On first blush, UBCO professors Anne Fleming and Nancy Holmes have a fair amount in common.
They both teach creative writing, spending their work lives in the academic world. Both publish to strings of accolades and both have the sort of light, entertaining lilt to their voice when they speak that suggests an ability to entertain.
This last quality will have to be the tie that binds when they host a joint reading and book launch in the Okanagan Regional Library next week, for everything from subject matter to the root of their literary gifts seems as far removed from one another as possible.
As Fleming, the author of Gay Dwarves of America, hopes her audience isn’t flummoxed by the lack of homosexual small people in her short story collection, Holmes will be fretting over providing an accessible performance so anyone who has ventured up Knox Mountain or gazed upon a craggy Okanagan hillside will feel attune to the landscape on which she pontificates.
“I started writing the poems in this book maybe seven or eight years ago as a way of getting to know the place where I lived…The more you learn about something, the more attractive it seems to you,” said Holmes. “So it’s been a part of my growing attachment to the Okanagan.”
The Flicker Tree: Okanagan Poems is the fifth poetry collection Holmes has put out since she started teaching at Okanagan University College 20 years ago. It is her way of celebrating the grasslands and the prickly pears, the arrow-leaf balsamroot and the sagebrush Mariposa lily; but it’s also an exploration of grief.
Her father passed away in the years she wrote the collection and her best friend battled and eventually succumbed to cancer; and the pain of these losses informs the text.
Nevertheless, the decapitated mallard heads toppling under her father’s axe in Red-Tailed Hawk are more of a reminiscence than a stake in the heart, she claims. Her father was a hunter and duck heads in the backyard part of the landscape of her childhood.
“I kind of found them quite fascinating, though nowadays I would probably freak out if I found a duck head in my backyard,” she said.
Holmes started her career as an introverted writer, penning sonnets and concentrating on the written word. After learning more about spoken word and slam poetry through her students, particularly as the art form resurfaced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she began to concentrate more on how words sound in performance and on ensuring her message connects with her audience.
“I want to speak directly in my own plain speaking voice to other people who care about this particular environment, the ecology and the region,” she said. “I was very conscious of trying to make a poem I could speak and that people would understand.”
By contrast, the average person isn’t supposed to relate to a gay dwarf in America. It’s the premiss for a fake website that causes a great deal of conflict in the title story of Fleming’s second short story collection.
A pair of urban planning students avoiding work in a late-night study session brainstorm seemingly ridiculous websites premisses like Lithuanian Dadaists and lesbians who swim with the whales, eventually settling on gay dwarves of America.
“It actually comes from my own exploration of the Internet in the early days,” said Fleming. “There was a website of hamster breeders and I just thought that was so funny that people actually took hamster breading that seriously.”
Fleming’s characters proceed to build a website for the dwarves and soon discover there are gay dwarves in America for whom this seemingly absurd existence is simply the reality of daily life when the site elicits response. One of the students thus experiences a crisis of conscience and the other does not, forming the central conflict in the plot.
Gay Dwarves of America contains either nine stories or 39, depending on how one takes the last 31 pages of the book, comprised of one-word stories.
Fleming doesn’t really believe a story can be only one word, but is willing to entertain the possibility as it suggests a jumping off point for readers, and her own leap of faith into fiction followed a similar path.
“I started writing goofy things to make my friends laugh, and so they did, and so I kept going,” she said, noting she never had any intention of penning the next great Canadian novel.
Eventually, her vision of becoming a geographer or environmentalist slipped away and she realized writing was something that would never cease to hold her interest.
Her story Thorn-blossoms offers us a window on why.
After reading a newspaper article on a parent who throttled a hockey coach, Fleming has crafted a tale about family dynamics and the stress of dealing with dementia already critiqued by Quill and Quire as “masterful.”
“I’ve had a few people read it and say it’s too close to home,” she said.
Reviewer Shawn Syms doesn’t seem to agree, saying it’s a straightforward narrative characteristic of “the fraught relationships” throughout the book.
Fleming’s grandmother had dementia and her mother a form of Parkinson’s Disease that causes dementia, but the characters still required a good deal of research, and this is one of her favourite aspects of writing.
“My current novel is set in the 17th century so there’s just a whole world to come to know. Each book brings with it a whole area of interest that I don’t know anything about,” she said.
Fleming has two collections of short stories and one novel; she is currently working on a second novel while on sabbatical in Vancouver, where she is raising her nine-year-old daughter.
The women will share their work with their Okanagan audience next Thursday, Oct. 4 at the Okanagan Regional Library branch in downtown Kelowna, 1380 Ellis Street, from 7-9 p.m. Admission is free.