When I received a review copy of The Group of Seven Reimagined, I was immediately taken with not only by the striking look and feel of the book but the ingenious use of “flash fiction” by various Canadian and international writers to complement each work of art. Karen Schauber is the editor of the book, and I had many questions about how the idea came about, the logistics of getting so many talented writers together and so on. It makes for a most fascinating interview!
Miramichi Reader: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
Born and raised in Montréal, I spent eight years in Toronto while at university, and then crossed country to Vancouver where I have been happily ensconced for three decades. (It was while living in Toronto where I had many occasions to visit the McMichael Gallery, that my love affair with the Group of Seven landscape paintings was first ignited.) My professional background and training are in Psychology and Social Work. I have a Master’s in Counselling Psychology, with post-graduate work and certificates in Marriage & Family Therapy. I have had a private practice in Family Therapy for thirty years, and held clinical positions concurrently, earlier on.MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
While I have always been a voracious short story reader, devouring works by Calvino, Marquez, Dahl, Bukowski, Borges, Chekov, and many many more, I never held aspiration to write fiction myself. My writing has been strictly academic and clinical.
Three summers ago, I began exploring/reading literary magazines online with my new iPhone, (what a world that opened up), and stumbled upon flash fiction (a complete story written in under 1000 words). Oh my, what a treat!! I was immediately taken by the brevity of flash fiction – so much story packed into a condensed space – incisive, immersive, with unexpected twists and turns, emotional resonance and poignancy, and, exacting language (which I love, especially).
I quickly discovered a burgeoning global community of flash fiction writers and enrolled in an online flash fiction workshop offered by Meg Pokrass, (a master of the form), out of the UK. I lucked out! Her workshops are fast-paced, generative, and attended by highly creative, respectful, and generous writers. I have completed several intensive three-day, ten-day, and month-long workshops (all online) where I have drafted/crafted/sculpted/ many flash fiction pieces, and subsequently taken similar, dynamic, workshops with Nancy Stohlman, Kathy Fish, Debbi Voisey, and Jonathan Cardew, each focusing on different aspects of crafting flash fiction.
I have since had work published in forty international literary magazines and anthologies. It has been so much fun.
MR: Let’s discuss The Group of Seven Reimagined, a book which you not only edited, but contributed your own flash fiction to. Was this combining of Art and Fiction your idea? Have you ever encountered anything like it before?
The impetus for The Group of Seven Reimagined began as a writing prompt. I am always looking for interesting, layered prompts: a phrase, paradox, scenario, image, to inspire and formulate a story around. I happened to be walking my dog along Vancouver’s Jericho Beach early one frigid but bright wintery morning and was struck by the awesome beauty of the snow-peaked North Shore mountains looming across that stretch of ocean. I imagined that Lawren Harris would have wanted to paint that stunning vista, and in that glance, had the inspiration for my story. – It was only later, when conducting background research for my piece that I learned that the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Group of Seven was coming up in 2020. – A lightbulb went off! The anniversary presented a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the enduring genius of these painters, in story.
Around the same time, I had been devouring everything by Pulitzer prize winner Robert Olen Butler, especially his craft book From Where You Dream, and came across his short story in In Sunlight or In Shadow edited by Lawrence Block, ‘stories inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper’. Block’s superb anthology showed me how an ekphrastic work could be assembled and spurred me on. I now had my project goal clearly in sight.
MR: Briefly walk us through some of the steps involved in creating this project: the call for submissions, choice of G7 art to use (was it assigned, or did the writer choose?), editing, etc. Were there some stories you just didn’t have the space for and had to leave out?
From the get-go I invited two flash fiction writers who I had met in an online workshop and whose writing I admired, to participate in the anthology. I did not broadcast the project or issue a call for submissions. preferring instead to keep the project under the radar. Participation was by invitation-only.
At the outset, I read as many short story collections, journal, magazine, and anthology short fiction pieces as I could find, looking for a range of style, genre, and voice, from writers across Canada. Above all, I was looking for writing at a level of excellence. And of course, I found brilliant storytellers, and was excited by so many extraordinary works of fiction. It was important that each person I invited to participate be professional – demonstrate working to a deadline, with ease – (as 2020 was looming around the corner, and there was a short window to execute the project in time for the one-hundred–year anniversary of the Group of Seven), be experienced working with an editor, and more than enthusiastic about celebrating the Group of Seven, and inspired by their landscape paintings. Each writer was given a selection of paintings from which to choose one painting to inspire their flash fiction piece (each, a different selection, so that the ten painters plus Tom Thomson and Emily Carr would be equally represented). This stage I think was indeed inspiring for all the Writers/Contributors. We all became so much more familiar with the vast body of work that is ‘The Group of Seven’.
