Barbara Sibbald: It’s All Consuming

barbara sibbald Mar 03, 2023

Busy Women on Writing Books

This is the ninth instalment in an interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.

This month, I'm pleased to introduce you to a friend of mine, Barbara Sibbald. Barbara and I know each other because we're in the same writing group: lucky me! She is an award-winning journalist and author, avid cyclist and relentless reader.

Mostly though, Barbara is a writer whose books include, most recently, The Museum of Possibilities, an award-winning collection of short fiction. She has also published three novels: Regarding Wanda (shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Awards), The Book of Love: Guidance in Affairs of the Heart, and the online serial Kitchen Chronicles. 

I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!

As a Canadian AND female, I always cringe at the thought of bragging, but here goes.

I’m an award-winning author of two nonfiction books, three novels, and a collection of short fiction. My first novel Regarding Wanda (Bunkhouse Press, 2006) was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award. My second, The Book of Love: Guidance in Affairs of the Heart (General Store Publishing House, 2011) features an embedded self-help book. Kitchen Chronicles, an online novel in 52 installments, was published on Ottawa Magazine’s website in 2013/14.

My latest book, a collection of 16 short stories entitled The Museum of Possibilities (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2017), won gold in the Foreword Indies 2017 Book Awards for short fiction and silver in the eLit Book Awards for the digital version. I’ve also had twelve short stories published in literary journals and magazines.

I did all the above while working four days a week as a journalist and editor for various publications. The last twenty years I’ve been with the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) news section. My work has been twice cited for the Governor General’s Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service Journalism, as well as garnering a National Magazine Award and the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Investigative Reporting Award.

Though allegedly retired now, I continue to edit the Humanities section at CMAJ while writing a fictional account of my great-grandparent’s life in Northern India.

What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?

I work mornings. I’ve always worked mornings. No reading the news. No perusing email. I keep my mind clear and fresh after a night’s sleep so I can fully engage with my writing.

When I worked (for money) I generally got up at six a.m. or so and wrote for an hour or hour and a half before my day started.

Nowadays, I generally begin writing about eight a.m. and finish at noon, though I often do research or related reading in the afternoon.

Not to say I don’t get distracted in the morning! Unusually good weather might tempt me to take a walk. Or demanding emails might claim my attention. Or, in extreme cases, the bookshelves need dusting. But I do try to stick to my routine.

Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?

Oh gosh, that’s going back a bit: 1993. My story “Best Before” was published in Shift magazine. It was an odd little story about a man who works as a grocery store cashier and suspects his wife is having an affair based on the amount of fresh fruit she buys. I know. It’s strange. But I worked as a cashier during university and alleviated my boredom by imagining lives for my customers. See, daydreaming is productive (see answer to 2).

When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?

I always wanted to write. As a teen I cobbled together a play or two and some bad poetry. But I figured I couldn’t make a living writing fiction, so I got a journalism degree (though my heart was in English literature) and after graduating, began working.

Then my son was born in 1985. Giving birth, literally creating a life, fostered my personal sense of creativity. I began taking continuing education courses at Carleton, I attended the Kingston School of Writing and I began writing for a few hours every morning, while working as a freelance journalist the rest of the day.

What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?

The main distraction was my work as a journalist. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved it. I got to be nosy and satisfy my curiosity. I met interesting people and learned bits and pieces about all sorts of things. And I learned to write succinctly. All this definitely fed my creative writing.

Finding time was difficult, but as I said, I worked early mornings. I also insisted on being employed for only four-day-a-week. The fifth day (plus Saturday morning) was for my writing. It didn’t always work out that way, but I tried to stick to the plan.

Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?

I never considered giving up. I couldn’t.

How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?

Some of my friends who have retired or are temporarily out of work really struggle with how to fill their days. I certainly don’t have that problem. I have a mammoth creative project underway: draft 3 of a novel about the lives of my great-grandparents in Northern India, now Pakistan, from 1885 to 1911.

