A Deep Dive into the Life of Theresa Kishkan: Author of Blue Portugal

Theresa Kishkan and I meet in Sechelt at a cafe with good beans at a crossroads. Go left and you’re on a stomach-churning curvy road that zigzags to the end of the Sunshine Coast peninsula at Earl’s Cove. From there you can take an incredibly scenic ferry ride to Powell River. You may even see a pod of Orcas on your journey.

Go straight through this intersection and take a right at Wharf Avenue and you will end up at the Lighthouse Pub for fish and chips. You see float planes navigate a mini-island in the middle of their landing area, then putter to the dock in front of you.

Across the street from us is Big Mac’s which boasts double-digit soft-serve ice-cream flavours. There’s a Restore where you can nab cast-offs for the cottage, and a vet that’s under repair from where a car confused them for a drive-thru.

Blue Portugal was one of our “Best Books of 2022”! You can read Michael Greenstein’s review here.

After reading the heady essays in Blue Portugal, I was anxious and feeling intimidated to meet, let alone interview this highly intelligent person, but Theresa is extremely approachable and quick to smile, so I was soon at ease.

Curious to know how she started her writing career, I asked her when she discovered the pen. Like many writers, Theresa has always written and felt an urgency as a child to write. She sat with her notebook and dreamt up stories. She says,

Writing was the thing I did best, I felt called to do it in ways I can’t explain, but didn’t realize I could work at in the same way I could teach or be employed in an office, store or whatever else presented itself until one of my university professors. . . told me one day: “You’re a poet and you should make that your life’s work.” He gave writing a legitimacy that I welcomed.

Her process for Blue Portugal, a collection of essays was to write individual essays until there were enough for a book. “They are held together by threads and textiles,” she says.

Sometimes a single essay generates another. Or I write a cluster of essays around a particular puzzle or complex of ideas and those have a relationship that allows me to see them as part of something larger. An earlier book, “Mnemonic: A Book of Trees”, was an exception in that I wanted to write a series of connected essays that would form a memoir and I wanted their scaffolding to be arboreal.

I used significant trees in my life to lead me into the places and experiences they helped to shape: the Garry oaks of my childhood, the beautiful olive trees on Crete where I lived as a young woman, the western red cedars that I associate with deep coastal culture. In “Blue Portugal“, the geographies of family history, of time, love, injury, aging were held together or composed by the threads and textiles that I immerse myself in as a way to think deeply about these things.

When reading Blue Portugal, the voice seems solitary and inward-looking. I asked Theresa why she thought readers are interested in tales of solitude, just from tracking BC bestsellers, like Grant Lawrence’s, Return to Solitude, and Carol Simpson’s, Alone in the Great Unknown? 

She felt it’s our curiosity to know the details of other people’s lives and to “Make culture wherever we are.”

I work alone, living in a house with someone who is also a writer and who shares a similar working process. We have no immediate neighbours and we are devoted to the land we live on, the life we have built here. I know this life wouldn’t suit everyone but it is ours by choice.

Kishkan wrote about a trip to visit her family in western Ukraine before the pandemic and the Russian invasion occurred to find her grandfather in his village, in the fall of 2019. Thankfully, her relatives are safe living elsewhere in Europe.  

I am so grateful that I was able to travel to Ukraine when I did. . .because a few months later it would have been impossible. On that visit I found relatives, unknown to me and certainly unknown to my late father, still living in the village my grandfather left in 1907 to travel to America, eventually settling in Drumheller after working in mines in New Jersey, Nova Scotia, and B.C.

I spent a wonderful evening with my relatives and I hoped to return. I still hope to return. I’m in touch with my family there. As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, my husband and I invited them to join us here. The cousin I write to, the head teacher in the village school, said they wanted to stay as long as they could. They had tomatoes and grain to plant, food to preserve. She was responsible for the school.

“This is our life,” said my cousin. In the fall, with regular missile flights over their village, they decided to go to another European country to live with a close family member until it’s safe to return.

