Under One Roof
A Conversation with Authors Susan Gillis and John Steffler - theHumm February 2023

Under One Roof
A Conversation with Authors Susan Gillis and John Steffler - theHumm February 2023

By John Pigeau

I love interviewing authors. They are clever, charming, imaginative people. Hearing what they have to say about their work and the world is often a treat. This interview with award-winning writers Susan Gillis and John Steffler was done by email, but it was still a great pleasure. Their deeply insightful and captivating responses were truly a joy to read. And the wonderful thing is, because they’re on the page, I — and now you — can enjoy and savour them, again and again.

theHumm: Home is such a vital space when it comes to creative work, I find. John called your home, just outside of Perth, a “book-house.” So, you’re surrounded by nature and books, one would surmise. How does your home, and the nature you occupy, influence your creative work?

Susan Gillis: I like this phrase, “book-house,” and how it reaches out to say “house filled with books”, “house where books are welcome”, and even “house made of books”. It’s true there are a lot of books in our house...

Your question shines light on the difference between indoors and outdoors, and the all-important passages between the domestic and the wild. The passages: house to porch, lawn to screen house, gardens, fields, woods, wetlands, forest, lake and beyond. Or list back, from the wild to the domesticated.

Threshold spaces like this are utterly compelling to me, and a lot of my work is situated in or written from them: the screen house where Yellow Crane took shape, the window overlooking a neighbourhood under construction at the heart of that book; the St Lawrence River seen from a balcony in Montreal’s Habitat 67 in The Rapids; the shady terrace that let me time-travel in Volta — spaces where the imagination can roam freely — yet not too far from books!

John Steffler: Every writer’s needs are likely to be a bit different. Some like to be surrounded by human activity, loud music, urban commotion. Some go off to work in a separate studio. Since I work at home, home needs to be – among other things — a place that allows me to write. I seem to need a calm, private place a bit removed from the busy human world. For me, being close to the natural world is important in ways that go beyond what’s needed in a convenient working environment.Some writers would hate to live where we do, but fortunately Susan and I seem to have roughly the same needs and habits as writers.

That leads me to this question: What are you working on at the moment? What are you reading? Has any book recently devoured your attention?

Susan: I’m reading, as usual, a bunch of books at once, moving through the day in a loose pattern that’s evolved over a few decades.

Mornings are for engaging with poetry, writers and artists on their work or lives, research on colour and light, appetite, the living world, ideas... Some of this finds its way into my notebook in notes that in turn may (or may not!) open to poems; “Burnt Umber” and “Beauty Spot on the Wing of a Mallard Drake” both began with the fascinating little volume Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, the source Darwin used for colour descriptions during his HMS Beagle voyage.

Evenings are for fiction. I recently read Sheila Heti’s infuriatingly brilliant Pure Colour. Have a few lines of prose ever inspired a compulsion in me the way Heti’s innocuous yet mesmerizing half-paragraph about “the jewel game” did? This game I only vaguely knew about, Google-searched, and now can’t stop playing? The book is full of this kind of thing, strange and unsettling, and deeply human.

John: I’m writing poetry.I’ve been reading Malcolm Andrews’s wonderful study Landscape and Western Art; David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s book The Dawn of Everything — a rethinking of human history, western culture and the process of colonization since the so-called age of discovery; In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century — fabulous translations by Wong May; Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Hass; About Looking by John Berger; Sheila Heti’s Motherhood; Maureen Scott Harris’s More than One Homage; and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Also books on Cézanne and Bosch, but that’s enough.

Some folks might think two writers living together might be a wonderful thing, an inspiring circumstance at every turn, perhaps. Others might cringe and say, oh no, that might be disastrous. How does that work in your home? Is it a good thing to live with someone who loves writing as much as you do?

Susan: It’s great to know my writing practice is something my life partner understands. We’re quite compatible in our “ideal conditions” for practice — quiet, solitude, space, time — which I know for some artist-couples isn’t the case, which can be challenging. And it’s great to share this love of words; our jokes are pretty much all word jokes. It’s also handy on occasions of ceremony and ritual, or when one or the other might be at a loss for words, or when exuberance makes us giddy.

John: I think it works well for us. It works well for me. We’ve been together a long time, and we’ve been writers all our lives; so, I can’t imagine being together any other way. We both like quiet and freedom. We talk about writing and reading a lot, but we don’t collaborate on projects, and we generally don’t talk much about what we’re working on individually at the time. Since we’re both writers, we can respect and sympathize with each other’s habits and needs.

