Interview with Bill Arnott: A Season on Vancouver Island
Lorette at The Ekphrastic Review: You are well known for your wonderful, witty, award winning travel tales of the world. This book is a little different. Tell us about the way it came together, if you can – a bit about the how and the why.
Bill Arnott: Thanks Lorette. It’s a privilege to join you again in the pages of The Ekphrastic Review, one of my favourite publications. Okay, the back story to my new memoir, A Season on Vancouver Island. I was vacationing on “The Island” and got together with my publisher at Rocky Mountain Books to chat Icelandic literature (as you do). We were planning a new edition of Gone Viking to complete my travelogue series as a trilogy in 2023. And I was asked if I’d also like to create a book about my current travels around Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and include original visual art. I’d intended to be there for a few weeks but loved the idea and decided to stay for three months, a full season. To do it properly I stayed in numerous communities across the “Big Island” as well as surrounding Gulf Islands, exploring, taking photos, and researching as I went. The result, I feel, is a rich, inclusive experience in yet another gorgeous part of the planet.
Lorette: You’ve been everywhere, but feel your home area is one of the most magical places in the world. For our readers who have not experienced British Columbia, can you tell us what makes this place so special to you?
Bill: While I’ve been fortunate to see a good chunk of the globe, I always stress you never have to leave to find beauty. There are wonderous things to discover wherever we are, in both nature and culture. BC’s islands and coasts are another example of this, with unique flora and fauna, outdoor activities, old growth forests, and millennia of Indigenous history and heritage, which simply can’t be overcommunicated.
Lorette: Tell us about your photography, and the process of digital painting from your own works.
Bill: For years I travelled without bothering to take photos, concerned I might “miss out” on experiencing something if I spent time looking at the world through a lens. Plus, I didn’t want the physical burden of a camera. But as tech improved I realized I could capture moments in a way I couldn’t always manage through journal notes or sketches. Image resolution’s not only great but opens up new veins of creativity, revealing subtleties I can miss in the moment with the naked eye. Now I find photos themselves a new canvas, at times calling for the addition of a supplementary voice, which I embrace with digital painting. This is the artwork that appears throughout A Season on Vancouver Island. What I do is incorporate a series of software applications to each photo, massaging each facet or colour-wash to achieve a stylized tone I feel enhances the storytelling and imagery. And as you know, multimedia invariably enriches an experience.
Lorette: Your writing style is very vivid and imagistic – you really paint for us a picture of the places and events you are witnessing. How do you achieve that? Do you keep a notebook, or rely on snapshots? Do you write as you go? Do you research a place in advance, or after the fact?
Bill: Thanks. It may sound obvious but I write what I like to read. My authorly mentors tend to write in a visually engaging, sensory manner, which I strive to incorporate in my work as well. Many of my favourite prose writers are poets too. That manner of crafting cadence, word play, and occasional dreaminess is a style I find evocative, inspiring, and a joy to share. Yes, I utilize journals for note-taking, while photos can serve as recollective touchstones and memory triggers. And I research destinations before, during, and after I travel there, as I find elements reveal themselves differently given those different perspectives – anticipation and a subsequent sense of familiarity.
Lorette: Writing prose or poetry to correspond with your own artwork is a different experience from ekphrastic writing to another artist. Share with us what you learned about yourself from this process. Did you discover anything unexpected about your artwork? Did writing with your works in mind change your writing process or patterns? Did you feel your art and writing were complementary or competing with one another? How did the experience change you or change the way you work?
Bill: Great questions. I feel it’s imperative that each element of the process, each medium, can stand alone, tell its own story and be the best composition it can be. I don’t necessarily see one thing – words or visual art – begetting the other, but instead complementary lines of storytelling creating a new elixir. I see it as a kind of alchemy. Like preparing a sumptuous meal. Start with exceptional ingredients. Keep it uncomplicated, take time, add your own flair and serve it with pride, knowing you’re sharing something truly special. When it’s sincere, authenticity shines through, making each presentation, I feel, extraordinary. And yes, the process of imagining, designing and creating A Season on Vancouver Island has changed me in a most positive way, deepening my artistic engagement and connection with readers who’ve not only come to trust my words but are now finding wonderfully new visual ebullience in our travels together.
