other languages and becoming a translator. I think I probably would have gone that route and spent more time with music had I not realized this desperate need for poetry. I was 19-years-old and in my second year of university when I took my first writing course. It was a fiction course, and then I took a poetry course.”
“My kids and I talk about other young people they know who have extraordinary gifts of music or other gifts whereby what they do in their lives is basically decided for them. They really have little choice but to fulfill that gift. Others find their passion at a young age, like my son, who decided at the age of eight that he would be an architect when he grew up, and he has never strayed from pursuing that goal. At some point, in my mind, it seemed as though I had little choice but to pursue literature and writing. It became such a passion that I gave up learning languages and becoming a translator. I also gave up singing in choirs and playing the piano. I gave up the time devoted to music in order to devote that time to writing because, if you decide to do it, it does take all your time and effort.”
“While I was still in university, I was told by people around me that it wasn’t practical to see writing as a career. My father had wanted to be a visual artist, but he worked for an insurance company because he had told himself that he couldn’t make a living as a painter and so he would just have to paint as a hobby. Of course, hobbies get set aside, and he didn’t paint very many pictures when we were children. He had grown up during the Depression, his mother had died and his father scraped out a living. They were desperately poor, and his older sisters contributed to the family when they could.”
“One day I went to visit Ara Carapetyan, my high school choir director. An Armenian, he had a white beard and was rather an imposing man, but he and his wife took a personal interest in the kids who came to sing in the choir. He said, ‘So, you’re now in second year university. What do you want to do?’ And I replied, ‘What I really want to do is write poetry, but I know that I can’t do that for a living because everybody says so.’ He said, ‘Yes, you can make a living writing poetry’ and added, ‘Your father thinks that he can’t be an artist because of his life experience, but other people do do those things, and you can do it.’ He was an important figure in my life, someone that I trusted, and so I began to believe that I could go off and become a writer.”
“I think I need to go visit him now and tell him that he was right and that he was wrong. He was right that one can dedicate oneself to art, but I’m sure he never considered the complications of my being female and the demands that marriage and children bring to a woman’s life. As things turned out, the conflicting expectations and pressures of motherhood set up against the overwhelming need to write just about finished me.” Twenty-nine years were to elapse between that conversation and the publication of Sky. “For several years I taught at two-year colleges so that I could work part-time and have part-time to write. I was married, and my husband worked full-time, and we did just fine. When the kids came along, I thought that I was going to able to teach and have a family and somehow be able to write because I looked around and saw some women who seemed to do it all.”
Southern Methodist University was where Pamela met Rob, her future husband. “In my third year, I was in a bell choir on Wednesday nights, and the tables were arranged in a U-shape so that the high and low bells were facing each other. This young man came to choir, and I was ringing the high bells and he was ringing the low bells. He introduced himself, saying, ‘I’m from Canada,’ to which I replied, ‘I love Canada.’”
Now, while it was fine for Pamela to “love” Canada, at the time her only “direct” knowledge of Canada was derived from a visit to San Antonio’s Hemisfair when she was 11. “There were pavilions of the different countries, and all day I was trying to get my family into the Canadian pavilion. When we finally got in, I was entranced. It was very hot in San Antonio, but when you opened the door to the Canadian pavilion, it was dark inside and cold air was blown at you. Inside, the walls were covered with giant murals of people driving dog sleds. The staff working there all wore beautiful white fur-lined parkas. I thought I was in wonderland. That was my first impression of Canada, and so I bought a Canadian flag and hung it in my room. It was many years before I was actually able to come to Canada and find out what the country was really like.”
“Not only is Rob a Canadian, but he’s also an inveterate traveler. One thing that we decided was that, before we had children, we would try to live in as many places as we could. So we went back to New Mexico for a while, and then we moved to Seattle before moving to Montana to be a little bit closer to Rob’s family who were in Calgary at that time. By the time we arrived in Montana, it was time either to have a family or not, so that’s when the kids came along.”
“However, our first child, Cecilia, happened to be what one psychologist labeled the ‘active alert child --’ meaning she didn’t sleep at night. In fact, she never slept more than two hours at a time, so I decided that I could be a mother and teach or I could be a mother and write, but in my chronically exhausted state, I couldn’t do it all. I decided to be a mother and write, and my husband Rob acquiesced to that. There were times that were financially very tight because there was only one income coming in. During that time, my father-in-law, at the age of 75, finally decided that he was going to retire from managing the family farmland that had been in the Porter family for four generations, and he asked if Rob would come to Canada, bring the family, and take over. To do that, Rob would have to give up his acoustical engineering job in noise control at airports and come back to Canada to manage the farm land.”
