Brian Austen wrote five of the poems that appear in Hot Apple Cider: "Nitroglycerin,"page 75, is about carrying a vial of explosives around in your pocket; "Dylan," page 129, reflects on the death of his newborn grandson; "The Ventilation Gate," page 233, contains possible thoughts of a homeless person; "Shared Tears," page 248, shows the inner turmoil of a person who is grieving; and "The Clay and the Vine," page 277, serves as our benediction.
Brian C. Austin and his wife live on a small acreage at Durham, Ontario, Canada. They have three grown children and seven grandchildren. Besides being a writer, Brian is a church librarian and serves on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Grey-Bruce Branch. Until recently, he worked part-time in a local Christian bookstore.
Brian’s published work has appeared in local newspapers, ChristianWeek, Fellowship Link, The Interim, Faith & Friends, Our Family Magazine, Relate Magazine, and The Shantyman, as well as in the anthology, Hot Apple Cider and in the books of poetry, Laughter & Tears, Let Heaven Weep, and I Barabbas, published in Trade Paper and/or Audio CD editions.
Brian still has farmer’s blood in him. He jokes that his barn makes him more money empty than it ever did full – yet aches over its emptiness. He has taken part in inner-city missions (way outside his comfort zone) and has also delivered loads of resources and done volunteer work at the Christian Salvage Mission depot in Hamilton, Ontario.
A small number of awards hang on his wall – but the one he treasures most comes from the Canadian Mental Health Association, Grey-Bruce Branch, presented in 2007 “For his outstanding contributions to Mental Health in Grey and Bruce Counties.” It is an award that in some ways still baffles him, for he has always felt inadequate in that role – BUT – claims the promise even outside of Christian circles, that: “my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV.
Hot Apple Cider came together in a rather unusual way. What made you want to have your work in it?
The opportunity to be part of this type of collection seemed too good to pass up. A number of factors came into play. “Can we pull it off?” was probably one of the big challenges, especially within an almost impossible time-frame.
This book is 100% Canadian. Canadian authors, publisher, printer—everything. Is that important to you?
I rarely buy books just because they are Canadian. But I confess to a real thrill when something with the stamp of excellence on it turns out to be Canadian. Having worked in a bookstore for many years and knowing how much the U.S. dominates the Canadian Christian market, I see it as a real triumph to be involved with a book that is published and printed in Canada, but is marketing successfully south of the border as well.
In her foreword for Hot Apple Cider, Janette Oke mentions that writers are often asked, “Why do you write?” How do you respond to that question?
I write because in some core part of me, there is a burning need to express myself through language. In intense emotional times, writing seems as essential as breathing. Through dull, dry times, writing can be demanding and draining. Yet many days without a pen in hand or time at the computer keyboard leaves me agitated and tense.
When did you begin writing, and what was the first thing you had published?
I won a prize for a Remembrance Day essay written in grade school close to 45 years ago. A few poems written during college days (1972-1974) are published in Laughter & Tears. My first book-length manuscript (unpublished but short-listed in the 2003 Best New Canadian Author competition) was sparked by an article in a December 1977 Popular Science magazine. I began devoting more and more time to writing in the early 1990’s, and my first paid publication came out July 1995.
Your contributions to Hot Apple Cider are all poetry, which some people feel is a rather neglected art form these days. What is it about poetry that attracts you?
There is a richness in the flow of language and the economy of words that vitalizes poetry. I delight in rhyme and meter and often get caught in rhyme when trying to write prose.
I’d love to be a great musician, to be able to write music, but my brain seems to be wired differently somehow. Yet so many of the same elements that make great music infuse good poetry. There is a depth to poetry that often needs slow, repeated readings. But there is also a lyrical quality that is lost if it is not read out-loud.
You have a book of poetry, Laughter & Tears, and an Audio CD, I Barabbas, which contains dramatic monologues, which I believe you wrote and performed. What do you see as the difference between reading words on paper and hearing the work read aloud by the author?
I have heard a few brilliant poets share their own work and somehow empty it of all life. Others, who may not write as well, infuse a work with life and passion. For me, any poem that grips me deeply demands a verbal reading. Like music, it can communicate from the printed page, but there are very few people who can fully appreciate a symphony by reading the score. Much of the life of poetry comes from hearing it presented verbally.
I hesitate to call I Barabbas a poem, yet without rhyme or predictable meter, it flows in a way that lends itself to memorization. Presented verbally, it demands every facet of my being, involves me physically, mentally and emotionally. I am never more alive than when making such a presentation, and I believe that "life" communicates effectively to the listener.
