(at) eleven with darcie friesen hossack: mennonites don’t dance

My plan of action for the (At)Eleven series of chats with writers has always been to include some element of food. I believe that books and food go together. Food in the pages, food on the pages. So I look for some, even tiny or remote, connection to food with the writer or with the book. In Darcie’s case, I didn’t have to look hard—food is everywhere, connected to everything.

We met during a Humber School for Writers mentorship program where much of the chatter was often about food thanks in large part to Darcie, who was then [and still is] working as a food writer, and Susan Toy, who had the rest of us jotting down notes on how best to froth cream or shave chocolate in between discussing the finer points of character development and plot structure. This small group of food/word advocates has stayed in touch over the years and when, this past October, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Darcie in person on a trip to Kelowna, tea, coffee, and sweets were involved. The time was too short.

As a group, we have shared in the excitement of her first book, a collection of stories, which has garnered some not insignificant attention. Mennonites Don’t Dance has been shortlisted 51Hs0UgdX-L__SL500_AA300_for the Commonwealth Prize and was a finalist for both Danuta Gleed and the Evergreen Award. The stories focus on mostly rural Mennonite life and the constant tug of war between what is respected and what is desired.

There is also food.

Among the trauma, someone is always baking, preserving; kitchens are fragrant despite drops of blood on the tiles. There is life and nourishment among the darkness.

I’m grateful and delighted that she has taken the time to answer a few questions—some are even about the book.

And so, without further ado… may I present writer and foodie, Darcie Friesen Hossack:

 1.   What literary figure did you relate to as a child? Who did you want to be and why?

DFH—Okay, don’t laugh.
Velveteen Rabbit. I think I’ve said too much already.

2.   How did you come to writing? Do you remember the moment you realized this was what you wanted to do?

DFH—I remember writing a story for a fourth grade Language Arts class, and begging my teacher to let me skip recess so I could finish. It’s the first time I remember being specifically delighted and fascinated with what words could do.

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

DFH—I really want to lie here. While I read excellent children’s literature, there’s a black hole between then and when I began to discover authors in university. At 15, I was secretly reading dreadful romance novels and a “Based on the Screenplay” novel of a Julia Roberts movie.

4.   Can you share a favourite passage from any book? And if you’d like to say why it’s special, please do.

DFH—“Things shouldn’t hinge on so very little. Sneeze and you’re highway carnage. Remove one tiny stone and you’re an avalanche statistic. But I guess if you can die without ever understanding how it happened then you can also live without a complete understanding of how. And in a way that’s kind of relaxing.” Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness

Miriam is who I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m still working on it.

5.   I’m always interested in process. Do you have a discipline, a routine, a favourite place to write? And how do you deal with distractions? I’m thinking of phones, people assuming you’re always ‘free’ or, heaven help us, the internet—but any distraction will do. (Hunger is a big one for me. No sooner do I hit a roadblock than I find I’m starving for a piece of cheese.)

DFH—I write almost entirely at my antique (of no known maker) desk that my dad found and cleaned up for me. It’s scratched and banged up and the drawers require routine candle wax rub downs to keep them from squeaking.

6.   What has surprised you most about the writing and/or publishing process?

DFH—Mennonites Don’t Dance was banned from a library in its early months. That surprised me! That it’s been taken seriously by reviewers and award juries and other writers, though, was, is still, a wonder. I remember coming across the Globe & Mail review (I knew to expect it, but not when, and not what) while in line for coffee. I must have looked like a nutter, standing there, reading, laughing and crying while everyone got their lattes.

7.   There’s a tenderness to the stories, understanding mixed with respect, even in the bleakest moments. Makes me think of a cheetah running, beautiful, the grace of a gazelle, then cheetah tears gazelle apart but there’s no guilt or malice on either side. It’s not always pretty but that’s how they survive. The beauty is in the honesty and the violence isn’t gratuitous. In the stories, there’s often a perception of unkindness, but you’ve managed to find the honesty in the actions. A bit of long lead up to the question: which surprises you more, the cruelty inherent in people, or the tenderness inherent in people who appear to be cruel?

DFH—Neither. Which, when I look at it, reads like a non-answer and I’m sorry! What surprises me, though, is laughter. That people are most capable of it after being at the centre of such dark stories.

8.   One of my favourite stories is ‘Ashes’, in which is the line: “Tomatoes make Anke nervous.” This just so beautifully represents your overall theme, the [Mennonite] fear of [what others see as] basic elements of life. Also Anke and Libby, in this story, exemplify both sides of what feels like the same coin, each wanting a little of what the other has without losing the important parts of self.  And yet, what they each lose couldn’t be more personal. Or more universal. Can you talk a little about this story, perhaps as it relates to the others, its history?

