Living a writer’s life: After 20 years of trying, Ottawa’s Kate Heartfield breaks through with two novels

Ottawa writer Kate Heartfield. Photo: John W. MacDonald

A fiction writer’s journey can be lonely and frustrating. Just ask Ottawa writer Kate Heartfield, who after 20 years of honing her craft, the former editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen is seeing some real success. Two of her novels have been purchased f0r publication and  a third looks to be well on its way. It’s been a bit of a slog, but it’s been worth every minute, as she tells ARTSFILE.

Q. How did you get started?

A. I grew up reading fantasy. I read Tolkien, Susan Cooper‘s Arthurian fantasies and Rosemary Sutcliff‘s historical fiction. Mom and I would go to the Winnipeg Public Library and come back with bags of books. That’s what I gravitated toward. I also read some science fiction. Today, I write a little bit of sci-fi in short stories. In novels, I tend to focus on fantasy.

Q. Were you always a writer?

A. I supposed I started like everybody else, thinking I was going to write the great literary novel. When I was 19 I wrote a really horrible coming of age novel. I can’t even remember it. I printed it out on my dot matrix printer and sent it to a couple of publishers and one was nice enough to call me and say ‘No’. So I went to journalism school and moved away from fiction for a time because I was busy pursuing a career, but fiction was always something I wanted to come back too.

Q. When did you take up the cudgel again?

A. In my late 20s I tried again. I wrote a historical fiction novel. That one was better, but I was still learning the ropes in a lot of ways. It was about a woman who played a part in the politics of 12th century Ireland.

I was a graduate student when I started writing that one. To my spouse’s credit he didn’t leave me because we had no money and the internet didn’t have a lot of information then so I was buying rare out of print books to research this stuff. I’d order them in from Ireland. I still have a bookshelf full of medieval Irish history books. Even though it didn’t get published I had a lot of fun. I really liked the research. I’m a geek, what can I say.

Q. At this point, what were you thinking?

A. I wised up and realized that maybe I should learn how to write. When you are a smart kid, people tell you you can do whatever you want to do. And you delude yourself into thinking ‘Well, I’m talented, so all I have to do is sit down and write.’ That’s not how it worked for me.

So in 2007, I signed up for a program at Humber College called Creative Writing By Correspondence. In the course, you have a mentor who is a Canadian novelist. As you are writing your manuscript, they send you feedback. My mentor was Paul Quarrington. It was an amazing experience. I have kept all of his emails to me and they are still a gold mine of advice.

I was writing a historical fantasy and wouldn’t think of him as that kind of writer but he was right into it. One piece of advice that he gave me, I refer to all the time. He said, ‘You have to remember that at some level this is showbiz and you have just do the jazz hands and tell the reader this is a big moment and be a little less subtle. Sometimes I write on a sticky note “Showbiz.”

We only met in person a couple of times but when he died (in 2010) it was a blow. It was after the mentorship had ended and it wasn’t a close friendship, but it was meaningful to me.

Q. Where are we now?

A. That’s No. 3 (with Quarrington). It didn’t get published either. It was my first historical fantasy about a medieval courtier who disappears in fairy land. It is basically a trope about a fairy abduction told from the fairy perspective. Paul said he thought it deserved to be published but I couldn’t get an agent for the life of me. I’ve got one now and I might revisit it. It may have  life.

Q. How important is it to have a literary agent?

A. In traditional publishing you need an agent to get a publisher of any size. Small and some medium publishers don’t require one, so you can send a manuscript directly to them. I have friends who are published novelists with smaller presses who don’t have agents.

Eventually I wrote a fourth book that got me an agent. Her name is Jennie Goloboy and she is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is part of the Red Sofa Literary agency. She asked for rewrite on the book. I did that and then she signed me.

She is very hands-on. Not all of them are but she got right in there. She has a PhD in history as well and she gets what I am trying to do and geeks about the same things I do. She is a writer too so she could tell me things.

One of those was the fact that I only had one point of view in the book and needed another. It was a pretty heavy rewrite but I agreed with her, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

Q. What is this book called?

A. The Humours of Grub Street. It is set in 18th century London with monsters. I had the idea after reading about the fact that Grub Street in London was known for hack writers. I thought it was so weird that all the writers were on one street. So I started thinking that maybe monsters were keeping them there and started brain-storming. I realized that this wasn’t a story, it was a novel.

We sent the the book to ChiZine Publications. They agreed to publish the book and paid me an advance. I knew them from conventions and I knew they were good people. By the time they had read the book and offered to publish it, I had finished a second book and I sent that to them too. And they said they wanted to publish that one as well. In fact they are publishing that one first, next spring. Grub Street will be out the following year.

It’s called Armed In Her Fashion and is the story of a wet nurse in 14th century Flanders who raids Hell to get money back from her dead deadbeat husband. She’s a very unlikable person and I had a lot of fun writing her.

There is a Belgian cannon called Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) named after Flemish folktale about a woman who raided Hell. There is a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder of the tale.

It’s strange how the mind works. I haven’t been to Belgium but my grandfather was in the Second World War had been in Belgium and he tried to get out through Dunkirk. I was struck how many wars have been fought there.

Q. I suppose with two books coming out soon, you are resting on your laurels?

A. I’m actually working on another one called The Queen’s Spellbook. It’s been through a couple of drafts. It’s set in the   1780s and ’90s. When I look back on so many years of trying — 20 years — I did take some time off, but for the most part I was always working on something.

Q. Why?

A. I am one of those people … if I’m not writing fiction I get a little squirrel. In my darkest hours I was starting to confront fact that this might not happen for me. … But I couldn’t stop writing. I like to do it. Holding a published novel in my hands will be a big day. One lesson in my story is that if you love to do it, don’t give up. It might take awhile.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.