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Must Write

Interview with Christl Verduyn

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How did you come to edit Edna Staeblers diaries?

The origins of this book lie with another volume of diaries or notebooks that I edited and that Wilfrid Laurier University Press published: Marian Engels Notebooks: “Ah mon cahier, écoute...” (1999). The press’s director at the time was Sandra Woolfrey, who is a long-time friend of Edna’s. Sandra knew of Edna’s extensive diary archive, and she knew what I’d done on Engels notebooks. She suggested that I visit Edna, and the opportunity presented itself as if it were meant to be when I moved from Trent University to Wilfrid Laurier in 2000. That fall, on a glorious Saturday in October, I visited Edna at her home on Sunfish Lake. At that point, it was just to meet her.

What was it like meeting her for the first time?

Just like everyone says: she is so welcoming and engaging that you settle right in and before you know it, hours have passed. Her memory is incredible and she can tell story after story about events in the past—but also about the present! She’s very alert and on top of current affairs. She gets out and about and reads prodigiously, so visits are really interesting. And food is always a part of them: typically tea and something she has baked herself or has been baked for her. That part of visits has changed a bit since Edna’s move from Sunfish Lake, but the terrific conversations have remained!

So when did you talk about editing her diaries?

That came up in the second or third visit. I believe Sandra had prepared some of the groundwork. It was certainly on Ednas mind. She was interested in someone doing her biography, or publishing her letters, or tackling her diaries. She warned that her diaries were massive. I told her I would take a look at them—they’re housed at the University of Guelph—and they are indeed voluminous! You almost have to see them to believe it. I’m so happy the book includes a couple of photos of the diaries, to provide a sense of how thick some of them are, how dense the writing is, and so on.

How did you deal with all that material then?

There was a fair amount of basic archival work to do at the outset. The first thing was to establish the chronological order of the diaries, for example. After a series of organizational tasks, the reading could begin. It wasn’t too long before I realized that there was just no way to include all the writing. Or let me put it another way: there is more than one project in all that diary material. I set about noting major, recurring subjects or themes, among which one stood out very strongly, in my view. And that was Edna’s life-long interest in, struggle with, and ultimate triumph in writing. Set against a theoretical backdrop, this became my organizing thread and the guide for me and my research assistant, Sally Heath, through the hundreds—thousands—of pages of diary writing.

What will readers get out of Edna Staebler’s diaries?

Diaries in general today are widely recognized for how they help us understand human nature, how they illuminate history, and how they bridge the gulf between private and public, how they can be just downright good reading of first-rate literary quality. Despite Staebler’s accomplishments as a cookbook author and a journalist, in her diaries she writes as an ordinary woman struggling (as many of us do) to express herself in the world. Her diaries demonstrate very clearly the reward and value of that effort. They’re full of the insights and delights of everyday life, but at the same time, they broach the big questionsof life. They are absorbing and rewarding reading!