Elma (Martens) Schemenauer was born in a Saskatchewan (Canada) community like the fictional Coyote she writes about. “As I grew up,” she says, “I sank deep roots into prairie life and the traditions of my extended Mennonite family.” After teaching for several years, Elma moved into a publishing career in Toronto. She’s the author of 75 published books including Consider the Sunflowers,Russia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Jacob Jacobs Gets Up Early, Salmon, and Native Canadians Today and Long Ago. In 2006 she and her husband relocated to Kamloops, British Columbia. There she writes, blogs, and walks on grassy hillsides that remind her of her prairie roots.
Geosi Gyasi: How much research went into the writing of “Consider the Sunflowers”?
Elma Schemenauer: I have strong memories of my early childhood in the 1940s. However, memories weren’t enough. I also interviewed people about life on the Canadian prairies during those years. And I consulted many books, articles, and other published sources of information.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come up with the title, “Consider the Sunflowers”?
Elma Schemenauer: In 2006 my husband and I moved from Toronto to sunny Kamloops, British Columbia. I liked the gardens of Kamloops, especially the huge sunflowers that bloom here so I named my novel after them. In my novel sunflowers are a symbol of durability and cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you personally remember about World War II?
Elma Schemenauer: I remember hearing Adolf Hitler ranting on the radio. I also remember the ration books my mother took along to the store when we shopped for groceries.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been the reception of your book, “Consider the Sunflowers”?
Elma Schemenauer: The book has sold quite well since it was published in October 2014.
Geosi Gyasi: Having grown up near the village of Elbow, Saskatchewan, can you tell me anything literary about the place?
Elma Schemenauer: Elbow, population 300, has its share of authors. For example, Rick Book’s collection of short stories “Necking with Louise” is about growing up in the Elbow area. Joan Soggie published a collection of stories about the Elbow area’s archeology, geography, and early history. It’s called “Looking for Aiktow.” Joan’s son Neil Soggie wrote “The Young-Dogs of Elbow,” a historical fantasy for young readers. Neil, a psychologist, also writes books about psychology, philosophy, and religion.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve written 75 books published in Canada and the United States. How does that mean to you?
Elma Schemenauer: I loved writing every one of those books. Some are quite short because they’re for little kids. For example, I wrote 13 children’s books about countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda. Of course my books for older readers are longer. They include the middle-grade novel “Jacob Jacobs Gets Up Early” and the factual book “Native Canadians Today and Long Ago.”
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a personal favourite among all the books you’ve published?
Elma Schemenauer: My favourite is “Consider the Sunflowers” because it’s my first novel for adults.
Geosi Gyasi: Besides living in Saskatchewan, you also lived in Montana and Nova Scotia. What took you to these places?
Elma Schemenauer: I spent two summers in Montana teaching Vacation Bible School to children living on ranches and farms. Later I went to Nova Scotia and taught junior-high English under the auspices of the Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a formal education in writing?
Elma Schemenauer: I have a BA in English and psychology. However, much of what I know about writing and publishing comes from on-the-job experience. I worked for a Toronto publisher for eight years. Then I went freelance, writing and editing for a number of Canadian and American publishers including Nelson, Prentice-Hall, and Grolier.
Geosi Gyasi: What motivates you as a writer?
Elma Schemenauer: I believe God made me to write. I feel most fulfilled when I’m writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?
Elma Schemenauer: I belong to the Interior Authors Group here in Kamloops. I also belong to the Federation of BC Writers and The Word Guild, a cross-Canada association of writers and editors who are Christian. Besides these, I belong to several online writers groups. The best online critique group I’ve found is Internet Writing Workshop.
Geosi Gyasi: What kind of books did you read growing up as a child?
Elma Schemenauer: As a child, I didn’t have access to a wide variety of books, but I read anything I could lay my hands on. When I was seven, I found a book called “Stories for Eight Year Olds.” I was so pleased to be able to read it even though I was only seven. I also enjoyed reading school books, Sunday School papers, and books from our tiny local library—whatever came my way.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you come from a family of writers?
Elma Schemenauer: I come from a family of storytellers. As I was growing up, I loved hearing my Mennonite relatives’ stories about the Old Country (Russia) and about their new life in Canada. A few of my relatives became writers. For example, Margaret Epp wrote many books of Christian fiction for young people. Rhoda Janzen, a relative by marriage, wrote the memoirs “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” and “Mennonite Meets Mr. Right.”
Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more books?
Elma Schemenauer: Right now I’m working on an adult book of short stories about mysterious and exciting events from Canada’s history. I’m also writing a second novel for adults. It features some of the characters I introduced in “Consider the Sunflowers.”
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your greatest achievement as a writer?
Elma Schemenauer: Having my novel “Consider the Sunflowers” published by Borealis Press. That was a huge thrill for me.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main research areas as a writer?
Elma Schemenauer: Canadian history, community life, Mennonites, church history.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you know as a child that you would one day become a writer?
Elma Schemenauer: At age eight I wrote a poem about spring, stuck it in a bottle, and threw it into a pond on my parents’ Saskatchewan farm. I think I knew then that I wanted to be involved in writing and publishing.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your personal view about literature in Canada?
Elma Schemenauer: I think we have some outstanding authors in this country. Among my favourites are Sandra Birdsell, Rudy Wiebe, and Mary Lawson. I also have a special interest in Canadian authors with a non-European background, for example, Esi Edugyan from Ghana, Rabindranath Maharaj from Trinidad, and Rohinton Mistry from India.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or in a notebook?
Elma Schemenauer: I usually write on a computer. However, if I’m having trouble with a particular passage, I find it helpful to write by hand. Or if I wake up at night with a wonderful idea, I write it out by hand.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you gain anything financially from writing?
Elma Schemenauer: Yes, especially from writing for educational publishers.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any “serious” advice for budding writers?
Elma Schemenauer: Read a lot. Be open to other people’s feedback on your writing. A good critique group can be helpful. Keep trying, even in the face of discouragement. Keep smiling.