For the Lakeside Leader
What’s it like to grow up in small town such as Slave Lake? Are there advantages? Disadvantages? What about the stereotypes that people have about small towns? That we’re all uneducated hillbillies. The schools are crappy, people are narrow-minded and racist and there’s nothing to do for young people because we don’t have a mall or Cineplex. It’s hard to pursue specialized interests such as learning gymnastics or how to play the violin. And people in a small town are always in your business, that there’s no sense of privacy and we’re all living in a fish bowl.
But, these are all stereotypes. To find out what young people are really feel about growing up in Slave Lake, I set about asking them. I’ve tried to interview those still living in Slave Lake and those who’ve moved away to pursue careers not available within the confines of our small town. Their answers are both predictable and surprising. I hope you enjoy hearing their responses as much as I did.
Katie Bickell, born Katie Mulholland, moved to Slave Lake in 1991 as a young child with her family from the Lake District of England. She attended school at St. Mary’s to the end of Grade 6 and then finished her secondary school education at Roland Michener Secondary. She began her post-secondary education taking a University of Alberta English course through the Northern Lakes College and then finished her degree through Athabasca University.
Katie has won numerous awards for her short stories, including 2017 Writer’s Guild of Alberta Youth/Emerging Writer Award, the 2015 Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Fiction, and the 2014 Alberta Views Award. An anthology of her short stories is currently at the publishers and she’s working on her first novel.
Katie rejects the idea that she might have received a substandard education in Slave Lake. She attributes her earliest thoughts of becoming a writer to her Grade 6 teacher, Brett Arlinghaus, who she describes as a young and enthusiastic teacher who encouraged students to develop their talents and interests. For Katie, that meant publishing a story she’d written in the yearbook which he pronounced would be her first publication.
Katie describes the instruction provided by Terry Mosher, who taught her English in Grade 12, as first rate. She says he provided her with a fool-proof formula for writing essays that she’s now passed on to her daughter. She describes HelenJane Sawyer, her university professor at NLC, as phenomenal and whose encouragement motivated her to complete her degree at Athabasca University.
Katie attributes growing up in Slave Lake with a scrappy, entrepreneurial spirit that’s driven her to make a living in any way she can. She wasn’t coddled in school, which prepared her to take control of her life. Raising two small children gave her little time to concentrate on writing, so she got into the habit of waking at 4:30 a.m. before the rest of her family awoke. “That’s when I’m most productive,” she says.
Katie says that growing up in a small town has given her a fresh voice and provided lots of material for her writing.
“Growing up in a small town is like living in a fishbowl,” she says. “There’s no superficial layer between you and those outside your socio-economic class. People aren’t divided by class.” She says she would have interactions with homeless men in town and on the trail where she wasn’t afraid at all. And she says, she’s met and made friends with people all over the world who’ve moved to Slave Lake.
Katie concludes that the interactions she’s had with individuals from all different social-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds in Slave Lake “humanizes the people around you.” It encourages a “more compassionate view of the world with the potential to lessen the ‘us versus’ them perspective on the world.”
Finally, I asked Katie if growing up in a city would have provided her contacts in the publishing industry that would have helped advance her career more quickly. She replied that no, her fan base more than made up her lack of contacts. As soon as Facebook arrived in 2006, she could share her material with the “ladies,.” as she refers to them. She says they cheered her on even when her writing was “just junk”. Or at least that is how she describes it.
Then, she wrote “The Joy of Being Kicked” in 2011 about the ambivalence she felt about her first pregnancy. Her essay won the Erica Ehm’s YMC Voices of Motherhood 2011 Writing Contest, which essentially launched her publishing career. She still receives emails from young women who’ve gained strength and understanding from reading her essay.
Katie’s short fiction and non-fiction writing is available on her website at katiebickell.com. I encourage everyone to have a look.