Spotlight on Past EMWF Contest Winners

The EMWF's writing contests have provided emerging writers the chance to read their work to a live audience of booklovers for more than twenty years. We're thrilled to catch up with andrea bennet, Russell Fralich, Dean Gessie, Phyllis L. Humby, Rene Meshake, Marion Reidel and Julia Zarankin, all previous winners who are now published authors. They share their advice for those starting to submit to contests, how the experience of reading at the festival impacted their trajectory as writers, and what we can expect from their new books.


like a boy but not a boy
By andrea bennet

Published by Arsenal Pulp Press

A revelatory book about gender, mental illness, parenting, mortality, bike mechanics, work, class, and the task of living in a body.

Inquisitive and expansive, Like a Boy but Not a Boy explores author andrea bennett’s experiences with gender expectations, being a nonbinary parent, and the sometimes funny and sometimes difficult task of living in a body. The book’s fourteen essays also delve incisively into the interconnected themes of mental illness, mortality, creative work, class, and bike mechanics (apparently you can learn a lot about yourself through trueing a wheel).

In “Tomboy,” andrea articulates what it means to live in a gender in-between space, and why one might be necessary; “37 Jobs and 21 Houses” interrogates the notion that the key to a better life is working hard and moving house. And interspersed throughout the book is “Everyone Is Sober and No One Can Drive,” sixteen stories about queer millennials who grew up and came of age in small Canadian communities. 

With the same poignant spirit as Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide, like a boy but not a boy addresses the struggle to find acceptance, and to accept oneself; and how one can find one’s place while learning to make space for others. The book also wonders what it means to be an atheist and search for faith that everything will be okay; what it means to learn how to love life even as you obsess over its brevity; and how to give birth, to bring new life, at what feels like the end of the world.

With thoughtfulness and acute observation, andrea bennett reveals intimate truths about the human experience, whether one is outside the gender binary or not.

andrea bennet is the author of one book of poetry (Canoodlers, Nightwood Editions) and two travel guides (Montréal and Québec City, both with Moon Travel). andrea has written for the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, Hazlitt, the Atlantic, Reader’s Digest, and many other outlets.

andrea grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and has lived across Canada— Guelph, Vancouver, Montreal, Powell River—with additional brief stints in New York and Paris. andrea completed a BA in English, minoring in French, at the University of Guelph, and an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. In addition to writing and editing, andrea has also worked as a bike mechanic, a vegetarian cook, a baker, a janitor, a fact-checker … and many other jobs. Thirty-seven jobs in total. andrea also does design and illustration, including book covers and posters.

andrea’s non-work interests include many of the essay topics in Like a Boy but Not a Boy: gender, bodies, mortality, faith, vegetable gardening, cooking, baking, and the pursuit of leisure. They live in Powell River, BC.

Pronouns: they/she; honorific: Mx.

Q & A with andrea bennet
Literary Contest (Fiction), 2006

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
I wrote the story in my fourth (or maybe fifth?) year at the University of Guelph, as part of a fiction class with Thomas King. I'd previously taken a second-year class with another author, who really didn't like my work (lol). Thomas King was a generous teacher, and I think he really endeavoured to meet us where we were at as students. I learned a lot from him. So it was particularly bolstering to submit the story I'd laboured over in his class to the EMWF's Fringe contest, and have it place. It gave me some confidence—that I could put work into my writing, and learn how to edit myself, and recognize good ideas, and that that might lead to something. I think it's part of what gave me the confidence to apply to UBC's MFA in Creative Writing a couple years after that.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience reading at the festival?
I'd been to the festival previously, and I remember feeling like it was so cool to get to go as a writer. I appreciated going to the pre-festival dinner, with all the other (famous!) authors. I love the atmosphere of the EMWF—it's such a warm, inviting festival. It was so memorable, particularly at that time in my career, to read on the Fringe stage. I still remember what the weather was like that day, and what outfit I wore, and which friends came to support me.