Both of your most recent collections of poetry, it seems to me, had something in common — that is, there was an awareness and an uneasiness of sorts in the poems about the natural world and what we’re doing to it. Perhaps you could speak to your concerns about the environment, your admiration and love for the natural world, and how those things make their way into your creative work.

Susan: That’s a good observation, about these concerns driving the work of both of us, though we take different approaches to those subjects. My most recent book Yellow Crane has been described as a love-poem to a city, yet it’s concerned with what we destroy as much as what we build. It’s also a love-poem to hayfields and gardens and the movement of ideas through culture, and these have inescapable, usually devastating, impacts on the natural, wild world.

Though there are lots of artists and writers producing wonderful environmentally conscious work, there’s also a great deal of cultural content, especially in the more commercial sectors, that seems to come out of trying to escape or deny, or to simply ignore, the devastating changes in the natural world we occupy. I can’t really do that, nor do I want to, even in poems that aren’t directly about the natural world. At the same time, gratitude and praise and hope, which I think about a lot (and maybe this speaks to your word “admiration”), are my foundation, and so is the amazing grace that humans are capable of enacting and experiencing, somehow side by side with our hubris.

John: I grew up in a rural area that was being obliterated by the expanding city of Toronto, and in my twenties I moved to the rugged, sparsely populated west coast of Newfoundland where I wrote my first seven books including The Grey Islands and The Afterlife of George Cartwright; so, the relationship between rural and urban, nature and culture, wilderness and industrial technology has long been at the centre of my writing and personal life. And now, as with so many of us, the looming environmental/ecological crisis facing humanity overshadows all my thinking. I can’t help feeling that the human species has been deluded about itself for a long time. Our efforts to create a material paradise on Earth are backfiring. This kind of thinking is hard for all of us, and it’s what I grapple with in Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness. In these circumstances, a writer is apt to doubt the value of writing, the value of an audience, the value of language itself. And yet, being a writer, I go on writing about these things themselves.

Finally, what is that drew you to make your home in Perth? And is it a good place to make art? 

Susan: Perth drew us to Perth! We both loved the limestone buildings, the graceful park, the active river, the heart of town, the friendliness, proximity to other towns and cities, the absence of strip mall development (though sadly that’s changing)... and the surrounding terrain. It seemed like a place people actually lived and worked in, the kind of place built on a human scale, for people. It felt like a place we could make a home, bringing our separate lives lived in two places (for more than a decade!) together into one. And we have!

John: Like many writers, while I want to be alone a lot of the time, I don’t want to be completely alone! It’s important to feel at least loosely part of a community of other writers and artist, to be near a town or city with some cultural amenities, and Perth offers this. So far, it also still has an intact historical character of its own; it hasn’t become a generic suburb of a larger centre. And I was drawn to the Canadian Shield landscape that begins a bit west and north of Perth. Here in Lanark County, we’re far enough out on the fringe of the industrial/urban world to feel — in spite of the dire global news — that it might still be possible to live close to nature without completely destroying it. Home here is both a commitment and a kind of retreat. 

For more on Susan’s and John’s books and latest work, you can visit susangillis.ca and stefflerjohn.blogspot.com.


Catherine Blake —An Artist’s Inspiration - theHumm February 2023

By Sally Hansen

Art… and Soul

Creating art inspires her and she inspires artists — it’s a win-win for this irrepressible Almonte artist and art instructor. Nothing stops her — not polio or being a single woman working for CUSO in Zanzibar or concussion or cancer. Life hasn’t worn her down; it has both distilled and emboldened her and her lifetime passion for art. Cathy Blake’s response to my incredulity at the challenges she has faced and the opportunities she has embraced is an understatement: “I ......


Mudds’ Raise Your Voice! - theHumm February 2023

After a long hiatus of over two years, the Mississippi Mudds Youth Theatre Group is thrilled to be back on stage directing and producing a musical revue show called Raise Your Voice! The cast and team have been hard at work since September, and invite everyone to help celebrate the Mississippi Mudds’ 50th year by supporting another amazing youth performance.

In this original musical, the storyline centres around a group of students who attend a strict and regimented boarding school. Under......


Harvey Comes to Smiths Falls - theHumm February 2023

A hilarious, fast-paced comedy is coming to the Station Theatre at the end of February. With a stellar cast bringing to life a case of mistaken identity, Harvey by Mary Chase will be performed from February 24 to March 5. This newest adaptation of the well-known play-turned-film will be the directorial début of Maria Fournier and Lewis Koluk, both long-standing members of the community theatre.

