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Arley McNeney

February 03rd, 2012

On Wednesday December 7th, generic 2010, about it novelist Arley McNeney sat down to chat with her old university friend, remedy and Duncan resident, Katherine Melnyk.

Katherine:

Arley McNeney, I understand your latest novel, The Time We All Went Marching, was inspired by real-life events, can you tell us what events these were?

Arley:

There’s two … major historical texts that I was drawing on. The first was the On To Ottawa Trek, which is a real life historical event that took place in 1935 that involved, during the great depression, Canada’s response to the unemployment — to create work camps where unemployed men would be sent to; sometimes they did useful work, but a
lot of times they did really menial tasks like moving rocks from one place to another, picking dandelions, building roads that didn’t go anywhere. So after several years of this, … not seeing a woman’s face for months and months and being really disillusioned with how their lives were going to go, they decided to all come down to Vancouver to protest, to ask for living wages, [and] to ask for useful work. And ended up, when their demands
weren’t met, all hopping on box cars, thousands of men, getting on trains, and going to Ottawa to make their demands. Unfortunately the Prime Minister at the time, [and] everyone freaked out and thought that it was a communist uprising and the trek was
brutally suppressed in Regina in what’s known as the Regina Riot —The Market Square Massacre. So that’s the first historical event that I’ve drawn on.

The second is that my Grandma’s lived a very interesting life and when I was eleven, my family decided to try to get her to write her memoirs, and so without looking at them they just gave them to me to type up and they were pretty racy. So that was sort of burned into my head. It’s not based on her life, but there’s a few sort of incidents that I’m drawing on there.

Katherine:

And then what research did you do to make the book realistic in time and setting?

Arley:

I did a lot of research. I researched the book for probably a couple of years before I started to write it… researching for fiction is a lot different than researching for non-
fiction because you need to get a general sense of how people talked, what people wore, what people ate. So I spent months just … reading newspapers in the Royal BC Archives, just to get a sense of language, and, you know, how much a cup of soup cost, how much a
dress cost. And then I also, there’s not a ton of research done on the On To Ottawa Trek, but I did read … a couple autobiographies that were written by people who were on the trek and then a few scholarly texts. So I tried to be as comprehensive as I could. And you
know every step of the way involved more research. Even in the final edits I was, for example, trying to spend quite a long time trying to figure out if people in mining camps would have had access to oranges … really strange questions like that that would sort of
throw me for a couple of weeks.

Katherine:

Details that would make it more realistic.

Arley:

Yeah.

Katherine:

So how did you come up with the idea for this novel?

Arley:

I started off sort of wanting to write, I’d read a lot of books about World War Two, about people who were soldiers, or were directly impacted by it, and I think it’s interesting that a lot of those texts … assume that everybody was impacted and I was interested in what
happens to people who were on the margins of that. Where there’s this huge event going on that’s … the major story but they’re not a part of it and how does that impact their own ability to tell stories. And I started off really wanting it be … a nice neat concise book and I wrote (and originally the On to Ottawa Trek was not a huge part of it) … 250
pages, and ended up just hating it, it was terrible. So I threw it away. And once I got onto the structure, and the sort of emphasis on memory and stuff then the book, I wrote it in 6 weeks, the book came a lot easier.

Katherine:

And how does The Time We All Went Marching differ from your first novel entitled Post?

Arley:

Well Post is not historical fiction, and actually when I wrote Post, [which] takes place in the wheelchair basketball community, and it’s fiction, … my life at the time was not exciting at the time to fill 450 pages. So I thought I’d, you know, done a great job of not putting anybody who was real in the book, however when it came out everybody was mad at me because they … thought that I had just based this on my life. So I was joking that I wanted to write something that was historical so that nobody could think that I had
based it on their life. I think that both are concerned with memory, and both are concerned about what happens after the best moment of your life, … what happens after your wheelchair basketball career is over, what happens when you’ve been on this On to Ottawa Trek, this amazing time in history, how do you live … beyond what you see to be
the peak of your life. But I think that they’re both different in terms of tone, in terms of style, in terms of … everything else. It’s very different.

Katherine:

And okay, so your inspiration for Post was your basketball experiences?

Arley:

I had never seen … any wheelchair basketball novels out there, but I also hadn’t seen disability represented in the way that I sort of understood it. That having grown up in the wheelchair sports community, you know, since I was a teenager, I looked at things in a
different way than most of the books that have characters with a disability in [them] are from able-bodied people. So I wanted to bring that … world to light. And I think I was so young, I think I was 21 when I wrote Post, and maybe 24 when it came out, so I was
drawing on … a world that I understood. ‘Cause I don’t think I was ready yet to make a leap to … an imaginary world.

