How I Wrote It

How Canadian music critic Andrea Warner wrote the definitive Buffy Sainte-Marie biography

The journalist and author discusses how she collaborated with the iconic musician — and recorded more than 60 hours of interviews — to write Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a biography of the acclaimed singer-songwriter by Andrea Warner. (Twitter.com/Greystone)

Singer-songwriter and musician Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Canadian folk hero and icon. So for music journalist Andrea Warner, it was a bit of a shock to learn that there wasn't a lot written down on the historical record about the legendary Cree singer-songwriter.

Warner, who is also a CBC Music producer, set out to rectify that and conducted more 60 hours of interviews with the artist. She tells CBC Books how Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography came to be.

First contact

"I interviewed Buffy in 2015 for CBC Music when her album Power in the Blood came out. We had an amazing conversation. At the end, I was thinking I wish I didn't have to get off the phone... and she said the same thing out loud! It was this instant bond where we both didn't want the conversation to end.

"In my research about her life for my interview, I was struck by the fact there wasn't a lot of information about Buffy Sainte-Marie out there compared to artists that I would consider her peers. There are like 70 books on Bob Dylan and one on Buffy Sainte-Marie, previous to mine. That was unjust and ridiculous."

The pitch

"I originally pitched a book around Canada's sesquicentennial about the 150 greatest Canadian musicians who weren't white men. The publisher wasn't interested in a list book, but was interested in me writing a book about Buffy, who was one of the artists on the list. I was told to reach out to her team to gauge interest. There was interest, like right away. Soon after, Buffy and I met for a couple of hours in person. It was an amazing first meeting. It turned out she was a big fan of my work. I kept trying to talk about her and she kept wanting to talk about me!"

Getting to know you

"I started writing in 2017. She lives in Hawaii and I'm in Vancouver so the bulk of our interviews were over the phone. I've never written a book like this before. I didn't know what you're supposed to do, necessarily. I just knew that I wanted Buffy to be as involved as she wanted to be. She was deeply involved, which was great.

"We set up twice-weekly calls for two hours at a time for about seven weeks. We would just talk. I had done quite a significant amount of research and had questions prepared. I would then create new questions based on our conversations. It was kind of like being back in high school when you're getting to know a new friend and you're on the phone all the time — except that I'm asking tons of personal and probing questions."

A safe space

"I wanted to create as much trust and space for respecting her story as much as humanly possible. It was important that the interview process never felt exploitative. It was about laying that foundation of creating a safe space and a friendly space, where both of us know we're operating on similar levels.

"This is a pretty honest forthright book. It felt like I could tell her anything straight up and she would do the same. We both wanted to make the best and most honest book that we could from our time together."

Creating on one's own terms

"I wrote most of the book in a Vancouver coffee shop with headphones on listening to no music, and with Buffy's music playing on occasion. I can't write when music with lyrics is playing. An ideal writing day was about 5,000 words. I actually did order some biographies at the beginning of the process that I thought I would read, just to get a sense of an effective template and format. I ultimately decided against it.

"I wanted to write this my way. It's like the lyrics of one of Buffy's songs, about carving your own path and figuring out things on your own. This book needed a balance of her voice, my voice and some structure to satisfy the requirements of a biography. It maintains a linear structure to her life, but written in a hopefully compelling, interesting and emotionally grabbing way."

Andrea Warner's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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