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The Woodcock Fund’s emergency help for authors

For 25 years the Woodcock Fund has been financially assisting authors when they need it the most

(Illustration: Jon Han)

(illustration: Jon Han)

Yasuko Thanh was deep into writing her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains (forthcoming from Hamish Hamilton), when two financial storms hit. The Victoria-based writer had painstakingly budgeted her grant money to the dollar, and there was no room for surprises – certainly not the unexpected legal and moving expenses she was suddenly facing. “I was thinking, if I have to rob a bank to finish this book, I will,” she says with a laugh. Her agent suggested she apply to the Woodcock Fund, administered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

Established in 1989 by George and Ingeborg Woodcock, the fund provides quick, accessible monetary assistance to professional Canadian writers in the midst of projects who encounter financial emergencies, such as a medical crisis or vital home repairs following a disaster. Each year the fund hands out approximately $75,000 (the exact figures fluctuate with the earnings from the principle investment, the bulk of which comes from a 2006 bequest from the Woodcock estate.

To date, the Woodcock Fund – the only one of its kind in the country – has distributed more than $1 million among more than 200 authors in need. (There are a number of resources available to writers outside Canada, including Britain’s Royal Literary Fund, founded in 1790, and PEN America’s emergency-funding program.) What’s more, the Woodcock Fund is organized to act fast: applications are reviewed by a committee of peers over the phone within a couple of days, and, if approved, a cheque goes out immediately. “They can have an answer and money within a week,” says Writers’ Trust of Canada executive director Mary Osborne.

The need is great in an industry where many authors, including those who are professionally established, live close to the poverty line. “A lot of them have things put in place financially where they’re being extremely careful, and so it’s not out of any kind of sloppiness, it’s just that they’re living close to the edge,” Osborne adds. “A small disruption in their spending pattern can make the difference between whether they’re able to keep writing or not.”

Mireille Silcoff, the Montreal author of the recently released story collection, Chez l’arabe (House of Anansi Press), left her job at the National Post seven years ago to deal with a rare tissue disorder in which the spinal fluid that keeps the brain suspended leaks from tears in the spine. It was while she lay on a declined bed, essentially willing her body to mend itself, that she began writing fiction for the first time.

“I knew I had a book on my hands, and I wanted to continue, I was desperate to continue,” Silcoff says. “I had made a good living, but suddenly I was not working and spending every penny I had on seeking treatment at expensive American hospitals and also needing to travel throughout Canada to find treatment.”

Silcoff turned to the internet and discovered the Woodcock Fund. While writing was slow going – she could only work for 15 minutes a day at first, and it took six years to finish Chez l’arabe – the funding bought her some time and financial freedom. “I was able to just work on the stories for a little while,” she says. “The thing I remember most is not the few thousand dollars that were incredibly generously given to me, but more the vote of confidence that I would somehow survive all this and it was important for me to keep on doing what I do.”

Both Thanh and Silcoff say they don’t think they would have finished their books if not for the funding and encouragement. In fact, Osborne notes that many recipients feel such gratitude that they later put money back into the fund.

“It’s not that they’ve suddenly struck it rich, it’s really just an impulse of generosity and appreciation,” says Osborne. “I find it’s quite impressive when somebody who still is not making a huge amount of money decides to give some of it to the fund that helped them out in a very dark hour.”