One afternoon in my early teens I stood enthralled watching a press operator at the Saskatchewan Valley News in Rosthern a few miles from my home in Laird. To my village sensibilities, the printing press loomed huge and silent on the far side of the room (the News came out only once a week), but meanwhile the operator was busy at a coal-black machine resembling two giant ping-pong paddles that rhythmically slapped together. He inserted blank sheets of paper one at a time between flaps, and extracted pages of words that advertised (I think) some local farm auction sale. Although I had scarcely any idea of the difference between printing and publishing, I could see that the operator’s job was to help get the words out, and watching him at work, I felt a mighty pull toward my own fascination with words.
But I was nearly 50 and living in Saskatoon before I left my other professions to begin a writing life. I had shifted (not yet into high gear) from the religious and academic styles of writing to which I’d been accustomed in previous lives as a minister, counsellor, and university lecturer, and was beginning to explore regions I considered “spiritual” but which I couldn’t imagine being of interest to a literary publisher. I had been struck by Northrop Frye’s characterization of his own fundamentalist background, which in some ways resembled mine. He was still in his teens in Moncton, New Brunswick, walking to high school one day and grappling again with “the Old Bugger in the Sky,” when suddenly “that whole shitty and smelly garment of fundamentalist teaching I had all my life just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there.” *
My shedding took a lot longer.
I considered my new writing too heretical for any denominational house, but still too preoccupied with the collapse of an outdated mythology to be considered literary. I was essaying toward my own kind of non-fiction, sending pieces to remote magazines — mostly American — and of course grateful whenever something was accepted. Yet I never got to meet the people associated with those periodicals, or knew whether anyone but the editors had read my work, and I began to yearn for a local community of writers.
I had occasionally met Glen Sorestad in a group who convened on Thursday nights at Bud’s on Broadway for a weekly draught of the blues. I knew he was a respected English teacher and a poet himself, who with his wife Sonia and some friends had founded Thistledown Press in 1975. For more than a year I had thought of asking Glen to point my nose in an appropriate direction, and never imagined having a publisher right in my own city. By then he and Sonia had relinquished their shares in Thistledown, but retained close ties with the whole literary community. I put off calling Glen until one day in a fit of resolve — perhaps aided by a dose of liquid courage — I phoned to ask him whether I could buy him a coffee and talk a bit about writing.
He said without hesitation, “How about three this afternoon?”
After all those months of twiewling! (pronounced tveevelling), my Mennonite tradition’s word for “qualming.”
We met at Emily’s Jazz Restaurant around the corner from our blues bar. Within a few minutes, and from that hour on, the gifts began coming. Glen assured me, first, that spiritual concerns need not be at odds with literary discernment or merit; and well before the discussion’s end he’d arranged to put me in touch with Jesse Stothers, the acquisitions editor at Thistledown Press, and I felt reassured that maybe sometimes an old dog can learn a new bark after all.
A few months later I submitted a manuscript, and was heartened further when Al and Jackie Forrie said in what seemed an offhand way, “We believe in your writing.” Seán Virgo was appointed my editor, and seeing I could not possibly ascend to his literary orbit, he graciously descended to mine, and I began to understand more clearly than ever why I had wished to be a writer. In 2002, shortly after I turned 55, Thistledown published my first book, The Crow Who Tampered With Time.
In 2006, when by certain calculations I was officially a senior, Thistledown released my second collection, Backwater Mystic Blues, and in 2015 published Bindy’s Moon, the book I’d often imagined would be my first, but which appeared as the third in a series of literary non-fiction essays, filling still fuller a writing dream I could trace back at least as far as that adolescent hour in a smalltown print shop.
My gratitude to Thistledown Press goes as deep as those roots.
*Quoted in Joseph Adamson, Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life, ECW Press, 1993.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards. He has taught writing classes for the University of Saskatchewan Certificate of Art and Design (USCAD) and the Western Development Museum.