Ryerson prof tells East Coast tales

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By Erin Silver

Mary Sheppard travelled a long way from home to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. I was only when this Newfoundlander travelled farther that she was able to get back to her roots and concentrate on writing her first novel.

“When I worked at the CBC I couldn’t find an hour to sit down and write,” says Sheppard. “I had a fairly high-level job, I travelled a lot and had a husband and two kids.” Her hectic schedule changed when she moved with her family to Amsterdam in 1996. “It was the first time in my life when I wasn’t working. I realized I had the time to write the book I had always wanted to write.”

Her new novel for young adults, Seven for a Secret, is about three cousins coming of age in an isolated Newfoundland outport in 1960 – a time before tough economics shaped life on the island. “Too many books out of Newfoundland are about poverty,” says Sheppard. “That was a way of life I didn’t connect with.” Sheppard feels she grew up in a different Newfoundland.

“I grew up when the fishing was good, before it became more of a welfare society, before government intervention. I wanted to capture a time when money was not an issue.” Sheppard did research to ensure her book would be socially and historically correct, but some of the novel’s events come straight out of pages written in her memory.

In one scene, a house fire reflects a tragedy in Sheppard’s life, when two of her sisters were burned in a similar fire. And just as characters as young as 14 quit school to have babies, two of Sheppard’s real-life friends were married by 14. “I didn’t want that,” says Sheppard. “It was crystal clear to me that if I dated, something would happen and I’d eventually get pregnant. I was not going to be a housewife.”

Sheppard had very different plans. Born to a family with nine children, she was the first to finish high school and attend university. After graduating from Columbia University in New York with a master’s degree in journalism, she wrote for Maclean’s magazine and then became a reporter and senior editor at CBC Radio. She has been teaching broadcast journalism at Ryerson since 1998.

With no formal training as a creative writer, Sheppard persevered through a storm of letdowns and rewrites. It took five years from the time she began writing in her Amsterdam attic to see a published copy of her book. “I’m astounded at myself,” she says. “My mom always said I could be a writer. The fact that she continued to believe in me made me think I could do it.”

Of all her success, Sheppard says this, her first novel, is “pretty special.” Her book is a permanent record of an era of Newfoundland’s history and a testament to her hard work. Sheppard is currently in the Maritimes promoting Seven for a Secret.

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