An unassuming box, filled with paper and words, tells much of the story of Darcie Friesen Hossack’s last 10 years. A manuscript of stories, dotted and lined with penciled edits, the occasional coffee stain decorating its margins, takes up the bulk of the hold. With it is stashed a certificate of achievement or two, a small collection of rejection letters – many offering encouragement along with the bad news – and, finally, a letter of intent to publish.
Mennonites Don’t Dance is the culmination of a decade’s worth of aspiration, wrestling demons, coming into one’s own and pouring the soul out of the finger tips onto a computer screen.
“Most of the time I’m still in disbelief that the contract arrived,” Darcie, who posts a monthly food column on The Pear Tree, said. “It’s been such an awfully long time coming. I have moments of effervescent, giddy, bubbly happiness, but mostly I feel calm – instead of always tight and worried and wondering if I’ve wasted all this time. I actually prefer the feeling of peace and calm to joy and elation.”
Darcie first started making friends with her writerly side back when she was in Grade 4, growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan. Her class was given the assignment of writing a mystery story during language arts class. When the bell rang for recess to begin, Darcie begged her teacher to let her stay in, instead, to finish the story.
The next year, she was asked to read a story she wrote about her cat in front of her class. When her fellow classmates laughed and applauded in all the right places, she started to realize that writing is something that can connect a person to other people, and knew that she wanted to do it for always.
She was the kind of girl, growing up, who read the thesaurus, “just for fun,” and who lost at Scrabble because she put more emphasis on laying down rare and vainglorious words than racking up points.
In her early twenties, Darcie started her first novel – an adventure set in India. Years of her life went into chronicling a story she now considers irredeemable – not the least because she’s never actually traveled further east than Winnipeg – but like all good inventors she let the experience become an important step towards finding what works. At the end of it, she took to heart the old adage about writing what you know.
For her, that included sweeping prairie vistas, small town dramas and food that’s been engineered to stick to your ribs. It’s the kind of fodder that at first seemed too uneventful and unexotic to someone who’s grown up in that world… until she stumbled upon Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness.
“Up until then, I never thought there was anything to say about growing up on the prairies or having a Mennonite family, about grasshoppers or fighting over chickens feet for lunch or some of the harrowing things that happen in large, farming families,” Darcie said. “Looking through my heritage through someone else’s eyes I realized how complex it is.”
While Darcie wasn’t raised strictly Mennonite, growing up with her mother and sister in Swift Current, Sask., regular visits to her maternal grandparents’ farm gave her a window into that world.
While her collection of 11 short stories and the characters in them are all fictional, the emotions, psychology and approach to life that she glimpsed during her visits to the farm are all inspired by real Mennonite life.
Not that you have to be Mennonite – or even familiar with the conservative Christian movement – in order to connect with the stories. But the culture offers a good platform for exploring the universal experiences of generation gaps, misunderstandings within a family, mistakes and amends made, and generally navigating the rocky seas of life.
“In every story there’s a moment of grace,” Darcie says. “They don’t wrap up neatly, but there is always a chance for the characters to hold onto each other and to do better.”
The same is true in writing as well as life, as Darcie has come to learn in the process of writing it down, and landing that elusive contract with a recognized, literary publisher.
After starting her collection, Darcie was “Birdselled,” as she calls it, under the tutelage of Mennonite author Sandra Birdsell, a Giller Prize finalist who was recently awarded the Order of Canada. Darcie was assigned Sandra as her mentor as a student of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. The experience was life-altering and, Darcie believes, turned her into the writer she is today: a published one.
“I now know I can do it,” she said. “I have a certain confidence that I didn’t have before.”
She now feels ready to try a full-length novel again – this time letting what she knows lead her. But first, Darcie and her publisher, Thistledown Press, are planning a book launch for Mennonites Don’t Dance on Thursday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m. at the downtown Kelowna branch of the Okanagan Regional Library. Those who can’t be there can pick up the book in bookstores between Victoria and Toronto, or order their copy from amazon.com and here.
Leave a comment below to be entered into a random draw to win a signed copy of Darcie’s new book. We’ll select a winner later this week!
– Words and photos by Lori-Anne Poirier