Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Introducing a Young Writer - Jessie Tollestrup

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I first met Jessie Tollestrup at WordsWorth. She had put on a red hat that lay on the table, scattered among the other costumes, and I must say she looked fabulous. She's a soft spoken nineteen year old who will blow your mind the minute she hits the stage. She writes her own music, composes lyrics, and is an awesome prose and poetry writer. She hails from the prairies and you can see that influence in her eyes which seem to see things far in the distance. You will see Jessie Tollestrup soon. You will hear her on the radio. You will watch as she becomes something so big that the prairies themselves will seem tiny by comparison. But right now, she plays gigs in Vancouver and busks to make ends meet.

I introduce young writer Jessie Tollestrup:

KF: When did you start writing?

JT: As soon as I understood what books were, I started pestering my parents to teach me how to write. I remember many patient hours of them teaching me how to spell simple words like ‘cat’ and ‘house’.

KF: Who or what influenced your writing?

JT: When I first started out, I was a terrible plagiarist; I would rewrite stories I’d read, but change key details (instead of a family of bears, there would be a family of cats). I finally started to show some signs of originality around grade 5, when I began to write poetry about the prairies around our house. Later on in middle and high school, “Lo!” by Charles Fort and “The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall became huge influences. I loved Steven Hall’s text experimentation, and the suggestion in both books that our ideas of “real” are not as concrete as we’re taught they are.

KF: Song writing and music are a big part of what you do. When did you first get involved in music?

JT: My mom used to play guitar when she was pregnant with me. For as long as I can remember, Suzuki piano records have played in our house. By the time we got a keyboard when I was around 4, it felt totally natural to go and plunk out simple things like ‘twinkle twinkle little star’. I began piano lessons when I was 5, and guitar and drums in my early teens.

KF: Does music help you grow as a writer?

JT: I think that there are tons of crossovers between every artistic medium. Personally, I find that when I’m feeling creatively blocked or full of performance anxiety, it manifests as tension and breath held unnaturally in my body. Both music and writing serve as vehicles to focus on and eliminate issues like this. Music does seem to come more naturally to me, though; I think it’s because I can use more abstract soundscapes to convey meaning and feeling, instead of using something as precise as words. Certainly, though, music has helped me as a writer, and writing has helped me as a musician.

KF: Do you see poetry and lyrics as two totally separate things?

JT: Definitely not. Often lines of what was intended as poetry turns into lyrics, and what was intended as lyrics turns into lines of poetry. They seem to be interchangeable depending on the situation. As well, poetry can be performed over music. I think the difference between them is more of a spectrum than a binary.

KF: What kinds of topics do you like to write about?

JT: A lot of what I write is just stream-of-consciousness, and then I try to develop certain images/ideas from that. Usually I am stuck on certain idea trains for extended periods of time. Lately, it seems to mostly be personal observations about the place I’m in and who I am relative to that, and then who I feel like relative to other people. I find it fascinating the way a single situation can have totally different emotional overtones for different people; the way we cross-reference every situation with countless past memories and associated ideas. The way every situation can trigger a different set of feelings from person to person. It’s crazy the way we can have totally different experiences, even when put in the same situation together. The way we move around inside of this confused ball of ever-changing sensations and still find common ground to interact on is so crazy beautiful. I think most of when I’m writing is just me trying to sit still long enough to snatch moments from the turbulence.

KF: Where do you see yourself going with writing / song writing/ poetry in the future?

JT: Everywhere I can; I want to seize as many opportunities as possible to grow and meet real people.

KF: Has there been a highlight in your writing life so far and what is it?

JT: Going to WordsWorth. This fantastic summer camp showed me realms of creative possibility I had no idea existed before attending. There’s such a beautiful sharing of ideas and energy there; my life would be very different had I not gone there - not just creatively, but also in terms of the connections I have made and sustained with other WordsWorthians over the years.

KF: Do you have any advice for other young writers?

JT: I’m not sure that I’m far enough into my own experience to have a lot of advice for others, yet. I suppose just to be genuine in everything you do, to never form assumptions, and to always be open to growth and new ideas.

KF: Where can people see your work?

JT: My website, has links to songs and poetry I’ve recorded. As well, it has a page with all of my upcoming gigs listed, if you would like to see me live.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page