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Whitehorse writer explores the North's magnetic pull

"If I don't write, I get grumpy." Joanna Lilley has always been writing. At age seven, she wrote in tiny notebooks, using made-up codes to hide it from her siblings.

"If I don't write, I get grumpy." Joanna Lilley has always been writing. At age seven, she wrote in tiny notebooks, using made-up codes to hide it from her siblings. Around 10, she started writing poetry and hasn’t stopped since.

Last month a collection of short stories she wrote over the past decade hit bookstores.

The Birthday Books is a collection of 15 short stories, set in the Yukon and the United Kingdom, exploring the magnetic pull some people feel when deciding to move north.

Lilley herself moved from the U.K. in 2006, after years of toying with the idea.

“I’ve always loved mountains, and open spaces and animals,” she said. “I had travelled a bit in Canada a long time ago and I did a bicycle ride across Canada.”

Then she met her partner, who shared that dream to move to Canada. Fifteen years later, the two of them moved to Whitehorse.

She started working at a design company when she arrived in Whitehorse, later taking a communication position with the Yukon government.

“I work full-time, so I try to fit the writing as often as I can,” she said.

Her stories are informed by her own experience of being pulled north by the landscape, but deciding to stay because of the people.

“It’s the landscape, it’s the space, and there is a positive attitude here, which I appreciate,” she said.

Lilley, who won prizes at the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival poetry contest two years in a row, published a poetry collection, The Fleece Era, last year.

Her book is published by Hagios Press, a Saskatchewan-based publisher known for the poetry it prints.

“When you come here you start learning about First Nations culture, the politics,” she said.

“When you visit or you’re here temporarily, you don’t necessarily know all of that, it takes time.”

Lilley started submitting her manuscript in 2010, and it took three and a half years before one publisher answered her.

She’s thrilled to have been published, but “if you only care about publication you’ll just go mad,” she said.

For her, the entire writing process is very “calming and therapeutic,” she said.

But despite having been a writer for years, it doesn’t mean she was comfortable with sharing it publicly at first.

“For a long time I didn’t tell anybody that I wrote,” she said.

“You spend so much time writing and sometimes there is nothing to show for it.”

During this past Atlin music festival, Lilley, alongside other Whitehorse writers, took part in a reading. She was quite impressed with the turnout: the church venue was packed, at a time when musical performances were happening nearby.

Lilley is already working on a novel and has submitted a poetry manuscript. On Tuesday she received an advanced artist award from the Yukon government to research and write poems about extinct animals.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at

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Here is an excerpt from one of Lilley’s short stories, “Magnetic North.”

He’s flying over polar bears. Their hefty, shaggy shapes merge with snow shadows, giving the illusion, sometimes, they’re not there. The ridges of the Beaufort Sea could be a mountain range, could be a cracked puddle. All scale is gone. To be in a helicopter looking down on air and ice and water. Already, taking this job is worth it.

This surveying has to be done, data need to be collected before a decision can be made. He’s part of it; he should be chuffed. His mother should be chuffed, too, on his behalf. If she understood what he does. He’s given up trying to explain why he’s always in places he has to fly to, how terrain is his open plan office. He’s given up trying to understand why at the age of twenty-four he still needs his mother to understand what he does.

But the bears. A mother and two cubs. Not that he knows much about polar bears, or porcupine caribou, or the other two hundred or so species of birds and mammals whose territory this is. And of course it’s human territory, too; the Gwich’in who don’t want the caribou chased away because they rely on them for subsistence, though that’s hard to believe in this day and age, even up here. And the Inuvialuit, or is it the Vuntut Gwitchin, who he’s heard people at the camp talk of, how they should be happy the scientists are here because there could be lots of money in it for them. Dominic doesn’t know who really owns this land, whose permission they need to be here, but the important thing is to gather the data so that decisions can be made.

They don’t have to swing so far out over the Beaufort but the pilot is even more proud of this seascape than he his of his shiny red helicopter and, anyway, it’s useful to get an overview; maps are never detailed or accurate enough, especially not here. There’s a hundred-mile tundra plain ahead of them now, tussocked wetlands threaded by a braided river. They’re looking out for low bulges, which might mean a salt dome, which might mean a natural oil trap.

This is just a reconnaissance; tomorrow the helicopter will land and they’ll start with the magnetometer, find which subterranean rocks have the least magnetism and therefore most attraction for oil prospectors. Perhaps when they return to camp the landslide on the road will have been cleared and they can at last mount the vibrator on the truck and start thumping sound waves down into the rock. That’s what he loves most. Out in the field, crouching with a laptop. Where nature and technology prove to be compatible lovers. It makes him feel almost voyeuristic.

There’s a letter for him, back at the camp.

“Computers haven’t made it to Scotland, then,” says the administrator, passing the letter to him. It’s his mother’s handwriting.

The red and blue blocks along its edges look quaint. They also look time-consuming, as if someone has painted each one by hand.

It was mailed nearly three weeks ago, if he’s reading the faint Aberdeen postmark right. It took that long to get here because where he is now doesn’t have an address. Main office has sent it on. She’s got email, a phone. Why a letter?