Always Pack a Pen: An Interview with Marion McKinnon Crook

“I will never stop writing,” says Marion McKinnon Crook, award-winning and best-selling author of Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin and her latest book Always On Call: Adventures in Nursing, Ranching, and Rural Life, a series of memoirs of her career as a community nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin starting in the 50s to the mid-70s. Her vow will be met with great joy by her fans, as we can’t get enough of her fascinating stories not only of life in the remote areas of the province of British Columbia in simpler rustic times, but of her stories period.

We were mental health nurses, street nurses going into bars. We had no cell phones. There were no specialist nurses. The younger generation of nurses can’t believe it.

—Marion Crook

Always Upbeat

To the literary world Marion’s an influential author, to her teammates she’s an outrigger paddler, to the musical community she’s a fellow fiddler, to the writers on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia she’s a treasured mentor, to her dog and cat she’s Mama. She’s been a nurse, educator, and author of more than thirty books under the pen names of Marion Crook, Emma Dakin and Marion McKinnon Crook. For someone who took only one creative writing course in Williams Lake from a playwright, she certainly got her money’s worth. In addition to her nursing degree, Crook holds a master’s in liberal studies and a PhD in education.

I met Marion three years ago when I started a writers’ and editors’ group. Marion brought her boundless enthusiasm, tireless energy, and authorial experience to the Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society. Always an optimist, a wit, and a joy to be around, she also brought her notoriety with her to our writing community. She’s been such an asset and role model in our initiatives such as our annual Book Awards for BC Authors contest where she is one of our esteemed judges.

It’s always a BC author’s dream to be in the BC Ferries shops!

It was a challenge for Marion and me to synch our schedules with her book tour but finally we are tucked snuggly into a soundproof pod at the Gibsons & District Public Library on a cheerful afternoon treated to a stunning ocean view. It’s in this bright and welcoming building, where she recently filled the library with an eager audience who had an interest in the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, nursing, her mystery book series set in England (written as Emma Dakin), or to see this beloved and exuberant local author who’s been on the BC Bestseller list even before Always Pack a Candle hit the shelves from pre-sales alone, including earning a coveted spot on the BC Ferries onboard shops.   

Giddy from her recent trip to Williams Lake where the bookstore owner ordered one-hundred copies of Always on Call for her reading, she asks me, “Have you ever been invited to do a reading in an incredibly remote area?”

“Yes, and it’s difficult. My goal is to visit all the people I’ve interviewed in my book all over North America, but I know it’s probably not going to happen,” I say. But Marion is undaunted by travel and rarely turns down an invitation to do a reading, even though she must board the ferry to drive to the venue on the other side of the water or go to the airport and deal with all the travel arrangements.

Marion is driven by the ever-present “compulsion” to write, and a work ethic that finds her faithfully at her keyboard at 9:00 a.m. daily after walking her dog until lunch time. This year has been particularly busy, because she released a novel in May at the same time as Always on Call.

Her novel, Murder in Vancouver 1886 (Epicenter Press), is based on true events about Vancouver’s great fire. Amy MacDonald, a schoolteacher at Hastings Mill, tries to stop the smuggling of new guns (Winchester ’86 rifles) into the city where they were destined for the hands of Metis rebels. The plot is complicated by the murder of a Métis man, and a mob’s plan to force Chinese citizens onto boats and out of Vancouver.

Always an Author

Crook’s first-ever publications were three short stories published by CBC in 1969, that were read on the radio. However, she didn’t pick up the pen again until the 1980s due to the demands of raising a family, her nursing career, living on the ranch, and juggling life as her husband at the time completed a law degree.

Marion’s daughter, Janice (middle), two sons, Glen (left), David (right), and their beloved puppy on the porch of their home in the Cariboo. Photo credit: Marion Crook.

Marion enjoying a cross-skiing outing.

Marion in the family plane flying over Williams Lake. Vancouver was a frequent trip for the family as Marion’s husband at the time was studying law at the University of British Columbia.

Photo credit: Marion Crook.

Marion’s son, David, tying down their private plane. Photo credit: Marion Crook.

Always a Bestseller

Marion attributes the success of her nonfiction, including the BC Historical Federation’s Community History Book Award 2021 and a Lieutenant-Governor’s Award both for Always Pack a Candle, to making them, “Easy to read, which takes skill and [her] nonfiction reads like a novel.” After writing ten novels, Marion has certainly mastered that skill, and incorporated a love story, suspense, conflicts, and memorable characters in her creative nonfiction books.

She says that she becomes, “Enamored of a character, rather than a location,” when I ask her if she has any books written about her current home on the Coast. However, her Always books seem like love stories to the Cariboo-Chilcotin region that assumes a character of its own, as much as they are to the people that inhabited it in the decades she lived there, as well as to the nursing profession she so clearly loved.

“I have written three Coast novels, but they’re not good enough,” she says in judgement of her own writing. I ask her to revisit them as I know how much she loves her home here, where she paddles outrigger nearby. She’s been on outrigger canoe six-person teams for thirty-two years, starting with the Lotus OC Club in Burnaby—infamous for its Ice-breaker race early in the racing season. For the Icebreaker Race, two six-seaters are rigged together to make twelve-seaters for stability and safety purposes. (I did that race once and only once, not being a fan of the freezing cold water clinking with free-floating ice making my hands turn blue despite the neoprene gloves.)

Always her own worst critic, she says, “ I don’t trust my own writing.” Marion has a team of trusted readers and editors that her drafts go to before they are submitted to a publisher. Her favourite stage of writing is not the first drafts, in fact, it’s the second drafts where she says, “the story and characters come alive.”

Always On the Go

“Writers don’t talk about their books,” Marion says firmly when I ask what she’s working on now. She does hint that she may be interested in a writing a biography, however. “Writing is automatic for me,” she says. She doesn’t have to think about what to write each morning, it just comes to her. That comes from her forty-five years of discipline of applying herself every day to her chair and writing. No doubt, she will have something special for us to read soon.

Always On Stage

Crook (crookpublishing.com) will appear at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, Saturday, August 17, 9:00 am at the Rockwood Centre, Sechelt, BC.

She will also do a reading from Always on Call, sponsored by The Writers Union of Canada at the Art & Words Festival, Gibsons Public Market, Gibsons, BC, held August 22-25, where she collaborated with local painter Suzy Naylor on a stunning winter-themed piece from an excerpt from Always on Call. She will also be giving a workshop on Writing a Novel, Gibsons Public Market – Coastal Room, Thursday, August 22, 2024 at 12:00 PM PDT, and Ask the Authors with Jan DeGrass, Saturday, August 24, at 12:00 PM PDT. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.ca.

Publisher: Heritage House
Paperback 6″ x 9″ | 272 pages
ISBN: 9781772034691

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.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.