I joined the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) in 2011 to meet other writers and to help me better understand the avenues to publishing. My expectations were met in that a few of the Toronto branch monthly meetings brought in publishers and agents who talked about the process of querying. The meetings were not very well attended, although the executive of the time seemed to be organized. Over the next few years, however, the spotty attendance declined even more, as did the quality of the programs, and the branch executive slowly disbanded.

Anita Purcell, the Executive Director of the national organization, would contact me every once in awhile by email to encourage me to stay active but I begged off using my “being stuck in the wilds of suburbia” as a lame excuse. Then, in 2018, Anita asked if I would become active again as the Toronto branch was being revitalized by a group of women who were intent on success. I committed to attend the planned Annual General Meeting (AGM) in November, 2018, which was only a small portion of the evening. The focus was a program called “Crossing Over”, which presented three writers who moved between poetry and fiction, including poet Catherine Graham who’d recently released her acclaimed novel Quarry. The whole event was much better organized, and attended, than anything in the past and during the AGM portion of the program we members ratified the women responsible for kickstarting the branch: Co-Presidents Lee Parpart and Jeannie Fong Garrard; Vice-President Jennifer Foster; Membership Coordinator Brandi Tanner; and Secretary Stephanie Wyeld.

Four of the five women who revitalized CAA’s Toronto branch. From Left to Right: Brandi, Lee, Jennifer, Jeannie

The next program they launched really got my attention. In January, 2019, in partnership with Editors Toronto and University of Toronto’s Creative Writing Program, they presented Esi Edugyan, fresh off her second Giller Award for Washington Black. Seriously, a two-time Giller Award winner headlining the panel? I realized one thing for sure: these women weren’t fucking around!

Beyond the quality of programming, they re-established the website, branded the branch as Canadian Authors – Toronto, stepped up social media, and utilized a comprehensive editorial guide for communications that ensured a consistent look and feel to every email sent to members. On top of all that, they started a monthly writer circle for members interested in sharing and critiquing one another’s work.

When my wife and I returned from our annual winter escape to California in the spring of 2019, I offered to join the executive to help out with administrative support for, I think, two reasons. One being shame — I’d been a member doing nothing for years while these folks swooped in and kicked-ass — and, second, I figured I couldn’t do anything but benefit by mixing in with five kick-ass women. I assumed they had all known one another personally and/or professionally for a long time and had spent considerable time planning how and when they would restart the branch. As with most of my assumptions in life I was completely, utterly, fabulously wrong, as I learned when I informally interviewed each of them for this Profile.

Having said that, one assumption did turn out to be right, as confirmed by everyone I spoke to: everything began with Lee Parpart. (Also known as tireless, super volunteer Lee.) What Lee told me was enlightening in a curious sort of way — it started with Nancy Drew. Really, that Nancy Drew? Well, here’s the story.

In 2016, Silver Birch Press published the Nancy Drew Anthology, a collection of poetry, prose and drawings inspired by, and to celebrate, the female icon and role model who first appeared as an amateur sleuth in 1930. (Full disclosure: I’m a boy; growing up I read The Hardy Boys.) Although Lee says she was never a Nancy Drew devotee, she did have a story included, a unique perspective about what Nancy Drew might have been doing during a real life Depression-era writer’s strike. Beyond showing her writing chops with this creative viewpoint, she also demonstrated her remarkable marketing abilities. Not content to sit back and see how well the anthology might sell through the publisher’s efforts (after all, she was only one of over 90 contributors), Lee organized a book launch at The Supermarket Restaurant & Bar in Toronto’s Kensington district. She brought in other contributors and recruited drama students from a couple of local performing arts schools dressed in Nancy Drew costumes, from various eras, to greet attendees.

One of the people who attended this distinctive event was Jennifer Foster, a self-described big fan of Nancy Drew. (How big? Well, she has all the books in the original hardcover series, including the 1975 edition of The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking. A Nancy Drew cookbook — who knew? asks The Hardy Boys fan.)  She had met Lee once, at a Rowers Reading Series evening, where Jennifer says they “just clicked instantly and had so much in common, including a love of writing, reading and editing.” Their friendship was enhanced by an understanding and admiration of each other’s capabilities.