Because Rob manages land that is rented out to farmers, the family does not actually live in Saskatchewan. Rob’s realizing several years earlier that he might be called upon to assume this managing role led to the family’s taking a trip across Western Canada, beginning in Winnipeg and concluding on Vancouver Island, in search of a place to live. Sidney, a community outside Victoria, BC, became their final choice.
While J.K. Rowling may have made millions from her books, poetry does not provide much financial return. “None at all,” says Pamela. “In fact, I spent a lot of money sending manuscripts out. Especially in the States, a lot of small presses have competitions where you send in your manuscript, along with $15.00, and that amount pays to publish the winning book along with paying for the publisher to stay in business to read all those manuscripts. I had a fairly substantial outlay of funds before I got anything published. I had a poetry manuscript that took 15 years to get published. To put that in perspective, when I was first putting the manuscript together and I took it to the copy centre, I brought Cecilia along in her little baby car seat. The day after I got the call from Coteau Books saying that they wanted to publish the manuscript which, by that time, had gone through different incarnations, Cecilia said, “Mom, could you take me down to the driver’s license office so that I can get my learner’s permit? And over that time, I had gone through a wave of emotions including despair and discouragement and feeling like I should give up or reassess, ‘Is this what I really have to do?’”
“If spending long hours in front of blank paper trying to squeeze something original out of your brain isn’t what you have to do in your life, it would be a relief to quit trying to do it. I found out that, unless I was trying to squeeze something original onto paper, I was restless, bored with life and frustrated. I was also frustrated by the piles of rejection slips I collected. Once I started reading children’s books to my kids, I began to think I could write a better story than many of the books I read to my kids. After reading one library picture book aloud, I would think, ‘What a wonderful book!’ and then after that one, I’d say aloud, ‘Who published this thing?’ I began to consider writing children’s fiction, thinking that prose might be easier to publish than poetry. My first children’s novel, Sky, was seven years finding a publisher. At one point, I was so discouraged, Sky sat in a drawer for a year. Now I go to schools and libraries and talk to kids, and the first thing that I tell them is, ‘Never give up on your dream, whatever dream it is you have for your life.’”
“I think writing for children had been in my mind for quite a while, but when you’re living an adult life without children, you have to make a concerted effort to look into children’s literature to find out what’s going on. Once my children were born, I recognized I had missed a number of years in the development of children’s literature, and so I spent that time catching up. When they went to elementary school, I volunteered in the library to reshelve books and that really helped me find out what was going on in Canadian children’s literature, including what kinds of things were being published and who was publishing them.”
“For quite a long time, I wanted to write a novel in narrative poems, but I wondered who would publish such a thing, especially since no publisher had expressed particular interest in anything I’d written so far. I also didn’t know if any contemporary author had written a novel in free verse, but one day the cover of a book on the cart in the library caught my eye, and I picked it up. It was Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. When I opened it up, I thought, ‘Somebody has done it. I took the book home and read it, and then I read another of her books, Witness, which I liked even better. I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”
“My search for publishers in Canada was helped by volunteering in the kids’ school library. In grade 5, Drew’s teacher was introducing her students to that year’s Red Cedar program group of books. She had started reading one of the books aloud to the class, and Drew, who was just starting to be an independent reader, brought the book home. For the first time, he would come home after school and would sit down and begin reading. At one point, he looked up from the book and said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to read this. Our teacher started reading it to us in class, and I’m going to finish it.’ I was impressed that he was motivated to read the whole book. ‘What book is it?’ I asked. He said, ‘It’s called The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.’ While he was at school, I picked it up and started reading. When I got in a couple of chapters, I said to myself, ‘Who published this?’ I looked in the front pages and saw, ‘Published by Groundwood Books’ with the address right there.’”
“I thought, ‘Maybe they would be interested in Sky,’ and it turned out that they were. After what seemed like six months of their having the manuscript, Nan Froman from Groundwood Books called me up and said, ‘We really like the story, but you know what? It’s got to bigger. The book would be so small that bookstores and librarians wouldn’t know what to do with it because it would get lost on the shelf.’ And I thought, ‘After seven years of sending that manuscript around, am I going to be able to get back into the story to make the changes they want?’”
