Everything that moves and everything that has colour:
An interview with Candace Savage
June 6, 2023
When I first met Candace, it was through her work in the environmental conservation world. She’s a brilliant communicator, and when she uses her authorial voice to tell the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves she draws her readers into a world where the environment is sacred, and it is up to all of us to protect it.
Candace is the award-winning author of more than two dozen books including A Geography of Blood, which won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. It was a privilege to learn more about her creative process and the many things that have earned her an international reputation as a distinctive and vital voice of Western Canada.
Eden Friesen, Associate Editor
Candace Savage was born in the Peace River Country of Northern Alberta, in Treaty 8 territory. Many of her ancestors — her father’s father’s family, and her mother’s mother’s line — had left Western Europe for North America in colonial times because their lives and livelihoods were threatened by sectarian violence. Most of her people were farmers, and their subsequent travels west and north across the continent were motivated by a hunger for opportunity and for land. This is a complex inheritance.
Savage is the award-winning author of more than two dozen books for adults and children, including Strangers in the House, A Geography of Blood, and Prairie: A Natural History. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, she was inducted into the Honor Roll of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University.
In addition to her work as a writer, Savage belongs to the Saskatoon Fiddle Orchestra, chairs Wild About Saskatoon, serves on advisory boards for CPAWS Saskatchewan and the Meewasin Valley Authority, and is a member of the National Council of the Writers’ Union of Canada. She lives and writes in misaskwatôminihk, aka Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Métis.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Candace Savage: I grew up in a fairly conventional family, I suppose. My parents were both teachers, but my mother gave up teaching when I was born. She didn’t have to. I was born at the end of 1949, a time when it was expected that, when women were married — much less had a child — they would do ‘the decent thing’ and leave the workforce. But my parents were both teaching in this teeny, weeny little town in Northern Alberta, and the community needed her, and they wanted her, so she could have gone on teaching after I was born. But her opinion was, “What was the point of having a child and then letting someone else bring them up?”
So, she left the workforce, and I don’t know how quickly that began to bite, but it became very difficult for her. In the last year or so, I’ve been between projects — meaning, would there ever be another project? — and it felt very miserable, and I have new empathy for how frustrating it was for her not to be able to do this work that she was so good at. So, I watched that — I watched how not being able to do the work that you felt called to ate away at a person.
And then I watched my dad. I like to describe him as an upwardly mobile school teacher. He went from strength to strength through his career, always working inside institutions. He was either going to school at regular school hours, or he was going to an office at office hours, or studying at university with a schedule imposed from the outside. So, when I decided that I was not well-suited for regular employment [laughs], I did have to figure out how you live. What does your day look like? How do you organize your time if you’re not surrounded by all those structures? It turned out that you have to take responsibility for a lot of things. You have to take responsibility for your own social life, as well as, often, setting goals, establishing schedules, and maintaining your routine.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
CS: I discovered that regular jobs made me very miserable. My ‘clever’ summary was that, for me, a job meant going someplace I didn’t want to go, to do things I didn’t want to do, with people I didn’t particularly want to be with. And so, out of that terrible attitude comes some kind of desperation.
As that desperation was setting in — this would have been post a four-year degree in English literature — I had the good fortune to be living in Saskatoon, where at that time there was a trade publisher, Western Producer Prairie Books. I’ve always written, and always have loved books, and even though I was the scaredest beginner in the world — is scaredest a word? — even though I was so nervous that, for many years, I wrote with a hot water bottle on my stomach, there was a door open in my town. You know? It was clear to me at that point that, if I’d had to go to another city, pay for a hotel, knock on doors of people I didn’t know, this probably wouldn’t have happened. So, being the nervous person that I was, to have that opportunity here made all the difference. And it also helped that the person who was running the publishing company was someone I’d been vaguely aware of, going to university, so there was a little bit of a personal connection there, as well.
I started by doing editing. I was able to edit works by Hugh Dempsey and James Gray — these people who were writing popular history in Western Canada at that time — and I was able, also, to see what this process is. Because, you know, you can get at an idea of what a lawyer does, maybe, by watching TV — [laughing] I’m sure that’s totally accurate.
Eden Friesen: [laughing] It is!
Editor’s note: Eden is working to complete her Juris Doctor.
CS: But making books is hidden behind closed doors, or a lot of it happens inside people’s minds or in their homes. So to be able to go to work in this very junior way, and freelance way, with a publishing company demystified the process.
That was immensely important, and in fact I’ve not ever left that happy home. Western Producer Prairie Books folded, but the main people I was dealing with moved to Douglas and McIntyre in Vancouver, and then when that folded to Greystone Books, and I’ve just stayed. Everything I’ve done has been in the context of those relationships.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
CS: When I was just beginning, I really yearned to have a mentor.