It took about a month for me to curate the stories and paintings, assembling the pairings, re-shuffling themes, and laying out different orderings across my living room floor, over and again, until it felt right.
All the while, researching and sourcing which galleries/museums/private collectors held each of the selected paintings, and contacting the estates for permissions. Navigating administrative processes to arrange for licenses and contracts for their reproduction and use, was enormously time-consuming, and a huge learning curve.
In the end, only two writers, two of the commissioned pieces, were not included. This was more about a ‘fit’ with content and style, and with what I felt the artist’s Estates would be comfortable with, than anything else; as permission from the Estates and Private Collector was required to use the artist’s painting in the book.
I am thrilled with the Writers/Contributors who accepted my invitation and came on board: Mike Blouin, Carol Bruneau, Paulo da Costa, Alfred DePew, Tamas Dobozy, Valerie Fox, Travis Good, Mark Jarman, JJ Lee, Brett Loney, Lorette C. Luzajic, Yael Eytan Maree, Michael Mirolla, Isabella Mori, Nina Munteanu, Waubgeshig Rice, Robert Runté, Nina Shoroplova, Mireille Silcoff, Mary Thompson, and Jim and Sue Waddington, who penned the fabulous Foreword. Each one a consummate professional and joy to work with. Their work is exceptional, and it is they who have made this a unique and memorable commemorative work.
MR: This must have been quite a task, since you have your career as a psychologist in private practice. What amount of time was involved from the initial idea to publishing?
I worked on this project every day for a year, in-between other commitments, (weekends included). It had to progress quickly in order to be out for 2020. The project began early in 2018, and I expected it to be time-consuming. My belief in the project, and my excitement about the Writers/Contributors who were crafting such marvellous flash fiction pieces, and about the opportunity to celebrate the enduring genius of the Group of Seven, made it a most worthy undertaking.
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?
I am a big animal lover. – I have the utmost respect for Jane Goodall. I first heard her speak, as a teenager when I was living in Montréal in the early 70s. I had been given In the Shadow of Man as a present (enthralled with primate behaviour), and was a young enthusiast of her work and her message of conservation. Goodall has been a gentle, respected, and important voice over the decades. She has in many respects brought wildlife conservation into the collective consciousness, single-handedly. Her presence as an influencer on this next generation carries great import.
MR: What are you working on now?
I have a collection of flash fiction pieces each centred around a dog (a different canine) in each story, finely nuanced. I’ve been writing bits and pieces in-between crafting and publishing other works earmarked for literary magazines and journals. But these pieces are special, and I want to put them out as a collection. This is my passion project.
Also, I am also keen to assemble a second anthology similarly structured to The Group of Seven Reimagined – ekphrastic writing (fiction inspired by visual art). This time showcasing the surrealist and magic realism artists Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. I am exploring how to approach this next project differently, as it has been enormously expensive to put The Group of Seven Reimagined together. The cost of permissions and licenses from Art Galleries, Museums, Estates, and Rights Administrators (esp. SOCAN) to use reproductions of the paintings for the book, has been almost prohibitive. This expense comes out of my, the editor’s pocket. The publisher does not absorb any of this cost, let alone do the research to secure these permissions. Having a sponsor/corporate interest would help move this next project forward. It is something I’m looking into. – I already have several fabulous surrealist writers I am eager to invite to participate.
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I enjoy the outdoors. I have a big dog, and love being in nature, in the forest, on the water, canoeing/kayaking, and being at the dog beach (Kitsilano), several times a week. I live on the seawall in Vancouver, and routinely bike around Stanley Park, an easy circuit from my front door and back in just under an hour. – Also, I love foreign film and frequent the repertory theatre a few blocks from my home. Chamber music recitals/concerts are also a great pleasure.
– Thank you so much for this opportunity to share this project, James!!
Thank you, Karen!
James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. The Miramichi Reader (TMR) —Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases— highlights noteworthy books and authors across Canada from coast to coast to coast (est. 2015). James works and resides in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.