“I’d been sending Sky to Canadian and US publishers for all those years, and a couple of them had even kept it for about a year before finally saying they couldn’t make a decision. One publisher wanted me to knock it down to a picture book. I seriously thought about doing that because I really wanted a book published, but I thought that the message of justice and tolerance would very likely get lost, and so I said ‘No’ and looked for a different publisher.”
“At that point with Groundwood, because I didn’t have a clue about how I was going to get back into that story, I asked Nan, ‘Do you have any thoughts about what you would like to see developed in the book?’ To my relief, she responded, ‘Yes, and we’ll send you a list.’ Some three weeks later, the list arrived, and it included things like, ‘Tell us what it’s like to birth lambs.’ I thought, ‘I know about that.’ When we lived in rural Montana, our neighbors birthed lambs, and it seemed they always were born in March during a big blizzard when it was - 20. Sometimes they were so frail that they would have to be brought inside and bottle fed.”
Pamela’s first experience with Montana was less rural. “After my undergraduate degree from Southern Methodist, I went to the University of Montana in Missoula from 1978-80 where I did my Master’s in Creative Writing. After earning the MFA, I went back to Austin, Texas, where Rob was doing graduate work in engineering at the University of Texas, and I taught at Austin Community College. We were married within a year of my moving back to Austin, and then, as I said, we started hopping around to New Mexico and Seattle, Washington, before ending up outside Great Falls, Montana, where we lived on a small ranch of about 35 acres.”
“We had two neighbors about a quarter of a mile apart, one down by the river and one up near the road. One Sunday, when we arrived home from church, we saw a lot of activity going on at the house by the road. I sat in our log house with its big front window, eating a sandwich for lunch while reading the Great Falls Tribune. I turned to the classified ads and saw that these neighbors were having a garage sale. As part of the garage sale, they were selling three of their five horses. Being interested in horses and never having had one of my own, I walked on down there as we were all set up for a horse in the place in which we were living. They said, ‘We’ve sold two of our horses, but we’ve got one left, Pepe. He’s a great horse.’ I bought Pepe for six hundred dollars, and he was the best horse I ever had. He lived to the age of 30.”
“I didn’t know much about horses, but Georgia Salois Phillips did. She knew more about horses than anyone else I knew. She talked about growing up in the place she called ‘The Pines’ where she had lived with her grandparents, and then she would say, ‘And that was in our first cabin before the flood.’ Maybe a month later, she would tell me another story and I’d only be half listening, and she would say, ‘That was in our new cabin after the flood.’ It took me a while to get a clue and ask, ‘What’s this about a flood?’ Over a couple of years, she would tell bits of stories, and it was when we were trailing Pepe out to Vancouver Island that she told much of the rest of the story, what had happened during the flood, how they ended up in the school and how differently they, as Indians, were treated from the other people, including the fact that they were actually forced to pay for the cutlery.”
“I had first come into contact with Georgia when Drew was born and Rob was still traveling every other week to different airports. I was all by myself on this ranch, 30 minutes from town, with two small children. My mother called from Texas and said, ‘You need somebody to help you with your chores.’ Rob put an ad in the newsletter of the Lutheran church in town, and Georgia called. She’d come once a week or so, and we’d always get talking and she’d start telling stories about herself and horses she’d had. She and Pepe got along so well that later, during the first year we lived in Victoria, Pepe stayed with Georgia as we hadn’t yet fenced anything off or cleared land for Pepe. Eventually, Pepe came to us, and Georgia helped us put up fence which is the reason why, on Vancouver Island, we have barbed wire fence like the Prairies. We didn’t realize at the time that people out here are horrified by the sight of barbed wire.”
“Eventually Georgia’s stories started to come together in my mind. I could actually see her grandparents in my head, hear them talking to each other, see them walking around. It was so distracting that I would go to the grocery store and not remember what I was supposed to buy, which resulted in some very interesting meals at that time. The kids would come home after school and say, ‘Mum, you switched our lunches again.’ ‘No I didn’t,’ I’d reply. ‘Yes, you did,’ my daughter would say. ‘We had to meet in the halls and exchange them because you gave me Drew’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich.’”
