As UNBC's first longterm writer-in-residence, Maggie de Vries did not need a roadmap to find her new office on the Cranbrook Hill campus.
She has already established a link with north central B.C. families whose daughters have disappeared on the notorious Highway of Tears corridor on Highway 16. The Vancouver-based author, lecturer and educator has retraced the steps of some of those missing women while struggling with the death of her own sister Sarah, whose DNA was found on the Coquitlam farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.
For the next four months, the 51-year-old de Vries will be instructing students in UNBC's creative writing program, sharing her experience as the author of eight books and numerous published essays and short stories.
During her UNBC residency, de Dries will also have a limited amount of time to critique written submissions offered by members of the community. Having been the Vancouver Public Library's writer-in-residence in 2005, she's knows what it means for writers to have access to an unbiased professional opinion.
"Writing is a very isolated activity and it's hard to get really useful feedback sometimes," said de Vries. "You can show it to your friends, who might think it's wonderful and love it, or you can get critical feedback from a writers' group and get critical feedback that doesn't ring true to you. So having an opportunity to meet with a writer who has spent time with your work can be really useful."
De Vries first came through Prince George in 2007 on her first tour of the region, leading to a speaking engagement at the Betty Kovacic/Highway of Tears art exhibit at Two Rivers Gallery.
"They would have flown me up for that, but I felt if I was going to talk about something related to the Highway of Tears I really needed to drive to Prince Rupert," said de Vries. "I ended up doing 17 different talks, so I got to know people in every community along the way and some of the victims' families and had a rich experience and made some friends."
Among the eight books de Vries has had published is her memoir, Missing Sarah, which details the search for her sister, based on Sarah's journal entries and conversations with people who knew her during her 14 years as a prostitute on Vancouver's East Side. De Vries gave two days of testimony in February during the Oppal inquiry.
"They found Sarah's DNA on his property in 2002 and there was a murder charge but it was one of the 20 that was stayed," said de Vries. "I wasn't one of the people who felt they needed her case to be tried, in fact it was relief I didn't have to listen to that."
De Vries specializes in writing for children and teens as well as non-fictional memoirs. She's an award-winning children's author, having written such novels as her Fraser River sturgeon chronicle, Tale of a Great White Fish; Hunger Journeys; Somebody's Girl, and a picture book, Fraser Bear: A Cub's Life.
Sixty per cent of her UNBC residency will be devoted to her own writing. She plans to visit Valemount to begin researching an historical novel based on the lives of the Overlanders, a group of ill-prepared pioneers from Ontario who came to the Robson Valley in late 1862 during the Cariboo Gold Rush. She's also planning a children's book, in graphic novel format, about crows and their relationship with a little boy who discovers the birds have been harbouring a ring in their nest.
One large component of her UNBC position will be to give talks and conduct workshops for community groups. In September, she's scheduled to talk in the Weaving Words First Nations conference and will also be involved in the Rivers Day activities on Sept. 23.
Her residency is co-funded by the Canada Council and UNBC's office of research.
De Vries will also speak to students at UNBC's regional campuses in Terrace, Quesnel and Fort St. John. UNBC offers a creative writing course as part of its English program and also allows graduate English students to submit masters thesis with creative components.
"We're thrilled to have her here, it's our first longer term writer-in-residence position" said Karin Beeler, chair of UNBC English program. "It can be a challenge bringing visiting speakers to Prince George because of our location. Students have some opportunities for other writers to come to their classes but the fact she's here for four months that will helps students who want consultation on their own writing."
De Vries can be contacted at 250-960-6171, or by email at maggiedevr...@shaw.ca.