Author and publisher Lesley Choyce’s workspace offers an escape from the real world—but a window that frames the ocean view is essential
Drive east, through the city, over a bridge, through another city, suburbia and around a lot of bends, and suddenly the crashing waves of Lawrencetown Beach look ready to smash the windshield. The surfers love it, so it’s no surprise Atlantic CanLit icon Lesley Choyce lives nearby.
“I’m on Leslie Road. No kidding,” he says. The pale blue house in East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, looks like it was erected by a kid with hand-me-down Lego, uneven blocks creating protruding angles.
Upstairs, a vertical window frames the Atlantic, beyond green wetlands and shrubbery. Computers, circa early ’90s to modern-day, are stationed in the corners—abandoned writing spaces. There is a wall of books. Papers, boxes and ink cartridges on the floor surround an easy chair. Choyce’s current nook overlooks a picnic table and an uncluttered yard, but the window is off to the side. The main focus is the flat-screen monitor, where he spends a few hours every morning trying to shut out the real world and create new ones.
He’s been here since 1978, when he finished his PhD coursework in English literature in New Jersey. Ronald Reagan was prowling, ready to claim the White House. Reaganomics didn’t jibe with the young, intellectual Renaissance man who already belonged with what we now call the creative class.
He needed somewhere his mind could be free. There was some oceanside acreage in East Lawrencetown; a 200-year-old fixer-upper farmhouse. Low ceiling, boards painted with skim milk and pig’s blood, like they did back then. No heat, a single 15-amp light bulb.
But he loved Nova Scotia; had ever since his first trip in a Volkswagen van in 1969, surfing the great beaches. It seemed like a place he could write. And he has, to the tune of 84 books, all while running his own publishing company, hosting a national TV show for many years (“Off the Page” on Book Television), jamming with his one-time spoken-word rock band, The SurfPoets, teaching English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, surfing year-round and being a dad.
When he arrived, he had already written a few bad manuscripts. “Only three unpublished?” his writer friends teased him. “That’s pretty good.”
He kept at it. Generating material was never a problem. His first published work was a book of poetry, Re-Inventing the Wheel, from Fiddlehead Books. Eventually, a collection of short stories followed (Eastern Sure, Nimbus Publishing), and some creative nonfiction. He opened his own publishing house, Pottersfield Press, in 1979. In the ’80s he built onto the old farmhouse, adding the upstairs where he now writes, as he says, “somewhat erratically,” but often, adding: “Writing is part of the biological cycle in my brain.” He says he writes sloppily first, quickly, then fixes the mess.
He is inspired by his surroundings. You can feel them in his work, whether prose about free spirits on their own island (The Republic of Nothing, Goose Lane Editions), or verse about footprints washed to sea (“as soil slips free/its compact form, takes flight/and empties all it knows”—The Coastline of Forgetting, Pottersfield Press). “An imaginary Nova Scotia,” he calls it.
“When I write, it’s very much like geography—like I’m going to a place. Everything else disappears. And when I stop writing, I leave that world,” he explains.
He can reach both the city and the surf from this very space. To get there, “I need a window, quiet. The ability to make the real world go away. To go beyond my own neuroses and problems. Even just coming up to a separate floor from the rest of the house helps.”
As a publisher and a writer, that real world includes the bleak prospects facing a new book. “I have to forget that and believe I’m going to write a great book that connects with people. Because books change lives.”
This year Choyce is up for the Atlantic Poetry Prize for I’m Alive. I Believe in Everything. (Breton Books), a collection of new and previously published poems from the last 40 years of his life. But he writes more young adult novels than anything else now, producing about one a year. He wants to stay innovative. His new novel, Jeremy Stone (Red Deer Press), due out in the fall, is about a young Mi’kmaq man moving through spirit worlds.
After more than three decades in this space, the writing process still invigorates Choyce. “When I finish a book I’m sad to leave that world,” he says. “I grieve for it.”