Suzanne Stewart isn’t a scientist or a naturalist, but she has long been deeply fascinated by the rural life and natural beauty of Nova Scotia. Oh, and she also teaches 19th century Romantic Poetry at St. Francis University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
For some time, she’d been attempting to write about what she calls “the intersection between literature and life… in a very private way and felt reluctant to share.” But she also knew she wanted to take her writing to a new and more public, professional level: “to write creatively, in a concentrated and sustained way, with a project in mind — but I didn’t know how to begin.”
Stewart discovered the “how” in the University of King’s College Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program. Her MFA project, The Tides of Time: A Nova Scotia Book of Seasons, not only won second place in the recent Pottersfield Creative Nonfiction competition but has also since been published by Pottersfield. (The first place winner, Lesley Buxton, is also an MFA graduate. Her book, One Strong Girl, will also be published this fall by Pottersfield.)
Stewart, who graduated in 2016, says she chose the King’s MFA program because “I love prose and I wanted to learn how to inflect it with features of fiction: plot, setting, scenes, characters, and dialogue. The journalistic, nonfiction element also intrigued me; I was determined to write about the world by entering it: talking to people, observing places, stepping into unknown territory, coping with the vicissitudes of people’s emotions and day-to-day life, challenges that differ from the more book-based, library-centred writing that I had been used to.”
Stewart calls working with her MFA mentors “an extraordinary privilege… Our sessions together were lovely conversations — one writer speaking to another — that differed from a professor-student relationship because we worked out solutions, and played with creative possibilities together, yet they, as published authors, had the broader, deeper insights, which was wonderfully refreshing and stimulating.”
For someone who considers herself a private person, having someone else read what she’d written was a “terrifying moment, but the mentors slipped selflessly into my project, with no interests of their own to pursue, demonstrating their polished professionalism.” And their encouragement served as “a manageable intermediate step for me before the work had to be shared publicly as a book.”
That book — a series of 12 monthly essay-chapters that offer vivid portraits of contemporary labourers, including tuna fishers, cranberry farmers, maple syrup producers, beekeepers and others as their harvests mark the rhythms of the seasonal year — delighted Pottersfield publisher Lesley Choyce. Choyce, who says he was looking for new writers and higher quality manuscript submissions when he created the in-house literary prize, describes Stewart’s work as “a gem of a manuscript by a lover of literature who used her literary skill and knowledge to write a most evocative book about everyday life in rural Nova Scotia.”
Stewart was equally delighted to learn her book had been selected for the Pottersfield prize in the “old-fashioned way, a genuine personal letter” from Choyce.
Learning that her manuscript had been selected, Stewart adds “gave me an immediate sense of windows opening as I imagined the publication of my first book becoming an avenue to more possibilities.”
She is, in fact, already at work on a second book.