Audiences will delight in the hijinks of Elwood P. Dowd and the lengths his family will go to br......


2023 MERA Award of Excellence - theHumm February 2023

Every two years since 2009, the MERA Schoolhouse has put out a special call to all artists and craftspeople living in this area. This call is to apply for the very generous award of $1000 given to acknowledge a body of work demonstrating exceptional artistic skill, originality and quality.

The application is open to artists working in fine arts and fine crafts. It is specifically open to local residents, those living in the Townships of Lanark Highlands, Tay Valley, Drummond/North Elmsley, Central Frontenac, North Frontenac, and the Town of Perth. Previous non-winners may apply again.


Under One Roof
A Conversation with Authors Susan Gillis and John Steffler
- theHumm February 2023

By John Pigeau

I love interviewing authors. They are clever, charming, imaginative people. Hearing what they have to say about their work and the world is often a treat. This interview with award-winning writers Susan Gillis and John Steffler was done by email, but it was still a great pleasure. Their deeply insightful and captivating responses were truly a joy to read. And the wonderful thing is, because they’re on the page, I — and now you — can enjoy and savour them, again and again.



Working: A Musical
“It’s More Than Just a Job” at Studio Theatre
- theHumm February 2023

By Jane Stott

Did you ever have one of those days? Stuck in your car behind the garbage truck, grinding your teeth in frustration because you are late. At each driveway a young person, dressed in a hoodie, jeans and work boots swings down off the back of the truck. They hoist the bins and bags up into the truck and then they are back on their perch, giving the truck a thump on the side to let the driver know they’re on board. Did you ever wonder what their story was? Or how about the story......


Back Forty Cheese’s Winterland Event - theHumm February 2023

Looking to break the February Blues? Visit the cheese shop and explore the Back Forty on Saturday, February 18 between 10am and 4pm to celebrate the Family Day weekend. Enjoy the outdoors with some great food, drink and fun-filled winter activities.

With multiple toboggan runs and over five kilometres of groomed trails meandering through the farm’s forests and fields, Winterland provides a great opportunity to get some exercise, enjoy nature and reward yourself ......


Double Bill Kicks Off MERA Music Series - theHumm February 2023

Music at MERA is excited to announce the first of their 2023 spring music concerts, featuring Mia Kelly and Basset on Sunday, February 26 at 2pm. This double bill of young, exciting talent is two shows in one.

Returning to the Schoolhouse for the third time, Mia Kelly frames her insightful lyrics with a powerful and versatile voice backed by guitar, piano, and her infectious optimism. Her fans are enthralled by her distinctive blend of folk roots and blues, and her foot-stomping, sing-along......


“Go Wild” for the Birds! - theHumm February 2023

When the seed packets hit the grocery store, it’s time to think spring. While you’re planning your gorgeous garden, think of the myriad projects you could incorporate: birdhouses, bird baths, feeders and more. Backyard Beauties 2023, the online auction in support of the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust, is three months away, giving you plenty of time to create something unique to add to the auction.

The internet provides no end of ideas, from materials to designs both funky and f......


Frost & Fire Winter Festival on Family Day Weekend in Perth - theHumm February 2023

Perth Tourism is pleased to present the Frost & Fire Winter Festival, taking place over Family Day weekend on Saturday, February 18 and Sunday, February 19.

This tremendous two-day, family-friendly event will provide visitors with an array of activities geared towards all ages. Experiences will be taking place throughout Perth, both indoors and outdoors.

Strap on some skates and enjoy one of the outdoor rinks, take part in outdoor laser tag, or try your hand at axe throwing. Encount......


What’s All the Fuss About Pronouns and Bathrooms?
Understanding Gender and Sexual Diversity
- theHumm February 2023

By Jane Ellens (she/her)

I thought I was pretty up-to-date on gender and sexuality, but then I listened to my friend’s six-year-old grandson gently explain the school’s gender-neutral bathrooms to his four-year-old brother. He made me realize that if I want to have meaningful conversations with my grandkids about what they’re learning at school, I’ll need to up my game! I include my pronouns (she/her) when I sign my name and have been asked why, sometimes with genuine curiosity, sometimes with ......


Where to Go for Gardening Advice - theHumm February 2023

By David Hinks

Who knew that gardening advice clinics could be asked to resolve marital disputes?

