Gina Woolsey had the book concept, the structure and some interviews. King’s MFA helped her turn that into her first published book.
The 2013 deadline to apply for the University of King’s College’s newly launched MFA in Creative Nonfiction Program was fast-approaching, and Gina Leola Woolsey was on the phone with the school’s co-founder, Stephen Kimber. Woolsey had recently left behind a corporate career to pursue an education in creative writing and wanted to know if she’d be a good fit for the program.
“Do you have a book concept?” asked Kimber.
“I start rambling,” Woolsey, MFA15 recounts today. Launching into her book idea, she told Kimber she would chronicle the life of Dr. John Butt, the Nova Scotia Chief Medical Examiner responsible for recovery efforts after one of the largest aviation accidents ever recorded — the September 1998 Swissair crash into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia. The book would alternate between the aftermath of that devastating tragedy, which took the lives of all 229 people aboard, and Butt’s life story as a closeted gay man working in a prestigious medical profession and handling the gruesome crash.
Kimber immediately liked the idea. He was uniquely positioned to offer feedback, having written a book about the crash (Flight 111: The Tragedy Of The Swissair Crash).
That’s when Woolsey – already an award-winning author (she won first prize in the CBC Literary Award in nonfiction in 2010) and recent BFA graduate from the University of British Columbia – chose King’s.
Fifteen Thousand Pieces: A Medical Examiner’s journey through disaster is the result of Woolsey’s hard-earned MFA journey. Published this year by Hamilton, Ontario-based Guernica Editions, the book’s release will mark the 25th anniversary of Swissair Flight 111.
She couldn’t have done it without the MFA, says Woolsey, who graduated from the program’s inaugural cohort in 2015.
“I had the book concept. I had the structure. And I had several hours of interviews with John Butt. But the MFA program forced me to do the actual writing. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. And I think one of the most difficult things about writing a book is actually sitting your butt in the chair and doing the writing,” says Woolsey.
The program offered Woolsey the discipline she needed to put words on the page. But it was discussions with mentor, award-winning author and poet, Lorri Nelson Glenn, that helped make those words sing.
“I’m a very poetic, lyrical kind of writer, but I like to write about really hard stuff. Lorri was the mentor I connected with the most because she would talk about craft with me. She blew my mind because she’s so poetic and lyrical,” says Woolsey.
Craft was especially important to the braided telling of this book. Chapters alternate between the chronology of the aftermath of the crash; and defining moments in the making of the medical examiner and man himself, Dr. John Butt.
“I love juxtapositions. What fascinates me is the human condition, people’s emotions, their behaviors and their internal versus external lives,” says Woolsey. “I wanted to tell his life story to give some context to how he behaved during the crash, and why it was such a pivotal time in his life.”
By the time Woolsey graduated from King’s in 2015, she had a draft manuscript in hand. In 2018, she finished the book, but that same year, her husband and biggest supporter, Michael Izen, to whom the book is dedicated, lost his battle with prostate cancer.
“When I got back to the book after he died – after I’d picked myself up off the floor – I was sending it to anyone who would read it,” says Woolsey.
She credits close friend Moira Dann, MFA’16, for introducing her to Guernica Edition’s co-publisher and editor-in-chief, Michael Mirolla.
“I think a lot of the time how publishing your first book goes, you never know how you’re going to get there. It’s so subjective. So having anyone who knows anyone is instrumental in the process,” says Woolsey.
When it came to closing the book deal, Woolsey says the MFA’s publishing curriculum buoyed her through those final stages.
“The MFA program is really geared heavily towards getting your book published. So, I felt quite equipped to handle the contract analysis and negotiation,” she says. Woolsey felt so prepared that she handled the negotiations without an agent or lawyer.
On August 31, 2023, Woolsey will return to Halifax to formally launch the book at the Lord Nelson Hotel. Joined by former medical examiner John Butt, author Stephen Kimber, and former CBC reporter, Pauline Dakin, MFA’15, the panel will mark 25 years since the Swissair Flight 111 crash in the same hotel where families awaited word about loved ones following the crash. Woolsey, who recently moved to Montreal from Vancouver, says the Halifax book launch also pays homage to the East Coast kindness she repeatedly encountered throughout her graduate studies.
“It was the kindness and support of the people in the program, and the people of Halifax and the people of Nova Scotia that I really took away from my MFA experience. And that’s important to me because there’s very much a sense of place in the book.”
You can find out more about the King’s MFA programs here.