Ann Walmsley is a Toronto-based writer and the author of The Prison Book Club.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
You started your first book club at age nine! Wow. What was the first book that you remember resonating with you?
I was very young and the book was Herbert the Lion, a picture book by Clare Turlay Newberry from 1931 about a girl and her pet lion. In the illustrations, the girl's curly locks looked like my corkscrew hair, and also like the lion's mane. The story spoke to me about the importance of the natural world and the ache of being separated from someone you love. But by the time I was nine and starting a book club, I was reading and re-reading Eleanor Farjeon's The Little Bookroom, a collection of literary fairy tales beautifully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. (Books' illustrations made a strong impression on me at the time.) That started me on a long stint of reading books of fairy tales that I borrowed from the Picton Library. Andrew Lang's The Lilac Fairy Book and The Olive Fairy Book for instance. I suppose this fascination was like kids today loving Harry Potter. But for me the tales suggested that great things could happen to ordinary people and they gave me a measure of self-confidence. As for that early book club, I can't recall which books we discussed -- only collecting dues and making myself president of the club!
You studied English literature at Trinity College. What were your fellow students reading around that time? What texts did you gravitate towards in your studies? Did you partake in any writing-related extra-curriculars during this time?
We were all reading the same required texts by Donne, Shakespeare, Pope, Chaucer etc.. And hey, there wasn't much time to read beyond the books required for each course, except during the summer. I had one friend who read all of an author's oeuvre each summer. He was a disciplined autodidact. Whereas I spent my summers reading impulsively, favouring Colette, John le Carre, Iris Murdoch and John Fowles. During term, I gravitated to my 20th century lit courses. Faulkner particularly appealed to me because he wrote from such a strong sense of place.
I remember at one point during my studies telling my father that I wanted to be a writer and he said, "Well you better start writing then." It was the nudge I needed. I started writing arts reviews for the University of Toronto student newspaper, The Varsity, which gave me a clippings portfolio to apply for journalism positions later. It's great to have people in your life who give you a nudge.
Throughout your career as a journalist you have been awarded four National Magazine Awards, a Canadian Business Journalism Award and two International Regional Magazine awards. What did you find rewarding about journalism? What did you find challenging about it?
For me, the rewarding part was the same as the challenging part: tackling a new topic intensely on deadline and trying to get at the truth, knocking down popular misconceptions or preconceptions. I liked the feeling of unleashing my curiosity, figuring out who the players were, finding the telling details, seeing the story unfold almost cinematically in my mind as the research and interviews accumulated. The greatest challenge was getting up to speed, becoming expert enough. I sometimes felt I could never be as knowledgeable as an insider in the field I was writing about.
Throughout your life you have lived in Toronto, Paris, Connecticut, Dallas and London. What can you say about the literary communities of each of these places? Are there any noticeable similarities or differences?
As a relatively shy person, I was never at the centre of any of these literary communities and I was usually filing to Canadian publications, but I can say that London and Toronto have been the most robust, supportive writing communities for me. I was able to join book clubs and writers groups with ease, and find good writing courses. In Dallas everyone seemed to have a gift for oral storytelling and that was where I took my first fiction writing course. But I also encountered resistance there. When I pitched a story to one high-profile Texas magazine, the editor wrote back that they preferred homegrown writers who knew the state better. In Westport, Connecticut, I worked in isolation as a freelance journalist, though I was keenly aware of the many novelists who had mined that American experience and I loved the proximity of New York City, where anything seemed possible. Paris has always had a high-octane expat writers community and it was there that I wrote my first article for The Globe and Mail.
You are a part of a writer’s group that meets in midtown Toronto. How has your involvement in this group shaped your writing practice?
My writing group, The Ridge Group, has been together for more than 10 years. We meet once a month and that in itself is a helpful deadline. Because the members write in different disciplines (poetry, novels, short stories, radio plays, memoir) I benefit from a range of comments. One of the most helpful suggestions I received was to shape every chapter of my book, The Prison Book Club, as though it were a short story -- with its own narrative arc and with a strong focus on the opening and closing paragraphs. That advice has stayed with me.
Where did the idea of The Prison Book Club come from?
For years I had wanted to write a book of narrative non-fiction. I was inspired by David Dorsey's 1994 book The Force in which he followed a Xerox photocopier sales team as they tried to sell enough copiers to earn a golf trip to Palm Springs. Dorsey immersed himself in their zany lives and the resulting book was a work of non-fiction that read like a novel. I found my subject in 2010 when a woman in my Toronto book club asked me to join a book selection committee for the prison book club she had started at Collins Bay Institution, a men's medium security prison in Kingston, Ontario. We were to recommend a longlist and the inmates would use it to vote on their final reading list. But after I agreed to help, my friend said I couldn't adequately choose books for inmates without visiting the prison book club and hearing how the men reacted to their reading material. I had to wrestle with my apprehension because I had been violently mugged a few years earlier when I was living in England, but I decided to go into the prison. When I saw how insightful the men were as they discussed the books, I knew I wanted to write about their journeys.
What is it about literature that enables us to be so transformed?
Literature enables us to step into the shoes of protagonists and live their lives for a time. It involves curiosity and empathy. But I think the social act of discussing books in a book club adds something else to the reading experience. It's a forum for testing your reactions against others', a chance to puzzle out ambiguous moments in the story, an opportunity to feel community and join a safe kind of gang. As one of the inmates said: "I've always wanted to join a book club but never ran with that kind of crowd."
Have you witnessed a rise in interest in prison book clubs since the release of your book, either from within prison management, prisoners themselves, or book club volunteers?
Yes, I get inquiries from book club volunteers around the world and from provincial and state correctional officials. Also book clubs that I speak to often want to donate books to prison book clubs.
How can we as a society better care for the incarcerated?
The inmates told me that mental health services and addiction programs in prisons needed to be much more accessible. And we might consider what some other countries have tried: offering a diversion program of reading and discussing books for minor offences. Check out Changing Lives Through Literature in the U.S, for example.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing routine? Do you write for long stretches or limited periods of time? What is your writing space like?
This is my first book, so I can only tell you what it was like to write this one. I wrote 13 hours a day, every day for seven months so that I could deliver before deadline. For each chapter I spent four or five days transcribing the relevant audio tapes of my interviews with the inmates and of that month's book club discussion. Then with all that material fresh in my mind I'd spend two to four days writing a draft of the chapter. My writers group and my husband read those early drafts and provided comments, so that I could run each chapter through three or four more drafts before submitting the final manuscript to my editor. Thank heavens my husband was also willing to cook all our meals during that intense writing period.
My writing space is a small office in our house. It's a chaotic mess of files that have overgrown the filing cabinets, towers of books and office supplies. To others it must seem like a disaster. To me it feels comfortable because everything I need is within reach.
What is your favourite word?
I hate ranking things. But to choose ONE of my favourite words: Coffee. When Cormac McCarthy uses it in his novels, or Patti Smith in her memoirs, I can almost taste the smokiness of it.
What are you looking forward to?
Reading exclusively Australian books for one of my book clubs in 2017-2018.