I had the pleasure of meeting Rhonda at a function of the Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick, quite a few years ago. Things have changed since. Rhonda is still writing but now she serves as President of the Federation and steering her fellow authors forward.
An author of two children’s books and a YA novel, she is working on a family-secrets-in-a-haunted-inn type novel, which is set on the Bay Fundy, and is sharing an excerpt with us.
Rhonda has been a guest previously on the Scribbler. She shared an entertaining short story you'll be sure to enjoy and if you missed it, please go HERE.
As well as sharing an excerpt, she has kindly agreed to a 4Q Interview.
I grew up on the Miramichi, and at age 14 I banged out my first novel on the electric typewriter my parents gave me for Christmas. I was shattered when McLelland and Stewart rejected it with a very nice letter (they published Margaret Atwood, after all, and I had just finished reading her first book, The Edible Woman—why not shoot for the moon?).
Having decided that such a rejection was a sign I had no talent, I gave up creative writing and studied public relations instead. My early career revolved around this type of work. In my mid-thirties, while raising three children, I thought about fiction again. I took correspondence courses and explored how I might write on a freelance basis. A couple of paid writing credits allowed me to join the Moncton chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada, whose members happened to also be members of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick.
The rest is history. The kids have (mostly) flown, but I’m still scribbling in Moncton. And still hanging out with writers, hoping some of their talent will rub off.
4Q: Before we chat about your role as President of the Writer’s Federation, please tell our readers a bit about the Federation.
RHB: Since 1985, WFNB has supported New Brunswick writers and storytellers at all stages of development and in all genres with workshops, writing competitions, networking events, and award recognition. We’re a province-wide organization with just under 200 members living in every corner of New Brunswick, and ex-pats living elsewhere in Canada. Our mission has always been to create community through words. The Fed has played a large role in my own development, and I continue to appreciate all the talented people who have befriended and mentored me over the years.
4Q: You’ve been the President since May, 2020. Please tell us about your position and responsibilities.
RHB: I have served for five years on the WFNB board. This is my first of a two-year term as president. The president provides leadership to the board and ensures that the board functions according to its policies. The president chairs meetings, helps set direction and goals for the organization, works in partnership with the executive director and various committees, encourages other board members to take leadership roles, and is the official spokesperson for the board.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory and/or anecdote.
RHB: When I was a kid, I developed a vampire phobia. (There’s so many of them in the Miramichi.)
I grew up in an old, unrenovated house, and my board-and-batten bedroom door didn’t close properly. My room was at the top of the stairs, so I couldn’t shut out the sound from the television, and one night my mother was watching a Dracula movie. I covered my head with my pillow to shut out the sound of him attacking his poor, helpless victims. I only dared lift my pillow off to breathe during the Pizza Delight commercials.
Later, in high school, I loved to read, including slightly spooky books. But I didn’t enjoy gory or that which was overly violent. And of course—no vampires.
Therefore, I avoided the aisle in the school library that held Stephen King’s paperback edition of his book, Salem’s Lot. The front cover was shiny black, an embossed face—except for one red drop of blood poised on her bottom lip.
Blech. Terrifying. In the ensuing years, no Twilight for me either, thanks. Nuttin’ romantic about a vampire. I’m not too crazy about werewolves or zombies, either.
4Q: You are fortunate to have an in-house illustrator for your books. Can you tell us a bit about your teamwork?
RHB: If only we didn’t need money and silly day jobs. Between my husband and I, there are no shortage of ideas to keep us busy until we’re crusty. We first established Codepoet Media as a place to develop our own creative content, for our own enjoyment. In the past, I’ve used it for my corporate writing work, but we really just wanted to make books and digital cartoons and other fun stuff.
Our two picture storybooks are not really aimed at children. We made them for ourselves, and for other adults who like to philosophize about life. Please Let Me In is my personal favourite. But every time we complete a project, we learn more about the process, and get better at it. Kent drew the second book, Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast, in a style reminiscent of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series. We both enjoyed it so much growing up, particularly their Fractured Fairy Tales, so Brussels Sprouts is kind of an homage to them. These days, in his spare time, Kent is working on his digital cartoon series, The Coffee Café, which is his from start to finish. But I’m sure we will complete more projects together in the future.
4Q: Favorite authors? Books?
G. K. Chesterton, his religious and political commentary, like Orthodoxy, Eugenics and other Evils.
C.S. Lewis—although I only came to him as an adult. I read his Narnia series with my kids, but I also really loved his essays and other books, like the Abolition of Man, The Four Loves, the Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity.
Ray Bradbury—Fahrenheit 451, and his short story, The Whole Town’s Sleeping, had a chilling effect on me in grade school.