Jennifer discussing Lee: “Her creativity, enthusiasm and energy, event-planning know-how and people skills are phenomenal.” Lee discussing Jennifer: “She’s the most impressive freelance writer-editor I’ve ever met, and has a long list of amazing clients who treat her like gold because they have experienced the wonder that is Jen Foster and seen its impact on their publications.”

Lee multitasking at the January, 2019 program featuring Giller winner Esi Edugyan who is seated directly in front of Lee

Jennifer is the sole proprietor of Life on Planet Word, a company that offers editing, writing and mentoring services. To underline Lee’s assessment of Jennifer’s accomplishments would take far more space that I have here, but I invite you to visit her website or check out her Professional Writer’s Association of Canada page — it will leave you breathless. Jen says that years ago “after having my son and reading a myriad of amazing kid’s books over the years” she decided to write a YA novel which she is now working on. As a long time volunteer with many community and professional groups, including being the administrative director for the Rowers Reading Series, Jen realized Lee would be “absolutely perfect for the position of programs chair with the Editors Toronto” where Jen served on the executive. Months later, when Lee decided to lead the revival of the CAA Toronto branch, Jen jumped at the chance to join her.

The introductions and relationships to the rest of the group who would become the new Authors – Toronto executive expanded like the universe, random but meaningful (if your definition of meaning is to be alive).

Lee had recently joined Iguana Books as an editor and her first assignment was to proofread an anthology they were publishing. Iguana had partnered with CAA to create a book of short stories as a way to help the association raise money and to support aspiring and emerging writers. The collection, Blood is Thicker: An Anthology of Twisted Family Traditions, called for submissions that had one simple but engrossing imperative: all stories had to begin with the same opening sentence.

“It was February 29 again, and I was wondering which member of my family would try to kill me this time.”

Involvement with Blood is Thicker brought Lee into contact with Anita who, as I mentioned earlier, was trying to find people to resuscitate CAA’s Toronto branch. Iguana’s owner, Greg Ioannou, had already tipped Anita off that Lee would be a great leader. For her part, after a long absence from doing much creative writing while she focused on the health needs of her daughter, Lee was looking for a supportive writing community as she re-emerged as poet and fiction writer. Hand in glove seems an appropriate cliché to employ — Lee simply fit the bill in every way as the person Anita had hoped to find. At the same time, because of Blood is Thicker, Lee met the incomparable Jeannie Fong Garrard whose short story, “Metamorphosis of Nova”, was included in the anthology (JF Garrard).

How to describe Jeannie? Try to imagine the energy expended by that old Bugs Bunny cartoon figure, the Tasmanian Devil, all that incredible whirling but…without any visible signs of actual whirling. Also like Tasmanian, Jeannie is built close to the ground, but all other similarities end. Jeannie speaks deliberately, is methodical in her reasoning, has the accompanying dry wit of a Steven Wright-like comedian, and yet, somehow, expends enormous amounts of energy without you seeing it. (If I had any skill whatsoever in physics, I would try to investigate this phenomena.) How do we know Jeannie, without showing it, expends great energy? Well, try this out.

Jeannie has an undergrad degree in Nuclear medicine, an MBA in Marketing and Strategy, works full time in health care, founded Dark Helix Press (and its companion Dark Helix Ezine, where she is Editor in chief), wrote one non-fiction book, The Literary Elephant (to assist other writers in self-publishing), edited another, Trump: Utopia or Dystopia (I guess to help other Canadians understand what-the-fuck is happening with that), wrote a fantasy fiction novel, The Undead Sorceress, has had something like a half-dozen short stories published, is a Festival Coordinator for LiterASIAN Toronto, is Deputy Editor for Ricepaper Magazine, where, among other duties, she has conducted interviews with Asian-Canadians like comedian Margaret Cho, film director Sherren Lee, and actor Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience; soon-to-be a Marvel Universe film star), and — let’s not fail to mention — Jeannie is married and mother of a young boy. Yes, I know, I just wrote a run-on sentence. Metaphor (don’t you get it): Jeannie Fong Garrard, run-on person.