In addition to your poetry, you’ve also had a number of non-fiction articles published, and you write some very insightful blogs. How do you decide whether an idea should be used in poetry or written as an article? Or do some ideas get to be both?
From the poet’s perspective, much of the decision is hard-headed reality. An article is much more likely to be published and read. My deepest love as a writer is poetry, but communication is only effective if someone is listening or reading. I write, perhaps too much, for the simple pleasure of writing, but ultimately there is a need to communicate to an audience.
It is not unusual for me to work on an article and end up with a poem instead. But if I am looking at a specific publication, the poem becomes the catalyst for the article, and almost always, the article will be better because the poem helped distill key ideas so they could be expressed better.
Much of your writing tends to deal with heavy issues: homelessness, death, grief, mental health issue… Even “Nitroglycerin,” which is a lighter poem, came from your dealing with a heart condition. Do you find that writing about a difficult situation—such as the death of your newborn grandchild Dylan, helps you deal with it?
During times such as Dylan’s death, writing becomes a form of survival. Somehow, putting words to the pain let me move through the stages of grief a bit quicker. I confess to being too comfortable with my answers for grieving people before Dylan died. I thought I understood grief quite well. I even had several published articles on grieving.
Nothing was wrong with my answers. I just learned very, very quickly, that answers don’t bring comfort. Perhaps that is what makes the poem “Dylan” resonate. I am crying out the questions with raw honesty in that poem; not railing against God, but literally crying on paper.
“Nitroglycerin” came from a night in Intensive Care with textbook symptoms of a mild heart-attack, but actually feeling far too healthy and alert for all the attention being showered on me. I wrote the poem after being discharged, but before tests had conclusively shown that my heart was in excellent shape. I keep the nitroglycerin on the shelf beside my computer, and still get a good chuckle out of it every once in a while. I was never able to find what, if anything, reduces the explosiveness of this bottle. But I see, looking at it now, a warning in French “NAS PAS AGITER.” The Pharmacist’s label covers the English warning, but “DO NOT SHAKE,” sounds like good advice.
You also write fiction. In fact, I believe you have several unpublished novels, one of which was short-listed for the “Best New Canadian Author” Award in 2003. Are we going to see any of your novels in print soon?
I've learned so much as a writer since that manuscript won a place on the short-list. It remains unpublished, though I still have hopes for it.
In early March of 2010, the young adult novel, Muninn’s Keep, will be released. Short-listed with Word Alive Press in 2009 with the working title of “The Ring of Thorvæld,” it has since gone through a professional critique and another re-write. Muninn's Keep is historical fiction, set in 892 A.D. north of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. It has proved a delightful work to research and write.
This is what the back cover of Munnin's Keep says:
In the harsh world of northern Britain at the close of the 9th century, Theodoric has suffered a beating so brutal it has distorted his memories. Now, baffled by a past that has given him rare skills, he searches for clues to his origin, to his heritage. A fabled ring, a growing conflict, ancient prophecies, and ruthless enemies bent on destruction, all challenge Theodoric to the utmost.
I'm currently working on another young adult novel, this one set in the community where we've lived for 26 years, and built loosely around the Durham, Ont. flood of March 1929.
I also have several other novels at various stages, all waiting for time and attention.
I believe you have many other interests besides writing. What are some of them, and how do they help/hinder your writing?
I have a passion (addiction?) for anything involving water and fish. In the past 45 years, I believe there have been three months total without at least one aquarium set up. Tropical fish have little influence on my writing, except when I’m looking for an excuse to procrastinate on some project I’m struggling with.
I also catch myself researching alternate energy sources, dreaming of launching a publishing and book distribution company (anybody have $5,000,000 with no place to invest it?), dreaming of fish hatcheries and greenhouses, wanting my own recording studio, and wishing I knew how to establish and maintain a weekly public poetry reading forum that people would actually come to and participate in….
Most of these interests and dreams are distractions from writing. I tend to dream ridiculously big, with some ideas leading to weeks of drawings and financial projections, research and brainstorming. Occasionally, I share some bits of some of them in a blog, but for the most part these are private dreams. My wife tolerates the foolishness, though if I ever start to confess what the price tag is on my latest scheme, she doesn’t give a great deal of encouragement.
You recently retired from your job in a Christian bookstore due to issues with your eyes. How are you dealing with the change? Is it giving you more time to write?
Some changes give years of warning, but still take you by surprise. A few years ago I began to stumble over familiar tasks. Reading became increasingly difficult. Books, begun eagerly, found themselves lying untouched for weeks.
Love of books was ingrained from preschool years. Discovering the school library meant entering a world of wonder. If the Dick and Jane stories from elementary school count, I probably read 10 books a week through my school years, and five a week through college and most of my adult life. That has now dwindled to two or three a month.