I wondered how she balanced her family, personal life, and interests with her writing career, and what challenges she faced in doing so? She’s a quilter and dyer, which are both time-consuming tasks. Does she put aside her writing in the summer to get her indigo dye pots going, and in the winter reserve time to quilt?

She had no time to write when she was raising her family.

“I write out of a rich life. I quilt in tandem with writing,” she says.

For years, when my children were young and living at home, I found it hard to have regular writing time. I was building a house, raising a family, doing graduate work during part of this time. I remember my dear friend, Edith Iglauer, telling me that writing wouldn’t go away, it would be still be here once my children grew up. And it was, though I found I’d lost my voice as a poet and had to find another way to write. It took time but when I did begin to work regularly again, I realized I had a rich hoard of experience to draw from.

I think of everything I do as part of a continuum. The writing, textile work, devotion to story, to my garden, to my family near and far, interest in human and natural history—these are all connected to one another.

When I begin to think about pattern and prepare cloth for dye work, I am also thinking about the way language arranges itself in my mind, the rhizomes and root systems of a story tangled in the thread of a quilt. The work at hand – quilts, dye vat, writing, plants – is what needs to be done.

In a world where AI is changing the landscape of writing, Kishkan thinks of herself as generating text organically. She turns off the spellchecker, predictive text, and grammar checker on her word processor. Instead, she uses a dictionary and thesaurus and other reference books.

When I began to write seriously and publish in the mid-1970s, I remember being attracted to the lively and eclectic small press scene. It was exciting to be part of that and I see this energy among many younger writers now as they create new platforms for their work.

I wasn’t an earlier devotee of word processing, maybe because computers came into use during the years when my children were very young. My writing practice had been to make hand-written drafts and then move to a typewriter. But I remember that I discovered it was a good use of my time to teach myself to write directly on a computer, though I missed the intimacy of writing long-hand.

In one of the early Festivals of the Written Arts, I attended a reading by Carol Shields where she was asked if she wrote her first drafts longhand or on a computer. She said the latter was the case but she’d noticed there was more air in her work than when she wrote longhand and I knew exactly what she meant though I don’t think I’ll go back to my lined pads of paper.

Computers have changed so much of how publishing takes place, from writing to editing to marketing, and there are good things about that, lots of good things, but something has also been lost or at least put aside. I worked briefly in a Special Collections in a university library and I remember how exciting it was when a box of papers arrived from one of the poets whose papers formed part of the archive.

I remember sorting the drafts of poems by Robert Graves for example and tracing the process of his thinking by looking at multiple versions, handwritten, then typed, annotated in his distinctive scrawl. It was a very good way to understand something of the rich tradition I was hoping to be part of. I remember how exciting it was to receive my page proofs by boat when I lived on a small island in the west of Ireland, marking them with pen by the light of an oil lamp, and then taking them to the mainland by boat to post them.

I’ve talked about the new technologies such as ChatGPT with a few writer friends as well as some others in academia and I think we share a certain skepticism about its applications being useful for us. . .Possibly there are ways a chatbot could extend or generate literary art. But I’m a writer who came to the art with a background in literature.

. . .I generate text, if you will, from very organic and visceral sources that are rooted in the creative process. Most of the writers I admire also create work that has a distinctive voice, an imprint all their own, with its origins in human DNA, in human experience, memory. I follow ideas and mysteries and fundamental human values.

Why would I want an app to do this for me? I love music, art, architecture, literature, and so many other aspects of human accomplishment and culture. I believe that humans are not distinct from nature but are part of it, dependent upon its health. I am committed to the hard work involved in these callings. I’ve never thought the human work of making art was somehow deficient in its processes and outcomes. But obviously other people have their own reasons to embrace these new developments and I’ll be interested to watch what happens from afar.

