Our second Alberta-based author of the day is Audrey J. Whitson, sharing more about her book
The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning (NeWest Press), a poetic and compelling story that shows us how the fading out of an idyllic rural tradition gives way to a new age of climate change. In this Read the Provinces interview, Whitson explains more about her own connection to the country and recovering a sense of wilderness through her writing.
Get The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning for 15% OFF until January 31!
INTERVIEW WITH AUDREY J. WHITSON
All Lit Up: Tell us about your book The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning and how it came to be.
Audrey J. Whitson: This novel is ostensibly a funeral story set over three days, but it is really a multitude of stories culminating with Annie’s death and the rites that accompany her burial. There are eight distinct voices, including Annie’s; each of the other voices has crossed paths with Annie either in the present, the near past, or the distant past. Majestic, the town where the story is set, is itself a character in the novel. There’s a crystal meth lab and a magpie funeral, a love affair or two, and more than a few tragedies. But at the end of it, Annie’s spirit, endures. And that’s what the story is about. How she tried and failed and tried and failed and tried again and overcame the adversity in her life. How she triumphed through her connection with nature.
Annie the character began with a short story, “The Water Witcher,” in my 2013 collection
The Glorious Mysteries (Thistledown Press). I was visiting my hometown one Sunday in 1994, and as I drove by the local hotel I “saw” in my mind’s eye, a ghost of sorts, the image of a middle-aged woman standing in the doorway. I knew she had been beaten down by life, but she had risen up somehow triumphant. In writing the short story, I learned that Annie was a survivor of the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives (a real institution in Red Deer and the precursor to Michener Centre), part of the Eugenics movement in Alberta in the early part of the 20th century.
I wondered what her life would be like thirty or forty years on. The short story is told from a child’s point of view and meets Annie in the 1960s. The novel is set a few decades later in the middle of a seven-year drought and the beginning of the BSE crisis in Alberta, and shows how she healed. The novel came because I wanted to understand more about her journey and how she found the strength to overcome the violence of her early years and how she had learned to love through her journey.
ALU:It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our physical place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
AJW: The natural environment for me is everywhere and in everything. Besides Annie’s passing, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning tackles the passing of a rural way of life and the realities of climate change. My first book, Teaching Places (2003), was all about my journey to the land and what the land taught me. I grew up on a farm and grew up wandering the margins between wilderness and Western agriculture. At the time, I really needed to recover the wilderness in the city where I was living and recover the wilderness inside of me as a way of making sense of my own life. I live in the heart of a city now and have for decades, but still I wander on my way to work or on errands with the river valley on one side of me and tent cities on the other and feel the most at home in the questions that tension raises for me.
ALU:Who are some of your favourite Alberta-based writers?
AJW: There are far too many to do justice to in this short space, but I will say this, Alberta has a writing community that is grassroots, welcoming, and encouraging no matter who you are, what you write, what you want to contribute, or where you are in your writing career. I’ve found a solidarity and an enthusiasm for innovation among writers here that’s unparalleled. And I know writers who’ve moved here from other parts of the country have as well.
Nana taught me to witch when I was still a child, before I was even in school. She made me aware, casual-like of the forces. She picked up a willow switch and pretended to tell a tale. “A nice young couple,” she said. “Just new to the district. Starting out on nothing. He loves her dearly. All the fullness and roundness of her. She has eyes for no one but him. She’s going to have a baby. Three months gone already. And they need your help. They’ve asked you for a well.”
She wouldn’t wear shoes when she did it. Her skirts flowing around her. Her hair in a bunch on the top of her head. Her eyes closed.
She kept the wormwood and mint and bee balm and heal-all hanging in bundles from her kitchen ceiling, my ceiling now. The local people came to her. She had the hands for curing and for divining. She told me that back in the Old Country the wells were blessed every year, dressed in flowers, sung to, worshipped. That water was gift.
“Think of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God,” she told me. She kept a shrine to the Virgin, all her roses, the fruit trees in the back of the house, dedicated to her.
Then she said, touching her body where her womb would be: “Listen for the sea.”
There comes a moment when you’re witching when you know you’ve found water. Something jolts you awake and pushes you back. The forked branch rises and bangs you in the chest. Something goes out of you. It’s the force of life.
* * *
Audrey J. Whitson’s first book, Teaching Places (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), a memoir about how the land teaches, was shortlisted for the Wilfred Eggleston Award, Grant MacEwan Author Award and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year (body/mind/spirit category). Stories from
The Glorious Mysteries (Thistledown, 2013)—a collection set in Alberta, California, and Mexico—were shortlisted for the Howard O’Hagan Award and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her latest book is
The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning. Her poetry and essays have been published in many magazines and anthologies and have also won awards. Audrey lives in Edmonton and is available to meet with local book clubs. To learn more about her work, visit
All Lit Up is produced by the Literary Press Group and LitDistCo. LPG and LitDistCo acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.
All views expressed by bloggers and contributors to the All Lit Up blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of All Lit Up or the Literary Press Group.
All Lit Up acknowledges we are hosted on the lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabeg, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat. We also recognize the enduring presence of all First Nations, Métis and the Inuit people, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to meet and work on this territory.