Interview with Mary Beth Leatherdale

photo of Mary Beth Leatherdale
Photo by Helen Tansey – Sundari Photography

Mary Beth Leatherdale writes, edits and consults on books, magazines and digital resources for children and youth. She is the author of Terry Fox and Me, editor of Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees, and co-editor of three award-winning anthologies with Lisa Charleyboy. She lives in Toronto with her family and her dog, Champ. You can find her online at maryleatherdale.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration for your new book, Terry Fox and Me?

Mary Beth Leatherdale: A friend told me that her son came home from Junior Kindergarten and asked, “Why did that guy put his foot in the ocean?” It made me think about what it’s like to hear Terry Fox’s story for the first time. At that time, there was an explosion of beautiful non-fiction picture books about American heroes in the United States. I thought it would be great to share the story of a Canadian hero in this format. 

That’s such a great idea! What research did you do for the book?

Of course, nothing compared with meeting Doug Alward and hearing directly from him about his relationship with Terry Fox and the Marathon of Hope. I was lucky though that Terry’s life is well documented so I had access to lots of great resources. Lesley Scrivener’s wonderful book Terry Fox: His Story was invaluable. I also found the ESPN documentary Into the Wind very helpful. Watching Doug speaking in this film and on YouTube videos repeatedly helped me in developing his voice as narrator in the book.

So what was the most interesting fact you encountered while researching Terry Fox and Me?

My first draft for the book told Terry’s story in a very traditional way as a straightforward biography. When I shared it with my editor Elizabeth Kribs at Tundra Books, she encouraged me to see if I could find a narrative angle for the story. So I started digging deeper and came across a quote from Terry’s younger brother Darrell Fox  — “without Doug Alward there would never have been a Marathon of Hope.” As I went back through the research with this new lens I realized how close the two had been throughout their childhood and how crucial Doug was in Terry realizing his dream of running across Canada to raise money for cancer research. I thought it would be wonderful if a young child could come to know Terry as Doug had. By telling Terry’s story through Doug’s eyes.

Outside of writing Terry Fox and Me, you’ve worked as an editor on several anthologies including #NotYourPrincess and Urban Tribes.  How did you connect with your co-editor on those books, Lisa Charleyboy?

I knew Lisa’s work from her blog Urban Native Girl, which focused on Indigenous contemporary life and popular culture. This was back in 2013 and Lisa was writing about all kinds of incredible Native fashion designers, artists and activists whose stories weren’t being covered in the mainstream media at the time. I wanted to use my publishing experience and privilege to help bring these underrepresented Indigenous voices to a wider audience and I thought Lisa would be the perfect partner. So I cold-called her and asked her if she would meet me for a coffee. And, thankfully she did!

The two of you have now edited three anthologies together (Dreaming in Indian, Urban Tribes, and #NotYourPrincess). Were you planning on creating so many books together when you first started collaborating?

When we started working on Dreaming in Indian we realized that there was too much amazing work to fit in one book. From the beginning, we knew there were other experiences and perspectives we wanted to shine a light on, especially Indigenous girls and women.

photo of Mary Beth Leatherdale signing copies of Terry Fox and MeLike your book Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees, those three Indigenous anthologies collect people’s stories.  Was the process of collecting stories similar for all four books?  

For the anthologies, we did social media calls to Indigenous youth and writers and artists for material. The material that was submitted helped us to identify the themes and identify other First Nations, Métis and Inuit creators who we might want to approach. With Stormy Seas, I started looking for stories very close to home, soliciting friends and friends of friends to share their story. Many people didn’t want to relive their experiences or share their stories publically. So I started contacting NGOs and other aid agencies such as Amnesty International and Save the Children to find people who would agree to share their experiences in a book.

At their respective hearts, your books involve sharing the stories of different people.  Why does this particular area appeal to you so much as a writer and editor?

For me, writing is a way to come to know people in a deeper way — beyond the facts of their lives, what they endure or accomplish, to gain a sense of who they are. I’m awed and inspired by the unique ways ordinary people find courage, resilience and joy in difficult circumstances.

What are you working on now?

I’m working with the tennis player Bianca Andreescu on a picture book as well as some other projects that I’m too superstitious to speak about yet!

That’s fair – good luck with everything! To wrap this up, I’d like to ask you a few questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

There are so many books and authors that have inspired me. But the first book that I remember opening my eyes to the power of a book was Erza Jack Keats’ beautiful picture book The Snowy Day. From the outside, Peter, the protagonist of the story, and I seemed completely different. He was a boy. I was a girl. He lived in an apartment in the city. I lived in a house on a farm. He was Black. I was White. But I saw myself in Peter. And, the power of a book to open my eyes to our shared humanity is something that still leaves me in awe.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

What a difficult question! The books that resonate with us are so personal and so dependent on our circumstances at the moment. All I would say is read widely and with great delight. And, if you’re not enjoying a book put it down and move on. There are so many wonderful books to discover.

That’s very true! Finally, what are you currently reading?

I’ve got a number of things on the go now — Bernadine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments on audiobook, Zadie Smith’s Intimations essay collection and always lots and lots of picture books. I am a huge library lover and make good use of Toronto Public Library’s excellent hold system, checking out bagfuls and bagfuls of picture books each month.

cover of Terry Fox and Me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s