Like her characters, author faces change

She’s written six books and seen some of them translated into a half-dozen languages. She’s told stories young adults want to read. She’s won awards. She’s been a mom who wrote within a 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. window on school days.

Now, it’s all changed. Bradey and Alex are in their 20s and gone from the family home. After 20 years, the house in suburban Delta, B.C., has been sold. Gayle Friesen and husband Brian have just moved to a new nest, an apartment on False Creek, across from Granville Island, in the heart of the city they love.

The next phase of Gayle’s life has just started. The prospect excites her; she thinks it may change how she writes. She used to be apprehensive about change, but has come to realize change “usually brings more of what I want, not less.” In real life, nobody stays the same, she says. “I just assume that, as a given.” Perhaps that’s why the characters in her stories change, too, growing through adversity and finding new strengths.

Last year, Gayle Friesen published her first novel for adults. The Valley is a story about a woman in her 30s who, together with a sarcastic teenaged daughter, returns to the small town where she grew up, 20 years after leaving it. The story and characters are different from her previous fiction, but she was not trying consciously to be different. She is quick to emphasize, “This is not an autobiography.”

Gayle did grow up in a Mennonite Brethren community, however, and her observations of the culture of that day and her roots in the faith she holds are evident in The Valley. She had to research MB church history to ensure that the things that happened to her characters were in fact common practice of that earlier time.

The process

“I just start my story,” Gayle says of the process of her writing. “What it will turn into, I don’t really know.” She liked shifting to writing for adults in The Valley. “I especially enjoy writing dialogue and character development, and it was fun working with three main characters, all adults.” This book, like her others, unfolded as she wrote it. “Halfway through, I usually have a sense of an ending, but the endings have changed – every single time.”

The youngest of four siblings, Gayle lived in the same house through her entire childhood. She appreciates the family’s church, Broadway MB (Chilliwack, B.C.); the fact she could enjoy the same friends all through school; and that she could grow up in a rural setting. “But even as a little kid, I knew that didn’t fully define me,” she says. She travelled, went to UBC, and ultimately earned a master of fine arts. By now, she was a Vancouverite.

She started to write, at first with only a great deal of encouragement, then because she loved to do it. She likes to write in a café, bringing just pen and paper along with the characters in her head. Most of her books have taken a year to write, then another year to work into publishable form. She is grateful to have the same editor she started with, Charis Wahl.

Her new neighbourhood on False Creek presents an array of coffee shops. And no longer must she fit her writing activities into a school-day window. Gayle has a sense of anticipation, a sense of something new in how she writes, but she has no clearer view of what that might be than she has of her endings, half way through her stories.

New home, new lifestyle, new friendships and activities beckon. In her study, for the first time ever, she has displayed her books. She likes the feel of what she has done and the nudge they provide to discover what she’ll write next.

—Barrie McMaster

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