JUDY BOWMAN is an award-winning author and former President of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals including Room, Qwerty, Rattle (US), and have also been anthologized in The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction. A former columnist and feature writer, she was voted favourite journalist for the Miramichi region in 2008. That same year, she was also nominated for the Atlantic Newspapers Freelance Journalism Award for her story about a residential school survivor. Judy Bowman lives in Miramichi.
Miramichi Reader: Judy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. I’ve been meaning to interview you sooner, but now is an especially optimal time since you have two books you wish to mention.
Thank you, James, for your interest in Life a Gift Passed On: an Anthology of Elders’ Stories, a Words on Water Legacy Project. Words on Water is a literary organization that encourages emerging and established writers through workshops and readings. In 2005, Michelle Cadogan and I joined ranks and organized monthly readings and music at Edgewater Gallery and which is the longest-running series in the region.
I’ll begin with your interest in Life a Gift Passed On: An Anthology of Elder Stories.
Holding my copy of Life a Gift Passed On is a surreal experience. After my first grant application to New Horizons for the Words on Water Legacy Project had been declined, you can’t imagine how stunned I was to receive a phone call from Marie-Paule Thériault at MP Pat Finnegan’s office. She said, “Judy, I was reading your grant proposal from last year. It is a really good idea. Would you like me to help you write another proposal for this year?” How did she know? I discovered that all federal grant applications from his district land on our MP Pat Finnegan’s desk. While he can’t endorse any grants, his staff dedicate many hours of assistance to each grant applicant. After numerous hours of revisions, with helpful suggestions from Marie-Paule, I sent the proposal off and thought nothing more about it for the next twelve months. When my application was accepted, that is all I thought about for the following year.
I curated stories from people of every culture in our communities along the Miramichi Bay: Indigenous, Anglophones, Francophones, and newcomers to Canada. Each narrative in Life a Gift Passed On is a signature story and equally important to me. Each narrative has timeless relevance and meaning for others—young and old—with threads that criss-cross in time. Doris Rose Stymiest, Maya Joosten and Cecil Mullin share their direct but different experiences in Europe during World War 2, yet model the same endurance and courage, as does Patricia Curtis, in “Love, Lobbying and Tactile Language” and Jeannette Foley in “Never Give Up”; two mothers displaying invincible courage, determination and dedication in surmounting countless obstacles to create the best lives for their sons.
The most valuable gift to me, and to the others involved, was the knowledge that each contributor knew they had been seen and heard; that their story in this book helped validate their lives; that they can celebrate their own story. The impact of this will span more decades. In years hence, if a descendant wonders about a grandparent, there will be a record. During the Year of the Veteran, I created a memory wall for veterans at the Miramichi Senior Citizens Home. One of the veterans stood studying his framed picture and story. “What are you going to do with it after I’m gone?” he asked me. When I reassured him his picture would be there long after he passed, he cried. Now MSCH is closed. The pictures are safe in an album and in the care of the former administrator. He is remembered. They all are.
During the year-wait for the news of the New Horizons grant, I began to work with Kayla Geitzler on my collection of poetry. As a writing coach and an editor, Kayla is first and foremost honest. I didn’t want an editor who would tell me what I wanted to hear. Anyone who wants to improve their writing skills needs this type of mentor. She is kind and encouraging and explains her reasoning. With Kayla, I have an editor who has challenged me to work hard and expand my poetry. She runs the Attic Owl reading series in Moncton and is now the Anglophone Poet Laureate for that city.
When she came on board to edit Life a Gift Passed On, she brought her impeccable skills to the project. She says, “It was a gift to edit this project. I was so thrilled that Judy trusted me and we had a lot of fun together, sharing our mutual feelings of inspiration that arose with each story. It was a privilege to promote so many wise and humble elder voices, especially during the first year of the pandemic. As my editing career progresses, I will always be proud to say that Life A Gift Passed On was my first official book contract.”
How many people in their late 90s get their story into a book? Have a book launch? For most people, it’s a brand new experience. Despite Covid-19 restrictions, I arranged a small launch at Bridgeview Home. As I read excerpts of their stories, I could see the contributors trying to be modest yet dancing inside. I teared up when they signed books for staff and residents. Family members stop me on the street – at a safe distance of course – to tell me how they and their loved ones are so thrilled and happy with this book. My process of creating Life a Gift Passed On has been like walking a twelve-path labyrinth; years of twists and turns to different roles as I as a writer, a mother, a nurse, a teacher, was walking the far outer edge. Slow, fast, whatever the journey was for me, I am now holding a book that I curated and helped write accompanied by humble, helpful people who shared their stories with me or fulfilled a writing dream of their own. I am happy to say that OUR book has reached Ontario, New York State, New York City and is on the way to Australia and soon, to New Mexico.
Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
There are too many books to name. My heart’s home base, my great grandparents’ farm in Black River Bridge, New Brunswick, was stacked with books, many about young girls doing what they wanted in life, not the traditional roles of wives and mothers. Most of the authors were women. My Gram, Grace Elspeth Godfrey Williston, also loved books. Like hidden cookies, I could sniff out any of the hiding places where Gram stashed her naughty romances and I stayed up all night to read them. Depending on the book, I still do.
Dad was R.C.A.F and we were always on the move. From the time I was born an air force brat in Chicoutimi, Quebec and hopped back and forth, base to base, from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick and Quebec, I had changed schools twenty-two times. I was very shy so books were my escape to sanctuary. I can live vicariously through the characters. Deciding on a favourite book is difficult because I like most genres. Fantasy: Stephen R. Donaldson’s series, the Thomas Covenant Chronicles; Jack Whyte’s A Dream of Eagles series, his Templar Knight trilogy; Hilary Mantel’s: Bring Up The Bodies and Wolf Hall. These are ones I revisit at times and still get lost in the stories. I love the wit and humour of Marion Keyes.
The book with the most impact on me was the Diary of Anne Frank. When I read it, like Anne, I was in my early teens and kept a diary filled with the exciting events of each day: ‘Got up. Went to school. Ate supper. Went to bed.’ Anne’s situation of hiding out in and confiding in her friend Kitty was all was very romantic to me and reinforced when I saw the movie, that is, until I learned the true circumstances and history of that time. Immediately I found a notebook and began my letters to Anne filled with my early boy crushes, my woes, hopes and dreams.
Anne was a constant friendship that didn’t end with a move. In 2009, I visited the Anne Frank Huis (house) in Amsterdam. While in line beside the Prinsengracht Canal, I marveled at the timelessness and reach of Anne’s story; so many other mothers and daughters from so many countries stood with me to visit the Secret Annex. The bells of the nearby Westerkerk (church) rang as we waited. I wondered: had Anne heard them during the war? Had they been rung on the hour?
Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés ranks in importance to me with The Diary of Anne Frank. Dr. E. writes about myths and dreams that are cross-cultural and most relevant to women and their creativity. It sustained me through some difficult situations and the transition from the culture in Ontario to the culture here. In 2015, I traveled to Colorado for a training workshop in archetypal and cross-cultural psychology with Dr. Estés: Seeing in the Dark and The Death and Resurrection of the Phoenix. I am still figuring those lessons out. I’m now interested in researching the myths of my own ancestors and finding my own myth or combination of such and framing it in fiction or poetry.
Education and Employment
As I was thinking about your question on education and back ground, I realized that my interest in writing and my jobs in health care are intertwined. Both experiences have led to this legacy project. After training at Guelph General and St. Joseph’s Hospitals in Guelph, and graduating from Conestoga College of Applied Arts and Technology, in Ontario, I worked at K-W Hospital in Kitchener. Along with working with the most amazing gang of women, now lifetime friends, what I loved best about the job was learning the patients’ stories that were not on the chart. As more newcomers from around the world arrived in the Waterloo Region, their experiences fascinated me and I took every opportunity to hear about their lives. Their stories broadened my view of the world; some broke my heart open.
Apart from nurses’ notes, I hadn’t written since high school, but the yearning had never left. Storylines ran like newsfeeds through my brain. How the matter came up, I can’t recall, but I did admit this long postponed dream to my pastor. Not long after, I received a call from the editor of the Erb Street Mennonite Church Newsletter requesting that I write the story about the journey of our church sponsored Vietnamese family to Canada. Few in our community knew this refugee family closed their shop one evening and walked away from their house and business to a refugee camp in Cambodia, where they spent the next two years. That article was well received and I went to write the story of my friend’s miracle. While recovering from a single lung transplant, my friend revealed that just hours before getting the call from the transplant team at a London hospital, she had surrendered to the knowledge that she had hours perhaps a day or two to live. When she had done so, she was filled with peace regardless of the outcome, and knew she would be alright. That call came just hours after.
My husband Don and I moved to Miramichi in 1992 and my plan was to write. My main interest was fiction. I have two novels completed in first draft only. Several of my short stories were published and I did win several awards in the WFNB Literary Competitions. When the Miramichi Writers’ Group was formed I loved the meetings. They were fun and because we didn’t get caught up in a board and minutes of the meetings and all that rigmarole, the group remained fun and interesting. As much as I enjoyed serving on the board and then as president of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, the business of organizations can drain hours from your day that you can spend on writing.
