Fiction, non-fiction and creativity – an interview with author Alastair Henry

hand writingWelcome to a new interview in my series on creativity in non-fiction writing, and today we’re meeting writer Alastair Henry, who was inspired by his post-retirement travels to write an autobiography and co-write a book about his volunteering adventures to help others to make the right choices and to inspire them to go out into the world and help other people. Here, Alastair shares his story and we have a bonus section on the special and interesting way that he now takes his own books on the road!

Hello, Alistair, and thank you for taking part in this series. So, tell me a bit about yourself and your books.

I followed the London Life Insurance “Freedom 55’ plan and retired at the age of 57. But, disillusioned with the passivity of it all, I returned to the workforce with a small First Nations band in a remote community in the NWT. Cultural differences and a challenging environment ignited fresh perspectives, inspired a new way of being and fueled my aspirations for the future. I went in to Lutsel K’e as a hard core businessman and came out two years later as an advocate for marginalized people. Although my autobiography “Awakening in the Northwest Territories” spans sixty years, the core of the story takes place in the N.W.T.

Motivated about helping others less fortunate, I went to Bangladesh for two years as a volunteer when I came out of the north, and two years later met Candas. We met one day by chance, fell in love, and with a shared passion to improve the lives of others, set off on a new path of adventure in travel and volunteering. We shed our material possessions and exchanged our comfortable Canadian lifestyle to live a simpler life in Kingston, Jamaica; Georgetown, Guyana; and the Eco-Lodges in the Rupununi Rain Forest, while volunteering with local non-governmental organizations. On our time off, we explored Tobago and Antigua on roads less traveled. We co-wrote “Go For It – Volunteering Adventures on Roads Less Traveled” as a way to share our experiences and learnings in the hope they inspire other Boomers to “GO FOR IT.”

How did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction?

When I went to the N.W.T., my daughter gave me a journal and these words: “Write in this, dad because I want to know what it’s like to live up there.” I did write, initially out of a sense of obligation, but then I got into the habit of writing every night for the next two years. When I left the north, I immediately went to Costa Rica for a month to enter the journals into Word and then worked away at converting the journals into more of a story. I titled my finished ms. “White Man On The Land,” and gave it to my children. Other people read and enjoyed it, but commented that it begged the questions of who was this man who went to Lutsel K’e and what did he do after he left the north. I continued to write and rewrite, and went back sixty years to tell the story because everything in life is interconnected. I felt I had to start at the beginning to fully realize and reveal who I was. In 2013, eight years after I first wrote my diaries, I published my autobiography.

Did I always want to write? No. Had my daughter not given me a journal I probably would have not become an author.

I recently blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?

I believe writing a memoir can be just as creative as writing fiction if you approach it that way. The only difference is you are using facts from your memory rather than creations from your imagination. The rest of the writing is about how you tell the story and that’s the truly creative aspect of writing. In many ways, one has to be even more creative, because you can’t fabricate people and settings to enhance your story – you must find ways to describe your recollections that will be enjoyable to readers.

I was amazed at how much detail there were in my memories when I stopped, dwelt and delved into my cranial archives. I wandered around in my memories using all of my senses – What did I smell? What did I feel? Who else was there? Was it rainy or sunny? What was the backstory to that memory, etc., etc.?

It was cathartic. Life is a journey from birth to death and everything in it is interconnected. For every effect there is a cause, but most of us don’t think too earnestly about this. Reflecting and thinking about our past reveals the causes, effects and outcomes that shaped our lives. In my case, my childhood was most impacted by two factors: my parent’s strict Victorian code of behaviour for children and a heavy religious schooling that resulted in me being shy, insecure and confused by the time I was a teenager. And when I reflected upon my time in the north with the Dene, I saw that I had metamorphosed from a cold-hearted businessman to a warm-hearted advocate for people’s rights.

Had I not embarked upon writing my memoir I would not have the mental clarity and the understanding of myself that I have today. And nor would my children have an account of their father’s life that they can hand down to successive generations.

Tell us about the special way you get to travel, meet people and sell your books!

In addition to online sales that come about through my involvement in social media, I present an audio/visual package – book readings accompanied by relevant photos and a sound track – to various groups throughout S.W. Ontario, such as Seniors Centers, Retirement Residences, Service Clubs, as well as Home Shows –they make a refreshing change from Tupperware and Mary Kay parties!

I’m most fortunate in that I have many photos that correspond to my writings which have enabled me to put together these A/V presentations for both books. Because the settings and reading excerpts are so different from everyday life in Canada, the presentations are received with much interest and enjoyment and lively discussions always follow.

This is now what we do in our retirement. We have become entertainers and no longer view ourselves as authors reading from a book. We did over 90 presentations in 2014 and plan to do more in 2015, including a six-week road trip from our home in Ontario to Newfoundland, stopping along the way  here and there for two or three days to do some readings. It’s a wonderful activity for us because we so enjoy meeting people –our future readers – and learning about their story.

Thank you for all those thoughts and your view of creativity in non-fiction, as well as the info on how you enjoy promoting your books to the full. Finally, please tell us where we can find you and your books!

My books are both available on Amazon, via my author page or their individual pages:

Awakening in the North

Go for It

You can read new interviews in the series, either by subscribing to this blog (see the links in the top right if you’re viewing on a PC or on the drop-down menu if you’re reading on a phone or tablet) or clicking on the “non-fiction creativity” tag at the top of this post, which will give you access to all the interviews published so far, as well. Happy reading!

My own books are all firmly in the non-fiction area, but I do involve aspects of my own life and experience to make them more accessible and welcoming. Take a look by exploring the links on this page, or by visiting the books pages.

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