Alumna Angela Murie on English and Social Work

AngelaI love the ways in which English degrees have influenced the subsequent careers of some alumni; Angela Murie is a perfect example. Read on to find out more!– JLH

JLH: You followed your career in English with a degree in Social Work. Did that feel like an organic move at the time?
AM: For me it felt like that was what I was supposed to be doing all along. I went into English because I loved it but it wasn’t a vocation. I quickly found it lacking for me and filled that space with social work, namely starting an Amnesty International club at UW, and from there it all fell into place. Well, actually in between I also did a Russian literature minor. I love narrative plain and simple.

JLH: Can you map for our readers how your career has unfolded? Because it appears you’ve come full circle, in some ways, right back to communicating in the classroom!
AM: After completing my English degree I went directly into the MSW program, community development stream, and through my placements began working in the land of the non-profit. I did a placement at ROOF (Reaching our Outdoor Friends) and when the founder (Kate Millar) left I was hired as the new Executive Director. I stayed there for about five and a half years and then moved to Toronto. There I worked at KYTES (Kensington Youth Theatre and Employment Skills) which worked with street involved youth doing theatre of the oppressed with them. I stayed there for about five years as well, having two children in the midst of it. The family moved out of Toronto and back towards Waterloo Region settling in Salem, where I live still with my two children and two dogs. In the early noughts I started working in Orangeville managing a counselling agency for women who have been abused. Besides managing the counselling program I also managed the legal support program and the violence prevention program. From there I went to work at the Region of Waterloo supervising a youth advocacy program but left to become the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region after only one year. I have just left that position after almost eight years. Somewhere around 2006 I started a private practice specializing in working with high conflict couples post divorce doing something called parenting coordination which is a unique blend of coaching, education, mediation and arbitration. I came to doing formal teaching just in 2010 and have taught at various universities and colleges as a sessional or partial load instructor.

JLH: When I interviewed alumnus Alok Mukherjee, he talked about how his degree in English and his understanding of narrative has influenced how he considers the narratives he encounters as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. I’m curious as to whether your English degree has shaped your work.
AM: My English degree background has been a boon in all the work I have done. Quite simply, I can write and quite well. This is helped me in writing reports, grant applications, funding proposals, research applications, articles etc. etc. Also, in my individual work with clients I have been able to use narrative as a counselling tool as well as metaphors and analogies in ways I wouldn’t have had I not had the English degree background. And, obviously, it has been very helpful in my teaching. I just taught Academic Writing to Masters of Social Work students and had I not had that background, well, yikes….

JLH: Thinking back now–and maybe even from the vantage of the front of the classroom–what stands out for you about your time at UWaterloo? 
AM: What stands out in my memory more than anything was my time with the Amnesty International members. They were so dedicated, so compassionate, so energetic and passionate and they truly believed that they could be part of the answer. That time was the foundation that has allowed me to continue on for almost thirty years now doing “useful” work.

JLH: Finally, can you share with us what you are currently reading for fun?
AM: Well, let’s see. I read a lot. I am currently reading some books on parenting coordination for fun. As strange as that may seem. I also really like reading books on how the brain works, and interpersonal neurobiology. But, my guilty pleasure regarding reading, would be mystery books. I have a number of authors that I look for on a constant basis such as Martha Grimes, Louise Penny (a wonderful Canadian author), Peter Robinson (also Canadian) and Peter May (a Scottish author). But other favorite non-mystery writers include Boyden, Saramago, Kundera, Barry, and of course all the Russian greats.

A reading by award-winning author Olive Senior

Dancing-Lessons-Olive-SeniorThis is one of those amazing things it’s hard not to get excited about: Jamaican-Canadian writer Olive Senior is reading at UWaterloo this Thursday, 20 November, at 4:30 pm, in St. Jerome’s 3027. Senior’s short story collection Summer Lightening won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (and maybe part of the reason I’m particularly excited is I have fond memories of studying it as a student).

Olive Senior repeatingimagesThe official release:

Olive Senior is the prizewinning author of 14 books of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and children’s literature. She won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for Summer Lightning) and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry (Over the Roofs of the World). Her other poetry books are Talking of Trees, Gardening in the Tropics (on the syllabus of Caribbean schools) and Shell. Her novel Dancing Lessons was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, the First Novel Award, was a Globe Best Book and was long listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Prize. Her children’s picture books are Birthday Suit and Anna Carries Water. Her latest work, Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panana Canal has just been released by University of the West Indies Press in the centenary year of the opening of the Panama Canal. She returns to short fiction in 2015 with the release of The Pain Tree by Cormorant Press.

Olive Senior conducts writing workshops internationally and is on the faculty of the Humber School for Writers, Toronto.