“I needed to write those stories down, and all the while Rob was saying, ‘You need to get away.’ Ever since the kids had been born, I had never been apart from them, and so when they were three and seven, I went on a retreat for four days. During that time, all I did was sit at my computer and write down the story, Sky. I stayed at a convent of some Episcopal Nuns in Seattle because we had known them from the time we lived in that city, and it was very inexpensive to stay there. It was also very quiet, and nobody would make me talk if I didn’t want to. When I came out of my little room, I had been crying about the story, and I’m sure the nuns thought, ‘Poor Pam. She’s having a hard time at home, and she’s here just to piece herself back together.’”
“The basic facts of Sky are factual. Though Georgia talked about her mother and father, she actually lived with her grandparents. I had never questioned that because some kids don’t live with their parents. Sometimes children live with aunts and uncles or grandparents, and so that’s how I put it in the story. However, during the editing process, the editors wanted to know what happened to Georgia’s parents. I had thought that child readers wouldn’t really care, and that, as long as the child is with someone who loves and takes care of her or him, that’s what matters to children, but the editors were very insistent.”
“Later, after the book was published, my mother-in-law Jean, asked, ‘I’m rereading Sky. It’s a true story, isn’t it?’ Drew, then 15, replied, ‘Yeah, Grandma, it’s a true story, and then there’s a whole bunch of lies and then there’s a true story again and then there’s a whole bunch more lies.’ That’s basically the definition of fiction, isn’t it? So I made up the part about the parents’ death.”
“After Sky was published, I went to Montana to meet Georgia and to visit some schools with her. It was quite an experience because the children in that area knew of the flood of ’64 and here was Georgia who had lived through the flood and was starring in a book. They treated her like a rock star. But I had to tell Georgia’s mother, ‘I’m sorry I killed you off in the book’ because her mother kept asking, ‘Why did she say I was dead?’ The part about finding the foal is also fiction, but it is based on the fact that Georgia always had horses in her life and she knew how to train horses. When I finished particularly the larger story, I didn’t know what Georgia would think about it, but I sent it to her and told her that it was going to be published. I wanted to know what she honestly thought, and she was very pleased and very moved.”
In Sky, Georgia uses nonstandard English. “When I wrote the story down as it took place in my mind, I could hear the way Georgia, like many ranchers in Montana, would talk. I did wonder if Groundwood would have a problem with the non-standard speech because I really didn’t want to straighten out her speech. The way Georgia spoke was a vital part of her character. We had some discussions over a few minor things, like word choices, but generally Groundwood accepted her manner of speaking, and I was very happy about that.”
“It was in 2003 that Sky was accepted by Groundwood Books, and I think it was at that time that I started writing The Crazy Man. That book started all of a sudden at the end of August, 2003, after so many years of going out to Saskatchewan in summer, walking through the fields and talking to farmers. Rob would always say that we needed to go visit certain people he’d known all his life. They would sit and talk about all the things that people talk about when they get together after many years – what the town used to be like, who went to school with whom, what those people are doing now, and ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ or ‘What a shame!’ Inevitably, there would be talk about the town’s mental hospital because many in Weyburn had some kind of relationship with the mental hospital or with someone from that mental hospital. It wasn’t uncommon for farmers to hire patients from the hospital to work as farm hands. Even Rob’s babysitter, after growing up and graduating from high school, took psychiatric nurse’s training at the mental hospital.”
“I sat in on a conversation with a Rodney Sidloski, who also grew up on a farm near Weyburn. Rodney’s father had not been a kind man, and he had brought in mental hospital patients to work on the farm. The father had considered the patients to be not human and had communicated to the family that they were to stay away from ‘those people.’ Rodney said that when he was five years old, he was descending the back stairs of their farmhouse as one of the farmhands was ascending the stairs. Rodney said he was afraid of this big man, but upon meeting on the stairs, the man bent over and tied up Rodney’s shoelace. Rodney said, ‘At that moment, at the age of five, I knew that my father was wrong and that these people were human.’ That conversation with Rodney was the beginning of The Crazy Man, and I had to put that event in the book because what forms children’s consciousness, and what formed my consciousness, were those tiny little gestures that are usually nonverbal but speak volumes to children and tell them about the world.”
