Wayne Curtis
Writer in Residence at Berton House

The Berton House Writer's Residence Retreat provides a unique opportunity for a professional Canadian creative writer to work in a remote Northern community. The writer is housed in the boyhood home of author Pierre Berton in Dawson City, Yukon. This program was initiated by Pierre Berton and is organized by the Yukon Arts Council in Whitehorse and the Klondike Visitor's Association and the Dawson City Libraries' Association in Dawson City.


Dawson City, Yukon

Wayne Curtis: A Self-Made Wordsmith Soldiers On
by Dan Davidson, The Klondike Sun


Wayne Curtis had been wanting to come to Berton House since it opened in 1996, and was overjoyed to finally make it here in the fall of 2002. The experience was everything that he hoped it would be.

"I was welcomed in this city here with open arms. I've been around the world quite a lot but I've never met warmer people or prettier scenery than there is here.

"I've never walked around a town where everybody spoke to me that I met. I don't do that in Fredericton."

In some ways he finds it similar to the Miramichi area of New Brunswick where he grew up, a place which he says is open and easy to live in. Curtis still returns there in the summers to live in the cabin near the village of Blackville that he inherited from his father, and work part-time as a fishing guide and outfitter.

While northern New Brunswick has an older history than Dawson City, and Curtis once owned an farmhouse that would predate just about anything in Dawson, he said he found himself aware of the past here in a way that was unlike anything in his experience.

"I can just walk around this town and look at the old buildings. I can let my mind go back 100 years and I can hear the tinkling of pianos. I can feel the stuff I read by Pierre Berton and others and I wasn't disappointed at all."

The Berton House experience was also good for him. In the couple of months that he was able to stay he produced what he hopes is a saleable literary essay about the Klondike, crafted what he thinks is a good short story, and worked on the third draft of a novel. The big work is ready to go out to a few selected readers whose reaction will let him know if he has finished.

Called Brothers and Sisters in its working title, the story involves a pair of orphans who leave the Maritimes and head for Ontario, where their lives play out in both positive and negative ways. It's a familiar tale for people from the Atlantic provinces, and one which Curtis himself lived out in his late teens.

He grew up on a farm in the late 1940s and 1950s, worked hard, learned to play the fiddle and was a bit of a child prodigy at local dances for a few years. When he was in grade nine, however, he quit school to help out at home. He has struggled since to complete his high school education and is close to the end of a degree in English at university, but it meant a lot of night school, and when he met the grade 9 and 12 English classes at Robert Service School he advised against taking his route to academic success.

Fortunately he met Mrs. Jardine before he dropped out of school. He had her as a teacher in grades 6 through 8, and her love of books and reading influenced him forever. So caught up was he that he wrote little stories on the backs of old seed calendar pages, there being a lack of writing paper around the farm.

"It was a bit like Robert Service writing on rolls of wallpaper. There were calendars everywhere around the house. I would write on the backs of the pages and then hang them back up. My mother would go around the house turning them over and reading them."

At age 18 he was off to Ontario to work in the fields and factories, remaining there until he was 26, when, a lot like a character in one of his short stories, he came back home. He worked in and eventually managed a local furniture store in Newcastle (now part of Miramichi City) and spent a lot of time fishing. When the urge to write came upon him again he followed the advice in many a writers' manual and wrote about what he knew, becoming a regular columnist in fishing magazines and amassing enough material to promote a couple of books of fishing stories.

It wasn't enough, and there are times, when people still refer to him as "that guy that writes about fishing", that he wishes he'd never written any of that material, but it was a start. He wrote a regional history book which sold well. He moved on to short fiction, much of it on rural Maritime themes, and eventually to a novel, One Indian Summer, about a man coming to terms with his past and his identity.

Writing isn't always easy. A second novel, Last Stand, required some 40 rewrites over a period of five years.

"Sometimes," he says, "writing is not a gift; it's a curse."

Hoping to escape his reputation as a strictly regional writer, Curtis travelled about and produced a book of stories set in various places around the world. He obtained a three month writers residency in Cuba and wrote Night Train to Havana, as well as a number of essays and short stories.

Ironically, just as he was working to expand his repertoire, Alistair McLeod hit it big with his novel No Great Mischief and a collected edition of his short stories, Island, both of which were the kind of determinedly regional writing that Curtis' editors had advised him to get beyond.

