In Conversation with Shandi Mitchell
by James Mullinger
Photograph By Christoper Porter
Born in New Brunswick, raised in Alberta, and now settled and thriving in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Shandi Mitchell is an award-winning author and filmmaker. She studied English and Theatre at Dalhousie, and her first short film, Gasoline Puddles, received the Drama Prize from Canada’s National Screen Institute in 1992. Her first feature, The Disappeared starring Billy Campbell and Shawn Doyle, was one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2012. Her debut novel, Under This Unbroken Sky, was published by Penguin Canada in 2009. It sold in nine countries, garnered almost every literary award going and was heaped with praise by critics internationally.
Almost a decade later Shandi is back with The Waiting Hours, a staggeringly powerful work that proves she is one of the best writers working in Canada today. [EDIT]’s Editor-in-Chief James Mullinger met with her in Nº 9 Coffee Bar on Montague Street in Lunenburg, just a stone’s throw from one of [EDIT]’s favourite bookstores, Lunenburg Bound. Over croissants and coffee they mused over their decision to thrive creatively in Atlantic Canada.
[EDIT]: You moved to Lunenburg to continue to grow your film and literary career. Does being in a smaller place change how you work?
SHANDI MITCHELL: Not really, because every production is immense. Whether making a film or writing a book, I want to work towards world-class standards. It has its pros and cons of course. In some ways it’s more difficult to be seen (in a smaller place). For me personally though, I know that I would not be able to create in a larger city. I need to protect whatever voice I have that speaks to me when I am in a quieter world. Where I can be still. Where I can settle into time and let the stories come to me.
[EDIT]: You were born in New Brunswick but raised in Alberta.
SHANDI: I was raised in Chatham (now Miramichi), New Brunswick. I had a difficult passport situation at one point because I couldn’t identify where I was born. I had to explain that I do exist! Born in New Brunswick, raised in Alberta. I time-shared between Edmonton, which was where my father was based in the armed forces — I was a military kid — and my aunt and uncle’s farm, 200 miles east of the city. These were very formative places for me. And then —probably 30 years ago or more — I was entering grade 12 when my father retired. My mother was from Nova Scotia. We moved here, and I came kicking and screaming. Nobody moves west to east! I had such a limited idea of the East Coast. All I knew was Peggy’s Cove. Then I came here, fell in love with it and I am still here.
[EDIT]: Some people still have that perception. It’s a huge reason why we started the magazine. You meet people from other parts of Canada who don’t think that there is anything east of Quebec. People are surprised by how much we have to offer here.
SHANDI: Absolutely. There are world-class artists tucked away in this town. You would not believe which artists are creating here on a global level.
[EDIT]: What I love so much about the book is that it is incredibly moving. You give a voice to these incredible first responders. They do these jobs day in and day out, and they are the unsung heroes of our society.
SHANDI: It was the world that I was looking at. It was the world that I had been immersed in. I wanted to explore the questions I had about this city, about this experience. I kept the setting anonymous because it could be anywhere. It is a city like Halifax. These lives, the stories are happening everywhere. But it began when I borrowed a neighbour’s car that had a police scanner in it. It was a beautiful day, and all I could hear was the crisis, the emergencies that were being responded to. It was a narrative that I couldn’t see and that made me anxious. It was also at a cusp when the world was changing. It was before Trump; it was before the Black Lives Matter movement. It was before the media started to cover all of this and just around the time of the Boston bombings. Wally Lamb had tweeted at that time, “Love wins. Love wins.” And I distinctly remember wondering if that could be true. I was curious about the constant exposure to the accumulation of loss and trauma. How does it change us? The characters I chose to follow were first responders. But the story I think holds the courage of every day. I think it takes courage to live and to stand up again and again. The storms of life are going to keep coming, and how do we move through them?
[EDIT]: Did you do more research than what you just described? The insights into the specific jobs of cop, trauma nurse and 911 responder seem extremely knowledgeable.
SHANDI: I spent a year researching before I started to write. I needed to have an understanding of their working worlds before approaching the characters. I was really lucky that so many people opened doors to their worlds to me. I did ride-alongs, I did 911 sit-ins. I sat in emergency rooms for hours and hours on end observing. I have worked in high- stress situations, and I thought I was pretty tough, but they made me realize I am not. I think these jobs change you. People find ways to cope with all they’ve seen. The dark humour. The pride of community. The tight closeness of “job” families. There is no way to share these experiences unless you’ve lived them. Then of course there are Hassan and Tamara who come from other communities that aren’t mine. People talked to me, shared their experiences and looked at my work. My job was to listen and try to get it right as best I could.