DFH—Without going into too much detail, I knew someone who miscarried in a bathroom, then went on to serve dinner to invited guests. That was going to be the story. Grief and hospitality. Then Anke wandered onto the page, and tomatoes made her nervous. I had no idea why. It simply became clear that she’d come save Libby from the story I meant to tell.

9.   The category of ‘Mennonite Writer’ is interesting in that it doesn’t refer to any specific style and is different [I think] to ‘Mennonite Writing’, which suggests a specificity of topic. So, I wonder then, what does it mean to be a Mennonite Writer? Is it determined by the being Mennonite [regardless of subject matter or perspective] or is the matter of culture within the story essential? How do you see yourself in this context?

DFH—People have been trying to answer this question, with an entire scholarly discipline unfolding in since Rudy Wiebe’s “And Peace Shall Destroy Many.” There’s a fantastic lecture about “The Trouble with Mennonite Novels”, given last winter by Paul Tiessen at Conrad Grebel University College. Part of a series of lectures by Mennonite writers and scholars, each attempting to answer some part of “What does it mean to be a Mennonite Writer?” http://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/events/celebrating-mennonite-literature/videos

10.  If you could spend a weekend with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?

DFH—The grandfather in “Magpie.” We’d sit on the swing and eat roll kuchen and watermelon and spit out the seeds.

11.  Choices:

Brunch or lunch? Brunch. At lunchtime.

Mountain or prairie? Mountain. With ocean if it can be arranged.

Motorboat or canoe? Houseboat.

Apple or orange? Apple. No peels. September through November, only.

Poetry or Song? Song. No, wait. Poetry. Wait. Song…

Starch or Salad? Pasta’s a salad!

First lines or last lines? My music teacher used to say, “Begin well and end well, and they might forgive a small mistake in the middle.” I really appreciate good beginnings, though.

Tent or trailer? Cabin. With climate control and running water.

Rain or wind? Both, at the same time!!! Watched from comfort of said cabin.

Atwood or Laurence? Pen or paper? Both are needed!

Chocolate or vanilla?  Swirl.


Matilda’s suggested menu for Mennonites Don’t Dance


Anything with Cream Gravy

and to drink, a stiff shot of vanilla

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers in Ontario, Canada, where she studied under Giller Prize finalist Sandra Birdsell. Her first book of short190789_10151184624000264_2061826719_n fictions, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was published by Thistledown Press in September 2010. Acclaimed in the Canadian press, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize in the First Books Category, the book was also a runner up for the Danuta Gleed Award, and a Globe & Mail Top 5 First Fiction pick in 2011. Darcie grew up in the city of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, though was as much at home on her grandparents’ farm in the Mennonite village of Schoenfeld. She eventually moved to Kelowna, British Columbia and married her high school sweetheart, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack. Being Mennonite, with its accompanying experiences of farm and food, shaped the author’s faith and love of land (even though she’s never successfully grown anything in dirt), and led to a syndicated food column. Darcie has never had to kill a chicken, though she’s plucked more than a few, and once brought a pig’s snout to school for show and tell.

She can occasionally be found at darciefriesenhossack.wordpress.com

passing the cake…


I’m swanning about the place in a tiara today. Also a sash. Just missing a mitre—and, what, an ermine robe is asking too much??  All this thanks to Allyson Latta  who bestowed on me the most wonderful surprise of naming Matilda one of her picks for the (brace yourself) Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award—whose logo is a strawberry shortcake, which makes it probably the best award I’ve ever heard of.

The protocol, I’ve been advised, on receiving the ISBA, is to a) thank the person who nominated you, b) share seven things about yourself, and c) pass along the award to other irresistibly sweet bloggers.

Well, first things first then: thank you so very much, Ms. Allyson, for thinking of my little corner of cyberspace and for the kind things you said about it—the phrase “sometimes wacky” notwithstanding; surely a typo… :D  (me, wacky??)

As for sharing seven things about myself—this should be relatively simple given that there happen to be exactly seven things about myself.

They are these:

1.   My backyard is home to several giant ant hills (by which I mean three or four), none of which I intend to do anything about. One of them has been there fifteen years. We call it the Ant Hotel. When visiting kids were small we had a sign for it. Very reasonable rates and efficient, speedy room service (albeit small portions) were its hallmarks.

2.   I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to like coffee but I keep buying tea.

3.   Corn makes my stomach ache. Annoying because I like polenta and Mexican food and Fritos, not to mention buttery cobs on summer days, which when I was a kid I used to eat like a typewriter. (Link provided for those who just said a what??)