I imagined that I could walk up to the door of some man. Because they, the writers I knew at that point — so, this would have been the sixties, I guess — the people who were writing regularly and doing the kind of work that interested me within easy distance of me were men. And so I imagined going up to their door and saying, “Please, can I just sit here? Can I just sit here in your office and see how you do this? What do you do when you get up in the morning [laughing], and what do you wear? And—”
EF: Did you find one? Did you find somebody to sit and watch?
CS: No, no — I had to figure it out for myself.
EF: You didn’t have this idea of, just, interviewing all kinds of amazing women.
CS: [laughing] I did not!
The main relationship that’s made this my writing life possible, though, is with Rob Sanders. He was running Western Producer Prairie Books when I started. He was extremely supportive, a very good friend, and also someone with an old-fashioned attitude towards publishing. I remember him saying, early on — “Oh, good!”, I thought — that he didn’t want to publish books, he wanted to publish authors. He wanted to publish writers. It’s very unfashionable — I don’t know of very many writers who have built a life around one publishing relationship like that. Most people would have agents, which I’ve never had. The agent would be looking for the best offer and the best deal. But I just wanted to be safe. I wanted to work with people who I thought had my interests at least partly in mind, even with the understanding that a publisher’s interests and a writer’s are not identical. That was my way of finding safety.
EF: It’s certainly a pre-internet world.
CS: A pre-internet world, yeah. I mean, I suppose people who are starting now have more options and fewer options. You certainly can self-publish — there are more small publishing outlets — but getting the door of an established publisher to crack open is even harder than it was before.
EF: More options, less safety.
CS: Yeah. And especially, I would think, for people who are living kind of away from the metropolis, away from the centers of publishing.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
CS: What I always say is that I work as a writer. Or else, if someone wants to know more, I say I write books. More and more of my time is taken up by community building, but, professionally, that’s what I do.
EF: I really struggle with that definition of you. You are so much more than a writer! There is so much more going on in your life all the time!
CS: Well, there is, indeed. I’m a lot of things, as you say. I’m a grandma. I’m a piano accordion player. I build communities and advocate for the land, and for all our related species that don’t have a voice — that’s become a very strong theme in everything I do.
EF: I would love whatever insight you can offer into your connection to the land, and to the voiceless species, because I know that a lot of your writing does take on an ecological tone, or an ecological angle.
CS: Writing about nature happened sort of in scare quotes by accident, because I was married quite young. I was married when I was 20, and my husband at that time — he subsequently died — he and I decided that we wanted to write together, and this was a place where our interests strongly overlapped. I’d been writing women’s history, trying to understand what it meant to be a female on the prairies. But when we decided to work together, then we started to write about birds and animals.
And, at first, that felt uncomfortable to me, because I’d come from the humanities, not from the sciences, and there wasn’t much space, I think, for a woman writing about natural science in that moment. I know it wasn’t until I started again, some years later, writing about people — that’s when my books started to get noticed in a broader way. But of course the shared interest, that area of shared interest, was still there as an interest.
I think most people, as children, love being outside, and they’re fascinated by everything that moves and everything that has colour, and just all the wonder of being alive in this amazing world. I was fascinated, as a child, by spiders. I collected spiders and always wanted to be around animals. I think that part of me never grew up. It just stayed there. And also, I was born in the Peace River Country in Northern Alberta, which was a place at that point where, obviously, farming had been going on for a generation and a half before me. But there was still plenty of feeling of connection — with the land, with the trees, with the night skies, with the northern lights.
EF: It’s beautiful up there.
What was one of the first big aha moments of your career?
CS: Well, none of this ever feels like success, you know — you just keep doing what you’re doing and hope for the best.
I do remember one moment. I wrote a rather — even now, it would seem, I think, a bit avant-garde. I think at that moment it just seemed a bit weird. I called it a “scrapbook biography” of Nellie McClung, called Our Nell. And a man named David MacDonald had just been appointed as the federal Cabinet Minister for Women, Gender Equality and Youth! And his office phoned me, and there he was to offer congratulations on this book. I do remember that — that was pretty exciting. I thought, “What? What? Who are you?”
But in connection with that book, that was also the first time I went on a cross-country promotional tour. That would have been in 1979, and it must have been later in the summer. My late husband Art came with me, because we had a six- or eight-week-old baby, so we made this junket across the country with her. I was so completely bedazzled by everything that was going on, and I must obviously have lost all sense of decorum — or else I thought it was perfectly okay — because apparently in one interview the baby was hungry, and I fed her while I was talking to this guy. And he was scandalized. So, if we went back, we could find it: a newspaper article somewhere in which this poor man commented on the fact that I fed the baby while I was talking to him.
EF: I think that is the aha moment.