For more information about the Reading Series, please visit

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $157 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country.
Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien. L’an dernier, le Conseil a investi 157 millions de dollars pour mettre de l’art dans la vie des Canadiennes et des Canadiens de tout le pays.

Alumna Edna Kruger on co-op, INTERPOL, and favorite profs

EdnaFrom man-eating dinosaurs to espionage and good wine–UWaterloo Alumna Edna Kruger’s interview has it all. I think this is going to be a hard one to top! Thank you to Edna for participating in Words in Place; she made it even more fun than usual.–JLH

JLH: Can you tell us a bit about your career trajectory after graduating–has it played out as you expected?
EK: That’s a funny question because I had no idea what to expect as a career trajectory – I was just happy to have one! When I graduated from UWaterloo in 1988 and moved to Montreal, it was enough of a challenge to get any job, let alone one in the area of professional writing. I took a job as an office temp to pay the bills, and went to career fairs and prospective company open houses to apply for jobs. After a year or so, I got a job as a technical editor in a computer company that created video graphics cards and video editing software.

But I wanted to write, so after two years there, I saw an opportunity to take a writing job at a network software company. I got some great experience there … and was bored out of my brains with writing user guides about terminal emulation software! As if by magic, an ex-colleague contacted me about an opportunity to be an editor/writer at a company called Softimage. They created 3D animation software, and I was hooked as soon as I saw the T-Rex from Jurassic Park being animated in their software! It didn’t hurt either that the company was on St-Laurent boulevard in Montreal’s hip plateau area. I was at Softimage for an embarrassing number of years (15) because I loved working there and, amazingly, I didn’t get laid off. The people at Softimage had a real passion for their work and a camaraderie that I hadn’t experienced in other companies. The animators who used the software were crazy and creative, and I got to know many of them, which gave me inspiration to write the user guides.

Then six years ago, Softimage was bought by Autodesk and most of us made the move there. Autodesk likes to restructure itself fairly often, so two years ago I was presented with the opportunity to switch from writing to creating tutorial-type training videos, which is what I’m doing now. I do the research on a concept or workflow of the 3D animation software, write the scripts, record the video, record the audio, do the video editing, and then post everything on an Autodesk product “learning channel” on YouTube.

I’m happy to drift along this current for quite a while, but I also have some ideas percolating in the back of my mind. I’m looking at using other forms of social media to contribute training information to the 3D community, and I’d like to take some instructional design courses.

JLH: What do you remember about your undergrad experiences? Were any particularly co-op terms memorable?
EK: The house parties and WatPubs! I also met students from other faculties, whom I probably would have never met otherwise. I also remember the angst of trying to find an apartment in a city I had never visited before!

My first co-op job was at the RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa, which seems like an odd choice for an arts job. I was helping an art historian catalogue data about stolen art into a database for INTERPOL, which was pretty cool. The thing that took me aback for that job was being interviewed and fingerprinted by RCMP officers because I had access to some top secret information! My favourite co-op job was at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton. I did research on health issues and created video scripts to explain possible health problems from exposure to hazardous materials in factories and hospitals. I’m not sure if those scripts ever got turned into videos, but it was fun experience. This was definitely in the days before YouTube!

JLH: In retrospect, how useful was co-op in establishing you in your current career?
EK: Very much so! I doubt that I would have had any relevant experience in professional writing after graduation had I not done the co-op program. In fact, at my first real job, my manager told me that he hired me because I had had a co-op work term at IBM, and that impressed him. The fact that a university actually had a co-op program for Arts was quite revolutionary at the time. I would not have even known the type of jobs that were available for Arts grads without the co-op program.

JLH: When you think back to your time in English at UWaterloo, what stands out?
EK: At university in general, it was just such a joy to take courses of subjects that I actually liked, as compared to high school. I loved how my English, history, and art history classes all revealed different facets of the same time period. But I think what strikes me most was that I realized how much I enjoyed analyzing literature. I had had only a taste of that from two of my high school English teachers, but I knew I wanted more! It started with my first-year English course with Prof. Gordon Slethaug. He presented literary analysis in such a clear way that I was convinced that I wanted to do my degree in English (I was enrolled in General Arts in first year). On top of that, he was just a great guy who made you feel at ease. Then there was Prof. W.K. Thomas, whose passion for the importance of descriptive language flipped on a “word” switch somewhere in my brain! I also enjoyed Prof. Lynne Magnusson’s Shakespeare classes because she was an excellent professor, and she also had a “Renaissance aura” about her, which seemed very appropriate.

And, of course, the best thing about university was all the friends that I made.

JLH: I love to ask: what are your current favorite books?
EK: I hadn’t read much fiction in the past years, but I finally got back to reading again last year. I was halfway through Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is so beautifully and sensitively written, when I got distracted by two books on my son’s Gr. 10 summer reading list: The Humans by Matt Haig (an engaging and entertaining story), and the classic Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Don’t worry – my son read the books too, but I think I enjoyed them more!