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests? Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
This is tricky, because everyone comes to writing from different places. I think the most important thing for me has been to develop relationships with other writers that I can trust and my first readers and critiquers. If you can learn how to give good feedback to others, and be a good reader, you can learn how to turn that lens on your own writing. You don't need to do formal writing classes to develop these skills—but you need to find ways to seek out these other writers.

Tell us about your new book!
Like a Boy but Not a Boy is a series of fourteen essays that, at their core, explore the funny and sometimes difficult task of living in a body. The essays use my experiences as a non-binary parent, as a worker of many menial jobs, as a person who grew up queer in a small town, as a person who is mortally afraid of dying, as jumping-off points for broader conversations about how to find a place for oneself while simultaneously holding space for others. My favourite part of the book, though (are people allowed to have favourite parts of their own book?), is probably "Everyone Is Sober and No One Can Drive,"—a sixteen-part essay in stories detailing the coming-of-age stories of queer millennials who grew up in small Canadian communities.

What's coming up next?
I am working on a book of prose poetry, tentatively titled the berry takes the shape of the bloom, which will most likely be coming out in 2023. (And some other things that are exciting but very much in their beginning stages; if there is one thing I have learned from gardening, it is not to start picturing the things one will make with one's cabbage before the seedling even has its first true leaves. :P)


True Patriots
by Russell Fralich
Published by Dundurn Press

Political subterfuge, extremist separatist plots, and two strangers racing to stop it all.

A country to kill for …

The career of Claire Marcoux, a young naval officer, threatens to come crashing down after she orders the ship under her command to return fire on a boat that she was supposed to rescue. The quiet life of Daniel Ritter, a new professor in a new town, is turned upside down when the celebrity entrepreneur he was unexpectedly invited to meet is found murdered. Thrown together by chance, Claire and Daniel discover that they are involved in the same fight against an unknown enemy — a foe with a plot that endangers the lives of many … and the very existence of the country they both cherish.

Russell Fralich is a business professor and writer and has worked in the aerospace and telecommunications industries. He received an emerging author award at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in 2017. Russell lives in Montreal.

Q & A with Russel Fralich
The Fringe, 2017

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
It was my first validation that I could write something interesting to other readers. I had attended many writing courses and workshops, and I learned much from them. But this was the first time I had been selected by a blind panel of writers. It convinced me that I had something worthy to say. Afterward, I pushed forward writing my novel. I knew I could do it.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience reading at the festival?
It was a transformative experience in at several ways. The festival represented a return to my roots. My most impressionable years were spent in Rockwood. I felt occasional flashbacks to my childhood as I walked the streets of Eden Mills.

My name tag read “prize winner” and I could go into the Authors’ tent and schmooze with the real authors! I met Terry Fallis and talked with him about our common trajectory from McMaster engineering classes to writing fiction. The snacks were good too.

The reading experience was serene. I talked with the other winners at the table beside the small stage set up on the grass. The slope from the stream formed a natural amphitheatre. Looking at the gathering crowd, I initially zeroed in on my family and a few friends, all of whom live in Guelph. Stepping onto the little stage, I was stressed but also comfortable. I felt that this was where I wanted to be, telling stories that mattered to me. When I stood before the microphone, I was stunned to see the entire area filled with people. Who were these people interested in unpublished writers when there were famous authors presenting elsewhere?

Finally, I had a second flashback when I recognized one of the judges as my English teacher from high school several decades earlier! We had a good chuckle.

Overall, it was a wonderful day!

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests? Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
I can immediately think of three issues: passion, time, and voice. I encourage you to write what you are passionate about, not what is popular right now. Your book will probably not appear for a few years, and any trend today will be long gone.

Take your time writing your story. Writing my first novel took a surprising amount of time: 7 years until I had signed a contract with a publisher! I worried that I had been too slow. To find out about others’ experiences, I attended that award gala of the Quebec Writers’ Federation later that year. I approached each finalist and winner to ask how long it had taken them. I was reassured when their answers ranged from five to twelve years.

