Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sheree-Lee Olson

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Sheree-Lee Olson is the editor of The Globe and Mail’s Style section, where she writes about lipstick and vacuum cleaners. Her novel Sailor Girl was published last year by The Porcupine’s Quill, approximately two decades after she started it. The book, set in 1981 on the cargo boats of the Great Lakes, was recently optioned by Toronto-based Markham Street Films.

Sheree-Lee was born in Picton, Ontario, and grew up on military bases across Canada and in Germany. She studied fine arts at York University and philosophy at the University of Leuven in Belgium, neither of which made her employable. She followed up with journalism at Ryerson, which landed her a job with The Globe.

A mother of two teenage boys, she has written about the social and emotional challenges of motherhood in her short stories, poetry and personal journalism (her essay "I Am My Father" appears in the 2006 anthology Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, edited by Cori Howard (Key Porter). She is currently completing a collection of stories titled Bad Mommy.

Sheree-Lee is a longtime and loyal resident of Parkdale, where she lives with her kids in a narrow Victorian house with a very wide TV.

Her website is

Ten Questions with Sheree-Lee Olson


What was your first publication and where was it published?


I did a comic strip for my Grade 7 classroom newspaper called The Moonsters. About Sue and Jeff, a brother and sister astronaut team who get captured and put into an intergalactic zoo. They may still be there. The paper folded after a few issues.


Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.


I was delighted and excited by Nuit Blanche. I felt like I was in a magical city.


If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

Recent Writer In Residence Posts


It’s spring, and I am not thinking of Paris, or New York, or Barcelona. I am longing for Turku.

Turku is Finland’s southern port city, across the Baltic from Stockholm. The market is full of ingenious wooden utensils handcrafted in the archipelago. The drinking tents puff out the smell of fried onions and the voices of rowdy fisherfolk. And the library! That’s the most exciting address in town.

I was in Turku with a group of fellow scribes from the Canadian Journalism Fellowship program, run by Massey College at the University of Toronto. We had had the tour of Helsinki and we were about to take the ferry to Stockholm.


So the Gs passed me by. You know, the G-G and the Big G.

Ya, whatevs. I got optioned!

A Toronto production company, Markham Street Films, liked Sailor Girl enough that they want to make a film version. I have faith in Markham Street, because I like them, and I know they “get” SAILOR GIRL. And they have cred: A script they previously optioned, by writer-director David Bezmozgis, was invited to Sundance in January and will open in Toronto and Vancouver this June (followed by the rest of Canada).


Marcel had his tea and madeleine, I have my dark-roast coffee.

(No, I never got very far into Proust, but I think about him every morning.)

“She sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses …

Sailor Girl


In a piece for Zoomer magazine last fall, she examines the process of aging with the characters in her head, and how a very different book emerged at the end.

Like all binary thinkers, Aesop was only partly right. Slow, steady, single-minded tortoise wins the race. Sometimes. Overconfident bunny peaks too soon, falls into twenty-year nap. Or maybe the bunny just had to lose a few races. To grow up a little. To figure out where the finish line really is.


We all need mentors. If we are lucky, we find one or two, generous enough to share the odd illuminating remark or spare the odd hour or two to go over something we've written. Don Coles was an early one for me, but a better term might be "encourager." He was one of my poetry profs in the 1980s at York University, although poetry prof hardly describes his blend of humour, kindness and erudition. The guy got around in his youth, lived in Sweden and England and Western Europe, and it showed in his world view, which was more nuanced than the usual thing on that windswept campus.


Wordies are particularly susceptible to word repetition; poets and lyricists repeat words hypnotically – trying to hypnotize an audience, perhaps, but also hypnotizing themselves. Certain words take on a life of their own; dividing and spreading throughout the meme world until the culture repeats them in some kind of Tourettes-like tic (D'oh! Not!).

Which brings me to my friend Danny. Danny has started a bad-word virus with his ironic use of “anyways.”

“Anyways” is not a word, it is bad grammar used unconsciously by uncouth, bad-grammared (read: young) people. Danny started using “ANYways” as code -- as a verbal eyeroll -- to indicate his displeasure with bad-grammared people or the world in general.


Writers spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about words. Hanging with Mr. Roget, or the more obviously named descendant THE SYNONYM FINDER. Editors also brood alot over the mot juste, the clever headline pun, the perfect label. Since I am both a writer and an editor, I am constitutionally infected with the wordie virus. It doesn't mean I always give good word, but trust me, I never stop wanting to.

So the other day my son was watching THE A TEAM on Sun TV. He is 13 and had never heard of it. I had heard about it but had never seen it. (Oh my God! Mr. T's hair! So great!)

The A Team is some elite gang of troubleshooters. I couldn't tell who they were working for, but they chased bad guys in planes and dune buggies. They chased bad guys with "alacrity."