John Steinbeck—The Red Pony, and Of Mice and Men, were required reading in school. But I kept reading him. East of Eden, written in 1951, is still probably one of my favourite books. I read it for the fourth time just recently, and it still holds up. What gorgeous sentences.
Shirley Jackson—The Lottery, which I first read in grade four. This chilling story made me want to be a writer.
I think Neil Gaiman is a genius. For my recent birthday, my kids bought me a subscription to the online teaching website Masterclass, and his workshop was amazing. Just finished my first Alice Munroe collection, The Progress of Love. How she makes the mundane interesting is quite a mystery.
I’m reading more Atlantic authors. I just finished Gerard Collins’ most recent book, The Hush Sisters, which is tragic and disturbing and hopeful at the same time. I’m reading Alan Hudson’s The Alexanders…a great Scottish-Canadian story, and I’m looking forward to Beth Powning’s new release, coming soon. Carol Bruneau and Wayne Curtis are on my bedside table, too. There’s a special flavour to Maritime writing. It recalls our unique history but is modern, too.
**Thanks for the mention, Rhonda.
4Q: What is Rhonda, the author, working on now?
RHB: I’m currently working with an editor on the second draft of a novel set on the Bay of Fundy. There’s a Victorian inn and a female lead and a love triangle and a secretive will and unpleasant family members and a grief-stricken ghost.
And a golden retriever.
(I haven’t decided what to do with it after the edit is done.)
4Q: Anything else you would like to tell us about?
RHB: If you are a New Brunswick writer and you are not currently a member of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, please join! We represent all levels of development from beginner to professional, and we want you as part of the community. Students and younger folk are particularly welcome. Please check us out at wfnb.ca.
An Excerpt from The Chickadee Inn.
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission.)
A steady, gray drizzle chilled the back of my neck at this morning’s graveside ceremony. Must have been the drips from the semi-circle of black umbrellas gathered behind me, sheltering Runa Hall’s casket like an arbor. Cold fingers of rain reached under my collar and slid down my back. I shivered as her body was lowered into the ground.
Community leaders held those umbrellas with somber respect. Even the deputy mayor came to shake my hand. Runa had been a tireless champion of community causes for decades.
But I was the only one crying for my grandmother.
On either side of me stood my best friend Taylor Forini, and my boyfriend George Kosta. Their quiet strength kept me upright every time I remembered that I was now alone in the world.
The rain lifted abruptly when we climbed back in our cars. If she had organized her own funeral, Gram could not have orchestrated more poetic weather.
Through the windshield, George and I were struck with the sight of a single God-ray of sunshine. How appropriate. It broke through the clouds on our way to the reception. I thought about the guests who would marvel about the beautiful shaft of light. They would munch on cold cuts and egg sandwiches while they philosophized about the afterlife. “It’s Runa,” they’ll say, “watching the proceedings from above.”
“Melinda, tragedy creates us, but we shouldn’t let it define us.”
One of her many pithy observations. I chuckle-sobbed at the memory just as we were about to pass Gram’s street. On impulse, I asked George to stop.
George lifted one hand off the steering wheel to squeeze my shoulder. “Why torture yourself, Lin?”
He doesn’t like dwelling on the past, no matter how recent.
I covered his hand with one of my own and stroked it back and forth with my thumb. “Please? Just one last look. Now that I’m a homeless orphan.”
My grandparents raised me in the little yellow-brick bungalow on Welland Avenue after my mother died when I was two. I had put it up for sale last month to pay off Gram’s long-term care debt. Thanks to the surging real estate market in our Mississauga suburb, my inheritance lay in the leftover profit.
George pulled back his hand with a sigh and used it to turn right on the quiet side street. “You’re not a homeless orphan. You have friends, a great career ahead of you—and you have me.”
He had insisted on driving me in his Audi, which he had carefully cleaned for this occasion. It had been a graduation gift from his parents, and he was proud of it. He looked self-assured and capable in his reserved, charcoal grey suit. George is wonderful in a crisis, which makes him a great doctor. I depended on that trait today. But on normal days, his constant management gets a bit much.
After five blocks, we reached the familiar corner lot, but there was a landscaping truck in our usual parking spot.
Oh, God. What were they doing to the tulip tree?
George slowed down, but before the wheels had stopped turning, I flew out of the door, not bothering to slam it shut.
“Lin. Melinda. Come back!”
I ignored his cries, focusing instead on what was in front of me: Grandpa Galen’s miraculous tulip tree—or rather a muscular, tattooed guy hacking away at it with a chainsaw, while another idiot with a beer belly loaded the broken pieces into a mulcher.
Forgetting my patent leather pumps, I traversed the sidewalk and the low retaining wall in a couple of leaps and stumbled a bit at the top. “Stop! What in the hell are you doing?”
With a ‘safety-first’ demeanour, he turned the chainsaw off and pulled his safety goggles down. They left a red outline around his eyes and nose.