Getting the story right was only part of my challenge. I also had to find the right voice. It took me many years and many writing courses to experiment with multiple styles until I found the one that resonated with me.

Tell us about your new book!
The short story I read at the Fringe eventually became the first chapter of my novel, True Patriots. It is an action thriller with political and military themes. And it’s all Canadian, from the rugged Nova Scotia coast to the foothills of Alberta. There’s political subterfuge, right-wing extremist separatist plots, and two strangers racing to stop it all: a young woman with her first command of a navy ship, and a business professor with a murky past. Thrown together by chance, they discover that they are involved in the same fight against an unknown enemy — a foe with a plot that endangers the lives of many … and the very existence of the country they both cherish.

What's coming up next?
Sequels, naturally! I have two mapped out. I did research online and in New Zealand last year during vacation and before the world shutdown. The writing process is still slow and now I appreciate why. I will take my time to ensure that it is the best story possible.

I had a launch party on the day before the Quebec government ordered the Covid lockdown! I had planned many events in the spring and summer, and I had hoped to return to the EMWF to show what such a positive experience can help create. But I can wait until the lockdown restrictions are over.


by Dean Gessie
Published by the Raw Art Review

Readers searching for the artful language of Fitzgerald and the cultural relevance of Achebe in a volume that speaks directly to global citizens of the twenty-first century have finally found their lost ark in Anthropocene. It’s not difficult to find writers today who explore problematic issues within our brave new world of cultural collisions, gender politics and new-look human subjugation. What is incredibly rare, however, is to find a writer willing to criticize contemporary social ills with both empathic concern and vehement distaste—as Gessie does—while remaining faithful to the craft of literary fiction. There’s no dark corner he won’t articulately explore in this astonishing collection of stories. Readers will wrestle with Gessie’s thinly veiled accusations of our own complicity with social injustice and, yet, they will also laugh along with his wide array of marginalized, irreverent voices. Anthropocene is, at once, a buoyant, hilarious and deeply disturbing experience.

-Provided by Keith Kupsch, Director of the Joshua Weinzweig Creative Writing Program

Dean Gessie is a Canadian author and poet who has won multiple international prizes. Dean won the Angelo Natoli Short Story Award in Australia, the Half and One Literary Prize in India, the Eyelands Book Award in Greece and the short story prize at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in Canada. Dean also won the Enizagam Poetry Contest in California and he was selected for inclusion in The Sixty Four Best Poets of 2018 and The Sixty Four Best Poets of 2019 by Black Mountain Press in North Carolina, among a number of other wins and nominations. Dean’s short stories and poetry have appeared in many anthologies around the world. He has also published three novellas with Anaphora Literary Press in Texas: Guantanamo Redux; A Brief History of Summer Employment; and TrumpeterVille.

Q & A with Dean Gessie
Literary Contest (Fiction), 2019

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
Winning the short story competition was especially gratifying for me. I have won or been a finalist in dozens of competitions around the world – particularly in the United States, Australia, England and Ireland – but this was the first time I won in Canada. Also, because the competition was reasonably local, I was able to travel to receive my prize and enjoy the festival.

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests? Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
I have built my literary career on success in international competition. This strategy has provided me with goals, community and positive reinforcement. If writers are interested in literary competition, I suggest they throw their net wide and compete internationally. The challenge is great, but so are the rewards. Also, every piece of writing must be drafted and crafted until it is the writer’s very best work. Competition will often number in the hundreds and even the thousands. Also, writers should take big risks with their writing. This will separate their work from subjects and approaches that are familiar and expand the limits of their creativity.

Tell us about your new book!
Anthropocene chronicles the harm that human beings do to themselves, to one another and to the natural world. The twenty-three stories in this collection dramatize the misshapen self-interests of a variety of characters and their catastrophic consequences. The stories coalesce into a cry for human understanding and social justice in the soundless vacuum of space.