He's hoping the trend lasts. In the meantime he's writing about 40 weeks of the year and guiding for 12.


Tales with a Maritime Air
by Dan Davidson, The Klondike Sun

One of the nicest things an audience can say to a writer is "That sounds real. Sounds like you were there."

The other one, "Well, can you read us another story?"

Wayne Curtis, the New Brunswick writer currently wrapping up his stay as Berton House Writer in Residence, was paid both compliments during his public reading at the Dawson Community Library on Tuesday evening (Dec. 10).

Curtis hails from the Miramichi area of the Picture Province and many of his stories are about people coping with the changes in lifestyle that have come with the shift from an agrarian to an urban way of life. The two stories he read to his audience of half a dozen were from his collection Preferred Lies.

His first tale of the evening was a memoir of lost time in the voice of a man trying to come to terms with his youth, his relationship with his father and the sacrifices his mother made in order to be a hard-scrabble farmer's wife. It was a story filled with homey touches about berry picking trips, the strange adversarial love that can bind some couples together, and the choices that people have to make to keep their lives moving on.

Jack Fraser, a local raconteur, said that Curtis' story put him in mind of the many Martimers that he met when he first moved to the Yukon from Alberta many years ago. He said the writing took him right back to the stories he heard from them.

Curtis noted that some of the realistic touches in the story were influenced by his own life, or by stories he had been told by his father years before.

There followed a lively discussion about berry picking in the Yukon and in New Brunswick, including some tips on how to spot certain types of berries from the air by Simon Mason.

The second story was a coming-home tale, the story of a farm boy who finally returns home for Christmas after years of making his way in Ontario as a sailor on the Great Lakes.

The evocative details of rural life once again inspired a listener, Barb Hanulik this time, to say, "You must have been there."

In fact, some of the details, like using a knife to wedge a door shut and an old coat to cut the draft in the middle of a cold winter, were similar to those Curtis' older listeners recalled from not too distant history in the Yukon.

Another familiar element was the fiddle tunes which appeared in both of the stories. This was an autobiographical touch, for Curtis admitted to having been in demand as a fiddler at country dances in his youth. His parents, he said, used to ferry him around from place to place and pick him up afterwards.

"You heard about how Shania Twain used to get driven around to places by her mother to sing when she was young?" he said. "That was me, too, only with a fiddle."

Curtis is the author of two novels, One Indian Summer and Last Stand; two collections of short stories, Currents in the Stream and Preferred Lies; and two books about fishing, Fishing the Miramichi and River Guides of the Miramichi. He will be reading at the Whitehorse Public Library next week.


From the Globe and Mail

A Northern Noel

Ensconced in Pierre Berton's boyhood home, WAYNE CURTIS throws a tree-trimming party for the residents of Dawson City. Some bring decorations. Some supply moose and caribou pies. But the Yukon town itself contributes most of all, from Robert Service's snow-covered cabin to to the dancing Northern Lights.

By WAYNE CURTIS


DAWSON CITY, YUKON -- To survive the preliminary cold snap, I borrow a down-filled parka from Anne Saunders, the librarian at Dawson's Public Library. By Christmas week, there have already been a few nights of minus 45 and frost flakes drift, with no real daylight before 11 a.m. Anne's army fleece is much warmer than the old toggle coat I can wear back East even on our coldest days. Its hood, with the caribou decorations, protects me from frostbite as I hurry along the snapping boardwalks to a service at St. Mary's, though my beard is a frozen mop when I get there.

The 100-year-old clapboard church is located at King and Fifth, its place of worship on the second floor over a former classroom. The vestry is decorated with photos of nuns who taught downstairs during the gold rush, black and white portraits of Northern bishops and priests who came to worship and do social work. On these frosty mornings before daylight, the bell can be heard as it echoes against the spooky Midnight Dome and down along the Yukon River to the aboriginal village of Moosehide.

The priest in charge knows I enjoy this part of the service, and after a child lights the Advent candles, he has me ring the bell until the old organ pipes up in a hymn and I take my place in a pew. Father Tim, sits in an armchair in the centre isle (over a heat vent), insisting that he will not preach, but hold discussion. He speaks about love, wisdom and meditation, and every once in a while asks, "Am I making any sense to you at all?" When he gives us the host, he personalizes it by inserting our Christian names into the Eucharist prayer.