What happens in Book Club stays in Book Club. So I can only give you a highly edited account of the meeting that took place the evening of March 20, 2009, at an undisclosed location on Parliament Street.

From the moment I was buzzed upstairs to the elegant apartment over a nondescript hair salon, I knew I was in the presence of an elite group of book babes. There were flowers and music; cozy leather chairs and delicious apps (Spanish goat cheese and olives). It felt very much like an old-fashioned private club, and I felt honoured to be the first outsider to be invited (my friend Sandra, who brokered the deal, also was present).


Well, it's not that I haven't read the book. I wrote SAILOR GIRL, so I read it a few times. (Although it's been awhile, so I probably forgot stuff.) It's just that, when a book club invites you as their guest, you need to come prepared.

Tonight is my third book club visit, and the first where questions were submitted in advance. But by all accounts this is a seriously organized group, running now for two decades. They even eat dinner first, to get some of the socializing out of the way before tackling the subject.

So I'll have some time to think about the questions -- but here's a stab.


The other night I went to sleep with the sound of zombies being mown down by massive automatic weapons. The witch zombies in particular were screaming horribly as they died. One of my teenage boys was playing one of his endless series of apocalyptic XBox games. I asked him to turn the sound down.

"Hey, Mom," he said cheerfully, "I've already killed 2,000 zombies tonight."

These games make me shudder for many reasons, the main one being I don't like my teenager having a kill count. But this is the 21st century and this is what boys (and a lot of girls) do.


It happened again. Another perfect idea, at 3:20 a.m. It was for today's blog posting. It's still there, taunting me, on the edge of my mind. A tiny shiny scrap whirling around a snowglobe.

If only I had managed to acquire my ideal idea-capture device. As I wrote in my last post, it would be a small, lightweight laptop with voice recognition software. By day it could travel in my handbag, for idea-entry while on the streetcar, in the Globe cafeteria or Finn's after work. By night it would sleep beside my pillow, there to ensure that any errant idea-bite could be stored for future use. Was I just dreaming?


You've had them. They wake you at 3 a.m. and they are always the best idea you ever had.

They solve the plot dead-end you've written yourself into; they promise to end your writer's block once and for all; at the very least they're guaranteed to get you that big, fat advance.

And you have no pen, no paper, no pencil, no BlackBerry, or your BlackBerry is dead.

I have jotted ideas on cigarette packs with burnt matchsticks; on mirrors with lipstick; on bathroom walls with soap. I have written my thoughts in the air with the glowing tip of a burnt branch and carved them into a shining wet beach.


The new story in fashion and design is that everything has to tell a story. That "heritage wear" jacket has to reference your grandpa's lumberjack shirt. (He probably never was a lumberjack, he wore it to drink beer at the cottage.)

That was the idea that menswear designer Joseph Abboud was reflecting when he described his new clothing collection, Black & Brown, as "working class luxury." Because we are all working class now, get it? The line features scrumptious wools, corduroys and cashmere scarves and it was being modelled by young guys in fingerless gloves and newsboy caps. Very Dickensian chic.

Madame Bovary and brain science

Reading MADAME BOVARY in 2009 is very different from reading it in 1970 or so, the first time I met Flaubert. While classics are classics for a reason – they stand the test, you can read them at 16 or 60 – too often they are quarantined in our school syllabus and then put them aside in favour of Ruth Rendell (not that she’s any slouch, her psychological novels under pen name Barbara Vine have the same clotted despair as Madame Bovary).

The Uninvited

“That Michael Winter,” said Si Si Penaloza on Tuesday night. “What a lovely guy. I met him tonight at the Penguin thing. He’s charismatic.”

“What Penguin thing?” I said, immediately annoyed that I hadn’t been invited.

We were drinking cocktails at a swish party for the launch of a new boutique vodka, Grey Goose Poire. The Poire party was at the Art Gallery of Ontario and it was my first look at the Frank Gehry transformation (it’s surprising how many people haven’t seen it yet. I blame the weather).

“Oh, The Hamish Hamilton launch at Nyood,” Si Si said. Si Si is the editorial director of the newly launched and an occasional contributor to Globe Style. She is also an Olympic-class schmoozer. She probably had six more events that night.


Dear Stephen Colbert
I know it's inexcusably tardy to be sending you a Christmas card in March, but, honest, I couldn't find your address. Then, when I heard last week that my Globe and Mail colleague Carl Wilson had got invited onto your show on March 4*, I thought Hey! Someone up there really wants Stephen to have his card.

So here it is. The card depicts a WORLD WAR TWO FRENCH GINGERBREAD FARMHOUSE. Building this bombed-out gingerbread house with my two sons was the best Christmas Day therapy ever (next to watching A COLBERT CHRISTMAS, of course).

I mean, what do you do when you open the IKEA gingerbread kit and realize half the roof is gone? Break out the plastic soldiers, of course!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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