When I think about how to describe myself, who I am at the core, I go back to what I remember as a child, then I zoom through the decades to reflect on who I have become. At least two things have remained constant. I have always had an affinity for animals, like the sturdy chestnut horse who pulled the milk wagon down our road in the l950’s, like every dog I spotted with great longing for a pet of my own, like the flock of sheep I kept for wool, and the generations of Akbash Dogs, rescued cats and turtles and pot bellied pig who have lived with me over the years. The other passion I developed as a child was the love of reading and writing. As soon as I could string sentences together to tell a story, I was creating imaginary worlds on paper, often accompanied by my own illustrations. As I recall, subject matter ran from life on a horse farm to the exploration of remote North Sea islands inhabited by witches.
For a long time I thought I’d be a visual artist although I had no opportunities to study art in my school curriculum. I was also discouraged by my immigrant parents who had struggled through poverty and the Second World War until they landed in Canada in the early 1950’s. My dad worked as a labourer in the Sudbury mines until he completed correspondence courses in chemical engineering and was able to work above ground again. So I applied my insatiable curiosity to the sciences, believing that was a more practical path to a good life and prosperity. I focussed on zoology as a university undergrad, reproductive physiology for my Master of Science degree, and eventually entered the realm of research and analytical chemistry tied to the veterinary sciences.
Throughout my science career, I never gave up creating stories and writing. I received the first significant validation for my creative efforts from a high school English teacher, Dr. Evans. He was the person who recommended that I deliver the valedictorian address for my graduating class at Sudbury High School. I didn’t realize that this speech was supposed to be passed by some of the staff before it was presented. Apparently some of the heartfelt candour I expressed raised a few eyebrows on the stage behind me.
My most lucrative piece of writing to date was a fifty-word essay and accompanying photo that I submitted to the Great Canadian Dog Contest sponsored by the Purina Dog Food Company in 1986. This was not my most creative effort by any means, but as payment per word it hasn’t been topped yet. The total value of the first prize award was $25,000, of which $10,000 came in cash. So not including the photo, that would be $200 per word. The work included both of my passions, animals and writing.
The winning black and white photo shows one of my Akbash Dogs engaged in a tête a tête with her puppy in a field of sheep. And of course, luck played a part by being in the right place at the right time with camera in hand. The prize also included a trip to Toronto from my home in PEI, with Aba, the adult Akbash Dog in the photo. We had TV and radio interviews, a photo session to feature winning entries in a Purina calendar that was released the following year. Aba was the cover girl, of course.
You can read about some of my published work elsewhere on this site, and you will notice the themes don’t vary much. I co-authored a book on livestock protection dogs, first published in 1990. This book won an award for the best canine reference book, presented by the Dog Writers Association of America. I continue to be involved with livestock guardian dogs as the past registrar and on the board of Akbash Dogs International, occasional editor and contributor to the Akbash Sentinel newsjournal, and involvement in various livestock guardian social media sites.
But my first love is fiction, whether it is based on real history, places and events, or is wholly made up in my mind. Ideas for my first published novel had begun to form in my twenties while I was at university. I am a constant student of animal behaviour, which includes humans. I wanted to understand the motivations of the people in my life, observed close up or from a great distance. Perhaps this curiosity was enhanced by the frustration of never being able to enrol in a psychology class—that and anthropology seemed to fill up before I could ever register for them. Being a product of the Ukrainian immigrant culture and learning to manoeuvre between the ‘old and new worlds’, I knew that one day I had to write about the trials of my parents’ generation, the effects of war on refugees and what they passed on to their children. I was one of those children. House of Bears, finally published in 2009, was the result.
Besides publishing short memoir pieces, I’ve been absorbed most recently with an underwater world in the Kira’s Secret series. This blends my love of biology, behaviour and fantasy. As I tell the classes of children I read to, I am always researching the creatures and physical phenomena in our real world while I write. We must be aware that humans don’t know it all, that every day there are new discoveries. Just because something does not appear to exist right now, does not mean that it did not exist at one time, or will not exist in the future. Perhaps merrows did swim our seas at one time, we simply have not found any concrete evidence of them yet. Or they may have evaded our notice so far. I love that uncertainty. It means there is always more to discover, there will always be mysteries to solve or just to wonder about. And there will always be something new to read, and to write.
Juliet, Romeo and Spot were three of my underwater consultants. Fortunately they were patient and never complained, unless dinner was late. Then they often splashed their displeasure.