During the same trip, Rob said, ‘There’s one more house where I need to stop before we leave town.’ The place was a farmhouse on the edge of town, and it was right across a dirt road from the back entrance to the mental hospital. I could see a line of caragana bushes and then the roof of this big complex. I began to wonder who had once lived in the house because it was now an office. I walked around the house and thought, ‘If any child lived in this house, he or she would have to walk straight past that mental hospital to go to school every morning and straight past that mental hospital to come home. What would it have been like?’”
“By the time I got home to BC after two or three days of driving, Emaline and her father and mother had sprouted in my head, and they were walking around in that house. I was very upset about what they had ‘done’ to each other in my head. I thought, ‘What do I do with this? Do I write it down as it is, with Emaline falling off the tractor and getting mangled and the father shooting the dog (an episode which had its roots way back in that ranch in Montana with neighbors who had sheep and dogs at the same time), or do I try to clean this up?’ I decided I should trust what was happening in my brain and see what transpired. Eventually I realized that what I needed to write about was how people heal from tragedy and what they do to arrive at the point of healing, and even of gratitude.”
“I think I had heard far too many stories on the Prairies about children involved in farming accidents. My daughter was in 4-H, and, of course, safety is a component of that program. I’m not sure how the other groups did ‘safety,’ but the way in which the 4-H horse leaders taught farm safety was that they would come with horrific stories involving say, a child getting a foot caught in a stirrup and being dragged by the horse into a harrow. I don’t know if these stories upset the girls in 4-H, but they certainly upset me. I suppose the traumas that the author experiences are translated onto the page and readers then have to read about the author’s traumas. The story that was unfolding in my mind was so distracting and powerful for me that I needed to sit down and start writing this story.”
“I began writing the story as free verse. I had decided awhile back to write in free verse because I had had my education in poetry and naturally would lean toward narrative poems. In writing workshop, we were told that, if you can say in three words what one might otherwise say in seven words, use three words. Be very careful of your line endings. The eye naturally falls for a slightly longer time at the end of a line than in the middle. Don’t bury important words or images in the middle of the line. Put them on the end. I learned about slant lines and hidden rhymes and ways to build cohesion in a poem. ‘Why can’t you use all that to tell a story?’ I asked myself. ‘And wouldn’t it be helpful particularly for reluctant readers, like that person I was for a period of time? Make judicious use of white space, use condensed language and try to portray the story more in terms of images than elaborate description or dialogue.’”
“Ted Kooser, a Nebraska poet, is a master at this. He writes short, tight, compact poems, but in reading his poems, so much more goes on in your head than is actually written on the page. I wanted to see if I could do that. When I started The Crazy Man, I didn’t know if I would be successful. It wasn’t until the book was published and people told me that they had to read it rather slowly because of the pictures that blossomed in their minds, and they had to ‘look’ at it for a while before they could go on. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I wanted.’”
“I gave the manuscript of The Crazy Man to Groundwood first because I was so grateful to them for publishing Sky. As well, one of Groundwood’s specialties is publishing books on serious subjects for young people. Shelley Tanaka called me first about the manuscript and said, ‘I’m not sure what to tell you.’ One of the changes she wanted was the ending. Initially, I had the dad stay in town as I thought that children’s lit book editors would want the ends neatly tied up. Shelley said, ‘I would rather that the father leaves town and Emaline just deals with it.’ That was a relief to me actually; I thought it was very freeing because many children do have to deal with abandonment by one parent or another and sometimes both. I wrote another draft and sent it back. Apparently, at that time, the conversation in the editorial office was, ‘Who’s going to read a novel in free verse?’”
“The Crazy Man takes place in 1965 because the stories I heard in those living rooms around those tables took place in the 60's when Rob was growing up in Weyburn, and, at that time, there were probably 2000 patients in that mental hospital. It was just before various medications became available whereby most people with mental illnesses could begin to live at home and be dealt with on an outpatient basis. That change occurred in the early 70s, and mental hospitals then started to shut down. So much of the information that I got was from the mid 60's, and so that’s where I started from. I could also rely on my own memories of the time, and Rob helped me with the details of farming in Saskatchewan as well as information about things that were going on in town and who people were. Rob’s father helped me as well.”
