VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The dream job at Library Square
Maggie de Vries was only too happy to rearrange her life to become the Vancouver public library's first writer-in-residence
Saturday, July 16, 2005
Maggie de Vries is still pinching herself. The author and children's-book editor can hardly believe that on Aug. 15, she'll start work as the Vancouver public library's first writer-in-residence.
CREDIT: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun
Maggie de Vries: 'I just can't believe that I can structure my life in this way.'
"I have to write 75 per cent of the time," she says, delightedly restating what the library expects her to do in the role.
Of course, it also expects her to spend 25 per cent of her time sharing her expertise with the public. Her hope is that she'll be able to spend some of that time helping disadvantaged people on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to work on their writing.
Many people there want to write, she says, "but they have no idea how to get started."
De Vries, 43, is the author of Missing Sarah, a 2003 memoir about her sister, a drug-addicted prostitute with whose murder the notorious Robert (Willy) Pickton has been charged.
The book movingly shows how Sarah de Vries came from a loving home but was snagged by the lure of the street and was unable to extricate herself. As one of Sarah's friends has since said, "It portrays Sarah and the other girls and me as people, not just street scum."
Missing Sarah was the first book to be read by Beyond Words, a book club for Downtown Eastside sex-trade workers formed in the spring of 2004.
"I was wanting to get that book into the hands of Downtown Eastside women," recalls de Vries. "They were the people that I most wanted to read it, and they were the most interested in it." But because of poverty, "they had the least access."
De Vries remains active in the club, which last read Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. The core group of 15 or 20 women, who meet to discuss books seven times a year, "started bringing their writing to share," says de Vries. She hopes to start a separate VPL workshop to help them work on it.
Janice Douglas, the library's community relations director, says that makes sense, although the wider community will want access to her, too. Douglas says de Vries "has worked as an editor, she is a published children's writer, she is working on adult material, she's taught." With that range of activity, she can inspire and help all kinds of people.
The publication of Missing Sarah turned Maggie de Vries into an advocate for prostitutes and a speaker who regularly enthralls high-school students by "channelling Sarah."
Before all that, though, she worked for Orca Book Publishers, acquiring manuscripts and shaping and refining them into books for children and teenagers.
She had that job for five years, during which time she commuted between her home in Vancouver and Orca's offices in Victoria. The books she edited include Vicki Grant's The Puppet Wrangler (highly praised in these pages last summer); the picture book Goodbye to Griffith Street, written by Marilynn Reynolds and illustrated by Renne Benoit, which won a BC Book Prize in April; and The Bonemender, Holly Bennett's fantasy novel for teens, to be published in October.
When de Vries first heard about the library's writer-in-residence position, which pays $4,000 a month for four months, she thought: "That sounds fabulously exciting, but I can't do it. I have a job."
A little while later, she thought: "That sounds really fabulous. I think I have to apply for it and figure it out after."
More than 150 writers applied for the position. De Vries had the advantage of being known at the library, since Missing Sarah was considered for its One Book, One Vancouver program last year. (In the end, Joel Bakan's The Corporation got the nod.)
Since being chosen, de Vries has resigned from her job at Orca. But she expects to do freelance editing for the company next year, working about half as much as she did when she was on staff.
"I'll be still be involved with acquisitions, which I really like," she says, "because then I'm editing books that I selected in the first place.
"It's worked out perfectly. I just can't believe that I can structure my life in this way."
De Vries, who recently lost 23 kilos with Jenny Craig, feels revivified and energetic because things are going so well for her. The author of three children's books, she has written a new one, Big Fish, which will be published next spring.
And she knows what she'll start working on next month, when she moves into an office in the downtown library to take up the writer-in-residence post. She plans to hammer out the first draft of a teen novel set in the Netherlands' "hunger winter" toward the end of Second World War.
It's based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, Lin Stevens, who (like de Vries's father) is Dutch.
"Everybody was starving and cold and miserable. She and her friend ran away from home," says de Vries.
"What she ended up experiencing was terrible and life-threatening. A German soldier helped them, and they travelled across the country by train.
"They were actually hiding from the Allies, who were trying to bomb the train. It was all kind of mixed-up and backwards."
If she gets the draft done in four months, she expects it will be a "clunky, strange thing I can go back and polish." But doing the research will be easy because she'll be right inside the library.
Interview with Maggie de Vries
© The Vancouver Sun 2005
Updated: August 21, 2016