Prairie writer sets first novel in Northern Manitoba

Kim McCullough lived just outside The Pas, Manitoba when she was a child. The area had such an impact on her that she decided to set her first novel there.
Prairie writer Kim McCullough set her first novel Clearwater in Northern Manitoba. (Don Molyneaux)

She's been described as a writer to watch. And she's only written one novel.

Kim McCullough grew up in Regina and lives in Calgary now, but she spent her formative years living just outside The Pas, Manitoba.

As an educator, she teaches Language Arts and Drama to grade 7 - 8 students. She is also working on her masters degree in creative writing at U.B.C.

There was so much ugliness on the shores of such a beautiful lake - it really gels with the way life is - even in the depths of the darkest moments, there is beauty, somewhere.- Kim McCullough

McCullough is in Winnipeg to promote her novel Clearwater.

SCENE asked her why she chose to set her first novel in Northern Manitoba.

It's funny, because it's one of the questions I get most often. Why there?  People seem surprised, and it makes me wonder why.

I moved there from Regina as a child - my father was the fire chief at the airport. We actually lived outside of town, at the airport. It was a pretty interesting place. We had our own community hall and curling rink, but had to shop and go to school in town. The lake is stunning. The town, not so much.

I had an incredible amount of freedom. My friends and I were always outside, summer or winter, exploring, playing, building forts. No one really asked where we were going, which seems strange to me now. To let us swim and snowmobile wherever we wanted implied that the adults thought we were safe. 

Then, we moved back to Regina, and I grew older. Soon, I heard about the trial of the men that murdered Helen Betty Osborne, and I was shocked to find out how close to my house it had happened. Then, to find out that the abandoned school we could see above the trees just up the highway was a residential school, well it rocked everything I thought was true of the place.

Clearwater by Kim McCullough (Coteau Books)
I guess it stuck with me, because the story in Clearwater grew from that sense of having my beliefs, or what I knew to be true, proven so wrong.

The themes of family versus friendship in the book are reflected in the dichotomy of right vs. wrong, lies and truth. There was so much ugliness on the shores of such a beautiful lake - it really gels with the way life is - even in the depths of the darkest moments, there is beauty, somewhere. 

It's a difficult question for me to answer, because it's not as though I came up with the idea that my two characters would be afflicted with certain issues, and I needed to find a place for the action to play out. For me, the story was born of the place itself - the pull between dark and light, and how redemption and forgiveness must be found somewhere in the middle. 

When I went up to do some research a few summers ago, I visited the site of the Guy Hill residential school. There is a large rock in the field, with a commemorative plaque to Helen Betty Osborne.

On top, there were offerings - pictures, trinkets, feathers, letters. There were also Tim Hortons cups, elastic bands and other garbage. That, to me, is another way to characterize how I see the place. 

The airport houses are gone now, the school is gone - so many ways of life are gone. But the foundations of the school can still be seen, and the basements of the houses are just filled in.

I suppose I see the area as representative of life itself - not black or white, but gray. Fleeting, but permanent. The characters in my book - the main character wants them to be good, and eventually has to accept that even the good can be awful. That's simplifying a lot. 

Kim McCullough will be reading from her novel Clearwater on Thursday January 9 at 7 p.m., McNally Robinson Books. . She will be joined by local writers Katherena Vermette and Ashley MacLennan. Before then, hear her in conversation with host Ismaila Alfa on Up to Speed, at 4:45 p.m.