Last Christmas, I received the book Red, White, and Drunk All Over by Natalie Maclean as a gift from my husband. I have recently started learning more about wine, and this book is a very informative and witty romp through several vineyards, from Burgundy to California. Of course, doing wine research also involves lots of sampling! Now, I just have to finish Life of Pi before I get distracted by something else … like a bottle of pinot noir.

Hear about 19thC Black Canadians

harrisThis Saturday Professor Jennifer Harris, of UWaterloo’s Department of English, will be giving a public talk on the careers of 19thC Canadian-born black women involved in publishing, writing, and rhetoric. Harris will also discuss new research into 19th Black Canadian settlers in, and residents of, the Waterloo region.

Hear poet Jeff Gundy on Defiance

GundyOn Friday, November 14th, U.S. poet and essayist Jeff Gundy will read from his new book of poetry, Circling Defiance, as the second night of this year’s Bechtel Lectures. A key writer in the growing field of “theo-poetics” and an established figure in Mennonite studies, Gundy’s new book extends his ongoing exploration of human nature and the natural world in his signature mix of humour and insight.

Jeff Gundy has published six books of poetry and three of prose; Spoken among the Trees (Akron, 2007) won the Society of Midland Authors Poetry Award, and Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing (Cascadia, 2005), received the Dale Brown Award for Anabaptist and Pietist Scholarship. This year, he published his most recent book of poems (Somewhere Near Defiance, Anhinga Press) and collection of essays (Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and the World, Cascadia). He teaches at Bluffton University in Ohio and was a 2008 Fulbright lecturer at the University of Salzburg.

Gundy appears as part of  “Mennonite/s Writing 2014-2015,” a seven session reading series showcasing new work by some of the most prominent authors in the field, including: Rudy Wiebe, Miriam Toews, Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, David Bergen, and Carrie Snyder.

The New Mennonite/s Writing series at Conrad Grebel, promises seven evenings of compelling literature with some of Canada’s most celebrated authors. The series will be hosted by Robert Zacharias, Assistant Editor of The Journal of Mennonite Studies and Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at the University of Waterloo.

Location: Conrad Grebel University Chapel 140 Westmount Road North Waterloo, ON N2L 3G6 Canada

Image credit. Text from Mennonite/s Writing.

You know his work, I promise: Meet Alumnus David Morrell

David_Morrell_credit_Jennifer_Esperanza_fullI have no idea how many UWaterloo English alumni have entries on both Wikipedia and IMDB, but David Morrell does. Even more impressive is his time on the New York Times bestseller list. Read on to find out how it all happened. And thank you to David for participating in Words in Place. –JLH

JLH: You were among the first to graduate from UWaterloo: can you talk a bit about what it was like on campus and in the English department at that time?
DM: I was a University of Waterloo student from 1962 to 1966, majoring in English literature. In those days, St. Jerome’s was a college within the university. My classes were divided between the two institutions, and I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. There was plenty of open space in those days. Going to classes was almost like a walk in the country.

JLH: You’ve had a very successful career: when you think about your trajectory, do you see moments that were really pivotal?
DM: There’s no question that my training at the University of Waterloo was crucial to my later writing career. The intensity and the extent of an English honors program back then seems unbelievable to me now. While the first year was devoted to electives, the remaining three years required courses that covered every aspect of English literature—from the Anglo-Saxons, to Chaucer and Middle-English literature, to Shakespeare, on and on. There were only four students in the honors program, which meant that we received an enormous amount of attention. Professor Larry Cummings was the head of the English program at St. Jerome’s, and he somehow convinced us to agree to a tutorial program in which we taught the classes while he supervised us. That meant writing a 3,000-word essay for each of five courses, with each of us making a presentation every fourth class. It seems impossible, but we did it. I learned discipline, organization, and determination to a degree that I didn’t think was possible. In the fall of 1966, when I went to the United States to attend grad school in the English department at Penn State, I discovered that my B.A. in English from the University of Waterloo was the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the U.S. Because I had much less academic pressure, I was able to devote myself to fiction writing, and the result, when I graduated from Penn State, was First Blood, the novel in which the character of Rambo was created. It’s interesting that a Canadian created so American a character. I think it’s because I brought a foreign perspective to the near-civil-war that the Vietnam War caused in the United States.

JLH: What do you value most about your career?
DM: Everything I’ve done, both writing and teaching, has been about the desire to see life as a journey in which I keep looking ahead and trying to become a fuller person.

