Author Lucy E.M. Black: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became a Writer
Published in Authority Magazine, September 12, 2023
I think it’s very important to build a strong supportive network of other writers. I have the privilege of sharing my writing life with a group of writer friends and we meet regularly to workshop new pages. We each have very different types of writing projects but are all deeply invested in each other’s success. We share books, writing tips, publishing information, and workshop learnings. We actively encourage one another in our writing journeys. I am a better writer for my association with these writers and am so grateful that we have created our tightly-knit community.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lucy E.M. Black. Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, and Stella’s Carpet. The Brickworks will be released October 2023. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada in literary journals and magazines including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish Review, the Queen’s Quarterly and others. She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a northern suburb of Toronto called Willowdale. It was filled with post-War housing, over-sized maple and willow trees, a meandering creek, and was ideally located adjacent to the Don Valley ravine system. As children, we spent luxurious, idyllic times riding our bikes and exploring the valleys. In summer, our parents would furnish us with sandwiches for a picnic lunch, and sometimes a jar of water or lemonade, and we would set out after breakfast and not return home until supper. But at any time of year, after our evening meal, we played together outdoors until the street lights came on, and then it was time to head inside for a bath and bed. The unbridled freedom we enjoyed roaming around would be unprecedented today. Our play time was completely unstructured: we built forts, created our own games, and felt like we were invincible.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I wrote my first novel when I was in grade two at school. It was written in a Hilroy scribbler and was called The Great Mumbo. It was a detective story, likely inspired by Nancy Drew. My teacher asked me to read the novel to the class. I was a fairly shy kid and was nervous about being at the front of the room, but as I read my novel, my classmates laughed and clapped and were completely engaged in the story. I was hooked in that moment, and I just kept reading and writing stories. It has been a lifelong obsession. I did have a very fulfilling career as an educator but took early retirement when I had signed two book deals. Since then, I have been writing full-time.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
To be honest, the story that comes to mind is a little embarrassing. I had published a book, Stella’s Carpet, about intergenerational trauma. The book captured many of my father’s stories from WWII and is essentially about how that horrible period in our history has impacted subsequent generations. That was, principally, the heart of the story. After the book was published, a very old friend reached out to let me know how honoured they were by my kind descriptions of them, their childhood, their home, and their stories which they had shared with me a lifetime ago. I had even named one of the main characters with a version of their name. All of which had been done completely unconsciously. At first, I was amused and thought, oh — isn’t it cute — person x thinks this is about them — but then I realized that I had mined my memories of them to create my character and had done so without being aware of it. All of those details and stories and remembrances were lodged deep in my unconscious and I had somehow summoned them and used them in my creative process. The friend had indeed been someone very special in my life, and we had fallen out of touch for many years, but my heart had recalled them with perfect clarity.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My big push is launching The Brickworks which will be released on October 14th. It’s a historical fiction that addresses the impact of industrialization and technology in small towns during the period 1879–1910. I’m very excited to share the book with readers and am anxious to know if they like it.
I have also started a new manuscript. This one is called Kathleen McDonough and is a sequel to a historical novel I wrote called Eleanor Courtown. In this story, Eleanor’s adopted-daughter is about to reach her sixteenth-birthday and will come into an inheritance in Ireland. Eleanor is preparing to take Kathleen to Ireland to introduce her to family. In 1885, a woman’s property reverted ownership to her husband upon marriage. Kathleen becomes a much-desired heiress, as many suitors wish to claim her in marriage and thereby also secure her fortune. The story is about female agency, power and class. I’ve completed Chapter One of the first draft, of what will be six chapters. I’m having so much fun doing the research and writing it. I will need to take another trip to Ireland to complete my research but that’s honestly just a good excuse to travel there.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Absolutely everyone we meet has a story. I especially love chatting with people who have travelled, followed their dreams and listened to their hearts. My favorite kind of people are those who are curious — individuals who keep reading and learning and trying to understand why certain things work and how all of the pieces come together.
I was a career educator for thirty years and among the part of the work I loved most was helping problem-solve for families and children in crisis. Many young people struggle with any number of serious issues including gender, body dysphoria, poverty, bullying, mental health, and family breakdown.
Some of those stories haunt me. I have written a manuscript called Class Lessons about some of those vulnerable young people and the importance of providing accessible supports for them within the structure of schools. The stories are hard to read and are heart-breaking. I’m having trouble placing the manuscript with a publisher because, apparently, people want happy endings and these stories are open-ended and without resolution. But they are real and I feel a sense of urgency about sharing them.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
Tiny moments, split-second interactions, images, and casual comments can all lodge and somehow become a starting place for a story. The Brickworks began with a Sunday drive, for instance. We love the landscape around Caledon, Ontario and drove around for a bit. I saw what I thought was an old woolen mill in the distance and so we parked our car and walked towards it. The signage indicated that it was the abandoned site of the Cheltenham Brickworks. We walked along the fence and I took this picture.
