Interview with Cathy Ostlere

I first read Cathy Ostlere’s work in the pages of Prairie Fire, and I was so impressed that I wrote to the magazine’s editors, asking them to pass along a fan letter to the author. “Somewhere in the Middle of the Atlantic,” which later became a chapter of her book, is a passionate and tautly structured account of Cathy’s dawning awareness that her adventure-loving brother, David, has been lost at sea.  What she does with that knowledge is the subject of her memoir, Lost. She begins in a search for what may have happened to David, but the search soon expands to the question of what has become of her own youthful dreams. Part detective story, part elegy, and part excavation of her past, Lost is both a moving tribute to Ostlere’s brother, and a promissory note to herself.

Q: When did you begin to write?

A: I have a degree in English literature from the University of Manitoba. I began taking creative writing courses about twenty years ago. Alexander Writer’s Centre, U of Calgary, Banff Centre.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: The circumstances that are told in Lost interrupted my life in such a dramatic way I thought that if I wrote it all down, I might be able to finish the story that had no ending. Instead, the writing of the book took over my life, as obsessions can, and ten years later my retelling was done.

Q: What kind of work routine did you use?

A: I write in the mornings. From about 8 to 1. I get up from my chair a lot to make tea because my neck gets sore when I write. And sometimes I forget to breathe. Standing up helps. I screen calls. Turn my email off. Agonize a lot. Doubt myself constantly. But I set small goals: a page, 500 words, a section, a poem, anything that has an end point. This maintains the feeling that I am actually getting somewhere.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered completing this book?

A: I was concerned about what people would think about what I wrote: family, people in the book. Invading privacy (one’s own and others) feels like you’re moving through the world with a sword drawn.

Q: What was the greatest reward?

A: Just finishing. “The end.”

Q: What do you like most about creative nonfiction?

A: Creative non-fiction is the richest genre because it’s indefinable and therefore anything goes. Bits of poetry, snippets of letters, documents, remembered conversations, memories, sensory reminders – any and all of these things provide the raw material for the essay or book. It’s like having the world at your fingertips and the writer can tell the story any way they like. It is the freest genre. And has the capacity to be the most creative.

Q: Why did you choose this particular title for your work?

A: Everyone in the book is lost, in their own way.

Q: As a first-time author, what advice would you give to writers trying to get published?

A: Write for love.  Love of words, ideas and stories.

Q: What book would you tell them is a must to read and why?

A: Jill Ker Conway’s When Memory Speaks. The text explores the art and the history of autobiography. I’ll quote her: “We want to know how the world looks from inside another person’s experience, and when that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying.”

Q: Who is your favourite author and why?

A: Only one? I’ll choose a book instead: Jacques Poulin’s Autumn Rounds. It’s imaginative, quiet, lyrical, and a love story.

Q: What book are you reading right now?

A: Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.

Cathy Ostlere was born in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. She and her three siblings grew up as air force brats moving between Manitoba and Ontario military bases. Her family eventually settled in Winnipeg, the home of her Ukrainian grandparents, where Cathy completed high school and a degree in English at the University of Manitoba.

Cathy Ostlere’s first book, Lost, began as a series of poems but grew into creative non-fiction essays with the assistance of Sharon Butala, Greg Hollingshead and Edna Alford at the Banff Centre and Roberta Rees at the University of Calgary. Karen Connelly, of the Humber School of Writing, guided Lost into a memoir. Essays excerpted from Lost have been short-listed for the National Magazine Awards, Western Magazine Awards, CBC Literary Awards, and Prism International and Event Magazine Non-fiction Contests.

Cathy is currently finishing a YA verse novel and has adapted Lost into a one-woman play.

Comments (1)

  1. Shawna Lemay July 20, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Thanks for this Susan – looks like a great book. I’ll be ordering it!

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