What's coming up next?
I am currently working on a small book of poetry whose themes are anti-colonial and anti-imperial. Afterward, I want to write a novella or short story that uses as its central allegorical device the practice of mummering. This involves neighbours who dress up in outrageous clothing and visit each other’s house during the Christmas season. All is not well beneath their disguises.


Hazards of the Trade
by Phyllis L. Humby
Published by Crossfield Publishing

Hazards of the Trade is a personal disclosure of nearly twenty years of humorous and sad reflections from the naïve start up of a small-town lingerie boutique to the ultimate farewell.

The era began with retailers in impossibly high heels and designer suits attending the Ontario Fashion Exhibitors market at the prestigious King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto and ended with buyers in rubber-soled shoes and sweatpants at the Congress Centre near the airport. While high-end fashion shows and buying trips might seem glamorous, evading a stalker and trying to evict a rabid squirrel from the shop might not. But it was all part of being in the Trade. That, and so much more.

Phyllis Humby’s short stories, often scheming, twisted, or spooky, appear in anthologies and journals in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. She won a spot as Fringe Reader at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival for her humorous entry, and that same year, a chilling crime submission awarded her second spot in the YMM national competition, followed by the Bony Pete Award for Best Short Story at the Crime Writers’ Conference in Toronto for a 40s period mystery.

Before surrendering to her obsession for writing, Phyllis Humby spent nearly twenty years in the lingerie fashion industry which provided an endless pool of material for her memoir Hazards of the Trade (Crossfield Publishing April 2020).

Her debut novel, Old Broad Road, is a gritty tale set in Newfoundland (Crossfield Publishing Sept 2020).

Phyllis Humby lives in the touristy municipality of Lambton Shores, Ontario. Her loyal supporters follow her on Facebook, and Twitter. Visit her blog here.

Q & A with Phyllis Humby
The Fringe, 2013

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
Earning the privilege to read my humorous short story at EMWF was the validation and encouragement I needed to continue my quest for publication. I’m proud to have had my stories featured in anthologies in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. The confidence gained from the Fringe victory resulted in memorable contest wins including the Bony Pete Award at the Crime Writers’ of Canada conference. It was a publisher’s short story contest win that indirectly led to my first book contract. Yes, my EMWF Fringe accomplishment fuelled an exciting publishing journey.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience reading at the festival?
Winning the Fringe contest has remained the most influential writing event for me. I wrote a series of blogs about the emotional and professional impact of not only the reading, but the people I met during the festival. The authors and organizers of the event made me feel like a welcome and integral part of the success of this festival. It was shocking good luck that two of my favourite authors Cathy Marie Buchanan and Linwood Barclay were also appearing. I was incredibly fortunate to meet…well, this might lead to naming every author on the bill (which I could, including the Fringe readers), so I’ll just say that it was a dream come true.

The stimulating synergy of the chatter in the ‘green room’, on that final evening before our dinner, inspired me to establish regular no-agenda social events for writers in my area at local restaurants.

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests? Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
There are an overwhelming number of contests and I would encourage writers to be selective. One must weigh the benefits of a win over the sometimes costly entry fees. It probably goes without saying, but they should closely follow the criteria for each contest and then submit only their most finely-edited work.

I would strongly suggest that they consider edits and critiques only from people who are fans of their particular genre. I must admit that I took advice at the beginning of my writing career that was not good. I changed my writing style to suit every person who read it, thinking that they knew better than I did. That proved to be a frustrating setback.

Tell us about your new book!
Hazards of the Trade is an intimate reveal of nearly twenty years of my exhilarating, exhausting, frightening, and hilarious life as a lingerie boutique owner. I think everyone craves that behind-the-scenes look, especially from the 80s and 90s era when the world and culture were very different. The memoir is a compilation of stories that begin with my naïve startup in a small town and progress through shoplifters, stalkers, fashion show extravaganzas, rabid squirrels, full moons, and…more.