A Season on Vancouver Island by Bill Arnott
RMB Books, 2022
Excerpts from Bill Arnott’s new memoir, A Season on Vancouver Island (RMBooks 2022)
First things first. This is a part of the world that I love. Vancouver Island and its surrounding archipelago, British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, remain one of the planet’s most magical regions. When RMB publisher Don Gorman asked if I’d write a memoir about time spent here and include original visual art, not only was I delighted, but eager. Truth be told, I’d have created it anyway. Only now we can experience it together. Which is an incredible privilege, sharing vignettes and digitally painted photos, discovering new and familiar sites: forest, sea, the lands of Indigenous Nations. I’ve included a note as to names and transliteration, doing my best to accurately relay regional narratives. The result, I feel, is a time-bending present day journey, imagery of place and people, recollection of past while glimpsing the future. Meanwhile the star of this show, the Island, in fact each island and coast, continues to reveal remarkable, intimate secrets. It’s a sensory excursion I’m grateful and pleased to share. A season I hope enjoy.
A feeling of departure, and possibility
Ten thousand horses rumble to life. With a diesel vibration, water churns into chop and a blue and white ferry shoves us into the strait, in the direction of Vancouver Island. On the other side of the water, Nanaimo. Snuneymuxw. Coast Salish land. A sense of connection is what I feel, gazing through open steel portals. The horses pick up their pace, trot to canter, as a ripple ricochets through rivets and railings. The result, a feeling of departure, and possibility.
It’s what I felt as a child, venturing into hills behind our home on a north arm of Okanagan Lake, bubbles of land carved by glaciers, the big lake fed by a narrow, deep creek. It was that sense of departing on a grand adventure that’s never gone away, each time I’m off somewhere new. Even places familiar, for that matter, seen for the first time again. As a kid I’d pick a stick from the deadwood, pry my way through barbed wire like a wrestler entering the ring, and climb. Over the hill cattle grazed, and the land beyond that was orchard. It always smelled dry. Of course, I’d take care, watching for cow pies, rattlesnakes, and undetonated mortars. An army camp was across the lake, and a few decades ago the arid grass banks served as target practice, bombs lobbed across the water.
Now, aboard a westbound ferry, the day’s rolling out somewhat dreamily. The ferry is full, the first at capacity in months, and the crew’s a bit overwhelmed by an onslaught of passengers awaiting their Triple-O burgers, like kids released into summer following a particularly miserable winter. A winter that’s lasted two years.
Our vehicle is on an upper deck berth aboard the MV Queen of Cowichan and we’ve chosen to stay put, hunkering in our well-worn car with the aroma of road trips, fast food, and bare feet. Meanwhile, Horseshoe Bay’s showing off its photogenic cliffs and arbutus, copper-pistachio peelings of bark as though they’ve been outdoors too long, overdue for a coating of sunscreen. Bowen Island rises from sun-dappled water like a child’s likeness of a surfacing whale, a round hump of a back, the only things missing being flukes and a blowhole waterspout. Sounds and smells mingle, wafting amidst cars: cell phone chatter, sneaky second-hand smoke, laughter, coffee, the vibrating basso of ferry engine, and the inevitable bleat of a car alarm, its owner nowhere to be found.
Tatters of cloud stream past as we venture west by southwest. Midway across the Salish Sea we pass our doppelganger going the opposite way, the visual striking. A weather front’s hanging in place at the halfway point of the crossing, a vertical line of rain and smudgy dark cloud, monochrome seascape in a rinse of blue-grey. I watch the ferry pass through the wall of weather, easing from dark to light, like Dorothy stepping from blustery Kansas to the technicolour of Oz. Unbeknownst to me we’re making our very own leap through a time-bending lens, as we’ve come for five weeks, but will go home in three months from now.