JLH: What do you wish you’d known when graduating?
DM: I wish I’d had the perspective of knowing that life is composed of peaks and valleys and that being impatient doesn’t accomplish anything. With each day, we ought to try to do the best we can, and if at the end of the day, human imperfection causes us to fail to accomplish that goal, there’s always the next day.

MurderAsAFineArtJLH: Can you tell us a bit about what you are writing now?
DM: In 2009, my 14-year-old granddaughter Natalie died from a rare bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, which also killed my 15-year-old son Matthew. Only a couple of hundred people contract the disease each year in Canada and the United States. It’s inherited. This double grief caused me to look for a huge project to distract me. I became fascinated by a controversial Victorian literary personality, Thomas De Quincey, who was the first person to write about drug addiction (in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1821). De Quincey’s opium nightmares led him to conclude that the human mind is composed of “chasms and sunless abysses, level upon level, in which alien natures can live undetected.” This sounds like Freud, but Freud didn’t publish his psychoanalytic ideas until almost 80 years later. De Quincey also wrote a famous essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” in which he praised the great murderers of history for their artistry, particularly the perpetrator of the sensational Ratcliffe Highway mass murders that terrified England far more than the murders of Jack the Ripper. Trying to distance myself from my grief, I decided to write a series of Victorian mystery/thrillers that feature De Quincey’s fascination with murder and his pre-Freudian insight into the twisted depths of the human mind. It was a terrific risk to switch from contemporary North American topics, but I couldn’t resist becoming a mental time traveler, and the novel Murder as a Fine Art received some of the best reviews of my 42-year career. Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the top ten mystery/thrillers of 2013.

JLH: Finally, what are you currently reading?
DM: I’m still mentally time-traveling. My goal in Murder as a Fine Art was to try to make readers believe that they are literally on the harrowing fogbound streets of Victorian London. That meant I needed to go back to the intense literary-research training that I was privileged to acquire at the University of Waterloo and St. Jerome’s College. It’s no exaggeration to say that for several years, the only books I read were related to Victorian London—histories, novels from the period, cultural analyses, and De Quincey’s thousands of pages of brilliant prose. I basically taught myself the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the Victorian era. My office has shelves and shelves of books on the topic. I even had the honor of lecturing about De Quincey in his hometown of Manchester, England, and then in Grasmere in the Lake District where De Quincey lived in Dove Cottage after Wordsworth moved. I couldn’t have done any of this without the University of Waterloo and St. Jerome’s College.

Author photo credit: Jennifer Esperanza

Alumnus David Nimmo remembers his UWaterloo experience

david nimmoI learn so much from doing interviews with alumni. This interview with David Nimmo was particularly compelling. I hope you agree. –JLH

JLH: You were among the first to graduate from the Faculty of Arts at UWaterloo. Can you talk a bit about the energy on campus at the time?
DN: In its early days, U of Waterloo was marked by a great sense of rivalry between faculties, especially Engineering (“plumbers”) and Arts (“artsies”), but also between U of W and Waterloo College, then Waterloo Lutheran and now Wilfrid Laurier University. There was also excitement about getting in on the ground floor of student organizations—in my   case, the student newspaper The Coryphaeus (now Chevron), in other cases the jazz band, politics, or sports teams.

JLH: When you think back, what stands out from your English classes?
DN: W.K. Thomas’s first year English survey course was a formative experience. And Walter Martin’s twentieth-century British Lit. class and practical criticism class were most stimulating! The profs took us seriously as future discipline colleagues.

JLH: You were fortunate to teach abroad. How different was the experience from your own undergraduate education?
DN: In England, I held tutorials on Oxbridge lines: two students and I would meet once a week, and each student would alternate delivering a paper I had assigned in one of their Honours English courses, from Chaucer to the Moderns. Waterloo had prepared me well across the curriculum. At the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica I taught the same courses Walter Martin had taught me, Modern British lit. and practical criticism, and the Romantic Poetry class that W.K. Thomas had taught me. So that Waterloo experience made me feel more at home.

JLH: You’ve recently endowed two awards for English graduate students. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause here to say thank you on behalf of the English department!) Can you share with us what motivated your decision?
DN: One, I wanted to repay Waterloo for what it gave me. Second, I want to encourage humanities students not to listen to that glum talk about underemployment and being over qualified, but just go for it! Waterloo links literature with professional skills and that’s   invaluable.

JLH: Finally, what are you currently reading for fun?
DN: Every day I read scenes from yet to be titled film scripts! I recently was awarded a scholarship from a Californian producer to do an online screenwriting course. Each day we submit a scene from our own script and have to critique each others’ scripts. It’s like being a reader of Dickens’ magazine installments!

For those interested in learning more about Dr. Nimmo’s late wife, Lea Vogel-Nimmo, for whom one of the two endowed awards is named, there is a wonderful 45 minute documentary online.