Meet This Author: Gayle Smith

Q: When did you decide to become a writer?

I have loved literature, both stories and poetry, from a very young age. Over twenty years ago I felt a strong urge to write. I started writing “cowboy” poems and performed with my husband, Alf Epp, at the Maple Creek Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Alf would sing cowboy songs and I would recite my poems. It was a lot of fun and very “old-timey.”

I then took fiction writing classes through an outreach course at our local university. From there I joined a writer’s group and also, I visited the Saskatoon Library Writer in Residence. I visited several WIRs over the years and then was accepted into Guy Vanderhaeghe’s short fiction class. By then I had a repertoire of writing, a short novel, poetry, and short stories. In 2013, I applied, and was accepted, into the University of Saskatchewan’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program. I had a dream and an urge to write, and I slowly developed my craft over many years.

Q: What inspired you to create your debut novel, Thickwood?

I had a character in mind for quite a while and I wrote about her in several different settings, periods of history, and at different ages. Willo started the journey towards the concept of Thickwood.

I love horses and enjoy reading novels that include horses and characters who use horses. Horses are intuitive and beautiful animals and capture my imagination. I have many early childhood memories of dramatic incidents with horses. The opening scene of Thickwood is inspired by one of those memories.

I love going on horseback adventures in the wilderness—some of my adventures inspired scenes in Thickwood.

I played baseball as a child; registering to play and riding my bike to practices. In my research, I discovered that approximately 25 of 63 Canadian women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, were from Saskatchewan.

In April 2012, the Federal Government announced it was divesting its interest in the PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration), passing on management of the pasture lands to the provincial governments. An outcry arose. Not only were dedicated employees losing their jobs managing cattle, but concerns arose regarding the fate of research and management of the grasslands and their protected species of wildlife. This made me curious about the history of the PFRA, so with guidance from my mentors I decided to write a story around the formation of a Community Pasture.

I knew several pasture managers who were characters in themselves, since my husband and I put our cattle in a PFRA pasture for several years. I made a cold call and met the pasture manager who supervises the Royal Community Pasture based in the Thickwood forest. He let us do a pack trip in the very pasture I was writing about! I heard fantastic stories, such as roping moose, and other adventures.

Put together a muse, in the character Willo, a love of horses and the wilderness, post World War Two, women playing baseball, and fascinating first-hand experiences, and you have the foundation for the novel, Thickwood.

As this collection of ideas framed into a house that makes a novel, I was incredibly inspired. It all started with my muse – the character. I just needed to give her a place and time to express herself and a problem to solve. The cowboy culture and life, the rugged landscape, the hardship of rural life in 1950, the changing roles of women, a love of sports, and the post-war boom, all provided a rich base for a western literary novel.

Q: Will this be part of a series?

I am working on my next novel set in another PFRA pasture around 1945. This pasture also has a great combination of characters and problems to solve. I haven’t decided if Willo, or any other characters will make an appearance in this novel. I’m considering different outcomes. Horses also play a central role. There will be several layers to the story, and I am consulting with a First Nations Elder.

Q: How would you describe your writing style?

I am exploring a new style of the literary western—literature from the high western plains. Intense emotions guide the main character through a close relationship with nature, as she survives disasters and challenges. In this style of western, women are central characters, horses are more than props, and a range of emotions are expressed. There is also a romantic element in Thickwood. I enjoyed writing intimate exchanges between characters. Thickwood is written in the close third-person, in a free indirect style of writing, where we see the world largely through Willo’s eyes.

Q: What was the journey like for you as you were writing, editing, and publishing your book?

I loved writing my book. I would wake early in the morning and in a half-dream state enter my story world. I let the words flow. I put myself in the shoes of my characters and new ideas and dilemmas would come to me. It was an adventure! My mentor in the MFA, Allan Safarik, was a great guide and encouraged me to write what I needed. He also gave me heck when I got carried away with flowery language. I guess the poet would come out sometimes and it would be distracting to the reader.

I submitted the manuscript as a thesis for my MFA and defended it successfully. After that, several revisions made the novel the best it could be. I developed the characters, so they were more relatable and filled out the plot. I also changed the ending.

Once my manuscript was complete, I met with Ed Willett, the Saskatoon Writer in Residence, from 2019-2020. Later he approached me about publishing my book. I had the manuscript with a couple of other publishers, but I was able to accept Shadowpaw’s offer. I am very grateful for Edward Willett, my publisher and editor, as he captured the vision of my novel. We developed a great working relationship when I worked with him as the WIR.

Q: When will this new novell be released and where can readers buy it?

My book, Thickwood, is newly released through Shadowpaw Press. It is also available in different formats and through many favourite outlets, on-line, and in stores.

Q: Can you tell us, readers, what your main character is like?

My main character, Willo, is strong and adventurous. She is a little rebellious and a bit of a loner. She finds ways to keep her confidence and nerve through very challenging circumstances. She struggles with expectations for women, and the expectations of her parents, during the post-World War Two era. She doesn’t want to be a homemaker, but she dreams of raising horses and playing ball. She is good at these endeavours. She does get lonely at times and enjoys the company of a handsome man, but she also has to resist sexual assault. Men aren’t used to seeing her in their world. Willo needs clean clothes and food to eat and so she must appreciate her mother’s role in keeping the ranch running. Willo struggle across the landscape but she also negotiates rough roads in her interior landscape.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers in your genre?

There is a lot of room to explore characters in challenging historical environments. I enjoy writing about remote and challenging environments. We also have new research about the intelligence of animals as valued, but different from human intelligence. Society is largely urbanized, and I think there is an appetite for reading about nature and animals and historical times. A new kind of literary western where women are strong, men have feelings, animals are more than a means of transportation, and nature isn’t to be subdued, makes for a read I enjoy.

Q: Would you ever write books in any other genre?

I have a project of short poetry called Love Poems to Equus on my Instagram account. I used photos of my horses and wrote down my thoughts. I also have my great grandfather’s poems and my grandmother’s poems. Someday I might take time to work with these poems. I have a few ideas. As for writing another novel, I’m immersed in my next historical novel project for now. I have many historical stories to explore before I change genres. I like reading non-fiction as well. Maybe someday I’ll write a non-fiction book about my adventures.

Q: What were your favorite moments as a writer when working on your book?

My favourite moments were entering the story world of Willo and then going on an adventure with her. I didn’t always know what was going to happen. It was a great place to live for part of the day.

Q: Where can readers find you and your books?

Thickwood is available through or through your favorite outlet.

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