Savvy Q&A with Karen McBride

Karen McBride, an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation in the territory that is now Quebec, is the author of Crow Winter, a debut novel that tells the story of Hazel Ellis and her dreams. Well, sort of. Since coming home to Spirit Bear Point First Nation, Hazel has been dreaming of an old crow. He tells her he’s here to save her. But from what, exactly? Sure, her dad’s been dead for almost two years and she hasn’t quite reconciled that grief, but is that worth the time of an Algonquin demigod? Soon Hazel learns that there’s more at play than just her own sadness and doubt, and she sets out on a quest to unravel a web of deceit that could destroy her family and her home on both sides of the medicine wheel. We recently chatted with Karen McBride about her debut novel and all things writing!

SR: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? What was writing Crow Winter like?

KMB: My writing process is one that comes in waves. Often I’ll hear the characters’ voices in my head and they’ll just start telling their stories, so that’s when I have to rush to get it written down. Other times, I plan to write and nothing comes at all! It can be really frustrating to only make progress once the inspiration is there, but at the same time when it shows up it shows up.

Writing Crow Winter wasn’t exempt from that inspiration-needed process. However, because I was writing it as my master’s thesis I had strict deadlines that needed to be respected (inspiration be damned!). So it was a bit easier to force myself to write every single day with a countdown to submission constantly looming over me.

Though it wasn’t all stress and panic! Each MACRW student at U of T gets paired with a mentor author in their second year. I was lucky enough to matched with the brilliant Susan Swan. She was instrumental in creating the book that was to become Crow Winter. She was passionate and kind and so dedicated to the characters and their story. If I had any doubts about what I had written going into our monthly meetings, they’d be gone by the time we were done. I left Susan’s house feeling like a superhero every time!

SR: Who are the authors that influence your writing the most?

KMB: Tolkien, Thomas King, Neil Gaiman, Eden Robinson, Rainbow Rowell, and I’d be lying if I said JK Rowling didn’t have a hand in how I write now (if I could have sent Hazel to magic school, I would have).

SR: What books do you think everyone should have on their bedside table?

KMB: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness — this book is stunning both in message and in the pure beauty that is the illustrations. Also Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead is a masterpiece.

SR: Describe your bookshelf in one word.

KMB: Hybrid*


*think chimera kind of hybrid, not a car!

SR: What makes a book great for you? 

KMB: There are great books in every single genre. Great books aren’t always the ones that win awards or get the most attention. So for me, a great book is one that pulls you completely into its world and has you thinking about the characters even when you’re not reading it. It’s the kind of book that makes you want more of it when it’s over.

SR: What book has been on your shelf for the longest time that you haven’t gotten around to reading?

KMB: Frankenstein. Which is pretty bad considering I studied it a few different times in university!

SR: Do you have any bad reading habits?

KMB: I start too many books at the same time. So I’m always in between two or sometimes even three different books at once! I’ll get cravings for certain worlds depending on the time of year, so it won’t matter where I am in a book, if it’s October and I’m not already reading The Name of the Wind then it’s only a matter of time before I’ve ditched my current book for Kvothe and the University.

SR: What is the first book that made you cry?

KMB: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I read this book in grade seven and it destroyed me! We finished it right before recess. It took me a few minutes longer to get outside that day because I was crying with my head in my locker.

SR: What book makes you think, “Damn, I wish I wrote that!”? 

KMB: Can I shoutout the same book twice in an interview? Because Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is amazing. I love the way he effortlessly weaves music into the fabric of the book. It’s so well done that you don’t even care that you can’t hear the same thing he’s hearing. Also, creating his own brand of magic that has logic and meaning in it? Pffft, get out, it’s amazing.

SR: If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Fan-fiction is an amazing way into writing and is not at all shameful! The more I’ve thought on it now, the more I realize that writing Harry Potter fan-fiction was my first mentorship. You learn about voice, character, and form all the while immersing yourself in a world you absolutely love. So own it, little Karen!

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Karen McBride‘s debut novel, Crow Winter, is one of the very best books I’ve read all year. Funny, moving, heartfelt, touching, and important, Crow Winter is a book that every Canadian should be reading, and Karen McBride‘s voice is vital to our national storytelling community. If you loved Richard Wagamese as much as I did, then you’re definitely not going to want to miss this book.

Good news, Savvy Readers: Because we want as many people as humanly possible to read this book, there’s a brand new Crow Winter badge to go along with this interview! Add it to your 50 Book Pledge shelf today.

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