Meet our Spring Artist-in-Residence: Deborah Willis

We are excited to introduce to our community our spring Artist-in-Residence, Deborah Willis! There is a lot of great talent in our city and we wanted to recognize these artists by providing them with a space to perform while engaging with our community. We have selected four artists ranging from singers to writers to be involved in the Artist in Residence program this year.

We sat down with Deborah to get to know more about her, the writing scene in Calgary, and what’s she excited for during her residency.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m Deborah Willis and I’m a writer of short fiction mostly. I’m working on a novel right now but, it feels like it’s going nowhere [laughs]. So, I will say that I’m a writer of short fiction and I’m from Calgary and currently living in Calgary and recently just published my second book called The Dark and Other Love Stories.

How did you come to be involved with the Women’s Centre?

I came to be involved with the Women’s Centre because we moved to Bridgeland about two years ago and I was just walking past and thought it looked interesting. Then, a week later, I got laid off and was like, “Oh! Okay, this is an opportunity to do what I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” Which is to volunteer so, I just popped in here and it worked out so well because then I had a meeting with Sandra [a staff at the Centre], we did a values assessment and I was really happy to see that all of my values were in line with the Centre’s. I just kind of fell in love with it. [The Women’s Centre] does really important work and you do it efficiently and so warm-heartedly.

What inspired you to write?

I just always wanted to be a writer. Well…not always but, from about the age of nine years old or so. I remember writing some poems, one of them was about what it would feel like to be a shoe; to have to be so low to the ground all day. I showed it to my dad and he said, “These are really good, maybe you’ll be a writer!” It turns out he always wanted to be a writer and I think that whole conversation just sort of ignited this idea in me.

Do you face any unique struggles as a woman writer in Calgary? In Canada?

I have found, as a woman writer and as a writer in general, that I have been very fortunate. A lot of it was just good timing and good luck and also, just putting the work in. I also really learned, after finishing university, that one of the secrets is actually just to keep going. People sort of drop off because they get busy; they have jobs and they have families. If you can just keep writing, you’re way ahead of the game. For women, in particular, I was really surprised because now I work as an acquisitions editor so, I’m the first reader of everything that comes in to the small press and I find a lot of it – I mean, I’ve never done any calculations – is submitted by women.  I was very surprised to read a few years ago that the percentage of women being published is much lower than men. I was just shocked by that because most people who work in publishing are women and most people who read books are women! There’s still, definitely, an underlying issue there that I think is being addressed but, slowly.

I think that there’s still a perception of women’s fiction that it’s about family and it takes place in houses because it’s very domestic and, sometimes, maybe the one extreme is a shopaholic, materialistic, lighthearted [piece] and then to the other where it’s overly serious about motherhood. I think that there are still these stereotypes of what a woman would be interested in reading and then men think to themselves, “Well, I wouldn’t read that.” I think I’ve been quite fortunate. I find men quite enjoy reading my work and women do too. I don’t know what that is…I think one of the nicest things said to me was that, “I think your book is such a feminist book.” And, I thought to myself, “Oh, I’m so pleased that people picked up on that.” And also, that men seem to like reading it.

One of the themes that popped up in your book was that human beings can’t be independent and the need for community, something we all recognize at the Women’s Centre. How did you, personally, come to that realization about the importance of having a network of support?

I realized how important support and having community is just from getting older. I think I was really naïve as a young person thinking that I was grown up now so I would be independent, not really understanding that, actually, independence is what looks more like interconnectedness. You know that you often need help and you ought to give help. I think that was a slow realization but, it really hit home when I went through a break up. I just suddenly realized that my life, my self, even my body was attached to this person and it’s very difficult to get beyond it. It’s a very ordinary difficulty that we all go through but, to go through that, I just realized how important connections were.

Also, being a writer too, having a so-called “writing career” taught me that. I thought writers were very independent before I published a book. It’s just their name on the cover. But, when you actually publish you realize there are editors and designers and marketing people and publicity people…there are so many just helping you to be that person with a career. So, I think that helped too.

We’re really excited for you to share your knowledge during your residency. What do you hope to share with our community?

I think what I would most like to share with the community is just a love of reading and books. I think it’s something that can be easily pushed aside in a lot of people’s lives so, if that comes to the forefront, I would love that. I also hope to talk to people or answer any questions for people who have an interest in writing. I know a lot of people do and a lot of the women have fascinating stories that they might want to express someday so, I would love to talk them about that.

Why do you think we need a Women’s Centre in Calgary?

Well, now that I’m here, I can see that we absolutely need one. The biggest thing that it does is just provide a warm and welcoming place where people can ask for help and not be judged, I think that’s a huge thing. I see it all the time as a volunteer where, people start to sort of justify why they’re asking for something and then, when I say, “Oh, we don’t need [identification].” It’s a relief that a person can just be a human instead of a beggar or trading on their hardship in order to get something. I think that’s the most important part. Also to have an organization that’s active, sort of an activist in favour of women in the city I think is really important.

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