Bernardine Ann Teráz Stapleton: This is the book I’ve always wanted to write
I’m looking at two – two! New books from you: love, life, and Girly Muckle and the Queer Hands. Not only that, but I think these are (respectively) your first novel and first YA fiction (although you’ve written lots of short fiction). How did that come about?
Love, life is the book I’ve always wanted to write. I knew I had it lurking inside me somewhere. I’ve had the themes and threads of it circulating in my journals but had no clue what the structure or throughline would be. Then I went to Italy with Melanie Caines Nova Yoga retreat group. I was compelled to write from the moment I got off the plane. Every experience there fed the narrative. I felt my humour freshen. I lived in a haze of discovery. I spent several years after that honing the book. Girly Muckle and the Queer Hands had been completed for some time, but I was unsure of how or where to submit it. Eventually each book went to roost with different publishers, and had different timelines in place for publication. The pandemic erased all of those best-laid plans. Somehow, serendipitously, through a lot of support from the publishing community, and through WANL’s Pitch Wars, each book found the perfect nest. Love, life is with Breakwater Books. They had a miraculous slot come free for it this year. At the same time Dave Reynolds at Problematic Press expressed the desire to publish Girly Muckle. Both publishers were amenable to me having this dual release, and it’s been fun to cross-promote the books.
Many people – everybody – loves the idea of travelling to Italy and you actually did it. Can you describe that experience?
Everyone must go as soon as it is safe to do so again. I had the rare pleasure of making a crooked customs officer at Heathrow [airport] guffaw when he asked me (with suspicion.) “What were you doing in Italy?” I replied, “Eating my weight in pasta.” The experience of travelling to Italy changed my life. I love yoga retreats because you get to mingle with a like-minded intimate group of souls when you wish, and strike out on your own as much as you like. The retreats tend to bring you into smaller communities where you get an immediate family-like welcome to the culture, which is what happened to me in Italy. I believe that being a Newfoundlander gives me a universal passport into languages and customs, because people are curious about us, about our place in the world, and it opens a desire to share that doesn’t need translation. My second retreat with Melanie brought me to Cuba (just before the pandemic), which lay the groundwork for the beginning of Hitchcock in Havana, which was long-listed for the CBC creative non-fiction prize.
With Girly Muckle, did you set out to write young adult fiction, or did that voice emerge?
I did set out to write young adult fiction, and I set out to give a voice to the self I was at that age. (Girly is about to turn 17 when we meet her.) I think the result is that Girly may sound a little younger or naïve than someone of that age today, but the central issues (I hope) transcend age or time. Girly is a teenaged Selkie, living as a human girl by day, transitioning into her seal body each night. Even though she lives among other folklore beings such as the Hag and an Adlet family, she struggles with feeling as if she doesn’t belong. She’s an outsider amongst outsiders. I love Girly’s voice because her love of words and wordplay emerged as I wrote. She, like me, finds her true voice on the page, and that helps her reveal her true self to those she loves.
You’ve also written or co-written a lot of theatre scripts, and a piece like Offensive to Some is, I would argue, migrating into the NL theatre canon, with multiple performances by different actors and companies since its debut. Why do you think that’s happened? How does that feel?
I often say to people that even though I’m fairly well known for comedy, I am not funny. I can write funny, and then say the words. So, with Offensive to Some I apply a similar theory. I may not be the best playwright, but I am a great storyteller. I do well when I trust myself, and I trusted my own self completely when I wrote that play over 25 years ago. Also, sadly, the incidents of violence towards women have not abated in the last decades, and the issue continues to plague us. A number of companies and individuals from around the country have become part of the Offensive family and they all keep in touch with me. Many young artists now use excerpts from Offensive and Woman in a Monkey Cage as audition pieces. It makes me feel so fulfilled when I hear these stories come back to me.
Your name is on a lot of posters as Bernardine (or Berni) Stapleton. Why adopt these two middle names now?
I love this question. My full given name (including confirmation name of Teráz) is Bernardine Ann Teráz Stapleton. My name was shortened to Berni by a male program director when I was 18, and I’ve always felt like that represented a stage persona that I could never live up to in real life. In reality I’m an introvert. I have anxiety. I feel more comfortable in my private life with those who know me as Bernardine. My middle names are from my mother. She and I share an obsession with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. There are many sainted Theresas. There is Teresa of Ávila, Theresa Benedicta, Teresa of Los Andes, Teresa of Portugal, and others. Mom gave me Teráz as a confirmation name. I figured at my age it was about time I’d embraced the incredible beauty of my full name and the history it represents.
Do you have a writing process?
I wake up in the morning and reach for the computer and my journal. I write with the birds. I become like a character out of Grey Gardens and stay plopped on the bed looking out my window until the rest of life beckons and forces me out. I revise as I write. I get a lot of good feedback from my beagle, Georgie Girl. If I get out of bed and try to write I will find myself cleaning the basement instead.
What are you working on now?
I just wrapped the inaugural season of The Kitchen Party Theatre Festival in Grand Falls-Windsor. Nicole Smith and I are the co-artistic directors, and the co-writers of the play Girls from Away. The process of getting back into theatre has been incredibly challenging, enervating and inspiring. The audience is like the avid reader except with instant feedback. I’m also working on Hitchcock in Havana, another mostly true fable about life in other places.
And don’t answer this if you’d prefer not to: last summer I attended a fundraising performance you held because you needed a medical procedure. How did that treatment go? How are you feeling now?
Thanks for asking! And supporting! My Temporomandibular disorder, or TMD, is being successfully treated with a series of injections administered directly into the problem area. It’s given me about a 60 per cent recovery of jaw mobility. I’m thrilled about it.
(Author photo: Ritche Perez)
love, life ($19.95, Breakwater Books) and Girly Muckle and the Queer Hands ($25.00, Problematic Press, and first in a series of three) are now available.