[EDIT]: It must mean a lot to them that you’ve gone through that effort to portray these professions accurately rather than just trying to create them as plot devices or plot tools. You are telling the reality of their lives.
SHANDI: I hope so. They have all read it. And they felt that I have caught it so yes, but I don’t know any other way to write. I don’t know how to respect your characters if you don’t try as best you can as a writer to put on their skin and walk with their hearts. I couldn’t do it any other way.
[EDIT]: Do you care about reviews?
SHANDI: There are really two answers to that. You need to protect yourself to be able to create again. Once the story is over, you let go of the story and the story lets go of you. I did my best with the characters and I need to let them go. I haven’t quite done that yet with this one. I'll have to say goodbye soon. Then you hope that the characters will fly far and wide and other people will see who they are. And you hope readers will create their own narratives of them beyond the page. In my work, I think I try to leave an open narrative line, where readers can enter the story with their own experiences. Often, people share their stories with me. It’s humbling when the work connects on a personal level and the fictional world feels somehow true enough to speak of realities. Then there is the other side. The insecure, vulnerable artist who has put years of their heart and soul out there. So yes, you hope it will be embraced. But you have to not care one way or the other because you have to move to the next piece. If you care too much about what happens next, your voice will be gone. My first novel did quite well and travelled the world and earned accolades. But even accolades can be as dangerous as the negative. Maybe other people can handle it better. I try to look at it neutrally. Don’t absorb either. I think it can distort you or distort your writing. So I try to observe it, listen for valid criticism, look for what I hoped to achieve and bring that with me to what I will create next.
[EDIT]: You couldn’t have predicted that success.
SHANDI: Not at all. In fact, I was deep in film at the time. I had not set out to write a novel. The film process is incredibly slow, and it’s about waiting for permission. It takes years and years, and no matter how much you put forward, it’s still going to take someone else to make it happen. Many people, in fact. As a child, I was always reading and writing. I thought that was what I was going to do. But I left it behind to some degree because I had gone into the film world. It was a place that fused all of my interests — image, story, fiction. Then I fell into the development phases of waiting. So I started to write for myself. I took a few creative writing classes. I enjoyed the freedom of the page again. After a while, the piece I was working on, I didn’t call it a novel… I was something like 180 pages in, and a friend said, “You are writing a novel.” I panicked! This was my playbox. It was my place of freedom. I didn't need permission. I could create. I didn’t plan for it to be public. But other people were reading the drafts and telling me I had to do something with it. I didn’t know the literary world. It was sent out to publishers and was immediately picked up. When I look back now — and maybe this is part of that disassociation — it’s the book that did these things. The book managed to garner these. I am a separate entity. The book took me around the world. I encountered international writers and other worlds, which influenced and grew my writing, I hope.
[EDIT]: Something that I’ve found about artists living in small places is that they are not pigeonholed into one thing.
SHANDI: There is something about the Maritimes. You can’t be pigeonholed. You must be able to do multiple things. Financially, you have to do multiple things to survive. People aren’t afraid to say that they want to try something new. It can be incredibly surprising if you give yourself permission to look and try. I think it’s survival, or it’s steeped in survival anyway. There are incredible galleries here in Lunenburg. Three book stores and a library within walking distance. There are world-class musicians coming through the academy here, it’s a special little area, especially for the arts. The town has positioned itself to be a cultural protector. An artistic protector.
[EDIT]: What’s next for you?
SHANDI: My ideal right now would be to take six months and fill them creatively. I am desperately in need of filling up on art and light. But this is my job as well as my art. I have to think of the next thing. There's always that pressure and the financial reality of how to do that. I am asking those questions now. Wondering what's calling next. Film or fiction? Right now, there are a couple of film scripts on the go… That will be three or four years. And I am listening for the next story. There is one that is starting to speak. Sometimes I have to wait and live more before I can write it.
The Waiting Hours
by Shandi Mitchell, published by Penguin Random House is available now.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.