Born in Duff, Saskatchewan on her grandfather’s farm, Corinne Jeffery was six years old when she moved to the Miniota area in Manitoba. Following Grade 12 in Virden, she then relocated to Brandon, where she trained as a Registered Nurse from 1963-66 at then-Brandon General Hospital. In Winnipeg, she got a job she loved as a public health nurse with the St. Boniface Health Unit, and finished her Bachelor of Nursing Degree. While Jeffery spent her career as a nursing program developer, the great Canadian novel — or in her case, novels — was bubbling around in the back of her brain. Her trilogy, which encompasses ‘Arriving,’ ‘Thriving’ and ‘Choosing,’ is collectively entitled ‘Understanding Ursula.’ The first two volumes are set mostly in Saskatchewan, while ‘Choosing’ is set primarily in Manitoba. (SUBMITTED)
Am I correct in saying these works aren’t autobiographical, but there are some elements of your life in them?
Well, I had an interesting conversation with a woman who later identified herself as a professor of literature at the University of Saskatchewan. She had already read ‘Arriving’ and ‘Thriving.’ This was at McNally Robinson Booksellers and she was there to purchase ‘Choosing.’ She told me she really enjoyed them and then she said, ‘Corinne, may I tell you something?’ And I said, ‘Certainly!’ I mean, I’m open — I want to hear everything.
And she said, ‘We’ve done a change in the kind of designation now for your kinds of books.’ Like, we listed them as a work of fiction. But she said what they are now listed as are ‘creative non-fiction.’ And I like that!
So the first two books are creative non-fiction. Now we did change the third book a bit, and we said this is a work of fiction based on real events. But it IS autobiographical.
And it’s considered creative non-fiction, I think, because I’ve changed all the names — good heavens! That’s to protect the innocent — or me! (laughs) And it’s helpful to have those kinds of disclaimers. And in fact, my disclaimer on the first book is that any resemblance between real and fictitious characters is a subtle blending.
Good for you!
And I think every honest author will tell you that. That they write — I wrote about what I knew. And although I am turning 68 this month, I was not around in 1909, so I didn’t know those people. But it is based on my own family.
The picture of the two people on the cover of ‘Arriving’ is actually my great-grandparents. They were peasants in Austria. And I have an uncle who would take great exception to hearing that. But the reality is that at that time in our history, there were two classes of people, especially in Europe. There was the aristocracy and there were the peasants. And they were also pacifists. So along came Catherine the Great, and she promised them tracts of land in Russia, and political freedom. So off they went. They got there and the land was very poor, very rocky, and they were conscripted into the Czar’s army.
I can remember my grandmother telling me stories about how her father served in the Czar’s army. My grandmother, although born in Canada, never had an opportunity to go to school, learned to really hesitantly read German, and she didn’t speak English very well at all —she would mix up words and juxtapose her numerical digits. In fact, she was so embarrassed by her English, that even at family gatherings, she would stay in the kitchen. She was a great worker, she did all the work, did all the cleanup, and then if she finally would come in to where everybody else was, she’d sit in the corner and crochet.
And I loved this woman beyond measure and I couldn’t STAND that, so I would go and sit with Grandma, and get her talking. And when she was comfortable and confident, then she started to divulge all these wonderful stories.
My publisher is convinced that my trilogy was indelibly etched in my heart and my mind and my soul and it was just waiting all these years to get out. And in many ways, everything I’ve done in my life has brought me to a culmination of writing this trilogy.
So how did you make the leap? You were fascinated by your grandmother’s stories when you were a child, but you spent your life in nursing. Then all of a sudden in, one might say, your golden years, you have become an author of some note. What caused the transformation?
I grew up in a very impoverished, dysfunctional family, and poverty was very much a part of my life. And I decided I was never going to be poor again. So I chose the easy path. Because you can always get work and be well-paid as a nurse. Although from the age of seven, I was telling everybody I was going to write a book.
I drove my siblings crazy. But I don’t think anyone ever took me seriously. So at the age of 57, I started to write my almost 1,100 page trilogy. And now I’m 67, and I have three published books.
Thank you! So literally, I am following my dream. And I think quite possibly the best way to retire is to follow your dream. It takes a lot of courage and it’s going to take a lot of hard work. But I’m one of these high-energy people who always has to have something on the go. I had an instructor once who worked for me who said a person is completely defined by work. And I thought about that, and I don’t think I’m defined as much by work as I am defined by accomplishment. I have to accomplish. And I just could not spend my retirement — I mean, I have all this productive time — why wouldn’t I use it?
