If there’s any doubt about the importance of books in Andreas Schroeder’s life, consider his driveway: it’s flanked by two tall, skinny bookshelves, filled with real books, shielded from the B.C. rain by their Plexiglas fronts. The bus used to stop here, and he wanted those waiting to have something to read. Inside, there are bookshelves everywhere – even the bathroom – made necessary by the sheer volume: There are maybe 25,000 books in the collection.
In his study (more books), we’re discussing the writing culture in B.C.
“Every province has its own identity,” he says, “and ours happens to be a place where you can really experiment in a major way.”
The occasion for the trip to Schroeder’s oceanfront Sunshine Coast home is the dominance of B.C. writers on this year’s non-fiction literary short lists. Every writer on the short list for the prestigious $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction has a connection to B.C.; as do three of the four shortlisted authors for British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction – a national prize worth $40,000, which will be awarded Monday. This hard-to-ignore detail has me seeking out writers with a question: Coincidence? Or is there something in the lattés out here?
“We figured it must just be a numbers thing,” offered Charlotte Gill a couple of weeks earlier, sipping an Americano at a Commercial Drive café in Vancouver. She’s been discussing the question with some writing friends. “There are so many writers who end up wandering out West to do their MFAs out here, they end up staying, they crank out a couple of books and then all of a sudden – boom: All of those books come out in the same year.”
Gill, who recently moved from Vancouver to the Sunshine Coast, and whose tree-planting memoir Eating Dirt was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize, the B.C. National Award and the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction (won by Charles Foran’s Mordecai) – is one of several writers who mention the creative writing programs out here, especially the University of British Columbia’s, from which Gill, 40, is a graduate (and where she is now an adjunct professor).
And three of them, without prompting, single out one teacher.
“Andreas Schroeder is really single-handedly responsible for me going into creative non-fiction,” said Andrew Westoll, whose The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is up for both the Charles Taylor Prize and the B.C. National Award. “After my first class ... my head was just blown open by this new genre that I’d never really thought about.”
Westoll, 34, lives in Toronto, but he studied creative writing at UBC, and is effusive about Schroeder, who holds the title of Rogers Communication Chair in Creative Non-fiction.
“For me [his class]was totally fundamental. It was fundamental. I’ve told him that a million times and I know he blushes when I do that, but I know I’m not the only one.”
When the 65-year-old Schroeder hears praise read aloud he doesn’t blush. “That’s what happens with these kids. I just love to see them shooting sky high.”
Schroeder was born in 1946 in what was then West Germany. His family moved to Canada when he was 5, settling in Abbotsford. The boy who was forced to steal books from the library (and who always returned them on the sly) because his parents, strict Mennonites, refused his request for a library card, has himself published 19 books (excluding chapbooks) and is working on a 20th, about his motorcycle riding adventures.
Schroeder has been nominated for a Governor General’s Award, served on prize juries, was active in the Writers’ Union of Canada. Margaret Laurence was godmother to his older daughter. Even the directions to his house that he sends by e-mail are an evocative little gem of precision.
In the 1960s, Schroeder enrolled in UBC’s undergraduate creative writing program. By the time he was doing his master’s degree, he was living in an unofficial program residence, off-campus, where visitors would be greeted by clouds of marijuana smoke outside and a chorus of dinging typewriters inside.
A busy freelance writer even while at school, Schroeder eventually joined the faculty in 1993, part-time. He teaches at UBC one (long) day per week.
Poet Earle Birney taught UBC’s first course in the subject in 1946 and the Department of Creative Writing was established in 1965. It operates independent of the English department and prides itself on students’ exposure to a variety of genres, including Schroeder’s.
“I didn’t know what creative non-fiction was before I had taken this course,” says Gill, whose first book, Ladykiller, was a short story collection. “I ... never would have imagined writing a book of non-fiction. But the way that he taught it, it’s very voice-driven, it’s very narrative-driven. ... You didn’t need to be a senior citizen in order to write a memoir.”
Schroeder has students submit first drafts to the entire class, which provides detailed feedback – a chance, he says, to road test their work. He also works with them one-on-one.
“He said to me writing a memoir collection is kind of like building a house,” says Madeline Sonik, whose Afflictions & Departures uses historical events to contextualize events of her life. The collection’s first essay, written for Schroeder’s class, was strongly questioned by her classmates.
“They said ‘why do you have all these historical details? Just throw them out, get rid of them. Just stay with the story,’” says Sonik, 51, who now teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria. “But thank God for Andreas, because he said ‘don’t you see what she was doing here?’ If he didn’t get it then I probably would never have proceeded.”
Her memoir is now nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize.
Schroeder figures about 50 per cent of the work submitted for his class winds up published. Many become books, which has him considering a new household project: their own bookshelf.
Schroeder cites the program’s non-academic structure for its success, the top-notch applicants it attracts, and – if he may be so bold – the faculty.
“Most writing departments are staffed by faculty who are teachers who write. We are all writers who teach. It makes quite a difference.”
Schroeder’s support and influence go beyond the classroom. Down 110 steps from his cliffside home is a beachfront cottage, which he makes available to writers. Naomi Klein worked on The Shock Doctrine there. Paul Quarrington, Brian Brett, and others have also stayed there.
Schroeder will be at the B.C. National Award event Monday, partly to support Gill and Westoll. And he’ll cheer them – and Sonik – from afar when the Charles Taylor Prize is handed out next month in Toronto.
“Only one of them can win,” he says, shaking his head. “Oh my God, I want them all to win.”
British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction will be handed out in Vancouver on Feb. 13. The Charles Taylor Prize will be awarded in Toronto on March 5.