It’s been the most research-intensive project I’ve ever embarked on. Luckily, I discovered troves of original letters, photos, artworks and other documents. I love fictionalizing their story, imagining their lives and times and struggles. It’s all consuming.

What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books?

I love that moment when the proofs are done. Finally. Then I wait for my copies to arrive. I tear open the box and hold the new book in my hands, thrilled to see my name on the cover, to feel the texture of the book, the weight of it. It’s immensely exciting.

I have had wonderfully positive feedback in reviews and interviews, and from readers at events, on Goodreads and via email. Several readers told me the (made-up) self-help component of The Book of Love helped them through some difficult times in their relationships (I hope it worked out!). One woman treated me like a therapist and began detailing her current impasse with her partner. I had to keep reiterating that I wasn’t a therapist.

At an event for The Museum of Possibilities, a reader pointed out that most of the men are killed off in the stories. I hadn’t noticed, but she was right. I didn’t tell my husband.

Not all the feedback was positive. Regarding Wanda caused quite a stir in my family. One relative said the book made her realize how damaged I still was by my childhood. My son was appalled at having to read about his “mother’s” sex life. My parents were upset about how “they” were depicted. I had to remind everyone that this was a work of fiction. That I had used some details from my life because that is my known experience, but that they shouldn’t mistake this for non-fiction. I’m not sure they bought it.

Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?

Unfortunately, that happens all too often. I try a couple of things. Sometimes I re-read a short story or even a book that inspired me. Or I doodle around in my journal for a bit, trying a bit of free-fall, steam of consciousness writing (that sometimes leads me back to my current project, and sometimes not).

Sometimes, I try to soldier on. Seat in my chair. Even if the result is later discarded, I’ve kept the momentum going, so that makes it worthwhile.

What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?

I’ve got a whole shelf-full and found various ones pertinent at various times. Most recently, I’ve discovered Story Craft: The complete guide to writing narrative nonfiction, by Jack Hart. It’s been enormously useful with great sections on developing scene, dialogue and so on. I highly recommend it.

Who do you consider your mentor(s)?

My first mentor was my maternal grandmother. When I was a teenager, she was reading her way, alphabetically, through her local library’s fiction offerings. I remember her lingering in “M” seemingly forever. She’d write letters to me about the books she was reading, and I would send her my terrible poetry and plays. She was very encouraging.

More recently my mentor is Diane Schoemperlen, who is also a good friend. She is unfailingly encouraging and offers great advice. I’m so fortunate.

I am also hugely grateful for all the help I’ve received from other writers over the past thirty years. My writing groups, in particularly Nadine McInnis, Debra Martens and Rhonda Douglas. My readers, including Debra, Jeremiah Bartram and Kathlyn Bradshaw, ploughed through ragged drafts and offered great input.

My fabulous editors (I love a good editor!), including Diane Schoemperlen, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Stephanie Small, Mark Frutkin and Rosa Wohleber (at Porcupine’s Quill). And I couldn’t have produced anything worthwhile without my teachers: Douglas Glover at the Kingston School of Writing; Matt Cohen and Audrey Thomas at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Writer’s Studio; Carol Shields at the Humber School for Writers; and Francis Itani, Cyril Dabydeen and Gerald Lynch at the University of Ottawa. I’ve benefited so much from the advice and guidance of so many wonderful writers.

What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?

I’m on the final stages of draft three of my novel about my great-grandparents.

I spent ages researching the political scene during the Raj in Northern India, about life for people who lived there: what they wore, ate, feared. I was initially going to write a creative non-fiction account. I completed that – all 140,000 words of it – but it didn’t work. I couldn’t get inside the minds of the main characters and it just lacked soul.

After a huge amount of dithering, and reading and thinking, I decided to turn the book into fiction. The non-fiction account is an indispensable basis for that transformation. And besides, my mother loves that non-fiction version. I’m not sure anyone else would.

Now that I’ve discovered the true story, I’m highly motivated and loving the writing process.

What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?

Others have said it before: only amateurs wait for inspiration.

My advice?

Sit. Write. Repeat.



Barbara's books are available online and at your local bookstore.


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