Writer’s Block: Sharon Butala

Today for our Writer’s Block series we catch up with award-winning author Sharon Butala about when she first started writing, and what is the most surprising thing about being a writer. With multiple books published since 1984 Butala gives us insight into her experiences of being a writer. Make sure to check out her newest release Leaving Wisdom (Thistledown Press).


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ALU: Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?

Sharon Butala: I was writing plays at ten, just because I felt like it – there was no good reason to do it that I knew of – this after having written a novel at nine because … well … the idea thrilled and intrigued me and I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t a grown-up and besides, when you’re raised in the boonies the last thing anybody (except your mom) wants you to do is write a book. I didn’t decide I could maybe be a writer until I published my first book in 1984 and even then, I wasn’t sure of it. I’m still not sure of it. I still sometimes think it has all been a terrible mistake and I should have married that boy I was in my first car accident with, such a nice, decent boy, when I was maybe fourteen? You know, he really liked me. I think his dad was an accountant. Most of my other boyfriends’ dads were absent, alcoholics or in jail, as far as I can remember. And then, when you live on a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have what it takes to be a barrel-racer what else are you going to do? And I wanted to see if I could do it.

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

Sharon Butala: That would be yesterday. I’d been up since six and firmly refused to allow myself my usual up to two hours of procrastination: doing the housework I didn’t do the day before, making lists of all the jobs I have to do from getting a plumber to buying a new car – I wonder what a Porsche costs, must look that up – etc., and hit my desk by 6:45 AM, and didn’t really lift my head until about 10:45, organizing, re-writing, adding, deleting the second draft of the memoir I might be writing. And beginning, finally, to see what my book is about that I didn’t know when I started.

At noon the wildfire smoke had cleared enough that I could ago outside and it was hot but not unbearable so I went for a short walk. Then, seeing Colm Toibin’s essays I’d placed a hold on was in, I rushed to the library, then, to the Co-Op for vegetables, then, remembering I had a literary phone call in ten minutes, raced home, made a cheese sandwich and gobbled it down before the phone rang. Talked books for an hour. Oh My God – why aren’t we talking about Mavis Gallant now that she is gone? If not, what hope is there for the rest of us? Me, in particular? When I hung up the phone it was after three PM and I was kind of wrung-out so I washed the dishes from the day before, then sat down with well, actually, three books. That’s as perfect as it gets for me, because after the first fully engrossing four hours at my desk, everything else was gravy, pure and simple.

ALU: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?

Sharon Butala: Back in the early eighties when I was writing my first novel, Country of the Heart, I was struggling to find a way to give a history to a minor character and to describe him without being clunky or boring and came up with this sentence, “There was no sign in the neat part in his straight, light-brown hair, or the cool blue of his eyes that …” For nearly fifty years I’ve remembered that sentence as ending, “… that his wife had left him.” I was so proud of that sentence – maybe I’m a writer after all – I quoted it whenever I had the chance, smiling smugly, thinking, all those years, of that brilliant leap I’d made in learning to write.

In the interests of truthfulness, just now I looked it up. As you’ve probably guessed, the last part of the sentence doesn’t say that at all. It says, “… that he felt the import of the matter before them.” I guess I saw it wasn’t good the way it was published, or maybe I did write it “that his wife had left him,” and then changed it before it was published, and after, realizing that was the better ending, simply re-wrote the sentence in my mind and that purely imaginary sentence is the one that has stuck with me up to five minutes ago. So that intensely rewarding moment just bit the dust. I’m trying to think of another one: Maybe when my older sister, while reading one of my books said, “I got so interested in it that I forgot you’d written it.” Or maybe I’ve remembered that wrong too.

Let me see… I do have three honorary doctorates – those were pretty good – I was once on the G&M bestseller list for a year – not a single moment though; I once rode a few blocks in a limousine with Deepa Mehta… I’ve now spent days thinking about this and the moments I should maybe write here: receiving a prize, talking to big crowds, having a couple of my speeches played on CBC Radio’s “Ideas,” and so on, but those glory-moments fade pretty fast and the tiny little moments when you know you made a difference to somebody settle down inside you. They are the ones that keep you going.

