Thanks to improving tablet technology and several high-profile prizes, creative non-fiction is enjoying unprecedented popularity in Canada. Another sign of the genre’s status is the announcement that Halifax’s University of King’s College, in conjunction with Dalhousie University, will soon offer a graduate-level degree in long-form storytelling.
In the April 2012 issue of Q&Q, Vit Wagner spoke to King’s journalism professor Stephen Kimber about his vision for King’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction program.
Motivated by what he jokingly refers to as a mid-life crisis, Stephen Kimber marked his 50th birthday in 1999 by beginning an MFA in creative non-fiction at Baltimore’s Goucher College “ then and now one of the few institutions to offer a graduate program in that specialization.
Kimber, then the director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, didn’t need the credential. Nor, as the author of three non-fiction books, was he grasping for an entree into the publishing world.
It was an opportunity to work with good, professional writers and writing teachers, he recalls. Also, because of the kind of program it was and the quality of students it attracted, I was with people who wanted to do the same kinds of things that I did.
Kimber is convinced he emerged from Goucher a better writer. The proof, he says, is in the four non-fiction titles and one novel he has published since, including 2002’s Sailors, Slackers and Blind Pigs: Halifax at War (Doubleday Canada).
In the earlier books, I’d written narrative instinctively, but I only really began to understand better how narrative works, in terms of structures and scenes, while I was at Goucher, he says.
Now, Kimber aims to recreate that experience by introducing a similar program at King’s. Subject to approval by both King’s and its associated institution, Dalhousie University, the graduate program would be the first creative writing degree in Canada with a singular focus on non-fiction. (Writing programs at the University of British Columbia and elsewhere include non-fiction components in their programs. Also available are short-term non-fiction workshops of the kind offered by Saskatoon’s Sage Hill Writing Experience or the Banff Centre.)
Modelled after Goucher and projected to launch in the summer of 2013, the King’s program would span two years and require limited residency, enabling students to work mostly from home while maintaining careers or other responsibilities. Requirements to graduate would include crafting a book proposal and 200 pages of a completed manuscript. Students would receive mentorship from experienced writers and publishing professionals, and would be invited to attend sessions in Toronto or New York to familiarize themselves with the publishing world. The program would enrol 15 students the first year and 25 each year thererafter.
The ideal student is probably someone who has been out of school for a little while, although there will be focused students who come straight from the university system, Kimber says. They can have degrees in anything, not just journalism or English, but they have to be focused on a project and have some sense of what they want to do coming in.
Creative “ or, as it is also called, literary or narrative “ non-fiction has seldom enjoyed a higher profile in Canada, thanks in part to the spotlight cast by the Charles Taylor Prize, the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction, and the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction. This year, CBC’s Canada Reads focused on non-fiction for the first time in its 11-year history. Kimber also points to expanding publishing opportunities presented by tablets and e-readers as a potential added boon to the genre.
Despite the School of Journalism connection, King’s will be open to candidates interested in pursuing creative non-fiction in all of its many guises “ from memoir and travel writing to history and science aimed at the general reader.
We didn’t want to call it a master’s of journalism because we didn’t want to narrow it that much, Kimber says. There is a recognition on our part that creative non-fiction covers the waterfront. And we want to do that.