Katherine:

Okay, since The Time We All Went Marching was released from Goose Lane Editions this fall, you’ve been on a province-wide reading tour, can you tell us what cities and towns you’ve been to so far on the tour…?

Arley:

I’ve been so far, the tour started Nov 21st in Fernie, and I’ve been to Fernie, Cranbrook, Salmo, Nakusp, Grand Forks, Osoyoos, Princeton, … And then I was back in Vancouver, and then I read in Duncan, and I’m reading in Nanaimo tonight.

Katherine:

And Nanaimo is your last stop on the tour?

Arley:

Yeah. … I mean it’s been great, there’s been a lot of really … interesting people who have come out, people who are studying this time period in history, as historians, a woman who’s brother was on the On To Ottawa Trek; lots of people who know a lot about their local history. It was fun for me to bring the book to communities. Salmo is near Wymer [where] a big chunk of the book [takes place] so it was exciting to bring it to people who actually understood that area. It was [also] nerve-wracking because … you
always want to make sure as an outsider you’re getting it right, but yeah it was fun to be able to talk about the local history with people.

Katherine:

And so you’re currently living on the lower mainland? And you’re from the lower mainland originally?

Arley:

Yep, I’m from New Westminster and I’m currently living in Vancouver.

Katherine:

And where is your family from?

Arley:

From New Westminster; my grandmother lived in New Westminster, my dad … in
classic New Westminster fashion we go back like three generations. New Westminster’s one of those places where everybody seems to have had long roots there.

Katherine:

And are you working on a third novel?

Arley:

I am. I’m not very linear in terms of any of my writing process. So I’ve written about 50 to 100 pages of three books and we will see which one sticks. Now that this book is out … it’s time to focus on something new.

Katherine:

And how did you decide to become a writer?

Arley:

I’ve sort of always been writing. When I was a baby my dad used to read me Macbeth, and some of my first words were the Macbeth “Tomorrow” soliloquy, so I feel like I’ve always been around it. I’ve been writing little stories in notebooks and stuff since I was about three or four. The only other thing I wanted to be was The Phantom in [The]
Phantom of the Opera. So I think this is probably a more lucrative career choice. But yeah, I never really considered being anything else. If I could I probably would, writing is
a hard way to make a living.

Katherine:

Right. Besides writing, how do you usually spend your time?

Arley:

I work as a communications coordinator for wheelchair sports, so it’s fun. I get to promote wheelchair sports all day. I also coach wheelchair basketball. And I’m passionate about deep-water aerobics; … my new sport of choice, and yeah, hanging out with my cat, Mika.

Katherine:

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Arley:

I think to read a lot. Read and read and read. I think … creative writing courses are very helpful, but just knowing what expert writers have done, you know [what] the masters have done, I think teaches you more about writing than anything … the more reading you
do the more you kind of get the rhythms of good writing in your head.

Katherine:

And how about advice for new authors looking for ways to better market their first book?

Arley:

Well, I’m not really great at marketing. I think social media provides an opportunity. And talking to writers who have been there, and seeing what works for them, you know, what
challenges … they’ve had. I think it’s tough, marketing books is tough.

Katherine:

And where would someone wanting to find more information on you and your books go?

Arley:
My press Goose Lane has a website for this most recent book [www.gooselane.com]. You can Google me. I don’t have an actual website yet … .

Katherine:

Do you have a blog site?

Arley:

I have been blogging about my hip replacement on youngandhip.blogspot.com. So that
was … my funny, light-hearted, blog about recovering from a couple of hip replacements.

Katherine:

And is The Time We All Went Marching available as an e-book as well?
Yes, it’s available as an e-book, it’s available in bookstores, it’s available on Amazon, it’s available, it’s making the rounds.

Katherine:

Great, and are you a fan of the e-book?

Arley:

I think it’s a great way … to put the books in the hands of people who might not normally reach [them]. It’s nice that it’s so instant. … I have a lot of friends in the US and it’s been
great for them to be able to just download the book. I have read some books on e-book, I prefer myself the … print, holding a book in your hand. But I think it’s an opportunity, and I think more and more people are moving towards it and I think it’s great that people can choose.

[Interview conducted in Nanaimo on Dec 7th, 2011 by Katherine Melnyk, Book Tailor, Duncan B.C.]

Essay Date: 2011

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