4.   My heroes tend to be animals, children and very old people.

5.   I’m happiest when the fridge is on the empty side. I find this inspires creativity in my cooking. Some wonderful things have been invented under the most spartan conditions. Or maybe I’m happiest when I’m outside, up to my wrists in dirt (pardon me, soil), or on a lounge chair in the company of words. On the other hand, swimming, plunging my nose into laundry fresh from a sunny line, a morning spent walking or writing at the beach…all leave me smiling pretty solidly too. As does rain and snow and the kind of breeze you could fall asleep in and then you do and that feeling when you wake up and the world is just there, waiting for you, making no demands. And you remember there’s just enough ice cream left for a small bowl and because there’s only a bit, it tastes that much better. And then you find a jar of cherries.

6.   I saw Leonard Cohen in concert in 2009. I still haven’t completely recovered.

7.   I would like to learn Spanish and Sign Language. Spanish, so that I can go back to Chile and discuss bread and wine and life. Sign Language for its beauty and elegance.

Finally, a few bloggers to whom I’d like to pass along the shortcake. Not for sweetness but for enhancing the interweb with their wise words, gentle spirits and contagious sense of joy.

Alone on a Boreal Stage—Home of poet and visual artist Brenda Schmidt’s photo/video poems and other bird/nature/book related pleasures.

We Drank Cachaca and Smoked the Green Cheroot—I’ve become addicted to this site because of stolen rhubarb, orange knickers, lady bikes, Jean Talon Market and sentences like this:

“I was not expecting the skies of England to be all painterly, to perform for me as they have apparently done since William and Dorothy Wordsworth pottered about the countryside with their pockets full of mutton pies, but the skies did perform, and I am still thinking about them, because they billowed alive over the built-up bricks and statuary and pomp and palaces that caused the subtitle BYGONE DAYS to float across my mind the whole time I was there.” (From the post: Whence and Whilst and Those Constable Skies, 6/14/11)

Pickle Me This—I’m always happily surprised whenever I check into this site. Kerry Clare has exactly the right mix of book smart and life whimsy.

Carol Bruneau’s Blog—This is where I go to remind myself how to think about writing.

Four Rooms—Exploring the power of words in various forms.

Island Editions—Publishing, books, beachy vistas and occasionally food.


stars, eggs, editors, and other bright lights

Must be the way the stars are lined up. Or something. February’s darkness and promise of light? The way the snow crunched under my boots this morning? A perfectly poached egg?

Whatever it is, I’m full of the joys today.

Could be that I’ve begun serious revisions on the ms with the help of a freelance editor—whose help I should have enlisted moons ago. But one has to be ready, there’s marinating time, other things to be written and (thank god) published in the interim. Other games to play.

‘Games’ as in both politics and pure fun. The first is a given, everyone’s up to their necks in that, but the second, the play, the lightheartedness that allows for pleasure in the ‘process’—that sometimes gets overlooked, shoved aside for later. And when later never comes Jack turns into such a cranky pain in the butt.

And yes, I know, I know, the sky is falling over publishing, and true, the industry may not be perfect and the work may sometimes feel like dancing in cement and no one understands us or treats us with respect…wah wah… but jeezuz, would you really rather be doing anything else?  

Here’s what I’m saying: there’s altogether too much grumbling out there.

My ears and eyes hurt from it. I’m thirsty for positive thinking. Maybe we could look at the problems as opportunity?? A new world to embrace, even be enthusiastic about, rather than cynical and bitchy. Some very novel things happening on this front, as revealed over at Book Madam.  More of that please. Constructive action, not whinging, is what we need.

Let’s talk about what works, celebrate the good stuff—because it’s happening out there. Just maybe not to the naysayers. Or not at the moment. Or maybe it’s happening and they’re just not seeing it because they want what the other kids have. Wah.

So much is perspective and, granted, on another day in another mood, I might not be writing any of this. But today I’m feeling (annoyingly?) perky.

Truth is much of my current perky joyful positivity has to do with good news received by two writerly friends in the space of just a few months. 

No one is more surprised at how their success has added a zing to my own spirits.

The first is Steven Mayoff, whom I met at a workshop a few years ago on the beautiful shores of PEI and whose short story collection Fatted Calf Blues was not only short listed for the ReLit Award, but went on to win the PEI Book Award. The second, a former Humber classmate, Darcie Friesen Hossack, whose (also short story collection) Mennonites Don’t Dance has just been short listed for the Commonwealth Prize.

Egad. I should be knotted up with envy and bitterness, no? Both Darcie and I had work nominated for the 2009 Journey Prize, neither of us made the cut. She went on to make a book. I’m still revising. I should be asking myself: why am I still revising? But oddly, I’m euphoric rather than frustrated. Could be symptoms of a mania, but actually, I think it’s more honest to god joy that maybe the sky isn’t falling. That good things— yes they do!—still happen.

The bonus is that when they happen to really good people, it’s impossible not to be thrilled.

And revelling in the success of others, it seems, is not only good for the soul, but for the writing. An inspiration and a happy reminder that anything is always possible.

As for me, sir, I’ll take my pleasure anyplace I can…