It seems to me that writers who don’t read widely and deeply lose their edge. That bothers me.
On the other hand, time to write is easier to find. Some part of me feels compelled to write. But even within the compulsion, there are times with little motivation when it seems as though the creative juices have all dried up.
Perhaps the biggest frustration is the cycles of dull headaches that sometimes last for weeks at a time, with almost no relief. Reading used to be a wonderful distraction during those times. Now, it aggravates them. Too little blood-flow to the inner core of my brain (“mild periventricular white matter disease” for those who want a name) has caused damage much like multiple mini-strokes. I still love the line from one of Randy Alcorn’s characters – paraphrased a bit: “There’s nothing wrong with me that a good resurrection won’t cure.” Still – I have so much to be thankful for. Even the bad days have their precious moments, and life is still rich. The privilege and the calling to create with language continues to bring joy and deep satisfaction.
I’m assuming you get feedback from a lot of people because of the nature of your books, and feedback is great for the author—you know someone is actually reading your words! But I’m wondering if you’ve learned anything from your readers that you could share with us?
Other than from The Word Guild itself, feedback for my published work has been relatively rare. Probably the most affirming feedback has come from grieving people, especially someone who has lost a child.
Much of my own work that resonates most strongly with me – and that seems to impact readers and listeners – has a raw edge to it. It lacks polish. A few of those pieces have been polished and shined and improved technically – and died. Perhaps the strongest message, implicit in feedback, is to trust the very brokenness of some of my work. It is a key part of the voice I have been given.
If there was ONE writing-related accomplishment you could see in your lifetime, even if it eclipsed your other work, what would be your ultimate dream?
My ultimate dream has almost nothing of my own writing in it. Beyond enough information to hold me accountable for any copy errors or typographical errors, my name would not appear on the finished work.
I did extensive work over three years on a giant print Bible project. The 11 volume prototype is easy to hold, easy to turn the pages and uses a 17 pt font. Unfortunately it is costly to produce, heavy to ship and takes 13-1/2 inches of shelf-space. Not quite a marketer’s dream, especially as the biggest potential market is found in nursing homes on fixed incomes. Another obstacle is that many of the people who would benefit most have already given up on reading – a reality I understand much better now than when I began this project.
If I could find some way that seniors or others with limited vision, who are often fearful of new technology, could regain both the ability and the motivation to read the Bible, I am convinced that would be a project worth committing the rest of my life to.
Aside from your own pieces, is there a particular piece or thought in Hot Apple Cider that stood out for you?
I have a collection of books on grieving, many of them wonderful, insightful and healing. The candid sharing of struggle, loss and pain that so many stories in Hot Apple Cider relate – coupled with the sense of hopefulness and triumph even in the deepest pain – to me is the overall theme that makes this book priceless.
While working in the Bible Bookstore, I dealt often with people in the early stages of grief. This anthology became my first recommendation.
A lot of people want to share their stories in order to help others. What advice do you have for someone who wants to write but doesn’t know how to begin?
Set some time aside and get words down on paper (or on the computer screen). Don’t be overly critical of your first efforts. Keep a “tid-bit” file for those excerpts that someone says don’t belong with this story. Most beginning writers are bursting with ideas. They tend to spill out in less than perfect form. DON’T throw them away. File them where you can go back and sift through them again.
And – read! Read broadly. Read some of the old classics. Read poetry. Read out-loud. Intentionally read a few poor quality books. Ask yourself what makes the difference. Read a few of the best-sellers. Ask yourself if the writing has earned best-seller status, or if it is there mostly because of skillful marketing.
Get involved with other writers and attend writer’s conferences.
Expect rejections. They're part of the process, and you'll be in good company, past and present. A classic rejection is recorded in Jeremiah 36: 20-26 when, in 604 B.C. Jehoiakim, King of Judah, burned the scroll Jeremiah had dictated to Baruch. If an original hand-written manuscript of God’s Word could be cut up and burned, our writing, however inspired, will probably fall on a few deaf ears as well. Like Jeremiah and Baruch, if we are truly called to write, those deaf ears do not give us an excuse to quit.
What is your prayer for the readers of Hot Apple Cider?
I have read many thousands of good books, some hundreds of excellent ones, and a much smaller number where I have closed the final page with a sense that combines deep satisfaction, wonder, and a new richness. Several of that select group of books have brought me to my knees. All of them have stretched and challenged me. My prayer for Hot Apple Cider is that some part of it will resonate that deeply with at least some readers; that it will be a life-changing read for them, giving hope or strength, wherever they are in their journey.