As part of her writing process, Pamela often reads her manuscripts to her family. “I did so for Sky and The Crazy Man, and particularly for The Crazy Man because poetry is as much oral as it is written. I wanted to hear how the words on the page sounded and if they sounded right to me as well as looking right on the page. With The Crazy Man, I asked Rob if he would read the manuscript to Drew because Drew was still at an age where he wanted to be read to in the evening. Rob would come out of his office (if you have your office at home, you never leave it) about 8 o’clock or so, and I’d hand him the manuscript. I’d finish the kitchen chores and lie on my back on the floor and listen to Rob read, and then Drew would tell me what he liked or didn’t like. Unfortunately, a lot of what he really did like got edited out, and so he still holds a grudge against an editor he’s never met.”
Sharing the content of The Crazy Man with husband Rob also had another benefit for Pamela. “He would correct my knowledge of farming techniques and say things like, ‘Well, maybe they did that in Texas, but they didn’t do that in Saskatchewan.’ His feedback was very helpful because you’ve got to be correct in the facts or nobody’s going to believe anything else in your book. There were a few instances when we went to Rob’s dad with questions, such as, ‘When did they start planting flax and mustard?’ to which he replied, ‘It was about in the mid-sixties when the price of wheat was so low.’ Rob’s corrections went beyond just the ‘hard’ facts. “I had a name that I had made up for the librarian in the story, but Rob said, ‘No. It has to be Miss Griffin, Allie Griffin. She’s still well-known today in Weyburn, and I said, ‘OK I can grant you that.’”
As to why The Crazy Man’s protagonist is an 11-year-old, Pamela explains, “Eleven year-old children generally make good protagonists. For me, the main reason was that Emaline is just on the cusp of being able to understand the world and being able to start to understand all of that nonverbal baggage that gets dragged along underneath adult talk. When Harry says, ‘Go get you a gorilla from the mental hospital,’ he’s not just saying, ‘Hire a farm worker and don’t use me.’ He’s bringing a certain attitude that a number of people had at that time, and Emaline’s at the age where she can start to pick it up. But she doesn’t understand everything, and so the reader has to put some of that together.”
“I wanted not to explain everything to the reader. That’s one thing that we were told in poetry workshops: trust your reader to make connections. Don’t spell out everything because that’s insulting to readers. When you read a book and it’s all explained, then you say, ‘I knew that. Why are you telling me this?’ Even young readers can do this very well. If they go back to the book when they are older, they can see more and put together more things because, when you get to a certain age, you start to look back on your life and think, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on.’”
“With The Crazy Man, the publisher took out whole chunks. The text is pared down to begin with, but Shelley Tanaka taught me even further how much you actually need or don’t need in order to put that picture in the reader’s head. She was very keen about spotting those places in which enough had been said and the rest would have been extra. Shortly after The Crazy Man came out, the book was discussed on CBC Radio’s children’s book panel, but I missed it, and so I wrote and got a transcript of the discussion. The person who brought The Crazy Man said, ‘There are no wasted words in this book,’ and I thought, ‘Thank you. That was what I wanted,’ but Shelley did help me.”
“I think I’m now a better writer for having gone through that process and seeing even more keenly and aggressively when I need to stop writing and when the reader has got it. The editing process can be terribly annoying, and you do get mad at your editor, but Shelly was very helpful. She really did shape the book into a universal story while still maintaining that sense that people from Saskatchewan identify with very clearly.”
“The name Cal Bitterman was that of my mother-in-law’s grandfather, and I thought Bitterman was perfect because the father is a bitter man. However, when Jean read the book, the first thing she said to me was, ‘My grandfather was not a bitter man.’ I explained how the surname works for fiction, and that ‘The Crazy Man is a work of fiction you know,’ but she wasn’t moved by my explanation. I thought Emaline’s father, Cal, was presented with the opportunity to change, but I think it is the individual’s decision what he or she will make from the opportunities that come out of a tragedy. I left his decision ambiguous in the book as to what he did with his life and whether he was open to being changed. Now that I think of it, the change that Shelley asked for allowed me to be truer to who Cal was and the situation that he was in and whether he would continue to be a bitter man or learn to let go.”
“The teacher in The Crazy Man was modeled after a real teacher, Miss Sadie Bauerman. The kids really did call her Sadie the dragon lady, but never to her face. She apparently was strict and expected much from her students, but she had a heart of gold. I met her once and had a lovely conversation with her. She still wore ankle high lace-up shoes and a long skirt. I wanted Emaline to have that experience of being taught one of those great teachers who appears to her students to have a hard shell at times but really doesn’t. One is truly fortunate if you ever get that kind of teacher in your life. I knew that if I called her Miss Bauerman, there would be people in Weyburn who knew far more about her than I did and would correct me. Consequently, I made her a semi-fictional figure, Miss Tollofson.”
