The writing life revealed

Ken McGoogan Writer in Residence 2015
Writer Ken McGoogan is the 2015 Writer in Residence. ~Photo by Michelle Bodnar

Esteemed author Ken McGoogan is Mount Royal University's new Writer in Residence

The writing life can be a tough one. But, when cobbled together properly, it can also be pretty darn tremendous.

On March 25, award-winning author Ken McGoogan described why he loves being a writer at a presentation attended by about 60 people as part of the Department of English's annual Writer in Residence program.

The creator of several books featuring important figures in Canadian history, McGoogan is a wealth of information about the country, its people, and what makes us Canadians tick. He explains that while he was an athletic kid, he made a pivotal choice in high school to drop gym class in favour of typing.

"I figured writing was a good excuse to have a lot of fun," he says.

Seeking experience to cultivate his creativity, when he was 19 years old McGoogan went on the road, hitchhiking, riding trains, heading for Mexico and making it as far as San Francisco.

McGoogan has continued to travel across North America and the world, immersing himself in history and its happenings, which he then captures in his books and novels. His Writer in Residence position with Mount Royal was funded and facilitated through the Department of English, and allows students to work with respected authors recognized nationally and internationally.

Since 2007, the Writer in Residence program has provided for rare interactions between authors, faculty and students, where the exchange of ideas and creativity increases a dedication to continued learning and discovery. Writers hold office hours and meet with student writers, one-on-one, and throughout the week they also visit classes and deliver presentations. They give public readings, host debates, fuel up brainstorms and instigate discussion. They inspire, motivate and personalize writing and its study, and create direct links about the power of storytelling and its impact on the world.

"If all you see are university professors, you get a very narrow view about writers…who they are, what they do, where writing can take you, what kind of affect it can have," says English Professor and poet Richard Harrison.

The Writer in Residence program, "completes the instruction about what it means to be a writer, so it's a very valuable thing," he says.

As a journalist for the Calgary Herald from 1979 to 1999, McGoogan spent several years as Books Editor, playing a huge part in turning Calgary into a literary destination for the industry's most important writers. He hung out with the likes of Mordecai Richler, Mavis Gallant, Timothy Findlay, Alice Munro and Leonard Cohen during those days, and he was also often on the Mount Royal campus teaching professional writing courses.

Speaking to writers provided a bit of a "post-doc" experience, where McGoogan could ask questions about technique and approach that were actually more for his own interest.

"It made me aware of the community of Canadian writers. I got to engage with it," he says.

Those interactions were essential for setting him on the path of creating future works of narrative non-fiction, he says, such as his well-known Arctic Series, which centres around the events and fallout of the tragic Franklin Expedition.

For the last seven summers McGoogan has joined Adventure Canada on their Arctic journeys as an author historian, bringing him as close as possible to his subject matter.

McGoogan assembles all of his skills, guile and wit to ensure he continues to write. He is passionate about personally experiencing as much of the history he covers himself.

"The experience of chasing the book, and the process, is very exciting," McGoogan says. "To insert myself into history, hey, shucks. I have to go to this little town in Northern Ireland. And I do!"

"Ken integrates his life with the writing life," says Harrison. "If you have a writing life, you have to feed it and take care of it. It will rarely go out on its own and be independent."

Ken McGoogan BooksBooks by Ken McGoogan

McGoogan's Arctic Series chronicles the fascinating stories created through the outcome of the dreadful loss of the Franklin Expedition.

The expedition left England in 1845, led by Sir John Franklin and en route to discover the last link in the fabled Northwest Passage. The contingent of two ships became frozen in the ice near King William Island during the summer of 1846, and ended up spending nearly two years suffering through long, dark Arctic winters. Several members of the contingent starved or died from illness, with the final 22 survivors finally abandoning the ships in 1848 to attempt to reach safety by land. All 129 members would eventually perish, making the Franklin Expedition the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.

Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin (2001)

Arctic fur trader John Rae finally resolved the mystery of what happened to the legendary Franklin Expedition and also found the last connection to the Northwest Passage, only to be maligned and forgotten.

For Fatal Passage, which was a national bestseller, McGoogan won several awards, including the Grant MacEwan Author's Award and an American Christopher Award. The book was made into a docudrama called Passage, which showed on the BBC and the History Channel.

Ancient Mariner: The Amazing Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Walked to the Arctic Ocean (2003)

Ancient Mariner follows the life of adventurer Samuel Hearne, a sailor and the first European to land upon the North America's Arctic Coast, and who then spent three years surviving in what was then referred to as the Barren Lands.

Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History (2005)

The wife of Sir John Franklin, lost in the Franklin Expedition, Lady Jane Franklin was herself a traveller and explorer, who searched for her husband for a dozen years and sailed around the world at age 70.

Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures and Romantic Obsessions of Elisha Kent Kane (2008)

Race to the Polar Sea is the story of Elisha Kent Kane, an American sailor who rushed to hopefully rescue survivors of the Franklin Expedition, and who ended up getting trapped in ice himself, pitting him against the Arctic for two years.

McGoogan has also written…

How the Scots Invented Canada, a look at how such a relatively small part of Canada's population managed to make such a big difference in its history.

50 Canadians Who Changed the World, which trumpets 50 well- and lesser-known Canadians and their ability to initiate progress and cause impactful change around the globe.

March 27, 2015 - Michelle Bodnar