A staple at Caffe Beano, you may have already spotted Eugene, either sipping an Americano or chatting with some of the neighbourhood’s finest. Award winning writer, Eugene Stickland, has called Calgary home since 1994. Originally housed as Alberta Theatre Projects’ playwright in residence for a decade, he wrote 6 plays for the company in that time, along with others for theatres across Canada. After leaving ATP, Stickland became a feature columnist for the Calgary Herald, while at the same time continuing to write plays, many of which have been produced around the world in several different languages. Eugene was recently awarded the W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize for his book, “The Piano Teacher” which can be found at several local shops, including Reid’s on 17th Ave. This month we catch up with this vibrant local artist, and see what he gets up to along 17th Ave, including snacking on his favourite treat – spearmint leaves from Freak Lunchbox.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Thanks to a series of residencies going back to one with Alberta Theatre Projects that lasted for ten years, I am able to define myself as a writer more than anything else. So I try to have a project to work on, whether it’s a novel or a play or poetry, and that’s what really gets me up in the morning. Of course, one must eat and so I teach and do other things to make money, but I try only to do things that don’t destroy my soul. And any day I can ride my bike is a good day.
Tell us about the W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize you recently received for your book, “The Piano Teacher”.
It’s my first novel so I wasn’t really expecting too much. I was thrilled to find out I was one of the three finalists, but didn’t expect that I would win as the others, Sharon Butala and Will Ferguson, are so well known in the book world, and both are such great writers. And so when I found out I won it was one of those pinch me, I must be dreaming moments. Honestly, I’m surprised at how much the award seems to mean to other people. I still have people stopping me on the street offering their congratulations.
Was writing a passion early on?
I originally had hoped to be a musician when I grew up (if I ever did). But at the same time I had always taken refuge in reading and I began journaling while still in high school. Eventually the journaling led to writing poetry and some prose, but I, for whatever reason, took a 25 year detour into the world of theatre. But as long as I can remember, it has been a large part of who I am, and still to this day there are very few days when I don’t write in my personal journal.
What projects are you involved with right now?
I am in the middle of writing a new novel titled “In My Time of Dying.” But more urgently, I have been commissioned to write a play for St. Mary’s University in Calgary so that is occupying most of my free brain cells these days. I also have a volume of poetry I’m ready to publish. I was going to do it in September but then I won the W.O. Mitchell award so I’m putting it off till next year some time.
We see you’ve dabbled in photography.
There was a time a few years ago when I thought it would be my next means of expression. I think I‘ve managed to take some good shots over the years. But then cameras on cell phones got to be so good that suddenly anyone and everyone was a photographer and real photographers were suddenly out of work. So like anyone else now, I’m happy just to capture an image I find interesting and share it on Instagram and Facebook.
What keeps you inspired?
Watching my daughter’s journey as she lives her life in an artistic fashion, first in photography and now painting, makes me think I better keep it going myself. Since my days at ATP and then the Calgary Herald I have become quite well known in Calgary as a writer and a lot of people stop me on the street and ask me similar questions to these, so having a readership helps a lot, I don’t want to let people down. I also know a lot of young artists as well as my daughter and watch them engage in this perilous journey and I hope through my career I can be a bit of a role model.
Do you get any of your ‘to-do’s done on 17th?
I try to. Whenever possible, I try to support locally owned, one-off businesses and there are many more of these along 17th than, say, in a mall. Also I got rid of my car a number of years ago making neighbourhood shopping more important to me.
What is your favourite thing about 17th Ave?
I know that people come down here from the burbs to wander around and so there is a cosmopolitan feel to the area. But more importantly, for so many of us, this is our neighbourhood. It’s rather like a small town within the city, and one feels a very strong sense of community along the Avenue.
Favourite place to shop?
I’ve been shopping at Reid’s Stationers since the day I got here, over 20 years ago. I probably have a stationery fetish and I still write all my work in longhand before I have to punch it into the computer. So over the years I have bought some very beautiful fountain pens (very old school!) and a million notebooks at Reid’s. The staff there are like a second family, and it is after all a family run business. Also, it probably goes without saying, I do a lot on my writing inside Caffe Beano. It feels like the official clubhouse of 17th Ave.
Best place for a day or night out, any hidden gems.
I’m not out there as much as I used to be, but I always enjoy having a bevy at Local 510. There are so many new places opening all the time it takes some effort to keep up with all the changes.
What would you like to see on 17th in the future?
Well, being a cyclist, I would love to see Calgary do as they are doing in New York and Paris and have days, Sundays, likely, when no cars are allowed along 17th. I love it when there are bands and markets set up in Tomkins Park. And I would like to see a stronger effort made to keep chain stores and restaurants off the Ave.
What’s up next for you?
I have to finish this play I’m working on by the end of the year. Then I will turn my attention back to the new novel. All the while looking for creative ways to keep the wolf from the door. I’ve said it before, we artists don’t live on air.
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