I was really intrigued by the site. The sky was stormy and overcast, and the remaining buildings looked desolate and romantic and full of story. I immediately began to wonder about its history and the people who had worked there.
My husband picked up a small shard of burnt brick which he passed to me and I saw that it was studded with straw or some sort of fibrous material. I put the piece of brick on my writing desk at home as a reminder of a nice afternoon. But that piece of brick seemed to speak to me and I continued to be intrigued by it.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about bricks or brickmaking. What I did know was that there had been a number of large fires at the end of the nineteenth-century which had devastated Toronto, and smaller communities like the one where we live. And I knew that bricks had become important to the rebuilding efforts.
I started doing some very casual research into Ontario brickmaking and learned a little about Don Valley Brickworks (now Evergreen), Leslieville’s operation, as well as other smaller operations including Beaverton. Local histories always fascinate me and it was fun for me to learn more about the communities that evolved as small brickworks became established to meet community needs. I was suddenly hooked and knew there was an important story to be told. Then I discovered the Claybank Brick National Historic site in Saskatchewan, and flew there to do some first-hand research. I learned quite a bit more about the technology and science involved in brickmaking. I also read a number of articles, including some by ASI Heritage, which helped me to understand the human element in such manufacturing endeavours.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There is a quote attributed to Mother Teresa that I think fits here:
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love” — Mother Teresa
I belong to a couple of local arts organizations. I donate my time and expertise as a volunteer, write a monthly column, publish a monthly newsletter, and run workshops. I also maintain an email correspondence with a number of fledgling writers, and endeavour to support and encourage them by providing critiques and direction.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1 . I think it’s very important to build a strong supportive network of other writers. I have the privilege of sharing my writing life with a group of writer friends and we meet regularly to workshop new pages. We each have very different types of writing projects but are all deeply invested in each other’s success. We share books, writing tips, publishing information, and workshop learnings. We actively encourage one another in our writing journeys. I am a better writer for my association with these writers and am so grateful that we have created our tightly-knit community.
2 . I wish someone had told me not to be discouraged by rejections. I spent years sending out stories to literary journals without any success. Every time I received a rejection slip, no matter how polite or encouraging, I felt personally destroyed. I took those rejections to heart and it would take months before I could summon the courage to try sending something out again. Now I understand that rejections are part and parcel of the publishing life but as a younger writer, I found it very difficult.
3 . Focus on those things that will support your goals. I spent years agreeing to do things because I thought it was important to be nice. Many of those commitments took precious time away from my writing. I would place a higher priority on my writing time if I were to do things over, and not be ashamed to admit that I needed the time for a writing project.
4 . If you don’t have a lot of time, it’s okay to chip away at a project in small chunks. Your work might even improve as a result of the time you spend thinking about the work and reflecting on the direction you are taking. My first historical fiction novel, Eleanor Courtown, was researched and written over a ten-year period. I was working as a high school administrator at the time which was a demanding career with long work hours. I had a young family besides and didn’t have a lot of time to myself. I chipped away at the research and writing in small chunks of time: a couple of hours early on a weekend morning, twenty minutes before bed at night, a luxurious day devoted to writing during the holidays, a trip to the library in between other errands, and research trips during our vacations. I loved having my secret writing project. It helped me to remember that my job didn’t define me.
5 . The most painful lesson I learned the hard way was to be careful about who you trust to give you feedback. Many years ago, I belonged to a writing group and one of the women was very outspoken. I thought she was bright and had a great deal of respect for her work and her opinion. She savaged my work on a regular basis and convinced me that it was substandard writing. I shelved story after story after her critiques. I eventually stopped writing because she had convinced me that my work was so inferior. Years later, I pulled out one of the stories I loved and without changing a word, entered it in an international writing contest. I was astonished when it placed in the top three.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I aspire to live a generous life… and for me that means sharing my gifts and resources and time with others. Generosity isn’t restricted to those who can write large cheques, but embraces those who willingly and openly share. We regularly contribute to local charities like the food bank and the hospital but we also have a Little Free Library which we keep stocked with books. Being open-handed and generous would be a movement I’d like to see more of.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
I would love to share a meal with the former American President, Barak Obama. Although I am a proud Canadian, I take a keen interest in American affairs as our two countries are so very closely aligned in terms of our economic and international peace-keeping priorities. I thought that former President Obama was visionary and I have a deep respect for the many contributions he made while serving the public. I am deeply troubled by the current media emphasis on story as opposed to a more objective fact-based reporting. Peter Brooks has written a powerful book, Seduced by Story, on the use and abuse of narrative. I would dearly love to know what someone like Obama sees as a possible correction to this disturbing trend.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Fb — Lucy EMBlack; Instagram — lucyemblack; twitter — @lucyemblack
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for the opportunity to chat with you about my writing. I appreciate your interest and support.