Hayden Trenholm’s sci-fi success owes much to his northern muse

by Brad Heath

The North grasps a different hold on each of us; some stay briefly and others for a lifetime. Then there are people such as science fiction author Hayden Trenholm who physically move away, but leave their creative spirit forever linked.

The former Yellowknifer is a self-described jack-of-all-trades: publisher, editor, playwright, novelist, writing teacher and mentor, as well as policy advisor to NWT Senator Nick Sibbeston. Trenholm has written numerous plays and short stories, as well as four novels. His novella, “Like Water in the Desert,” won the 2008 Canadian Science Fiction Aurora Award, as did his 2011 short story, “The Burden of Fire.” His novel, “Defining Diana,” and its two sequels received Aurora nominations. As if he wasn’t busy enough, Trenholm bought Bundoran Press publishing house in December 2012, which specializes in…you guessed it…science fiction.

The Ottawa resident was most recently back in Yellowknife this January to teach a two-day master class on short fiction and creative non-fiction for NorthWords NWT. And he’ll be back again in June for the sci-fi-heavy Brave New North, 2014 NorthWords Writers Festival, where Trenholm, his wife and author Liz Westbrook-Trenholm, and long-time friend and colleague Robert J. Sawyer will be featured writers.

Originally from Amherst, Nova Scotia, Trenholm first moved north to Iqaluit in 1982 and then to Yellowknife in February 1985. He spent six years here before moving to Calgary, and then on to Ottawa to work with Sen. Sibbeston.

Despite the kilometres and years that separate Trenholm from Yellowknife, he is obviously relaxed and at “home” in the North and with northern ways, often pausing during our interview at Javaroma to say hello and shake hands with old friends who passed by our table.

Trenholm’s northern writing roots run deep. He wrote his first produced play in Yellowknife, “Hemingway Crosses the Mackenzie.” The play explored the experience of Metis youth caught between two cultures, and premiered at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in 1989.

“My time here really was my starting point into writing,” Trenholm says. “I’d been acting in theatre and thought maybe I could write a play – very naively. But I had help from some good people with experience. So that’s how I got started and how the North really affected my writing at an early stage.

“Yellowknife is a special place to me and it has an important place in my heart and in my imagination,” says Trenholm. “I’m someone who has travelled a lot and I’ve lived in a lot of different places…but Yellowknife has always been a very important part of my life.”

A year after leaving Yellowknife, Trenholm wrote a play entitled “Romance of the North.” It was performed in four western Canadian cities as part of the 1992 Fringe Festival Tour, but the first two shows were in Yellowknife in what is now Fuego Restaurant. After performing “Romance of the North” in Yellowknife, it would be a decade before Trenholm would return to the NWT, thanks in part to a strange turn of events linked to 9/11.

Trenholm was scheduled to fly to a writers’ festival on September 12, 2001 but air travel ground to a halt in the wake of the terrorist attacks. With the flight and festival cancelled, Trenholm was sitting at home with his wife discussing the idea of returning to his career in public policy after a decade of theatre work. Just then he received an unexpected phone call from Sen. Sibbeston (who had just returned from spending time on the land and had not yet heard about the 9/11 attacks) asking Trenholm to work for him in Ottawa as his policy advisor. Trenholm had previously worked for Sen. Sibbeston when he was NWT premier.

“That was when I started coming back north on a regular basis. I get back up about six or seven times a year,” says Trenholm. “And I’ve gotten engaged with the writing community over the last four or five years doing workshops for NorthWords and attending the NorthWords festivals.”

Trenholm’s creative efforts – both past and present – almost all maintain some sort of northern voice. A science fiction story that he wrote last year (but as of yet is unpublished) is set in Fort Simpson, and the North features in his science fiction novel “Defining Diana” which is set in Calgary but involves an RCMP exchange program with Yellowknife.

And seeing the impact of climate change on the North “drove” Trenholm to propose and edit an anthology of near-future fiction about resource conflicts entitled “Blood and Water” that was launched in 2012.

As for future writing, the author says that immediately after our interview he would return to his hotel to work on a new short story that had been “kicking around in his head.” It doesn’t actually take place in Yellowknife but has some northern Aboriginal elements to it.

Trenholm is also finishing his research and about to start writing a novel that will be partially set in Yellowknife in a post climate change, post energy collapse world, about 150 years from now.

So it’s obvious that in the case of Hayden Trenholm (to paraphrase that old saying) you can take the writer out of the North – but you cannot take the North out of the writer.

To learn more about Hayden Trenholm, visit his website at haydentrenholm.com and his publishing house at bundoranpress.com.  For details on Brave New North, 2014 NorthWords Writers Festival, June 5-8 in Yellowknife, go to northwordsnwt.ca

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