This past summer, we had the pleasure of following Debbie Okun Hill on the Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour followed by an exciting Winnipeg book launch. Debbie’s enthusiasm about writing can be quite contagious. Read on for more inspiration.
D: The exact moment escapes me. As a child growing up on the prairies, I spent most of my free time reading and creating imaginary worlds. A cardboard box became a boat. The shiny lining of an old coat became a Queens’s cape. My paper dolls were figures cut out from the Eaton’s catalogue. I even created an imaginary typewriter using a set of wooden blocks and an alphabetical stamp kit to print letters and words on yellow scrap paper.
I loved school and wanted to be a teacher. Math was my easiest subject. English challenged me but I loved research and writing essays. By the time I turned 12, my interests turned to art and I devoted hours to sketching and cataloguing images for future reference. In grade 11, the school was looking for a newspaper editor. No one wanted the job so I was crazy enough to put my name in. At some point, I bought a brown t-shirt with the word WRITER printed in white letters down the left side. By grade 12, I knew I wanted to write a novel but never completed a draft until I was studying creative communication (journalism, advertising, public relations and theatre) at the post-secondary level.
G: How do your previous work and life experiences influence your writing?
D: My writer-friends tell me I have a unique writing style that is easily recognized. I feel my work is still evolving and continues to be influenced by the world around me. My educational/teacher face wants to tell stories that everyone can relate to. However, my out-of-the-box imagination mixed with my interest in art nudges me to push boundaries and to experiment with unusual images and metaphors. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I fail but failure to me means growth and another learning opportunity. I get bored easily so writing keeps my mind active. For me, writing is a spiritual experience and that too is heavily influenced by my rural upbringing.
G: What are the genres in which you write? Do you have a preferred one?
D: Most of my professional writing has focused on the non-fiction and promotional/advertising genre. However, since 2003, I’ve concentrated mainly on poetry except for the last year and a half when I’ve also been blogging my literary journey: http://okunhill.wordpress.com . Someday, I’d like to explore writing short stories and/or a novel. Painting and photography also appeal to me.
G: Your first poetry book, Tarnished Trophies, was released May 2014 by Black Moss Press. Talk about your book tour. What were some of the highlights and challenges?
D: I don’t know where to begin! My tour was spread out over a year and half. I travelled to four different provinces, with the majority of events scheduled throughout Ontario. The format ranged from featured author to shared open mic readings, from workshop leader to library book club guest.
A definite highlight was my featured reading on the Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour thanks to a Canada Reading Tour Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and the League of Canadian Poets. Open mic events in numerous Ontario cities plus a spotlight reading in Cobourg organized by The Ontario Poetry Society were also appreciated.
Another highlight was seeing long-time friends and relatives at the launch of my book at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Manitoba. What a wonderful reunion with so many wonderful people. I was also impressed by event coordinator John Toews and his team who did an amazing job at marketing and promoting the event.
One of the main challenges of publishing/touring deals with self-promotion. Personally, I find it easier to promote other people than my own work. I much prefer working behind the scenes.
Another challenge is juggling resources: time, money, and energy levels. It’s a steep learning curve to decide how much travelling and which type of activities to commit to. Some people can write on the road. I prefer to read when I’m away.
G: What is your next major project?
D: I just completed editing/compiling MINDSHADOWS, a 212-page membership anthology for the The Ontario Poetry Society. This represented my first attempt at editing a full book so I was a tad nervous. The book features the best work of 81 emerging and experienced Canadian poets who are also members of this grassroots poetry organization.
I also have two new unpublished poetry manuscripts thanks to two Writers Reserve grants from The Ontario Arts Council. The first one (headed to a publisher this month) pays tribute to our dying ash trees and how people have responded to this changing landscape. The second one explores pioneer crafts. It is a first draft and needs some tender edits before I send out any queries.
A poetry video? Yes, yes, that’s on my bucket list too!
I’m also scheduled for a few more readings: one at the Bluewater Reading Series in Sarnia on September 12 and another one in Windsor in mid-November.
G: Do you have a favourite location for writing?
D: Yes, I garden words full-time, at home, in rural southwestern Ontario. My daytime schedule is usually flexible depending on my deadlines and what needs to be completed. However, as a night owl, my eyeballs are almost always glued to my desktop computer screen from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
G: What kinds of books do you read?
D: Right now I’m focusing on books by Canadian poets as well as reading literary journals like The Windsor Review, Room, and The Fiddlehead. These are challenging reads, because I often want to analyze the work or re-read phrases that I like. When I’m on vacation, I prefer either mystery novels (something quick and light) or something literary with deeper, hidden meanings.
G: Do you wish to share anything about your personal life?
D: Yes, large crowds exhaust me. While I love being with people, especially those who value deep one-on-one philosophical conversations, I do need extra quiet time to unwind and re-charge my batteries. This makes touring and networking extra challenging but not impossible. After reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, I realized there are ways for introverts to be authentic and to contribute to society without being so loud and extroverted. I prefer to be the sun versus the wind. Bookworms unite!
G: What works have you published to date?
D: I will only mention my poetry here. In addition to Tarnished Trophies, I was published in the anthology EnCompass I, a collection of poetry with four other Canadian poets: Josie DiSciascio Andrews, Bernice Lever, Lynn Tait and Jan Wood. Beret Days Press also published two of my poetry chapbooks: Swaddled in Comet Dust and Another Trail of Comet Dust.
Over 300 poems appears in over 110 different Canadian and U.S. publications including Descant, Existere, Other Voices, The Literary Review of Canada, The Windsor Review, Vallum, The Binnacle, Mobius, Phatitude Magazine, Still Point Arts Quarterly and Thema.
G: What are your thoughts on traditional vs indie publishing?
D: I feel there is room for both. However, if you want to be treated and respected as a professional, you have to pay your dues. Writing is tough work with limited financial rewards. Some people are self-publishing books too soon. It takes years to find your voice and to hone your craft. Sometimes I feel my own traditional trade book came out too soon. Yes, some people are natural storytellers but there are some writers creating books who have never been readers. I feel the two go hand-in-hand. Someone once told me it takes 10 years of serious writing before a trade publisher will take an interest in your query.
Is it worth the wait? I’m not sure. The author is still required to do a great deal of promotional work, whether you go the traditional or indie route. However, the main advantage with the traditional route is that you piggy-back to the publishers name and reputation and you usually have an opportunity to work with a professional editor. Plus traditional publishers usually hire distributors to ensure their books appear across Canada, on-line, in libraries and big box bookstores. I was also thrilled to find out that my book is now available in the US and the UK.
G: Anything else you wish to elaborate on?
D: If your passion is writing, then you should write. Slide it into your schedule and smile like the warm sun on a winter’s day! If it’s causing you anxiety, then reevaluate your goals. Life is much too short to not follow your dreams but don’t expect an easy journey. Although I have been writing for over thirty years, I still feel I have so much to learn especially in the literary and poetic arena.