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Love this town

With 33 books to her credit, Budge Wilson continues to find solace and inspiration in Halifax

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Author Budge Wilson knows the value of pain. “I don’t think you can be a writer unless you’ve experienced pain,” says the author of 33 books, including a prequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley series, Before Anne of Green Gables. “Imagination will take you a long, long way,” she says, and can be cathartic. “You don’t have to throw the lamp [in real life], but your character can.” But for fiction, “You need pain and sorrow. There has to be a story and conflict.”

Marjorie Budge Wilson has even experienced a bit of conflict around her name. People often doubt it is her real name, and often ask about it. “There is no story to the name Budge,” she says. “As far back as I can remember, I was Budge. Not even my mother knows where [it] came from.”

Halifax born and raised, Wilson first worked as a commercial artist and photographer, and then as a fitness instructor. Unusually, she came to her writing career late, in her mid-50s. Now in her 80s, she continues to produce picture and chapter books for children, and short fiction for both young adults and children.

Pressed for a favourite, she says, “Perhaps The Leaving [a short-story collection]. I think my best writing has to do with adolescence. That stage is exceedingly vivid to me … [it] was not a happy time. I had a lot of conflict with my mother—common, of course—but I was very strongly disciplined from earliest years, with spanking and corporal punishment … I was filled with rage, which I was not allowed to express.” She smiles. “This has been a fortunate thing, to pour my anger into my characters’ minds and hearts.” She adds that her mother was very loving to her when she was a child. It was puberty, “not  wanting to be controlled,” that caused the friction.

Anne Shirley, the internationally adored character created by writer Lucy Maud Montgomery, also felt pubescent rage, once breaking a slate over schoolmate Gilbert Blythe’s head when he teased her about her red hair. Nor was Wilson’s new book on Anne, which details her very young life, without angry, and even dark and desperate, characters and circumstances. But the heirs of L.M. Montgomery, along with editorial staff at Penguin Books, which published the book in 2008 as part of centenary celebrations, knew what to expect. Any reader of Wilson’s books will encounter fraught and fractured family dynamics, and complex emotional terrain.

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“We really liked her work,” says Kate MacDonald Butler, Montgomery’s nephew, who along with Montgomery’s nephew, David MacDonald, and in conjunction with Penguin Books, chose the writer for the project. “We spoke to Budge, and liked her approach , which was not to imitate [Montgomery’s voice], but to use her own voice,” she says. “I had this intuitive feeling that this could work… She had me crying by page four of the sample.” Six years after the prequel’s publication and enthusiastic reception worldwide, MacDonald Butler says, “We chose well. It is a beautiful story.”

Sylvia Gunnery, a fellow Nova Scotian writer of children’s books and a retired elementary school teacher, also cried when she read the prequel. “It is the human moments that Budge writes about,” she says. “She has such an eye, ear and heart for small moments. She is a precise writer, like Alice Munro.” Gunnery often brought Wilson and other regional writers into her classroom, “so the kids could see themselves in the work.”

Wilson’s favourite book, The Leaving, initially “brought Budge to me as a friend,” recalls Gunnery. “It was so home, so Halifax. I think everyone finds home in her work.”

Publisher Lesley Choyce, of Pottersfield Press in Lawrencetown, has published five of Wilson’s books. “Budge was a ton of fun to work with,” he says. “She was also very professional, easy-going and she knew who her readers were. I appreciate her [writing] style and her understanding of human psychology. She connects so well with young kids.”

Wilson and her husband Allan Wilson have two daughters and two grandsons. The couple spend six month of the years in Northwest Cove, where they have had a home for 60 years, and the other half-year in Halifax. “I am totally at home in either place,” Wilson says. “But Halifax, it’s my home town.”

She particularly enjoys the city’s natural offerings. “I go down past the container ports and see the absolute open sea, which I love; I love to see a horizon, too.” With a bad back she doesn’t walk to Point Pleasant Park or the Public Gardens any more, “but I can drive to them.  Just knowing they’re there. It’s a part of loving being here.”

Wilson says, “My 50s, 60s and 70s were the busiest and most exciting decades of my life.” Her career has garnered her numerous writing awards and honorary degrees. She is a Member of The Order of Canada and a Member of The Order of Nova Scotia. An adventurous soul, she particularly enjoyed her trips to Labrador and the Canadian north, where she visited with school children in Inuit and First Nation communities. Sometimes she arrived by bush plane, other times by snowmobile.

Contemplating her recent 87th birthday, she turns serious. “I don’t complain,” she says. “I am unbelievably fortunate.” Like Anne Shirley, Budge Wilson seems to believe that  “… the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.”

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