Hazards of the Trade happened by accident. I shared a short story with my writing group based on a memory from my retail career. My mentor advised me to continue writing those stories because, in her words, “I think you have something there.” Each memory led to another until I was re-living that life ‘back in the day’.

What's coming up next?
I’m very excited that Crossfield Publishing has tentatively scheduled my debut novel Old Broad Road for release in September 2020. It’s a gritty tale set in Newfoundland about a middle-aged Toronto woman who suffers from mental anguish following a trauma. She leaves her friends and family behind for a six-week restorative road trip, and never returns.


Injichaag: My Soul in Story: Anishinaabe Poetics in Art and Words
by Rene Meshake
Published by University of Manitoba Press

This book shares the life story of Anishinaabe artist Rene Meshake in stories, poetry, and Anishinaabemowin “word bundles” that serve as a dictionary of Ojibwe poetics. Meshake was born in the railway town of Nakina in northwestern Ontario in 1948, and spent his early years living off-reserve with his grandmother in a matriarchal land-based community he calls Pagwashing. He was raised through his grandmother’s “bush university,” periodically attending Indian day school, but at the age of ten Rene was scooped into the Indian residential school system, where he suffered sexual abuse as well as the loss of language and connection to family and community.

This residential school experience was lifechanging, as it suffocated his artistic expression and resulted in decades of struggle and healing. Now in his twenty-eighth year of sobriety, Rene is a successful multidisciplinary artist, musician and writer. Meshake’s artistic vision and poetic lens provide a unique telling of a story of colonization and recovery.

The material is organized thematically around a series of Meshake’s paintings. It is framed by Kim Anderson, Rene’s Odaanisan (adopted daughter), a scholar of oral history who has worked with Meshake for two decades. Full of teachings that give a glimpse of traditional Anishinaabek lifeways and worldviews, Injichaag: My Soul in Story is “more than a memoir.”

Rene Meshake is an Anishinaabe Elder, visual and performing artist, award-winning author, storyteller, flute player, new media artist and a Recipient of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is the author of Injichaag: My Soul in Story: Anishinaabe Poetics in Art and Words, which won the 2020 Works in an Indigenous Language Award from Indigenous Voices Awards.

Q & A with Rene Meshake
The Fringe, 2002

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
I felt that I got my foot through the door to the main stages of EMWF.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience reading at the festival?
Recognition and affirmation that my works will be published sooner or later.

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests? Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
I’ve told others about getting your foot through the door to the main stages of EMWF by submitting to contests. It’s true your family and friends always say that you can write, but when you see your work being published in anthologies — you begin to believe!

What's coming up next?
Writing bilingual Anishinaabe/English librettos and music.


Café Conversations
by Marion Reidel
Published by One Thousand Trees

Coffee shops are where truths are shared, and relationships are built, or sometimes broken. Take a seat in this busy café. Enjoy a cup of coffee and eavesdrop on the drama unfolding around you. Those young people at the next table are on a blind date; the business meeting over there is going awry, and the three old ladies sitting by the window are scheming again. Café Conversations is Reidel's second short story collection. Like her debut book, We Drank Wine and Other Stories, these linked stories focus on authentic dialogue and rich character development to entertain and engage readers. Her characters will make you laugh out loud while also touching your heart.

Marion Reidel’s inspiration comes from personal experience and observation, but her characters take real situations in unexpected directions. Her stories have been published online and have won Literary Awards. Reidel’s first collection, We Drank Wine (August 2017) follows a group of four women as they face challenges ranging from parenting preschoolers to broken marriages. Her second book Café Conversations (November 2019) made the 2020 long list for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. It captures interactions among coffee shop patron which will feel familiar, but take surprising twists. She is a spoken word artist and her Youtube channel offers monthly readings.