When NBCC hosted classes for three New Brunswick Universities, I signed up for classes. If the number of credits I’ve accumulated counted, I would have achieved a Bachelor of Arts degree years ago and perhaps been on my way to a Master’s Degree. But so many were interesting: narrative gerontology –yes, it had an influence on my writing of elders−English, Creative Writing, Sociology, Philosophy and so on. I am studying informally. You Tube has fascinating lectures on myth and Jungian Interpretations.
Happenstance or happy chance, I was offered a column for a local magazine, “The Captains’ Log”. I came up with the name Signature Stories and continued on with profiles of community members. This little magazine was very popular, so much so, it was bought out and then unfortunately cancelled a few months later.
Next, the editor of the Miramichi Leader offered me a weekly column and freelance work with that local newspaper. Like my previous work, my column showcased people in the community; not celebrity types, but the folks around us who are doing remarkable service, volunteering for others or modeling loving kindness. They are often overlooked, particularly if they are older. I wanted this group recognized. However, I admit I did tend to focus on veterans, and the seniors I worked with, more than others.
As a freelancer I wrote extensively on fitness, and on women’s issues: pay equity, residential school survivors. I focused a lot on domestic violence education and featured accounts of local women killed by domestic violence and represented in the Silent Witness Project; a red free-standing red silhouette bears a shield engraved with the name of a victim. New Brunswick was the first province in Canada to adopt the initiative started in the United States to increase public awareness of domestic violence
Research on a story on how Forest Protection Ltd. fought forest fires with an air tanker squadron awarded me great adventures. During one hot dry summer, I flew on a practice run with the air tankers. What a thrill to watch from the scout plane as the air tankers, one plane after another dived low, leveled out and dropped the water on target; perfect timing all around. Topping that experience was the day I took off in a WW2 Avenger air craft on a fire reconnaissance flight. What lift-off power; no wonder they could take off from an aircraft carrier! Even with protection, my ears rang for a day after.
A front page story above the fold was big deal for me. When veterans Fred Moar and John Forbes received the status of Knights of the Order of the Legion of Honour from France, I was sent to the ceremony in Fredericton. The medal was presented by France’s Ambassador Daniel Jouanneau whom I found to be very easy to talk with. After Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for residential schools, I chronicled Harry Narvey’s experience at Shubenacadie residential school and that story was nominated for the Atlantic Newspapers Freelance Journalism Award. In 2008, I received the Miramichi Leader Readers’ Choice Award for Favourite Journalist.
If you could write a biography of any living person, living or dead, who would that be?
After looking at my books, I think the only person I would write about is Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun who was born in America. I am interested in why and how she chose Buddhism as her spiritual path. That said, I am interested in many peoples’ stories but considering that a biography would be longer than a signature story, I don’t believe I would attempt it.
Tell us about books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to write.
I can’t decide whether my love of reading or writing came first, but according to a note written by me on the back of a handmade scrap-paper card to my great grandmother, I began to write when I was four years old. I wanted Gauma to know I was writing all my books for her. She taught me to read and print long before I started school. Can you imagine my disappointment when all Dick and Jane did was run?
But Jane had an influence on me. She has evolved. Jane is my go-to name for characters; at present the main character in a novel I am working on. Jane popped up in a series of Miramichi Leader features when I wanted an edgier voice to discuss the pitfalls of exercise or the traumatic experiences of a mother of the bride. To be completely honest, Jane had the freedom to say things I wouldn’t. Some women named Jane decided that they were the role models of my honest, saucy Jane; sure, why not?
Not only did the subjects of primary school books disappoint me, so did Bible stories. What? Moses didn’t reach the Promised Land? Later, I edited that story and rewrote that ending along with others I disagreed with—rewrites which in some circles might be considered heresy. When my reading skills improved, the next solemn, heavy tome was the King James Version of the Bible. Gauma’s sense of humour vanished the second she opened it. Only once did my serious great grandmother, Janet MacDonald Watling Godfrey, she of the church pinches, stray from the path of righteousness. When I pronounced physicians, fizzycans, she laughed for several minutes until she comported herself.
Gauma was my informal language arts teacher, and my grandmother, Grace Elspeth Godfrey Williston, my Gram, was my teacher during our stints in New Brunswick. Gram told me years later she was hard on me in school because she didn’t want to be accused of any favouritism towards me in class. Believe me when I say that no one could ever accuse her of it.