Theresa quotes from Muriel Wylie Blanchet’s, The Curve of Time“Brighter stars than you see anywhere else” who wrote on the Coast, on her blog. She has them painted above her desk, so I ask her why are they an important symbol for you?

The Curve of Time is a book I re-read every year to remind myself of the importance of knowing where I am in place and time. I think human beings have read the skies for as long as we’ve been on earth, finding rich and tantalizing stories in their patterns. There is something about the constancy of the heavens that is both reassuring as well as useful for getting from one place to another.

We know too that birds and fish use forms of celestial navigation for their long migrations. Dung beetles travel at night using the Milky Way. Amphibians and moths use the night sky to navigate.

She mentions reading Dante in Blue Portugal with her husband. So I ask her if Dante had an influence in her writing. 

I first read Dante as a young woman and the “Divine Comedy” was a revelation, as a 14th century narrative poem that allowed us to see and participate in the process of revelation. Strands of thinking and understanding are brought together so beautifully. Although it can be slow and difficult to read, it’s worth it, I think. Reading the “Inferno” in my later life helped me to find my way through my own dark woods.

Every writer has a unique routine, so what is Kishkan’s?

I write almost every day. Some days I might be at my desk for hours and other days it’s more sporadic. It depends on where I am in a work-in-progress. And often I get up in the night to work.

There have been times when whole essays have been written after midnight, sitting at my desk, looking out to the darkness, with my little desk light burning.

I also swim. From May until October, I swim daily in the lake near my home and I find it really energizing. The rest of the year I try to swim 4 mornings a week in the local pool. I call it my slow kilometer. I often think my way through writing problems while I’m swimming, maybe the watery version of a walking meditation.

Writers also have their challenges, so what are Theresa’s particular obstacles to overcome in her writing?

It’s easy sometimes to feel despair at the difficulty of somehow meeting my own standards, to feel despair at the sense of my mediocrity. There are mornings when I wonder, Why bother. But there’s honestly nothing better than following an interesting thread to places I hadn’t known existed, to take up Dante’s challenge in the opening lines of the “Inferno” (Robert Pinsky’s glorious translation):

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
about those woods is hard—so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
the old fear stirring…

Beyond library books and online research, what else does Theresa do to research her books, I asked her.

In the mid-1990s I was writing an essay, “the month of wild berries picking”, about women and bears, their historical and mythological relationships. I put the essay aside for a bit and was having a phone conversation with a writer friend, the late Charles Lillard. I told him what I was doing and how I was discovering I didn’t know enough but that I also didn’t know where to look next.

A few days later, a big box arrived for me by bus – there used to be daily bus service from Vancouver to Powell River, connecting with buses between Vancouver and Victoria; Charles lived in Victoria. When I opened it, I found books, magazine articles, print-outs of scholarly papers from ethnological journals, photographs, and other riches from my friend’s amazing home archive. I hadn’t known what I needed to know but he’d intuited it and the results inspired me to finish the essay (it’s contained in my book “Phantom Limb“).

I said to her, “You said the best advice to writers is to, ‘Sit your bum in a chair and write.’ Is there nothing else to it? What about research, observation, reflection, distillation?” Her reply was,

All those things are absolutely important parts of the writing process. But I often tell myself and others who ask that we don’t get these years back and that the actual work of sitting at a desk and making sentences that become paragraphs that become essays or chapters needs to be done. The more regularly we do this, the more flexible and nimble our writing muscles are.

In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” For me, writing is a daily practice. It’s important to show up.

So what does she consider to be her greatest achievement as a writer so far, and how does she measure success as a writer?

I’m always hopeful that the next book I write will be the one in which I actually accomplish something approximating what I’ve always tried for. I’m not sure it’s happened yet, that I’ve written as well and as deeply as I hoped I might. But it keeps me tenacious.

That my books accumulate, as my life has accumulated, that I’ve made a record of my time and place on earth, in the company of other living things. That someone might read my work decades from now and think, This one too.