In my over 20 years as a Master Gardener, I have participated in hundreds of advice clinics and from time to time have faced an irritated couple who were at loggerheads over their garden. I have learned to tread carefully and perhaps point out that there may be more than one way to prune (or not prune) a tomato plant!

A bit of an aside, but I always find it fascinating how coupl......


Réseau SPARC Network Gathering & Cabaret
Free Networking Event for Artists and Animators
- theHumm February 2023

By Rachel Marks

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SPARC is launching a brand new in-person event at the Almonte Old Town Hall on Saturday, February 25.

So, what is a Regional Gathering and Cabaret? The Gathering is a peer-to-peer networking and learni......


A-paw-ling Internet ScamPrecipitates Pet Rescue Partnership - theHumm February 2023

On a warm, late-October morning, Perth-area paper-mosaic artist Choleena DiTullio was getting ready to start her day in the studio. She had just finished her usual routine of walking her dog, making coffee and sitting down to check messages, when Instagram alerted her to an incoming note from Texas.

A follower of her Art By Choleena account was asking if she took commissions. They wanted a mosaic portrait of their dog. Having never sketched a dog, Choleena wro......


Country Pickin’, Blues and Friends at The Cove - theHumm February 2023

If you’re worried about the February blahs, there’s no better place to go than The Cove Inn in Westport to beat ’em. Their line-up of musical events is sure to raise your spirits, and you can treat yourself to some terrific food and drink while you’re there!

Things kick off on February 4 with Country Pickin’ Mayhem featuring Wendell Ferguson, Steve Piticco and Shawn McCullough. These are three of Canada’s top masters of the Telecaster guitar, and this show has become an annual treat for ......


Duality at Sivarulrasa - theHumm February 2023

From February 10 to March 24, Sivarulrasa Gallery is pleased to present Duality, a solo exhibition of new paintings by Gatineau-based artist Louis Thériault. The show can be seen in-person during regular Gallery hours: Wednesdays to Sundays from 11am to 5pm.

Born in New Brunswick, Louis Thériault began his studies in visual communication at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, but reoriented his training toward applied science, earning a Bachel......


Big Band DancesReturn to Almonte! - theHumm February 2023

After a three-year hiatus, the Standing Room Only Big Band is excited to once again be staging Sunday afternoon tea dances in the historic Almonte Old Town Hall. There will be a tea dance on Sunday, February 12.

These afternoon dances were popular in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when big bands were king. They were generally held in hotels and, of course, featured a live band. One key part of the concept is that, as implied by “tea”, beverages served are non-alc......


A Pocket Full of… Kleenex - theHumm February 2023

By Glenda Jones

We of a certain age need pockets in all our clothing. We don’t care that they’ll leave us with lumpy hips. Lord knows they’re lumpy already, so who’s going to notice? We’re not carrying coins to riffle through our fingers like tiny wind chimes; we’re not simply looking for a place to warm old fingers. We need those pockets for the ubiquitous tissue that is essential in drippy-nose season.

In “the olden days” our mothers carried lovely lacy handkerchiefs tucked delicately up a sleeve, where......


But What Can I Do? - theHumm February 2023

By Chandler Swain

In a recent conversational with fellow Climate Network Lanark (CNL) Communications Working Group member Tom Shoebridge, I was struck by an idea of his for a CNL column in this illustrious publication.

After reading my January article here in theHumm on “thinking globally but acting locally”, his thought was that if we describe little do-able actions everyone can take to help the planet, more people might not throw up their hands at the enormity of the problem and just go about business as usual. Formi......


At the Speed of Life - theHumm February 2023

By Read more about Mike and his 7th Generation Initiative at <sustainwellbeing.net>. To join their email list, contact <sustain5@web.ca>.

The fast moving excitement of smartphones and computer screens eclipses the slow motion of the natural world, but what the natural world lacks in speed it makes up for in depth. Over billions of years it has developed intricately cooperative associations upon which we humans have always depended. Perhaps the hard knocks of climate change will call us back to Earth before we drift off into Cyberspace.

Watch closely over a season as a seed germinates, grows to maturity and bears its seeds. It......


Quiet on the Set!
- theHumm February 2023

By Glenda Jones

On a Sunday afternoon when the weather is messy, wouldn’t it be nice to meet with friends, watch a good movie together, and enjoy a social hour? Maybe see some film you wouldn’t find on Netflix? Ma......