New crop of writers lined up for Berton retreat

The next batch of Canadian writers to spend a three-month stint at the Berton House Writers' Retreat in Dawson City was announced this week.

The next batch of Canadian writers to spend a three-month stint at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City was announced this week.

Pierre Berton’s childhood house is just like any other, except for its connection to the famous author.

But the retreat is more than just superstition and stimulus, it’s basic logistics as well.

“If you are a Canadian writer, there are a few constraints you have to work in beyond the general challenges of publishing your work,” said James Davies, senior program manager for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, which runs the retreat.

“You don’t get paid very much for writing so it becomes difficult to do as your only job, so many people have multiple jobs,” he said.

“Secondly, it is hard to write a book when you have the phone ringing, children screaming, neighbours asking for such and such, and all the sort of daily distractions we have in life.”

The retreat not only offers writers a “far-off” place to stay but they get an honorarium for the three months, as well as some motivation, like obligatory readings in Whitehorse and Dawson City.

Since it began 15 years ago, about 40 books, largely penned within the Berton House’s walls, have been published, said Davies.

“It’s an opportunity for a writer to make a substantial breakthrough in a book that they’re working on,” he said.

Despite the history of the place, and the house, it is not mandatory for the residents to craft their work on the North, said Davies. But if writers do want to tackle a northern theme that does carry some weight in the selection process.

The selection committee, which changes every year, is made up of three people – usually two past Berton house writers and one Dawson resident with some connection to the writing world.

This year Frances Backhouse, a Victoria-based biology and history writer who stayed at the house in 2008, Jeramy Dodds, a Calgary-based poet who translated Icelandic poetry during his stay in 2010, and former Dawson City community librarian Miriam Havemann, scrutinized over 68 applications from writers across the country.

They considered the applicants’ stage in their career, their intentions to engage the community, their ability to positively affect the prestige of the overall program, and whether or not their intended focus would be emboldened by the location of Dawson City and the North.

The four new writers selected for the upcoming 2012/13 season include Joan Thomas, a well-regarded Winnipeg novelist who intends to work on her third novel about three characters challenged to find a new perception of nature.

Playwright and screenwriter Sherry MacDonald was chosen in part because of the stage she’s at in her career and her life, said Davis. Her children are now old enough for her to take off for three months, said Davies.

MacDonald’s plays Iraqi Karaoke, The Duchess of Alba and The Stone Face have been produced in major Canadian and American cities. She is currently working on a contemporary play that takes place in the Alberta foothills and a one-woman show about Mary Shelley.

Non-fiction writer Chris Turner, a leading speaker on sustainability and the global cleantech industry, plans to try his hand at a new genre during his stay from January to March, 2013. He will be working on his first novel, a shadow history of the 20th century called Canadian Shield.

Victoria-based poet Melanie Siebert will finish off the next season at the house. The 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry finalist will focus on new work that “aims to translate the surging and hypnotic energy of rivers, while thinking through colonialism, wilderness, and loss.”

But before these new selects will have a chance to move in, last-minute replacements had the chance to jump on the opportunity after an injury prevented playwright Hannah Moscovitch from accepting her stint this winter.

Instead, Toronto-based communications and tech guy Dan Dowhal moved in for two months at the beginning of January. He has produced several novels in the past couple of years: Skyfisher and Flam Grub.

Well-known writer Lawrence Hill, who authored the international bestseller The Book of Negroes, will be the writer this March. He’s going to focus on a theme close to many Yukon hearts during his stay at the house in March: the Alaska Highway, said Davies.

“He expressed an interest many years ago of going,” said Davies. “It seemed like an appropriate situation.”

A 90-day stay in any place does not, in any way, make people experts of a community, its people or history, Davies noted. But in a place like Dawson, where the vibrant community tends to surprise most outsiders, the retreat not only gives the writers time to focus on their work, but lets them learn the variety and range of the Klondike’s history and character, he said.

The retreat’s residents are encouraged to work with the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, the School of Visual Art Yukon and the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre. They are usually involved in a summer writers’ festival held in the community, Davies said.

With help these organizations and others, the non-profit Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Berton House Writers’ Retreat Society have been able to secure stable funding and make the retreat a year-long resource.

It was the Yukon Arts Council, the Klondike Visitors Association and Pierre Berton himself who got the ball rolling 15 years ago, said Davies.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at