For the benefit of other writers, I wanted to know how she approached the editing process, and what strategies she used to refine her work.

 . . .I wait until I have a whole first draft and then I print it out to see what the whole thing looks like as a physical object. Others might be able to do this on a screen but I guess I have an analogue metabolism. In the same way that I understand where I am in time by looking at a clock face, I “see” the shape of a novel or an essay when I have it in my hands as pages of text. I can figure out the gaps this way, the inconsistencies, and the continuities, or lack of them.

I often clear our big pine table and lay out the pages like a quilt to make sure I have the best order and pattern. Sometimes I actually cut and paste (or tape) sections, moving them around to make the best use of them. I think of it at this point almost as a musical score. Are there movements missing? Arias? Codas? And I read aloud to hear the rhythms of the sentences. No other method reveals awkward phrasing so quickly.

In his wonderful book, “A Passion for Narrative,” Jack Hodgins talks about revising as the process of “re-visioning” your work. Seeing it again. Sometimes I actually begin again, using the first draft as a template and typing the whole thing again, re-visioning it as I go along.

What does Theresa Kishkan think is the most important quality for a writer to possess? (I ask secretly hoping I possess it.)

Curiosity is important, the willingness to find things out, even if they’re difficult (I did an online math course in order to write the title essay of “Euclid’s Orchard“). A love of language and a facility with its mysterious capacities. Wild patience, to borrow from Adrienne Rich.

Whew! I am definitely curious and love to research answers, although not to the point where I would take a match class. Love language. Working on patience.

What does Kishkan think sets her writing apart and how does she cultivate her unique voice, I ask her, as the caffeine really kicks in.

I began my writing life as a poet, immersed in classical and contemporary poetries, and although I can’t write poems any longer, I think I’ve retained the lyrical voice, the relationship with language and meaning that I learned as a young poet.

Theresa is writing a novel, Easthope, set in a fictional village on the Coast in the 1900s, that’s very like Egmont and also in Lviv, Ukraine. Excerpts can be found on her blog (https://theresakishkan.com/blog). Theresa nearly lived in Egmont so Easthope is a fictional path not taken.

As for life on the Coast, Theresa says,

I love this place where I’ve lived for most of my life. . .I’m a student of its weather, its complicated histories, its geography, its grammars, its shifting demographic, and I’m grateful for my membership among its writers, artists, fishermen, resource workers, tellers of tales, communities of flora and fauna, families, specific and general, and all the intimate beautiful details that distinguish this place from any other.

There are two essays in Blue Portugal that are particularly meaningful to Theresa.

“A Dark Path” took me down its complicated trails into the past, into the pain and beauty of my girlhood, and into the difficult possibilities of the present. “Museum of the Multitude Village” chronicles a journey into a new but familiar or familial geography and let me explore the joy of finding the unexpected—a village near a river, silver firs trembling in the wind; Orion (those stars again) seen from a train window as I travelled from Kviv to Chernivtsi at night; celebrating a wedding in the Carpathian Mountains, warmed by horilka and blankets smelling of lanolin from the sheep grazing below us.

As someone who enjoys dyeing yarn, I really enjoyed the chapter “Blue Etymologies”, where indigo dyeing and Japanese shibori dyeing techniques are described.

Blue Portugal is a finalist in the Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society new Book Awards for BC Authors contest, which can be viewed at http://www.scwes.ca

Cathalynn Labonté-Smith grew up in Southwestern Alberta and moved to Vancouver, BC, to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia (UBC). After graduation, she worked as a freelance journalist until present. She became a technical writer, earning a Certificate in Technical Writing from Simon Fraser University. She later went to UBC to complete a Bachelor of Education (Secondary) and taught English, journalism, and other subjects at Vancouver high schools. She currently lives in Gibsons, where she is the president and founder of the Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society, and North Vancouver, BC. Her new book, Rescue Me: Behind the Scenes of Search and Rescue (Caitlin Press) is a British Columbia bestseller.