Where The Chum Salmon Run
A hummingbird that’s somehow familiar
Packing for this excursion was simple. Deb and I threw an armload of clothes in a duffel along with trail shoes and a stack of new books. Our accommodation for now is a small cottage in the woods of Qualicum Beach, a copse of cedars keeping company with spruce, fir, and hemlock. The neighbours, we soon learn, are a family of warbling eagles, two owls who hoot hello, and a hummingbird that seems somehow familiar. There are songbirds as well: sparrows and chickadees, inverted wrens that nibble things from cedar strips, and a nondescript black and white bird with a monotone call and coquettish tail, the look of a folding fan.
Getting here, we’d stopped at a highway service station on Nanoose First Nation land, featuring a Snaw Naw As gift shop. We bought a mug with a red bear design, creation of artist Jonathan Erickson of the Nak’azdli Band of the Gitksan Nation. Engraver and jewellery designer, Jon’s work incorporates Haida design, one of his influences being Tsimshian artist, Roy Henry Vickers.
A second mug we picked up is adorned in hummingbirds, Indigenous design by Ben Houstie of the Heiltsuk Nation, also known as Bella Bella or Waglisla. Painter and carver, Ben’s work reminds me of pieces I found on Haida Gwaii. It was the first time I’d seen Indigenous design featuring hummingbirds, symbolic of beauty and love. Referred to as Sah Sen, the tiny bird is a sign of friendship and play, a messenger of joy, hinting at what’s to come.
Crunching up a gravel drive through the corridor of trees, our temporary home resembles a fairy tale, and I keep an eye out for red-hooded girls and cross-dressing wolves. The little woodland abode has a fuchsia pink door, flowers in windowsill pots and a shiny red barbeque that must be brand new. This accommodation’s a pendulum swing from camping when I was a kid. One of our favourite destinations was a cabin, high in the hills in southcentral BC, Interior Salish land. We fished for deep water trout, which we smoked, and slept to the snap of mousetraps.
Here, from our pink-doored cottage, we can stroll to the seaside of Qualicum, what original inhabitants knew as the place where the chum salmon run. The shoreline stretches northwest and southeast in a wide, gentle curve. At low tide, morning sun glints on ribbons of kelp in pink, ivory, and Celtic shades of green. Further south is Parksville and beyond that, Nanaimo, where our ferry arrived from the mainland. A string of seaside communities lies to the north: Qualicum Bay, Fanny Bay, Union Bay and Royston. Beyond the inlet, islands sit like a hand of cards: Denman, Hornby and Lasqueti, with Texada adrift from the pack, as though discarded.
The tide moves a long way here, leaving a broad swath of beach. High tides offer good swimming, the water particularly warm now in the midst of record-breaking heat. Low tide reveals soft and walkable sand, the kind that demands you take shoes off and move slowly. Sun bakes exposed beach at low tide and then, as tide rises, heated sand warms the water. As a local explained, “It’s a swimming pool, with a tide.”
A steep set of stairs, about eight storeys worth, connects a bend in the road to the beachside and makes for a good workout with ocean views. A tiny lending library, painted in rainbow colours, sits atop the stairs, where an abacus helps stair-climbers keep track of their reps.
“I’m blue,” a woman explains by the abacus, as she tackles the stairs. Which doesn’t mean that she’s glum, but she’s using the blue line of counter beads.
Today I’m yellow. Not sure why but it feels fitting. Perhaps a sunny disposition.
Directly overhead, a bald eagle circles, casting a shadow with each pass while a crow makes a fuss, buzzing the big bird in flight. Following a few sets of stairs, I throw myself into the sea, and as I bob in the water a seal swims up and gives me the eye, but keeps a respectable distance, as though taking care not to spook me.
About the Author: Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s been awarded by the ABF International Book Awards, Firebird Book Awards, Whistler Book Awards, received The Miramichi Reader’s Very Best Book Award for nonfiction, and for his expeditions Bill’s been granted a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society. When not trekking the globe with a small pack and journal, or showing off cooking skills as a culinary school dropout, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, making music and friends. @billarnott_aps
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