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JOHN DeMONT: The huge impact of beloved, late-blooming writer Budge Wilson

Noted Nova Scotian author Budge Wilson died on Friday, March 19, 2021 at age 93. Wilson published her first novel at age 56 and wrote a prequel to the Anne of Green Gables series at age 79.  SaltWire File
Noted Nova Scotian author Budge Wilson died on Friday, March 19, 2021 at age 93. Wilson published her first novel at age 56 and wrote a prequel to the Anne of Green Gables series at age 79. SaltWire File

I have never met Budge Wilson, have never stared into those famously forthright eyes, have never basked in the glow of her talent, or the warmth of her personality.

Yet, the outpouring of sadness since her death last Friday makes me realize that was my misfortune, as her passing, whether we realize it or not, is a loss for all of us.

I mean this, first, in the most obvious way, because Alexander MacLeod, the writer and Saint Mary’s University professor of English literature considers Wilson, whose short stories he teaches in his classes, “one of the most important artists in the history of Atlantic Canada.”

When we spoke yesterday, Macleod praised the “sophistication of her narration,” her ability to portray the “imagination of rural life” and, through her writings, to underscore the importance of children’s literature.

Sheree Fitch was just 34 when she met Wilson, just after they had both published first books. At lunch, the older writer leaned in with her penetrating stare, and unwavering attention, and said, “Sheree, you’re 34-years old, you’re the single mom of two children, and you want to be a writer,” she said. “How are you doing this?”

Most of all, he stressed that in her novels and short stories Wilson was “very concerned with autonomous female characters who often face serious challenges” and therefore “gave a voice to a presence that was always there … but didn’t have representation.”

She was also, for those of us who someday hope to write a novel, the epitome of the late-bloomer.

Wilson, who was born and raised in Halifax and whose first name was actually Marjorie, worked as a commercial artist and photographer before her first book was published at age 56.

“She was always pushing herself and taking on challenges,” said Marilyn Smulders, executive director of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, who pointed out that Wilson wrote a prequel to the Anne of Green Gables series at age 79, and published her first book of poetry, when she was well into her 80s.

Sheree Fitch was just 34 when she met Wilson, just after they had both published first books. At lunch, the older writer leaned in with her penetrating stare, and unwavering attention, and said, “Sheree, you’re 34-years old, you’re the single mom of two children, and you want to be a writer,” she said. “How are you doing this?”

It was an expression of sympathy and support, from one just-starting-out-writer to another, and the beginning of a long friendship. “She was a magnet and the rest of us were iron filings,” is how Fitch describes Wilson and her large circle of friends and admirers.

So was her message, which, wherever she spoke to whoever she met, was often the same: ¨that if you stick to your guns, and have the strength of your convictions, then the work will shine through.”

That has been apparent on social media since her death where so many people talked about how Wilson’s writings, which won many honours— her short story collection The Leaving was included on the American Library Association’s list of “the 75 Best Children’s Books of the last 25 years" in 2004 -- moved and inspired them. As much as anything, though, they spoke how there was so more to her than appeared on the printed page.

Smulders told me about how, while a reporter, she went out to interview Wilson at her home on St. Margarets Bay, where she wrote long-hand, sitting on a bed, covered in a quilt while looking out to sea — and how at the writers federation’s annual general meeting in 2019 “it was like the queen arrived” when Wilson showed up.

Fitch talked about her love of hats and her nightly tot of gin, “just like the Queen mother,” as well as Wilson’s many acts of kindness, and how the two of them walked hand-in-hand across a busy street in Guadalajara, Mexico, years ago where they were representing Canada at a literary festival.

At literary events, like that one, Wilson never wanted to miss an event, said Fitch who described her friend as “wonderfully embracing the all-of-it.”

MacLeod told me about a birthday party he and others threw for her a few years back during which the microphone had to be lowered so that Wilson could speak. “She was small, but the voice was so strong and clear,” he said.

So was her message, which, wherever she spoke to whoever she met, was often the same: ¨that if you stick to your guns, and have the strength of your convictions, then the work will shine through.”

Wilson, after all, was living truth.

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