Toronto Festival of Authors welcomes Ann Eriksson
Prairie-born author and environmentalist Ann Eriksson now champions the forests and sea of BC’s coast
"I was pretty lucky," says Ann Eriksson. "My first novel started haunting me. I was dreaming about it and I'd wake up with paragraphs half formed in my mind. When I sat down to write, it fell onto the page."
That book was her acclaimed first novel Decomposing Maggie (2003), written as she struggled with the demands of work, single motherhood "and a dog to walk." The book's canvas of soaring bluffs, rolling waves and the multi-hued flora and fauna of British Columbia’s Galiano Island was the setting for Maggie's inability to come to terms with the loss of her husband and her curious way of dealing with it.
Dealing with loss was a theme in her second novel, In the Hands of Anubis (2009). The casual encounter of a young tractor salesman from Calgary with a feisty septuagenarian in Cairo airport juxtaposes death with the pain engendered by a traumatic childhood, with hopeful, occasionally even joyful results. Partly set in the Prairies, the book garnered praise for its finely drawn portrayal of farm life in Canada's west.
That's not surprising. Saskatchewan born, Eriksson spent her early life in the Prairies, eventually attending high school in Edmonton. She began a degree in marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax but after a year returned to the west. An 18-month stint teaching in the Yukon seems to have honed her love of open, wild, sparsely populated spaces.
In Victoria for further study, she met her first husband. In 1979, the pair moved to the Gulf Islands − somewhat remote, sparsely populated and the setting for that first novel.
Now, as her fourth novel is enjoying critical success, she has found contentment in her life. Seven years ago, she married Gary Geddes, a poet who "understands the writing life." Their offices, on opposite sides of the hallway of their home on Thetis Island, are close enough for occasional chit chat, sharing and encouragement.
Eriksson said, "I love the Prairies and often visit my family there, but I can't imagine living away from the ocean." A founding director of the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy, it was her love of nature that informed her third book, Falling from Grace, set in the giant pines of British Columbia. The book earned her a silver medal in the 2011 Independent Publishers Book Awards. "I'm a biologist so I'm interested in social issues and ecology," she explained. "I'm interested in the world and people, and how they interact."
Her most recent novel is High Clear Bell of Morning. In it, she tackles one of the most difficult of social issues, schizophrenia. Glen, a biologist studying killer whales in the Salish Sea, is desperate to comprehend his daughter Ruby's mental illness. He uncovers disturbing parallels between Ruby and the mysterious death of a young killer whale, found with a body full of toxic pollutants. "When I started it, I thought I was writing two parallel health stories," said Eriksson. "But they came together and crossed over."
The book grew out of the helplessness she herself felt as she watched the family of close friends fall apart while dealing with one child who is schizophrenic. Her own father suffered with untreated depression for most of his life, as did an uncle. The connection between pollutants and mental health is unclear and Eriksson doesn't come down firmly on either side of the issue. "When I wrote this, I wanted to write a good literary work, but I wanted also to raise awareness of two issues − mental illness and environmental toxins."
The book took seven years to research and write. "I love the process of writing; I love the drafts and the editing," said Eriksson, but admits candidly, "It's the promotion that's my least favourite part. I'm not an introvert, but I live a low-key lifestyle and the energy required is draining. What I do enjoy is meeting the readers and working off their energy."
Gary Geddes has just launched his latest book, What Does a House Want?, and the pair is doing a joint cross-country tour with readings through October, including one at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 26.
Visit anneriksson.ca for a schedule of her upcoming readings.