I've been in Dawson City since late October, having left Fredericton early one morning to fly to Edmonton then on to Whitehorse before boarding the Air North prop plane (destined for Old Crow) for the one-hour flight to the Klondike. I'm doing a three-month writer-in-residency at Berton House, boyhood home of Pierre Berton. It will be my first Christmas away in some time, my first ever in the High North, and I'm looking forward to it. Having read Berton's accounts of the gold rush of 1898 and his stories of growing up in Dawson with all its chivalry and rugged charm, coming here is something I have wanted to do since the program started in the mid-nineties. As I now experience the year's shortest days in this part of this great country, the illusion from books is replaced with reality. It's no less exciting.

Berton House is a white clapboard bungalow on Eighth Avenue, a gravel lane at the foot of Midnight Dome (a good-sized mountain by eastern standards). The house is bright with a big kitchen, two bedrooms and a large living room where a bookcase is filled with the works of Pierre Berton, Robert Service (whose cabin is across the street), Jack London and others who came here to experience the North. A handwritten note from Berton welcomes me. He says this is the desk where, when he was a boy, his mother, Laura Berton, crafted her novel I Married The Klondike, night after night driving down the keys on the old iron Remington. I have read her book, about how she came here in 1907 for the summer and stayed 20-odd years. "Dammit, we want a writers retreat," Berton said when he bought his former home and restored it. "The last thing Dawson needs is another museum!"
Through the fall, I do readings at the library and Bombay Peggy's saloon. I go to school plays, read to classes at Robert Service High, attend cocktail parties at Parks Canada, the Museum, Han First Nations Cultural Center and the Eldorado and Westminister Hotels. I'm working on my 10th book (and third novel) in the mornings, hiking in the afternoons and socializing in the evenings. I can not be busier. Compared with my apartment in Fredericton, this is life in the fast lane.

After church, Anne asks if I would like to take a drive up the Dempster Highway to see the caribou.

I throw an axe in the back of the pickup so I can bring back a Christmas tree. Because I visit the library daily for reading material, Anne has become a good friend and my unofficial tour guide.

She is also a wildlife photographer for the Yukon government, and when she talks of the mountains, she speaks with a wise and learned authority. She's writing a book about plant life in the region. The Dempster goes from the Klondike to the Arctic Circle, crossing the Northwest Territories to Inuvik. In a place called Black Stone Uplands, a stretch of tundra between the Southern and Northern Ogilvie Mountain Ranges, the 150,000-strong Porcupine Herd of caribou is holding up traffic as the animals cross the plains. We tell Father Tim we are going and what time we'll be back, in case we run into trouble. Such a day trip is a thing I've dreamed of for years and now, at Christmas, the timing could not be better.

The landscape out here, even in winter, is awesome with gold-coloured sage, red buck brush and wild cranberry bushes visible above the snow, the mountains dappled with black spruce. Here in the high country away from the Yukon River Valley, the sun is visible for a short time, the same pink sky reflecting its rising and setting behind the same red mountains.

After an hour, we stop at Two Moose Lake, sit in the pickup and drink hot tea from a thermos. Across the frozen lake, with its shoreline of silver shrubs, the mountain is a heap of ice cream above a saw-toothed horizon. Anne reads a poem she wrote when here alone.

Farther up the Dempster, there are caribou tracks in the snow. With Anne's binoculars, I scan a landscape of brown and yellow brush. Out here, I have learned, it may look like a short distance from mountain to mountain, but can in fact be many kilometres. At a glance, the plains appear flat, but hills and valleys shelter the caribou. We spot a hundred or so in a gulch and observe them through field glasses as they mill about; the cows feeding contentedly, larger white-bearded bulls restless and easily spooked.

Then, there's a clicking sound like the rattling of old bones as they trot away in a straight line like so many Santa Claus reindeer. There's a kindred spirit around these animals, one held sacred by the region's Trondek Hwechin people. It's a feeling I used to get on our farm in New Brunswick when bringing home the cows. We were all part of a life cycle. The cow and horse were sacred to our farm. Our lives depended on their well-being. Now, I worry about Alaska's oil development programs, what the consequences will be for these great animals.


Later in the day as we drive through Tombstone Park, we see ptarmigan, half-white and half-brown, their colours changing with the season. Anne says some of the biggest moose in the world inhabit these plains. Farther along that winding gravel road we spot Dall sheep, huddled together on Golden Side Mountain. It's always windy in the uplands and, according to Anne, you can find fresh snow here in July. But in summer there is colt foot, bog rosemary, lupines, alpine hawk's beard, Indian paint brush, magenta fireweed, Arctic forget-me-nots and rock jasmine, to mention just a few of the wildflowers.

