“We’re thinking of moving to the country,” I told mystery writer Louise Penny when I bumped into her at the Knowlton Literary Festival in 2010, adding that my husband and I weren’t sure if it was the right thing for our writing careers. Penny was enthusiastic: “Do it,” she said, “while you can!” A few months later, we bought a 200-year-old farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of Hatley.
For Penny, living in the country proved no hindrance to her career. Her depiction of the fictional village of Three Pines and the eccentric characters who inhabit it launched her to international success. Now on the sixteenth volume of her Inspector Gamache series, she has sold over six million books worldwide.
Danish-born Anne Fortier lives in the village of North Hatley, nestled at the northern end of Lake Massawippi. Fortier is the author of the New York Times bestseller Juliet, as well as The Lost Sisterhood, and is at work on her third novel.
Over the years, Quebec’s Eastern Townships have been home to numerous literary figures: novelists Hugh MacLennan and Mordecai Richler, poets F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, Ralph Gustafson, D.G. Jones, John Glassco, Richard Sommer, Susan Briscoe, and more.
I can hear my urban friends protest (although certainly less in these challenging times of coronavirus!): what about the stimulation of the big city, schmoozing with other writers at workshops, book launches, or readings, and those all-important opportunities to rub shoulders with potential publishers? Surely you won’t find that out in the sticks!
Yet living in Hatley, where a local farmer’s manure spreader is often a more common sight than a car or truck, I’m never bored. Outside my window is the natural world—verdant and ever-changing. But then, my writing is closely connected to nature and the seasons. One of my favourite writers is Saskatchewan-born Sharon Butala. Her acclaimed memoir The Perfection of the Morning was inspired by her move from Saskatoon to a cattle ranch in the remote southwestern corner of Saskatchewan. For my husband, too, his writing is fed by his observations of nature on his daily walks through fields and back roads.
It helps, of course, that we are in easy commuting distance to Montreal—less than two hours away. Early in her career, in the 1970s, Margaret Atwood and her husband lived on a farm near Alliston, Ontario, a convenient ninety minutes out of Toronto.
In many ways, the internet has contributed to making distance way less important than it was. I may live in a village of just 750 people, but I am connected online to a community of poets across Canada and around the world. Even if you choose to live in a ten-by-sixteen-foot cabin in the woods à la Thoreau (Brome area-writer Munira Judith Avinger did just this, as recounted in her 2012 memoir The Cabin), you can still enjoy high-speed internet thanks to the towers that have recently sprouted atop local peaks such as Mount Orford.
For me, the biggest surprise about the country is the number of writing groups—far more than knitting or quilting circles. Fiction and poetry writing groups abound. More specialized groups such as Memoir and Storytelling at Uplands Museum in Lennoxville, Science Fiction at Literacy in Action in Lennoxville, and Playwriting at Foss House in Eaton Corner are free and open to new members. And this fall, the Quebec Writers’ Federation is piloting a project to allow writers in remote areas to attend QWF workshops online.
Living in the country also doesn’t seem to stop local writers from attracting the attention of Canadian presses. Milby poet Marjorie Bruhmuller is published by Ekstasis in Victoria and Le petit nuage of Ottawa. Down the road, our neighbour, QWF award-winning poet Ann Scowcroft, was published by Toronto’s Brick Books. Kathleen McHale of Stanstead was published by Cormorant and Sutton poet Antony di Nardo has had books published by Ronsdale, Brick, and Exile.
If writers and writing are flourishing in the Townships, what about other rural areas of Quebec? I can only speak about regions I have personal experience with: I had the great good fortune to spend six weeks as a writer in residence at schools in Chevery and Harrington Harbour on the Lower North Shore, and also travelled to the Gaspésie to give several day-long blogging workshops. I’m happy to report that in both places I found equally vibrant and active writing communities.
The Quebec Writers’ Federation was planning to beta-test remote workshop attendance this fall via videoconference, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us ahead in our schedule. Several workshops are running entirely online this spring! Starting in the fall, writers will be able to attend selected workshops offered in the QWF office digitally, and all of our workshops should be offered via Zoom by the spring of 2021. It’s a great opportunity for writers living outside Montreal or facing accessibility barriers.
An award-winning poet, Angela Leuck has been published in journals around the world. She is the author of four poetry collections and editor of numerous anthologies, the latest of which is Water Lines: New Writing from the Eastern Townships of Quebec (Studio Georgeville, 2019). She lives with her husband Steve Luxton in Hatley, Quebec.
Photo credits: Marjorie Bruhmuller (header banner); Steve Luxton (headshot)