Only three other teachers do I remember clearly; those memories are based on their kindness and encouragement of me. In Lachine, Quebec, Miss Gellar was my Grade 3 teacher and one, I am realizing now, was one of the many guardian angels who helped me and my family during my parents’ illnesses and my foster care. Miss Gellar often walked me home along the Lakeshore and asked me about my life and I had no filters on any information sharing at that time in my life. She was the first teacher I remember reading to the class. Before class ended each day, she read a story. I still laugh when I recall how she read Winnie the Poo with a voice change for each character. I wasn’t the only student rolling on the floor laughing when my favourite character, squeaky little Piglet, saw the Heffalump.
The first person to help me imagine the possibility of being a writer was Helen Jenkins, now Helen Jones, my Grade 9 teacher at St. Thomas High School in Chatham, New Brunswick. Miss Jenkins set the bar for truth and honesty by her behavior in the classroom. I loved that we each read parts when we studied plays. I appreciated her no-nonsense, kind, grounded way of speaking. In short, I trusted her when she encouraged me to write after commenting on my essays. She assigned the class to write a short story. When she told me mine, Red Surprise – about a surprise air attack on New York City − was good enough to send it for consideration for publication in a New Brunswick students’ anthology, I think I floated home. But, by that March, I was long gone from her class and attending Forest Heights Collegiate Institute in Kitchener, Ontario. But her encouragement took root. I recall the joy of writing my first draft, the sun beaming in the south window, the woodstove warm beside me, and Gauma’s bread baking in the oven.
Mr. Ziegel, my grade 11 history teacher at Elmira District Secondary School, was pickier about our essays than the English teacher. Class was never boring. I starred as King Xerxes in the movie we made to study the Persian Wars. I liked researching and writing essays. Years later, he greeted me in an aisle at Zellers. When I shared my surprise that he remembered me, he said, “I clearly remember two things about you. You were very pale and you were a very good writer.” I’m still thrilled with the writer comment.
What do I like to do when I am not writing?
Spring, summer and fall, I love to spend time outside in my garden. My husband built me a four-path labyrinth in our back yard so I like to spend time walking there. I am fascinated with labyrinths and on my next visit to France, I will visit Chartres Cathedral labyrinth. Cooking vegetables from our garden is satisfying and I love chopping vegetables and food prep in general; I did work as a food prep cook at the Whooper years ago and that was one of the very few things I enjoyed about that job. Daydreaming is my happy place, especially when holding a cup of the blessed elixir of life: coffee and sitting watching the early morning sky and taking a voyage into my imagination.
Ella Curtis, in Life a Gift Passed On, spoke about imagination being her greatest gift. It is mine as well. Rather than decreasing, my imagination has grown over the course of my life. The conversations and adventures I have in my mind sometimes get channeled to the page. And no, when alone, I am not talking to myself, I am conversing with people I want to understand, some of them long dead. Perhaps you can imagine my confrontations with politicians, regardless of party; few if any (though I am hoping to be disproved) have any credible acting skills. When my BS detector goes off, I practice my own brand of sincere and passionate speech.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I have been described by family members as eccentric. Staff I’ve worked with told me I was “weird- oh but Judy! In a good way.” When my grandchildren were pre-school, when they played they called me the Saucywitch – a compliment in my view and bested me in battle. If I want to do an activity and it doesn’t exist in our community, I will make it happen. One of many examples: When I moved there was few opportunities for aerobic classes so I trained as a fitness instructor and ran classes for ten years.
What am I working on now?
Now that Life a Gift Passed On is in the world, I want to concentrate on my poetry collection Nights on the Wing. These poems are veteran and elder related narratives that speak to the cost of war on vulnerable men and women: night terrors, memories loosened by dementia or random late night confessions. I am fascinated by how dementia manifests in people. If you listen long enough, you will hear a scrap of a story. As my editor and coach, Kayla has urged me to explore the subjects in greater depth, unpack the images.
When Kayla invited me to submit poems to Cadence, a collection of New Brunswick women’s voices she edited with Elizabeth Blanchard, I knew my efforts to improve my work had paid off. I was a calibre poet. Published by Frog Hollow Press, it is part of the New Brunswick Chapbook Series. I submitted two poems from Nights on the Wing. Cadence was launched at an online Frye Festival event in 2020. The contributors are from all NB communities, races, and languages with translation. It is an amazing accomplishment for these two women and all of us. Cadence was launched in partnership with the Frye Festival. Imagine me reading at a Frye Festival event!
And I imagine, I’ll read there again someday.
This is the link to the book https://www.froghollowpress.com/catalogue.html#cadence
Here is one for the launch: https://youtu.be/qrBUqn22igE
Thanks for this, Judy!