Edmonton's "newest" mystery writer has done it all.
By Robert Runté | August 29, 2020
This October will see the release of The Adventures of Isabel, a “postmodern mystery,” the first in a three-book series from Toronto’s ECW press. What’s surprising is that The Epitome Apartments Mysteries are by Edmonton’s Candas Jane Dorsey, the city’s most acclaimed speculative fiction author. As a writer, editor, publisher, and activist, Dorsey helped shape Canadian speculative fiction as a distinct movement within the SF genre… so why is she suddenly writing mysteries?
The truth is, Dorsey has always been genre-fluid, defying easy categorization. Although she has won critical acclaim within SF&F (the Tiptree, Crawford Fantasy, Prix Aurora Award, short listed for both the Spectrum and Sunburst Awards) hers was not your typical Star Trek-style sci-fi. Her genre writing could as easily have been shelved under feminist, Canadian or literary fiction. Her novel, Black Wine, for example, is a foundational feminist work, not only for its themes, but its uniquely feminist story structure. Likewise, her short fiction: Long before interrogating gender identity became mainstream, Dorsey wrote without revealing the characters’ gender. Readers therefore had to confront their assumptions when they realized they had automatically — gratuitously — ascribed those roles.
Similarly, Dorsey successfully modelled for an entire generation of Canadian speculative writers what Canadian themes and style might look like in an otherwise American-dominated genre. And Dorsey has always been a literary writer, moving seamlessly between mainstream and genre fiction, as evidenced by her award-winning collection, Vanilla and Other Stories.
“Despite being categorized mainly as a genre writer in speculative fiction,” Dorsey says, “the reality is, I write what I want to and the marketplace puts a label on it afterward. I write ‘mainstream,’ slipstream,’ ‘fantasy,’ ‘science fiction,’ ‘magic realism,’ ‘mystery’ — and it’s all just ‘writing’ to me. My novels and my four short fiction collections have all mixed up the tropes of genre in complicated ways. So perhaps one could say I’ve broken genre stereotypes the same way I broke gender stereotypes.”
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So why three mystery novels now?
“I got into them as something more lighthearted than the Big Looming Serious Novel I was writing. They still have serious elements, but I wrote them with less writer’s angst! It’s hard when the book you’re writing is hard and so is your real life. I wanted writing to be fun again.”
Work-life balance is important to Dorsey. One cannot expect output without input, so Dorsey argues the writing life is as much about developing a supportive community as about sitting at the keyboard. She believes writers need to devote 10 per cent of their time to developing their local community. “Like tithing,” she says.
“I chose to stay and have a career in Edmonton when I could have moved to a larger centre and perhaps made a bigger splash.”
Instead of leaving, Dorsey worked tirelessly to make Edmonton one of Canada’s literary hot spots, co-founding Edmonton’s Books Collective, which published close to a hundred titles by Canadian authors. Her role in developing the local scene was recognized last June when she was inducted into the Edmonton Arts and Culture Hall of Fame.
“I was delighted,” Dorsey concedes. “Sometimes it can feel as if anyone over 40 is forgotten, and our achievements, the changes we accomplished, are either taken for granted or discounted altogether. This is reassurance I haven’t wasted my life, or my opportunities, and that I made the right choices.”
“I have a Young Adult novel, The Story of My Life, Ongoing, coming out next spring from Inanna. Its protagonist is an intersex teen but the story is about solving a mystery of sorts in their best friend’s life.”
So, add YA to the list. Being genre-fluid — writing what comes and not worrying about marketing categories — has made Candas Jane Dorsey a better writer, and genre fiction a better read.