In a valley, Anne stops the truck and points to a crib-like square, a kind of spirit house, picket fenced, the post tops carved in diamond-shapes indicating the resting place of a native elder. Inside the crib, the ground is covered with rocks and a few coins are scattered with a drooped-limb mountain spruce growing in the centre, a good 50 years old. Nearby, there is old grizzly bear scat, studded with tundra berries.

Darkness is closing in and there are flurries in the air so we leave Tombstone at 2 p.m. and make our way back along the snow-packed road toward the Klondike Highway. There are few cars out here, just the odd hunting scout, skier or wildlife enthusiast. A yellow Beaver plane flies low over the road, some kind of caribou patrol we suspect, or a beginner getting flying hours.

In the Klondike Valley near Dawson, we stop at a lighted yard and I buy a Christmas tree for Berton House, having decided, back on the Dempster, I had better not cut one down in so beautiful a landscape. Anne shows me Bonanza Creek, the famous little stream where gold was discovered by George Washington Carmack in August of 1896. Bonanza is still running open, its waters chuckling over polished stones. It looks unassuming, like so many nameless streams I encounter. We arrive at a shack (without plumbing or electricity) where two men in their 20s live. They've come here from Calgary to work an old claim and travel to and from the mine on an Arctic Cat snowmobile.

The next day, I decide to host a tree-decorating dinner party. I make posters, put them in the General Store, Post Office and the billboard on Front Street. I buy food and spirits, a large bag of red tundra berries, needle and thread. The people of Dawson love to party and it is expected of the writer-in-residence to have at least one potluck. I've been so busy I have left it until my last week.

On the afternoon before Christmas Eve, the guests start to arrive. I take their wraps, offer a drink of hot cider, put a log on the fire. Everyone from the ferry operator and the barber to bartenders, teachers and storekeepers come and bring food and spirits. Some bring decorations. All are eager to party and eat. One tall man is in a Mountie's red coat, another is Santa Claus.

Louise Ranger, a woman I know from the Parks Canada office, helps me bring the tree from the veranda into the living room, where people are mingling with their drinks, telling yarns. We stand it against the wall to thaw. Dan Davidson, publisher of the Klondike Sun and principal of Robert Service High, plays his guitar and we sing Take Me Home Country Road. The instrument is passed around until everyone in the house had contributed to what we refer to back East as a "singing bee." Jack Fraser, a retired surveyor and trapper who lives on Front Street, and Simon Mason Wood, a gold buyer who had once been justice of the peace, tell spirited tales about the old days in Dawson City. (Simon has performed the marriage of two of the couples at the party.) Later, someone plays a fiddle and there's dancing. It reminds me of the Miramichi, where I grew up. Kitchen parties with fiddling and dancing went on into the nights at Christmastime.

The guests have brought moose and caribou pies, wild cranberries and rhubarb, home-made ice cream and wines. As we eat in this festive atmosphere, I think of my mentor, the late Pierre Berton (who passed away last month after living in Kleinburg, Ont., for many years), and I feel he would be pleased to see the house he grew up in, and spent considerable money to restore, filled with such activity. Across the street, Robert Service's old cabin sits like a ghost in a stand of poplar.

The tree trimmed, we all walk to the Downtown Hotel, where in the Sourdough Saloon a piano is tinkling. I'm initiated into the Sour Toe Club after drinking a glass of brandy with a human toe in it. I'm given a certificate stating that I'm a lifelong member of the Dawson City Sour Toe Club.


Someone shouts, "Northern lights!" We run into the street to see columns extending from the top of Midnight Dome to the mountain on the other side of the river, a chorus of reflections, in transparent yellows, pinks and whites, curling like giant snakes, woofing into knots, then disappearing, then reappearing against a backdrop of superstardom, the sky black beyond. It's like some low-flying jet planes have done crazy manoeuvres, leaving exaggerated vapour trails. I have seen photographs, but like most natural wonders a picture never does them justice.

This Christmas, I grow to love Canada's North. For sure, I want to return, spend a spring and summer. And if I feel like it, staying.


E-mail - waynecurtis@rogers.com

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