News and Interviews

Nancy Jo Cullen on Library Love, Recommended Reads, and Bronwen Wallace

Nancy Jo Cullen

Fans of Nancy Jo Cullen know that she is the rare writer who can do it all; her writing is smart, sharp, and memorable in poetry, short fiction, and now, in a novel: Western Alienation Merit Badge (Wolsak & Wynn). Little Fish author Casey Plett praised Western Alienation Merit Badge as "electric, funny, hot, heartbreaking, [and] scathing". 

The novel tells the story of the Murray family in early '80s Calgary as they face down grief at the death of their matriarch and financial ruin brought on by the recession. Mixing family drama, politics, and queer coming-of-age, its a breathtaking portrait, rendered in Cullen's irresistible prose, of a family and a city on the verge of collapse. 

We're very excited to welcome Nancy Jo to Open Book today to share with us about the books she's loved and that have shaped her as a writer through our WAR: Writers as Readers series, in celebration of the publication of Western Alienation Merit Badge

She tells us about the important role libraries played in her early reading, the book she would give her seventeen-year old self to both discomfort and delight, and her go-to recommendation from her bookselling days, a "novel where nothing and everything happens". 

WAR: Writers as Readers with Nancy Jo Cullen

The first book I remember reading on my own:

My parents didn’t buy a lot of books when I was growing up but they were always reading library books, so when I was six I got my own library card and I would go to the library on my own after school. I loved the Raggedy Ann and Andy (very small) chapter books. When I turned eight my parents gave me a copy of Pollyanna. I felt so grown up reading a big chapter book.

The first adult book I read:

I don’t remember but I’m thinking it would have been a Victoria Holt novel (tortured governess romance). I took a lot of Victoria Holt novels out of the library before I advanced to bodice rippers around the age of 14. However those I did not get from the library, I bought them with babysitting money or borrowed them from my sisters.

A book that made me laugh out loud:

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. She won the Booker International Prize for her book Flights, which is in my pile somewhere. But I got to Drive Your Plow first and the opening page is brilliant and funny. I thought it was a terrific book.

The book I would give my seventeen-year old self, if I could:

I think I would give seventeen-year old Nancy, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World. It would demonstrate to seventeen-year old Nancy up to how poetry can (and how poetry should) burn. Belcourt’s poems would shake young me up; discomfort me as much as they delighted me.

In fact, I would give that book to every seventeen-year old in Canada, right now today. It’s exactly the kind of book I think we should all read.

The best book I read in the past six months:

I really loved Milkman by Anna Burns. I loved its long rambling narrative style.

The book I plan on reading next:

Fiction: Johnny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Poetry: Magical Negro by Morgan Parker. 

My go-to recommendation when someone asks for something great to read:

When I worked as a bookseller I often sold Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. It’s a fantastic, small novel where nothing and everything happens. All sorts of readers enjoy that book. Also Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I like that story collection so much I accidentally gave my niece the book two times.

A book I loved that I think has been overlooked:

I absolutely love Keep That Candle Burning Bright by Bronwen Wallace. It was published posthumously and it’s now out of print. But I’ve returned to it often and I gift it as much as I can, given that I have to find it second hand and, usually, online. Also Union Street by Pat Barker. It’s her first novel (nowadays we’d probably call it linked stories), published by Virago. Also out of print, at least in North America and very hard to get. It’s a brilliant narrative of a tough, impoverished, working-class North England neighbourhood.

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Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph-Humber and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award, and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.

Buy the Book

Western Alienation Merit Badge

Set in Calgary in 1982, during the recession that arrived on the heels of Canada’s National Energy Program, The Western Alienation Merit Badgefollows the Murray family as they struggle with grief and find themselves on the brink of financial ruin. After the death of her stepmother, Frances “Frankie” Murray returns to Calgary to help her father, Jimmy, and her sister, Bernadette, pay the mortgage on the family home. When Robyn, a long-lost friend, becomes their house guest old tensions are reignited and Jimmy, Bernadette and Frances find themselves increasingly alienated from one another.

Part family drama, part queer coming-of-age story, The Western Alienation Merit Badge explores the complex dynamics of a small family falling apart.