ALU: What are you working on now?

Sharon Butala: I’m working on my third memoir. This one comes out of a week-long road-trip I went on with a friend two summers ago across the southern part of the three prairie provinces. I realized very soon that the trip itself, the roads we drove, the places where we stopped, what we did, encompassed the territory of my life since the time I was thirteen and my family moved south to Saskatoon: Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, and all the places and roads in between, the diversions off the main highway to villages or past or through them while my life (in silence) tumbled and flashed through my mind and I did everything I could to ignore scene after scene and to blot out the voices of the dead or the not-so-dead. If I hadn’t, I see now, I’d have been on my knees weeping and tearing my hair. Very dramatic, but a bit maybe over the top and annoying for my friend. And sometimes, just possibly I sat there grinning for no reason at all or groaned, or laughed out loud like an idiot and wouldn’t say why or when asked, would lie about what had made me laugh. Or just pretended I was coughing.

Hey! That’s a book! When I got home, I realized that. Now I’m trying, at almost eighty-three, to write my life: It’s texture; it’s themes; it’s mistakes and its tiny little triumphs. Not to forget love and despair and happiness and worry over what comes next: the place I go next where I hope at last to become an International Bestseller. Or even better, that I can forget that for fifty years I was a writer and get to spend eternity just sort of floating around and thinking noble thoughts.

ALU: Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?

Sharon Butala: More than one. I re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Austen and George Eliot, and the classics about women: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina for example – those last maybe three times now and Middlemarch. But at the moment, I’m re-reading W.G. Sebald.

After being bowled over by the originality and the deep seriousness of his novels the first time I read them, and the steady, affecting but never-specified sense – one could almost say ‘pall’ – of a mysterious, pervasive, permanent sadness, I re-read parts to see how, in a single paragraph he moved from one situation and/or place to another, different one and I’d hardly noticed he had and needed to go back to see how he did it; or, how he could tell a story third-or-fourth-hand and keep the reader oriented to whose story it actually was. How did he do that? And what was the book really about? What was going on? What makes his books novels, if and when they are, novels? I want to learn to write his marvellous sentences; I want him to explain to me the meaning of life. Even most Nobelists that I so avidly read don’t stay with me the way his books do. He did something quite different than what everyone else was doing and I’m fascinated by that, and when I read, also, say Sheila Heti, or Gunnhild Oyehaug I wonder if I have some original vision in me that I’d dare to write and realize the answer is sadly, no. And I’m stubborn; I don’t let go: I haven’t got it right yet in my books and I can’t shift until I do. I’m a humanist and a writer of realist novels.

What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?

Sharon Butala: I think it is that you can give many years to it, work as hard as any writer ever did, publish many books, make speeches, do panels, teach workshops across the country and if you, for example, suffer a personal catastrophe and can’t write or at least, publish, for seven years, it’s as if you never wrote a single book. Also, that when you die there is no huge building you designed left in use, no invention that everybody uses, no park, street, public building with your name on it. You are just gone, and nobody talks about your work anymore. That is the fate of at least ninety per cent of writers, including the good ones.

In fact, come to think of it, it is the fate of most of humankind. To live, and then to die, and in a very short time be forgotten. On the other hand, you found something to do that fully engaged you, engrossed and taught you year after year, and that in itself is amazing and a wonderful way to spend your life.

Absolutely. Yes.

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Sharon Butala is the author of twenty-one books of fiction and nonfiction, numerous essays and articles, some poetry and five produced plays. She published her first novel in 1984, Country of the Heart, which was nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, followed closely by a collection of short stories, Queen of the Headaches (shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award). Sharon’s books have been on the Canadian bestseller lists, including her memoir, The Perfection of the Morning, which reached #1 in July 1994 and remained on the list for over a year. Most recently, her novel Wild Rose was also on bestseller lists. Her work has been nominated for, and received, numerous awards. Most recently, her story collection Season of Fury and Wonder was nominated for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize and won the City of Calgary’s W.O. Mitchell Book Prize for 2020. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada. She lives in Calgary.