“The book’s grade seven teacher, Gordon Liddle, is really Gordon Liddle, and he was another one of those great educators that comes along once in a while. After I was told that The Crazy Man had made the short list for the Governor General’s Literary Award, my mother-in-law said, ‘Gordon’s got to read that book.’ I sent him a copy, and he called me on the phone and said, ‘I was reading your book, and I found out that I’m in it.’ And he went on, ‘You have two teenagers now. When do you have time to write?’ I replied, ‘One day a week.’ And he said, ‘Well, you guard that time.’ I thought that was a high compliment.”
“The page breaks in The Crazy Man are pretty much mine. We had discussions over page breaks because the printer wasn’t able to get everything on a page that I had on a page of manuscript. Groundwood then went back to the printer and managed to get a few more lines on each page. We would go through every page break to decide where to let it go to the next page, and I appreciated having a say over that.”
“Line breaks were also important, and I did not want to be sloppy with line endings. In all the places where the line was a bit long, we needed to cut the line, and Shelley would say, ‘Well, can we cut it here?’ Doing so would end up with the line ending with the word ‘the’ or something like that, and I wanted an important or evocative word, one that evoked an image, on the ends of the lines. I recalled one day in undergraduate school when one of my poetry professors read us a poem, and then he showed it to us as it appeared on the page. He said, ‘Look at this. You read the end word on every line of this poem and you get the essence of what that whole poem is about.’ I’ve stuck with that idea, and so on every page of The Crazy Man I did that.”
“I originally had different names for the sections in The Crazy Man. The first one was called something like ‘The Promise of Summer.’ While I created the sections as they still remain, Shelley changed the titles because I think she wanted to be minimalist about it. Again, she was helping to hone the whole manuscript to bring out the spare sense of the language and to cut out anything that would be simply padding.”
“Finding the time to write for anyone who wants to write is a challenge. Different people have different ways of solving that problem. I know women who get up at 4 a.m. and write from 4 a.m.-7 a.m., and then they get their kids up and off to school before they, themselves, go to work. For me, I needed to leave the house because there are so many temptations at home. There’s always something calling out to be done, and so I found a library in Victoria. It’s actually at a convent/retreat centre, and the library isn’t very well visited. It’s not a public library, but several years ago Sister Audrey set me up with a desk near a plug in the wall so I could bring my computer. She very kindly gave me space to come one day a week for the day and into the evening and very patiently and quietly supported me.”
“Some people say that if you want to write, you have to do it every day. I wasn’t able to do that, but I have all-day once a week. I did find that, if I made the commitment to myself, once my brain realized that I was serious about keeping the commitment, when I got to the library I would have something to write about, even though while driving the forty minutes down to the library, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to know what to write, but it would come. I think that’s a covenant that you make with another part of yourself to allow those things that you’ve really been thinking about in the back of your head to come out and form themselves because the unconscious is a powerful entity. Sometimes the unconscious will hand you a poem or story whole and complete that it has been working on for quite some time, even though the conscious brain is unaware of it.”
“For practicality, I would pretty much use the same day for writing every week, but the day would vary from year to year. Once school started, I would figure out when my family’s schedules were least inconvenienced by my absence until dinner time and sometimes into the evening. This year, I haven’t quite got my day down yet, and I have to do that because then my brain will live up to its part of the covenant. While writing The Crazy Man, some days I could write a bit at home. I might have an hour before I had to pick up the kids at school, and I would use that hour for writing, but complicating the picture is the fact that Rob, when he’s home and not out in Saskatchewan talking to farmers or looking at the land, has his office downstairs. So the phone rings a lot, and there are always interruptions at home.”
“I don’t really work from an outline. When I wrote The Crazy Man, I thought that I would need to have an outline, and I imagined, like William Faulkner, I would write outlines for my novel on the walls of my office, too, but it didn’t happen. Sometimes I would make notes on the backs of Visa receipts or grocery slips which I would then keep and try not to lose before my day would come when I could go to the library and write. Looking back, I really wonder how I was able to keep as much as I did in my head. The poet Robert Bly says that when he stops writing for the day, he tries to leave the writing in a place where he knows how he will continue, so that when he sits down to write the next day, he doesn’t hesitate but begins writing straight away. I think I kept enough detail in my mind to know where I was going to start again.”