CS: I did have the notion, I realized retrospectively, that if I went to university and got enough degrees I could become a kind of honorary man. You know? That, somehow, all the apparent disadvantages of being female would be overcome. But life has a way of reminding you — these kinds of interactions have a way of reminding you — that, no: even if you wanted to be an honorary man, it is not going to happen, honey.
What task(s) do you start your day with?
CS: I don’t really conform to a routine.
I know that you’re supposed to keep office hours, you’re supposed to write every day, you’re supposed to have goals for how many words you will produce. I don’t actually live that way. But what I do is I get up. I have breakfast, I get dressed, I come to my office, and I do whatever needs doing that day.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
CS: I think it’s all my work, and what I’ve thought about a lot is what it means to live on this land.
EF: I would love to pick your brain there, a little more, about this honorary man, and being a woman on the land — that’s clearly something that has occupied your thoughts for a while.
CS: Recently, I haven’t been thinking about that in a gendered way, what it means to be here as a woman. I’ve thought more about race and origins, about what it means to be here as a person whose ancestors are all from Western Europe. I’ve thought a lot about that intrusion and what kinds of reparations are possible and necessary.
I’m part of this wonderful class called Cree and Tea. This past week, we were talking about the term “rematriation,” which is a phrase that First Nations and other Indigenous people are using to refer to relationships with land and with other species. And in Cree — you know, I know 17 words of Cree — the land is kikâwînaw askiy, Mother Earth. The land is female. So then, what does it mean to be a female being on a female land? That’s quite a nice question to which I have no answer.
EF: The question is enough! Let’s just sit in the silence that a question like that opens up.
Tell us about a time when you had to take a big risk in order to move forward. What did that experience teach you about how to navigate difficult circumstances?
CS: Well, every project is a risk, right? Just because you’ve done something else doesn’t mean that you’ll able to do this, whatever it is you’ve set out for yourself. And I think that if you’re ambitious in some way, then the challenges that you set for yourself are sequentially more difficult. That’s one of the things that’s interesting about writing books — it’s really hard. So that means it’s not boring.
EF: The first book you published — what was the thing that was the hardest hurdle to overcome, and what did it change for you after overcoming that?
CS: Well, I already told you what a chicken I am, and how nervous I was starting out. The first real book that I worked on was a collaboration with three other women — Linda and Lorna Rasmussen and Anne Wheeler — who had made a film called Great Grand Mother, for which they had collected a lot of still photographs, and they’d conducted some interviews about women on the prairies in the early years of the settlement period. They had looked at the experience of white women on the prairies. We didn’t realize, at that point, that we were looking only at white women. But you live and you learn.
At the same time, I had received a tiny International Women’s Year grant to write a series of articles about women in Saskatchewan, which I sent around to small town newspapers as free copy. I don’t know how many, if any, ever used them. But I wrote these little essays, and then I put them together in a booklet called Foremothers, looking at the experience of these white women and early advocates for the political rights of white women, and property rights and so on. We all eventually came together, and we put together this book, A Harvest Yet to Reap. I wrote the text for it, and I organized the material, and then I had to go off to Toronto to deal with the publisher, which was The Women’s Press.
The background of this story was that The Women’s Press had been publishing Herstory calendar in which I was also involved, and there had been a big bust-up, which was very unpleasant. I had to go off to Toronto as someone who had walked into the end of the fight with The Women’s Press, and I was terribly worried that this was all going to be very difficult and adversarial. I’d hardly ever traveled by myself before. I don’t think I’d been to the Big Smoke. I was pretty scared. And then they turned out to be people, you know? And they lived in houses where there were mice in the toaster. And it was all very glamorous as far as I was concerned, this girl from wherever. I always had a sense of disadvantage, from having come from small prairie towns. But it turned out there really was no problem at all.
Jana M. Perkins: I relate so much to that, Candace — about feeling like you’re at a disadvantage, in some way, because of your upbringing. There’s a quote I often think about with this, and it’s something along the lines of, “You spend the first half of your life running away from yourself, and the second half of your life running back to yourself.” Which is to say that, now — what I previously saw as disadvantageous about my upbringing, I now see as the advantage.
What question(s) are you currently wrestling with?
CS: The main question right now is how to honour my time. Because I’m now 73 years old, and so that makes a difference — the horizon is very different. Once you slide over that hill of 70, you know that this isn’t going to go on forever.
So, just making good use of my time. And balancing the commitments to community activities, which of course will take over your entire life quite happily. And it’s important work, too, but I also do want to make a few more books in my day.
EF: I look forward to them.
What book have you most often gifted to others?
CS: You know, I don’t think I can answer that question. I don’t know that there is one book.
I might have just given my niece her second copy of Olga Tokarczuk’s murder mystery. It’s so good — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out in your field?