I used to teach my students about self-actualization — I taught interpersonal skills for 20 years. And that was one of the goals I was teaching them — to strive to reach your true potential. So I feel I’m striving for that right now. There are other books I want to write. So I better get busy!
But how did you actually get started writing?
Well, at Christmas in 2001, my daughter, who was tired of hearing about this book I was going to write, gave me this Christmas gift. And I opened it up, and I’m not a concrete person at all — I don’t see concrete — and so here she gives me these four corkboards and a package of recipe cards. And I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’
She said, ‘Mom, you put that up on your wall. That’s your bulletin board. And then every time you get an idea for your book, I want you to write it down on a recipe card and pin it up.’
Boy, it was great, because in no time at all, that wall was full! So in May of 2002, I took off to the Neudorf-Lemberg-Duff-Melville-Regina area on a research trip. I went back to my grandfather’s farm, I went back to my great-grandparents’ homestead. And my life is nothing but a story! Because I get to Neudorf and go into the town offices because I know all these little places have histories. So I introduce myself to the town manager and he says, ‘What family are you researching?’ And I told him. And he said, ‘Oh — you have a cousin across the street having coffee right now.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t know of any existing cousins.’ ‘Oh, you wait here,’ he says, and he goes off.
And he comes back with this gentleman and he is indeed my cousin — my second cousin. And he said, ‘Jump in the truck and I’ll take you all around.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s very kind of you, sir, but I don’t know you.’ And he said, ‘Oh — I’m not going to harm you.’
So I did jump in his truck and he took me to the original homestead that I write about in the book! And then he started taking me to these other places and the déjà vu was just overwhelming! Because all of these memories — I’m convinced my subconscious mind just started to click in. And then we got to this little cemetery which I write about extensively in the trilogy. And I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t get out of the truck. And he said, ‘Are you all right?’ And I said, ‘I just need a minute.’
So I go into this little cemetery — it’s now called the Redeemer Lutheran Cemetery, but it was actually on my great-grandparents’ homestead. So I walk all around this cemetery and I come to these headstones. And it’s my great-grandparents. So I stand there and I’m just rooted to the spot — I just couldn’t move. And then I had a very eerie incident, and I don’t want you to think I’m a wing-nut, but all of sudden I got this powerful feeling of affirmation to go ahead and write the story. So I came back and I started to write.
Wow! That’s amazing!
It WAS amazing. It was all German names in this entire little cemetery — maybe 20 or 25 headstones — except one Brian Thompson. And I said to this distant cousin, ‘Why would HE be here?’ And he said, ‘I have no idea.’
So he becomes a dominant character, because my trilogy — especially the first book, ‘Arriving’ — is centered on the German Lutherans in Neudorf and Lemburg, and on the other side of the road allowance were the English Methodists. And the two young men, Gustav Werner and Andrew Thompson, become friends. And that all just came to me from that headstone. I do have an overactive imagination!
With the trilogy, now — the collective is ‘Understanding Ursula.’ Is she the protagonist in all of these?
Nope. Nope. And I have all kinds of people say to me, ‘Who is Ursula?’ And she doesn’t even play much of a role in the first book at all. And then people were saying, ‘So who was trying to understand Ursula?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry — you have to read the trilogy.’
Your books are available at McNally’s at Grant Park in Winnipeg, right?
Yes — that’s the only place in Manitoba that has my books.
That’s so weird, considering where they are on the best-seller lists in Edmonton.
Yes! A week after its release, ‘Choosing’ was number four, and ‘Arriving’ went back on the list at number nine.
Why do you think your books have struck such a chord with people?
I really am convinced that the appeal of my books is how I have immortalized the real, ordinary Canadian. That was my goal. I get so tired of reading about the rich and the famous — I mean, it would be lovely to be Kate Middleton and have a fairy tale. But the majority of people don’t live lives like that! The majority of the people in the world are ordinary. And especially in Canada. A librarian at the University of Saskatchewan said to me that she has all kinds of books about politicians, the hockey players, the rich and the famous, the notorious — the Conrad Blacks and the Colin Thatchers — but there are very few books about you and me — ordinary Canadians. And that was one of the things I wanted to do, was to immortalize the real, ordinary Canadian in the fiction of my novels. And that’s what I think I have done. And that’s the appeal of my books.
For more information about Jeffery or her books, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 2, 2013