Category Archives: Writing

An interview with author and poet Ian Williams

Pix Ian Williams

Ian Williams at a coffee shop on Main, Vancouver in May 2019 (Photo: Alison Bate)

In his debut novel Reproduction, Vancouver-based poet and author Ian Williams tells the story of Felicia, a teenager and immigrant from an unnamed island.

“I not from anywhere,’ she tells Edgar, an older white guy from a wealthy German family. They meet in hospital where their mothers are seriously ill and their lives become intertwined over the generations.

Williams explores non-traditional family arrangements, racism and male entitlement in Reproduction, published by Random House Canada.

I met up with Williams in a cafe on Main Street, Vancouver recently and my Q. and A. interview is now online at Cascadia Magazine.

Coffee in Hanoi

I’m returning to Vietnam next month, and that got me thinking about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops in Hanoi, especially one on Ngu Xa in Truc Bach…

By Alison Bate

 The cafe owner smiles the smile of many mornings as she brings over my iced coffee and green tea chaser. I lean forward in my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone Nau Da, digging down with the long-handled spoon to mix in the condensed milk, navigating around the lumps of ice. The mixture curdles and looks like a work of art sometimes and other times, a sludgy mess.

I take a sip of Nau Da and the chocolatey taste spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the green Tra Da clears my palette and my mind. Continue reading

Speaking about Sudan novel at Vancouver Public Library

By Alison Bate

Hi! I’ll be joining four other authors at the Vancouver Public Library this Sunday to talk about my upcoming debut novel.

The novel’s set in Sudan, where I taught English for a while, and tells the story of three very different women confronting their individual fears. Fatima, the second of three wives, faces poverty; her cousin Nadia fears for the health of her Down’s baby; and Jodi, a travel-loving westerner, fears a conventional life.

I write about the Muslim way of life in the tri-cities of Omdurman, Khartoum and Khartoum North (Bahri), a capital region dealing with the aftermath of civil wars, blazing desert heat, power cuts and constant traffic jams.

I’ll be reading from my novel and answering any questions at the New Voices event, along with four other authors: Suzanne Chiasson, Roxanne Barbour, AK White and Joan B Flood.


Date: Sunday, April 30, 2017 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Venue: Vancouver Public Library, 350 W. Georgia St., Vancouver. B.C. Alma VanDusen Room, Lower Level.
Price: Free!

War, peace and the artist: Muoi Trong Nguyen

By Alison Bate

The corpses filled the river valley, their hands stretched toward the sky.

It was 1979 and Hanoi artist Muoi Trong Nguyen had been sent north to the border with China to record the war scenes for historical purposes. The fighting between China and Vietnam lasted less than a month, but in that short time, more than 30,000 soldiers died in the conflict, also known as the Third Indochina War.

He spent months after the battle ended, sketching and painting watercolors on site, but it’s this image of the hands of the corpses stretched toward the sky that stays with him. Sadly, he says the paintings no longer exist or are in the hands of the military.

Pix Muoi Trong Nguyen and Thang Tran

Artist Muoi Trong Nguyen (left) with translator Thang Tran at Writing Across Generations in Hanoi, April 2016

Western visitors to Vietnam often focus on the aftermath of the “American War”, as it is known here, or perhaps the colonial period, when France colonized the country. But to most Vietnamese nowadays, these wars are events from the past. Any current fears or threats are focussed on its neighbor China, based on its past invasions, current maritime ambitions and, of course, tempered by a booming trade between the two countries.

Nguyen, who writes in Vietnamese under the name Nguyen Trong Thap*, has brought out a new memoir “Noi Chim” that gives a fascinating glimpse of personal life in north Vietnam during the land reforms, the American War, and his time in the military and as an artist. He read excerpts from “Noi Chim” (Sinking and Swimming) and answered questions at a special reading at Hanoi Cooking Centre in April. At the event “Across the Generations”, he was joined by poet Nguyen Thi Hong Van and blogger and copywriter Yuki Phan, with Thang Tran translating.
Continue reading

Writing in Hanoi

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Pix Alison Bate

Alison Bate in Hanoi, 2013

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi. Continue reading

Three thoughts about the Vancouver riot

June 22, 2011

I was working the evening shift at The Vancouver Sun the night the first hockey riot broke out.

Depressed about the Canucks losing, we’d just about finished laying out the front page and “put the paper to bed”. Then news came in that a mob was forming at Robson and Thurlow, with drunken fans climbing lampposts and breaking windows.

It was June 14, 1994, and as assistant design editor, I was responsible for laying out the front page and selecting and editing the pictures the photographers brought back. We were still using negatives, then, of course, peering over them carefully with a loupe, selecting the sharpest and the best.