CS: I think it’s really important — I mean, it’s not a choice to be taken lightly — so it’s important to know that you’re doing it because in some way you have to do it. And then, given that, to try to surround yourself with people you trust who have your interests at heart. I think that would be it.
EF: As simple as it is wise.
EF: Build your community.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
CS: Well, like everybody else, my first influence was my sweet mom, my little mother.
I was the eldest of three daughters, and my mom was a big reader. She turned us all into readers by reading to us. Because I was the eldest, I got read to for the longest. That was a great advantage. She was a very talented reader with a lovely voice, so just the sound of the rhythm of the spoken language was very powerful and influential for me.
And now, I’m thinking about who I need to read to try to figure out how to do this next project. I was hunting again today for Braiding Sweetgrass — I know I need to read that again. And Terry Tempest Williams, who writes wonderfully braided books, bringing together her personal experience with her love of the land.
I’ve never really wanted to write about myself. I’ve only adopted a first-person narrator for my last two projects because it was absolutely necessary. To tackle the subject I want to take on next, I may have to have even more of a presence.
EF: Are you intimidated by that?
CS: Well, just bewildered — not really intimidated. I’ve spent the last year tiptoeing around this subject. I don’t really begrudge the time spent. I think it’s been useful, the tiptoeing.
Where do you feel the most scarcity in your life? Where do you feel the most abundance?
CS: I am very blessed with family and community. I have the most wonderful partner in the world. My daughter and her partner and their two little girls live five minutes away. I have wonderful, purposeful connections with people through Wild About Saskatoon and Swale Watchers and CPAWS and, you know, through Cree and Tea and through an astonishing association with Tanka Fund in South Dakota and with my publisher, still. That professional relationship has changed because of time, but still — you know, I come to town, they’ll take me out for dinner. The door is always open there in an extraordinary way. Those are all really wonderful blessings in my life.
Scarcity — it would be comforting to live in a world where there wasn’t such a struggle to support life. You know? If there were a little bit more keenness towards compassion and justice — compassion for other people, compassion for other creatures. That would make life easier, wouldn’t it?
EF: From the few communities that I’ve been welcomed into by you, that you have curated — they’re all amazing. You seem to have a knack for choosing people who have that compassion and have that desire to create justice where it perhaps doesn’t exist already.
What keeps you going?
CS: That’s a very good question. [laughing] I don’t know. Why do I want to do this writing work? I suppose it’s partly ego, isn’t it, and the satisfaction of making something.
I remember as a child, my sisters and I would be grateful for a rainy day, because that would mean we could have what we called “a makey”: we would get everything out — all the art supplies — and spend the whole day making something. There’s an enormous satisfaction in that. But also, there’s just work that needs doing
EF: I gotta learn that one. “There’s just work! Do it!”
CS: Yeah — there’s just work that needs doing.
How do you show kindness to the people you care about?
CS: Do what they ask me to do. [all laugh] Sometimes. Occasionally, I cook for them. Not very well.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
CS: I think it’s very rare for writers to leave much trace. I think most of the influence you can have is in your own moment, and so the legacy would be contemporary.
The legacy would be, perhaps, in providing inspiration or support or insight for people, the people around me, around us, to shape the way that we think and act, in some way, in the present. Then that affects the future, if there is any influence.
EF: The impact is in the people who go on.
CS: Yeah. Because it’s communication — writing is communication, after all.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
CS: Well, most of the advocacy work I do, as you know, is very local, so probably not. What should I say, Eden?
EF: I would put out a plug for your most recent project, and highlight whatever you’re working on right now or just finished working on, because this is a great way to get readers towards that, and if there’s a charity or something near and dear to you right now.
CS: It would be good to draw people’s attention to the practice of bringing plants home to the territory where they belong. That’s something I’ve been working on through Wild About Saskatoon and the Pollinator Paradise initiative.
My most recent book is called Strangers in the House: A Prairie Story of Bigotry and Belonging. It’s going to be coming out in paperback edition in the fall. It’s an unsparing look at the foundational settler society in Western Canada. It will have a lot of resonance, too, for people in the U.S., because it recalls the particularly nasty strain of Anglo-Protestant bigotry that found expression in the Ku Klux Klan — on both sides of the border.
I’m looking forward to two projects that are currently in press. One is a children’s book called Always Beginning, subtitle — longer than the book — The Story of the Universe from the Big Bang to You. It’s a picture book. I think the text is 111 words long. Boy, picture books are hard. The other one still doesn’t have a proper title, but it’s something like Okie’s World: The Story of a Crow. It’s for children aged around 9 to 12, what they call a “middle reader.” Both of them are in the throes of illustration right now.
Where can our readers find you?
CS: Through my website or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We spoke with Candace over Zoom one afternoon in April. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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