UFV’s writer-in-residence program accepts one writer every year, for 11 weeks between January and April. The position is designed to allow the writer dedicated time to work on their projects and to engage with the UFV community, and the community of the Fraser Valley at large, as a member of the contemporary literature landscape by holding office hours, visiting classes, and participating in readings and workshops. The position is held by someone who has made notable contributions to the Canadian canon of published works — a fitting description of 2019’s writer-in-residence, Robert Wiersema.
Wiersema was welcomed with a quiet reception last Thursday, from 12-12:30 p.m. in conference room B121. Promptly after noon, the room filled with English faculty and students until there were few empty seats left, and English department head Melissa Walter began his introduction. In excitement, she initially forgot to introduce herself, but she recovered quickly and relayed Wiersema’s career as a UVic graduate, book seller, reviewer, and author before inviting him to take the stand.
Wiersema grew up in Agassiz in the late 1970s, and fondly described how going to town meant going to Chilliwack, but going to the city meant going to Abbotsford, where he would have afternoons to himself once a month spent buying records and books, which he smuggled home to devour. The first words he had to say about his fellowship at UFV echoed this same deep affection.
“One of the things I’m coming into this residency with, is a strong embrace of the idea and reality of community,” he said, pointing out the solitary nature of writing as a profession or past time. “It’s so valuable to be part of a community, and I’m hoping to develop that. My office doors are open. If you have questions, if you want to talk, if you want me to take a look at some of your writing, by all means drop by. That’s what I’m here for.”
However, Wiersema’s residence has already proven symbiotic. In the current tumult and trouble of the world, he said, particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in the United States, he and many writers have found it difficult to maintain their craft. But, he said, last week, after settling into his office and getting lost on campus in search of coffee, he returned to his desk and did something he said he hadn’t done in a couple of years: he wrote. Proudly, Wiersema announced his intention to work on two novels during his residency: the revisions to one called The Fallow Heart, which will be set in a fictionalized Agassiz, and a new story, set in Victoria called Spindrift.
To finish the event, Wiersema read excerpts of both; The Fallow Heart promises to be intriguing and intimate, with the gothic overtones small towns can rarely escape, and the beginning of Spindrift was the poignant start of the story of an artist mourning his wife.
Wiersema’s writing consists of “realistic fiction with a quarter turn towards the weird” and he describes it as “strange and interstitial.”
There was also a brief questions period in which Wiersema discussed the state of Canadian literature, which he sees as undergoing “a boom the likes of which not seen since the 1960s,” and a reinvention which includes marginalized voices, shattering long-time stereotypes of CanLit as being made of “novels about letters that you find in attics in dusty, sepia-toned jackets.” Writers entering the world of publication, he said, shouldn’t feel that small or regional presses are their only avenue; the large houses here in Canada are only branches of the houses in Germany and Australia, so they have more room to take risks and are far from monolithic, though they are more concerned than others about their bottom lines. When asked about his advice for fledgling writers, he emphasized the importance of building a personalized routine.
“Once you start building routines, you don’t have to rely on willpower,” Wiersema said, describing willpower as overrated.
Students wishing to take advantage of Mr. Wiersema’s invitation can find him in his office at D3009 Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, and are asked to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if they would like to drop by. He hopes to announce events he will be hosting or attending soon.
Image: Mikaela Collins/The Cascade