As the night wore on, we stripped apart the front page and inside pages to add more and more dramatic photos of the rioters and the riot police. We worked flat out until 1:30 a.m., doing a triple chaser for the paper.

Media photographers and broadcasters were really the only ones at the riot scene in 1994 and our negatives showed people climbing lampposts, wrecking and looting stores, and assaulting police officers.

That night, we didn’t really have time to analyze the reasons for the riot, or even the consequences of having captured evidence of people committing crimes.

But the next day, I remember how protective we felt about the negatives, and how we even considered hiding them. In our department, we didn’t want to hand them over to the police. We were worried that it would turn our photographers into targets for criminals in the future and also wanted to protect the civil liberties of those photographed, even those committing crimes. That time, the riot police seemed to have charged in aggressively, as well, and we didn’t quite trust the police not to massage their own role in the riot. Continue reading

New blog for Bowen Island writing festival

I’ve just set up a new blog for the Write On Bowen festival. I’m on the board and also interviewed a couple of the presenters last week.

Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen runs six blogs and plays around a lot with different ads on her sites. “It takes a long time to earn money from a blog but it’s easy because it’s so much fun to put on different ads and experiment with what works,” she says.

Sylvia Taylor, executive director of the Federation of BC Writers, helps writers with their manuscripts and told me: “My authors all give me different nicknames: one calls me ‘The Literary Midwife’ and another calls me ‘Metaphora Editrix.’ ”.

Switching from to

What an absolute pain! I have to say, don’t make this switch lightly. I wanted to change the look of my website/blog, which I’ve run happily on the free site for the last couple of years.

But I wanted a more sophisticated layout. I found a new template I really liked, from Elegant Themes, so decided to switch. A five-minute switch, according to WordPress. Yeah, right.

The whole process, by now about 80 per cent complete, took me back to the early web days, when I put up and ran a nonprofit website for 18 months. Using I didn’t have to ftp anything, or dig around with code in the servers.

This week, I’ve had to relearn more than I ever wanted to about WebFTP, domain mapping, changing cache settings . . . and little things such as getting WP-stats to work on are ridiculously time-consuming.

Time for a walk on the beach in the rain.

Online tips at Bowen Island writing festival

By Alison Bate

I learned about Freemiums and Long Tails on Saturday while moderating a panel at the Write on Bowen festival on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, B.C.

WriteBowen logo2As traditional media outlets struggle to make money on the web, panelist Lisa Manfield said Freemium was one way for companies to adapt. Freemium involves promoting services by offering basic features for free, but charging a premium for extra features.

Manfield, managing editor at, also gave a great workshop on Writing for the Web on Sunday. She teaches web writing for Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program, and managed to pack an incredible amount of useful information into a short time. Continue reading

Ten tips for freelance writers

I joined four other freelancers and publishers on a discussion panel at the Write on Bowen! festival on Bowen Island, B.C. last weekend. Here are some of the tips I gave in a handout afterward:

    1. If you freelance full-time, try and have at least three regular clients. That way, when one goes bust, you won’t feel so devastated. On the up side, while publications fold with depressing regularity, new ones continue to start up and give you new markets.

    2. Specialize. Become an expert on a really obscure subject, and write on it in depth. If you write wishy-washy features with no clear focus, and pitch them to major consumer magazines, your emails will disappear into the ether.

    3. If you live in Canada, don’t rely on the Canadian market alone: it’s far too small, and it’s not freelance-friendly. Pitch to U.S. magazines, webzines, online news and feature websites too.. If you live in the U.S., try Canadian markets as well.

    4. Better still, pitch internationally. Try British, Japanese, Chinese markets etc.

    5. Don’t obsess about having great clips. Most editors don’t care what you did for someone else – they just want to know if you can write something useful for them. Pitch an idea for an event about to happen, that they haven’t covered, but is right for their publication.

    6. Most publications want first time rights or first time North American serial rights. If you write a story on your blog or website, that counts as publishing. Only include these stories after they’ve been published somewhere else (and link to them), or if you aren’t intending to make money from them. For example, if you are blogging to promote yourself and your ideas.

    7. Write with the reader in mind, not your ego. Timely news stories that keep people up-to-date or give practical information always have a strong market.

    8. Freelance for lifestyle reasons: to have more freedom, to be able to work from home or in coffee shops, or to write the stories you want. If you want or need a steady income, get a staff job. You’ll make more money there.

    9. Don’t forget to take a vacation. You may think employers/clients won’t like it, but actually, it’s often the opposite. They are impressed that you are making enough money to take a break. And what’s the point of freelancing, if you are chained to your computer? Just make sure to give clear warning of when you will be away, send an email reminder just before you leave town and stack up stories if necessary.

    10. Most important of all, write on topics you are passionate about.