Q & A with Marion Riedel
The Fringe, 2015 and The Literary Contest (Fiction), 2016

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
Winning the Eden Mills contests had a huge impact on my path as an author. I vividly remember receiving the judges’ call, as they grouped around the phone telling me that they enjoyed the story so much they laughed out loud. At the Fringe I was thrilled to see my story published in the event’s booklet and was excited to read before an adult audience for the first time. The joy of that experience led me to join the Guelph Spoken Word community, through which I have participated in numerous open mic nights and have even been their feature artist at the e-Bar. I now have a Youtube channel on which I post story readings.

The Literary contest had a cash award, which was the first time I received money for my fiction writing. By that time I had accumulated thirty or so linked stories, with repeating characters, which included the two contest winners. These stories formed my first book We Drank Wine in 2017, published by Sun Dragon Press, a boutique operation that is a regular exhibitor at the festival.

The Bookshelf, our fabulously supportive local bookseller, took We Drank Wine to their sales table at the festival. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to see it on display with all the key authors. That experience made me feel legitimate.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience reading at the festival?
When I read at the Fringe it was a drizzly day. We were in a tent in a backyard of a home on the road into the village. The yard had a perfect slope for an audience to gather. I was nervous because I thought no one would come, and also because I had to edit the story slightly to respect the assigned time slot.

Despite the unfriendly weather the audience was filled with friendly faces. Some were people I knew, of course, but all radiated support and encouragement. Melinda Burns, whom I have had the privilege of receiving writing instruction from, introduced me. Her kind words meant a lot to me.

When I read for the Literary Award it was located in the festival’s hall, down the laneway by the river. It was the last slot of the last day, a tough time to draw a crowd. The University of Guelph creative writing students, were reading in conjunction with the contest winners and they formed a conspicuous group. I remember thinking how young and cool they looked, all edgy and brimming with deep thoughts. I felt quite out of place, but again, received a warm, supportive reception. It was a very positive experience.

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests?
Submit your work! What have you got to lose? Sometimes you can find opportunities with no submission fees, but… even if there is a cost, it is well worth it. Having a contest deadline helps to motivate writers to finish, and polish their work. If you search carefully, you can sometimes find a situation where they will guarantee feedback or provide a detailed critique for a modest additional cost.

I’ve had success for a couple online magazines and I’ve been rejected by some of the biggest contests around. That’s okay. I love the stories that I send to the CBC contests each year and they will find a home eventually.

Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
My best advice is to find a community of writers with whom you can share work. I’ve belonged to a variety of writing groups, some have been stronger than others, most have a limited life span. Currently I do a weekly prompt and story exchange with other fiction writers here in Ontario, in Ohio and Alberta. It’s working for now. My participation guarantees a new story once a week.

Vocamus Press is a hub for writers in Guelph/Wellington. They organize writer’s hangouts, workshops, and book events. I’m sure there is something similar in most urban centres. Join a group because your peers will support you and spark your development.

Tell us about your new book! What's coming up next? 
Café Conversations is my second collection of short stories. It was published in November 2019, by One Thousand Trees. These stories are also linked but this time it is by the location. Every story takes place in a coffee shop and the reader gets to eavesdrop on blind dates, unhappy couples, business meetings and some adorable old ladies. The stories are meant to trigger laughter, but also reflection on human foibles.

There was a lot of excitement this spring because Café Conversations made the long list for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. That’s a super big deal.

Right now, the Guelph Little Theatre is preparing to videotape four scenes from Café Conversations. It will be the first of a series of Youtube performances to keep GLT connected to the community and allow the actors and production team to work on drama in a safe environment during the theatre shut down for the pandemic. I was delighted to be approached about this project and had already been in the process of transforming the book into a script. The taping will take place at the end of August so watch for a September release.


Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder
by Julia Zarankin
Published by Douglas & McIntyre

When Julia Zarankin saw her first red-winged blackbird at the age of thirty-five, she didn’t expect that it would change her life. Recently divorced and auditioning hobbies during a stressful career transition, she stumbled on birdwatching, initially out of curiosity for the strange breed of humans who wear multi-pocketed vests, carry spotting scopes and discuss the finer points of optics with disturbing fervour. What she never could have predicted was that she would become one of them. Not only would she come to identify proudly as a birder, but birding would ultimately lead her to find love, uncover a new language and lay down her roots.

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder tells the story of finding meaning in midlife through birds. The book follows the peregrinations of a narrator who learns more from birds than she ever anticipated, as she begins to realize that she herself is a migratory species: born in the former Soviet Union, growing up in Vancouver and Toronto, studying and working in the United States and living in Paris. Coming from a Russian immigrant family of concert pianists who believed that the outdoors were for “other people,” Julia Zarankin recounts the challenges and joys of unexpectedly discovering one’s wild side and finding one’s tribe in the unlikeliest of places.

Julia Zarankin is a writer and self-proclaimed birdsplainer with a particular fondness for sewage lagoons. Her writing has appeared in The WalrusOrion MagazineThreepenny ReviewAntioch ReviewBirding MagazineMaisonneuveThe New QuarterlyOntario Nature and The Globe and Mail. Zarankin’s essays are also featured in several anthologies. She won the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival nonfiction prize and has been first runner-up for PRISM International’s nonfiction prize, a finalist for the TNQ Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and twice longlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize. Julia also leads adventurous souls on tours around the world and teaches courses to lifelong learners about Russian and European culture and literature.

Her birding/life aspirations: “To sport the hairdo of a Cedar Waxwing, acquire the wardrobe of a Northern Flicker and develop the confidence of a Ross’s Goose.” She lives in Toronto, ON.

Q & A with Julia Zaraknin
The Fringe, 2011 and The Literary Contest (Nonfiction) in 2016

What was the impact of your win on your writing and your literary trajectory?
Winning the nonfiction prize and being invited to read at EMWF Fringe was a wonderful boost to my writing and ended up playing an important role in my literary trajectory. The piece I read at EMWF Fringe grew into an epistolary short story called “The Love Nest” that was ultimately published in The Walrus in 2017. I reworked the piece that won the nonfiction prize in 2016 and it has become a chapter in my forthcoming memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, which is about to be published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience reading at the festival?
I loved my readings at EMWF! The audience was very receptive (and even laughed in all the right places), and it was such a joy to share my words with others. I also enjoyed chatting with people afterwards, seeing some familiar faces, and hearing readings by some of my literary heroes. The atmosphere at EMWF is so collegial and warm—it’s a real gift of a festival.

What would you tell writers who are thinking of starting to submit to contests? Do you have any advice you wish you’d known in the past?
Submitting to contests is a wonderful way to get your work out in the world. I’d say write the best piece you can write, let it sit for a while, come back to it with fresh eyes and give it another read through (and workshop it with your trusted readers), submit it, and then forget about it completely while you move on to your next writing project. I find it’s always important to have a new writing project to focus your attention on. But remember, writing contests are also subjective, so it makes little sense ruminating about why your work didn't win; instead, just keep writing (and re-writing) and reading.

Tell us about your new book!
Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder is a memoir that tells the story of my unlikely transformation from total nature-novice to bona fide bird nerd. I found birds accidentally—while auditioning hobbies in the midst of a career transition—and the last thing I expected was that I’d become a semi-maniacal birder. As a migratory species myself, I found I connected with birds in unexpected ways. The book is essentially about how birds taught me to see the world anew and helped me find meaning (and love!) in midlife. Don't worry--the memoir isn't ornithology; instead, I remain a lifelong beginner who specializes in misidentification and the assessment of bird coiffures.

What's coming up next?
I’m busy promoting my book and am hard at work on a novel. I’m superstitious about new projects, so the only thing I'll say is that the book features a lot ballet.