Some organizational decisions are excruciating; others are ridiculously easy. Lee had an easy one in re-vamping the dormant Toronto branch into the vibrant Authors – Toronto. “Hey Jeannie, how would you like to be Co-President with me?” “Okay.”

Aside from Lee, Jeannie and Jennifer apparently being born to volunteer their time, their decisions to be involved in Authors-Toronto flowed from the same place, a desire to be around other writers, be part of an actual writer’s community. Which is, after all, what branches of CAA are all about. The national association can provide resources and support through their website and conferences but the on-going physical interaction can only take place locally. Which brings us to Brandi Tanner and Stephanie Wyeld. 

When I asked Brandi why she wanted to become involved she answered, “It was kind of a perfect storm of circumstances for me. I had just begun to branch out and explore my writing abilities more and was looking for some direction. I’ve loved to read and write fiction since I can remember but was utterly unsure of what to do with my passion. Joining Authors – Toronto gave me focus and access to resources I didn’t know existed. I also love that we include writers in every stage of their career, from established professional authors to writers who are newer to the wonderful world of words.” The random encounters continued in the summer of 2018 when Brandi met Lee and Jeannie at CAA’s Writers Summit. With the encouragement of Anita, she agreed to join the team as the Membership Coordinator and the fact that local membership has grown in the last year owes not only to the great programs but also her superior organizational skills.

Stephanie at an Authors-Toronto Pub Night. I’d crack wise about her drinking but as I recall she only had straight cranberry juice. Later she led a few of us to see her friend Cassie Cao perform — an up & coming Toronto stand-up comedian you should definitely check out .

Similar reasons brought Stephanie to become a member. She’d just started writing and joined the association to be able to attend the Toronto conference. But the fact the Toronto branch was VERY quiet had Steph re-considering her membership when a call came to ask her to attend a meeting. Her memory of that evening, and meeting Lee for the first time, is crystal clear. “Lee needed someone to take notes and I had a coveted notebook. A friendship was born.” Ahh, the exquisite beauty of randomness continued — who knows what would have happened at that fateful meeting if Steph had left home without her notebook! When I chatted with her about this, Steph preferred to use a synonym for random by saying, “Honestly, it was flukey that I ended up on the executive, but exactly the right thing at the right time. I had left my job when I had kids, and was a PTA burnout. I promise you I actually have a brain and past career beyond writing, just like everyone else — but ask me how much I use my Master’s degree now! I needed something that was just for me, and for building writing as a career. This executive was just what I needed to meet awesome writers and scratch the pesky volunteerism itch.”

Trust me on this: to delight in the specific humour of a well-educated, accomplished person who says “I promise you I actually have a brain”, follow Stephanie on Twitter (@steph_the_twit), as she navigates social justice, small children, raging hormones, and staring contests with the family pet (a Sphynx Cat — you know, the hairless kind like Dr Evil’s in the Austin Power movies). Not long ago I sent a link to my wife and a few of her girlfriends for an article Steph wrote in Blunt Moms titled “My Body is a Rude B*tch”. Her friends who use Twitter immediately began following her. Click the above link to the article and you’ll understand why.

Throughout 2019 the group provided Toronto and area writers with programs spanning everything from poetry workshops to cultural diversity in writing romance novels to screenwriters who started writing novels to the opportunity (all important for emerging writers) to hear from active literary agents. Going into 2020 the executive has changed, as it always will in order to survive and grow. But, the five women profiled here have been the essential force in revitalizing an important organization for fellow writers, and provided to me new friends.

Within the cadre of these newfound friends, I have been awed in particular by the energy and dedication of the Co-Presidents, Lee Parpart and Jeannie Fong Garrard. Which is why over the next two Profiles they will be the focus, first on Lee and then on Jeannie.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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