Pamela’s next book for children was a picture book, and it came about because “Groundwood just asked ‘What else have you got?’ and my answer was ‘A little poem.’” The poem has its roots in Pamela’s time in Montana. “Drew had just turned two, but he was a precocious child. One evening as I was looking out the kitchen window of our ranch house, a big harvest moon was rising in the east. I called everybody to come and look at the moon. Cecilia leaped onto the counter to see out the window. I picked up Drew so he could see, too. Ever the eloquent one, he said, ‘Yellow moon, apple moon,’ and I thought, ‘Kid, you’re brilliant. What a great image. How did you come up with that?’”
“It must have been divine intervention, but the next morning everyone was sleeping in and I was awake, and so I got out of bed and went into my study and just started with those four words, ‘Yellow moon, apple moon.’ I wrote this little poem, a kind of going-to-bed poem, and then it sat in a drawer for a long time. At one point, I translated it into Spanish because the yellow moon apple moon image reminded me of moonrise in New Mexico, and the book’s actually coming out in two versions, English and Spanish. At one point in the process, Patsy Aldana, Groundwood’s publisher, said, ‘The book’s a little bit short. Maybe you could include the song that the mother sang. Do you know of a song that you would like?’ And I said, ‘I know the exact song,’ a New Mexican folk song I had collected when I was about 15 years-old, and I have kept it all this time.”
In terms of what’s next, Pamela says, “I have an adult book of poetry coming out that I’m very pleased with. It’s called The Intelligence of Animals. The poems in Stones Call Out (Couteau, 2006) are longer and more narrative. I think I was trying to pack whole short stories, if not whole novels, into those poems, and The Crazy Man was important for me in that I learned how to take a large and complex subject and cut it into cross sections to examine a bit at a time.”
“When I was writing The Crazy Man, we still went to Saskatchewan every summer, and, in addition to working on The Crazy Man, I would write adult poems about the Prairies and about rural life at home in BC, having horses and the interactions between animals and people. Consequently, The Intelligence of Animals includes human beings as well and ways in which we do, or do not, act intelligently and ways in which animals use their many intelligences. Horses, for example, are highly evolved emotional and spiritual creatures, and to be in nonverbal relationship with animals can be a profound experience. The poems in Intelligence of Animals are generally shorter and more imagistic, more akin to what I had learned to do in The Crazy Man. In Saskatchewan, for instance, there are challenges such as weather and crop failures, there’s a lot of pathos that takes place as well as brilliance when people are caught in difficult circumstances, and that’s what many of the poems are about. I’m happy about that collection, and I’m looking forward to seeing it as a book.”
“The Intelligence of Animals is being published by the Backwaters Press in Omaha, Nebraska. I really hadn’t started sending it out much, and I was going to identify publishers in Canada and the States to send it to, but Backwaters Press was having an open submission period a couple of Julys ago and I thought, ‘I’ll go ahead and send this in and then start to think about where else I might send it.” Over Christmas in 2006, as a family we traveled to Argentina, and when we returned home there was a self-addressed stamped envelope waiting for me. I immediately thought, ‘This is a “Dear Author, we regret to tell you...” letter, and I might as well just recycle it right away.’ Then some part of me said, ‘You might as well just look at the letter before you recycle.’ I opened it up, and there was my covering letter with a note on the bottom saying, ‘We really like your manuscript and want to publish it.’ Quite an informal way to tell you they want to publish your book.”
“I did not consciously set out to write The Crazy Man with universal themes, one that everyone would find something in. I set out to write a story because I needed to. But a number of things that happened to me growing up came into the story as themes -- discrimination and injustice and thoughtlessness, and the casual cruelties that were probably unresolved in my mind. I wrote The Crazy Man for myself because that was something that, for some reason, I needed to do. I did it really not knowing if any publisher would be interested in it or if anybody else would be particularly interested in reading a book set in Saskatchewan about a mental patient and a girl with a disability. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response.”
Books for children by Pamela Porter.
Books for adults by Pamela Porter.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Winnipeg on October 20, 2007, and revised August, 2008.
- The Intelligence of Animals. The Backwaters Press, 200?.
- Stones Call Out. Coteau Books, 2006.