I knew I looked crazy, but I didn’t care. The dual spectres of grief and anger rose from my inner being and I steeled myself to keep control. “You can’t cut that tree down.”
He scratched at his scalp while he glanced from the mutilated tree and back to me. It was too late. The job was all but complete. “The owners want to plant something new. Who are you?”
“It’s mine. I’m the owner!” My heart galloped in my throat, and I couldn’t get enough air. I gathered up branches as fast as I could, as though they were pieces which would eventually heal if I could find a way to stitch them all back together. I kicked at the sawdust under my feet. “Look at the mess you’re making.”
The landscaper looked confused and a little tense. The one handling the mulcher adjusted his helmet and put an impatient hand on his hip. In my peripheral vision I saw George, who had parked and rushed to my side within a few seconds.
Chainsaw guy gestured at George for confirmation. “Is she the owner? I thought the place just sold?”
“She used to be,” George said, his voice smooth and gentle while he came behind me and steadied my upper arms with his hands. “She grew up here.”
The guy’s lips parted slightly, and he lifted his chin. His gaze glided over our outfits: my black dress and pumps and George’s somber suit. “Oh. Oh, I see. I know it’s sad to lose such a rare specimen, but—”
I was annoyed at the two of them for patronizing me, but the tree was more important. “It was budding, though, can’t you see? How could you just—” A sob caught in my throat as I pointed to the blossoms on the one remaining branch of Grandpa Galen’s miraculous tree. It wasn’t supposed to survive, but it did.
Gramps planted it as a gift to Gram on the day they moved in, fifty years ago. The nursery said it probably wouldn’t make it, since it needed the perfect soil conditions and gentle weather. But Gramps said, ‘It’ll grow straight and tall, despite the odds.’ And he was right.
I jerked myself out of George’s grip and hissed at him. “I know you’re just trying to help, but will you please let go of me?” George released his hands and backed away.
The landscaper shook his head and looked at me with professional sympathy. “It wouldn’t have survived, anyway—it’s a delicate breed to begin with and the storm killed at least fifty percent of it.
“But don’t worry. We’ll let the trunk sit fallow for a year, and then we’ll break the roots up next spring and seed over it. By next summer, it’ll be like it was never here.”
Like it was never…!
I had controlled myself well at the funeral, but I couldn’t hold back the torrent of loud sobs any longer.
This is how the testament to their lives comes to an unceremonious end? The tree, which had beaten the odds for fifty years is gone and, just like that, it’ll be like it was never here?
My whole body shook. I dropped the mess of branches even as I inhaled the wood particles that still floated in the air. I sank into the sawdust, and ugly-cried.
I felt George stroke my back a couple of times and I barely registered his pleas to leave in my ear. After a few minutes, he lifted me by the underarms and coaxed me to my feet. I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t have the strength to stay, either. I let him guide me to the car, leaving two bewildered landscapers in our wake.
“He was only trying to comfort you—” George said later, after he put me in the passenger seat and drove away. “In his own ignorant way, of course.”
“I know.” I didn’t mean to snap, but I couldn’t be polite and control my grief at the same time.
The scads of cars parked near the house where the reception was being held made me groan, because though I had managed to calm down on the short trip from Welland Avenue, I was in no shape to represent the Hall family—or rather, the memory of it.
“Stiff upper lip, Melinda.”
It was Gram’s voice in my head. “This is your job for the afternoon. You’re allowed one public meltdown per day, that’s all. You’ve already had it.”
We opened the front door, and I determined to concentrate on the murmurs of a few dozen visitors, the clink of glasses, and the smell of excellent hors d’oeuvres.
George pontificated as he hung up my coat. “People grieve in all kinds of different ways. He figured if the tree wasn’t there, it would be an out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing for you.”
“Can we not talk about it anymore? Let’s just—”
“I just don’t want you to think badly of him. Not everyone is sentimental like you, Lin,” he whispered in my ear. “At least not about trees.”
“I know it, George! Stop managing me. I’m not one of your patients.”
All talk and movement in the living room ceased, including the clink of dishes in the kitchen. Everyone’s eyes were on us, their expressions filled first with surprise, then with sympathy.
So much for a stiff upper lip.
Who am I kidding? Gram was always perfectly controlled. I could never do that. I developed just enough to be embarrassed in its absence.
“Sorry…” I flicked a glance of apology at George. I whispered it again to the crowd and put a hand to my mouth. The contents of my stomach were rising. “I’m sorry...I have to—I feel kind of—”
And then I flew to the powder room, before I really exploded.
Thank you, Rhonda, for being our guest this week. Thank you for your guidance and the work you do with the Federation. Wishing you much success with your writing.
For all you fantastic visitors that wish to discover more about Rhonda, her writing and WFNB, please follow these links: