Lindork’s Lists – Q&A #30: Alexis Kienlen
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Originally published to newsletter subscribers on May 30, 2022
The thirtieth person I’m profiling in my newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Reporter and Writer Alexis Kienlen.
Getting to know Alexis Kienlen:
Alexis Kienlen, 45, is an Edmonton-based agricultural journalist by day, and literary writer by night. She reports for Alberta Farmer Express, and is the author of two poetry books, a biography and a novel titled ‘Mad Cow.’
Alexis knows a lot about the ag industry, and had always wanted to be a writer but didn’t know she’d end up writing about farming and agriculture. I love the versatility of where a career in writing can take you.
I’ve enjoyed following Alexis for years now—and always find I learn something new about animals, crops or farming with one of her tweets. You don’t often meet people who aren’t farmers—but know a TON about farming.
Alexis shares some great insights into her writing career and advice if you’re interested in becoming a professional and published writer too.
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Alexis Kienlen:
Can you describe the work you do and how long you have been doing it (generally, broadly, as a poet, fiction writer, journalist and editor).
I started writing poetry as a child, and won an honourable mention in a poetry contest from the Saskatoon Public Library when I was 14. I was hooked! I started publishing poetry and fiction in high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life other than be a writer, so I majored in International Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Two years later, I went to journalism school at Concordia in Montreal. During that time, I was writing short stories and poetry. After I went to journalism school, I added non-fiction and journalism articles to the mix.
Can you specifically talk about your work with the Alberta Farmers Express? In that role, what kind of people do you meet, stories do you tell, issues you highlight?
I had two other full-time jobs working in journalism before I started working for Alberta Farmer Express. I’m currently an agricultural journalist, which means I focus on stories that are of interest to farmers and ranchers, and they are our primary audience. We cover everything from bees, to canola, to cattle to markets, to ag tech, to ag tourism. During the pandemic, I was mostly talking to people on the phone, but I used to go to farms and do a go to a lot of conferences.
In my work, I meet farmers and ranchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, government officials and just a wide range of interesting people. I also follow issues—I’m really interested in sustainability, especially the journey to make beef more sustainable. We want to give our farmers a lot of information- but we also like doing stories that are fun, and showcase the agricultural sector in the province.
I have a special love for the cattle industry, and I’m really interested in agriculture and its positive and negative relationship to climate change. (I have a lot of faith that agriculture can help combat climate change)
Can you talk about your books? I think Mad Cow is the most recent?
I’ve written two books of poetry, a biography of a local Sikh civil rights activist, and a novel called “Mad Cow.” “Mad Cow” was released on April 15, 2020, during the first stage of the pandemic. It’s a story about an Albertan farm family and how they coped (or didn’t cope) with the BSE (bovine spongiform encelopathy or Mad Cow) crisis. When the American border closed to Canadian cattle, Canadian ranchers couldn’t sell their beef to the States. This caused economic hardships for Canadian ranchers, and it was hard on so many families.
How do you come up with the topics of the books you write? Can you share about what it’s like to research, write, publish, promote books?
A book is a long, long journey, so you really have to come up with a subject or idea that you love, because you’re going to be working on it for years.
For poetry books, the process can be a little easier, because you just write poems over time, and then group them together. (But good poems still take a lot of time and effort to write).
The idea for “Mad Cow” came directly from my job. I wanted to read about a farm family affected by BSE. I couldn’t find a novel on it. I was driving along the highway one day, and I thought, “I guess I have to write that book.” So I read a lot of articles, and talked to a lot of people about the topic. I talked to a lot of ranchers over the years. Then I worked on writing the book for several years. I shopped it around to different publishers until it eventually found a publisher. (That part was the worst).
Promotion was completely different this time because of the pandemic. I couldn’t do in-person events. But a friend organized a virtual launch for me, and I was on CBC radio and featured in the Alberta Motor Association’s magazine, and on a podcast and I did a lot of readings online. People were really generous in inviting me to virtual events or promoting my book. I had to be creative, and just accept that things were the way they were. (I was really grateful for all the people who supported me).
I have a couple more ideas for books and I’m working on short stories now. The idea for a short story usually comes to me as a key scene, and then I ask a question that usually starts with “what if?”
Sometimes I know a situation, and sometimes it’s just an image that comes into my mind.
Can you talk about how and why you got into this line of work?
I always wanted to be a writer. Some people just specialize in one type of writing, but I’ve never worked that way. I went to journalism school so I could have a skill that I can do, to have a job and make money, because writing fiction and poetry doesn’t pay many peoples’ bills (including mine). In every journalism job I had, I was asked to write about agriculture. I decided it was smart to specialize, so I did.
To improve my skills, I got a Certificate in Food Security from the former Ryerson University, because I thought that there would be a need for people who can write about food. I actually get a lot of requests to do freelance writing about agriculture. I really love being a journalist, but I love creative writing as well. The only problem is that sometimes I’m so tired of writing for my day job or doing freelance projects, that it makes it hard to do my own creative work, or it takes me longer.
Can you share a memorable moment or ‘successes’ in your career / life?
Well, it’s always cool to see your book on a store shelf. I remember the first time I was asked to sign one of my own books, and I was shocked that someone wanted my signature. It’s always neat to get the first author copies in the mail. And getting that publishing contract is usually a sweet day.
Some ranchers read “Mad Cow” and they really liked it and said I captured ranch life accurately, and that was a big deal to me.
As for my day job, I’ve been really proud of some of the stories I’ve done, especially when I know that we’ve written about issues that have affected farmers. It’s great for me to know that the things that my co-workers and I write about help and influence people, and that we can share their stories. I’ve won a few Canadian Farm Writers Federation awards for my journalism, and it’s always great to be recognized by my industry for good work.
Can you share a challenging moment, obstacles or failure in your career / life? And perhaps what you learned from it or how you overcame it?
In journalism, it can sometimes be really challenging to get the story right, and you can make mistakes and people can get angry. You just have to learn to deal with it. And in the writing life, there’s tons of rejection. There can be rejections from magazines, publishers, agents and even other writers. It gets really, really hard sometimes. My only advice is not to take it personally, and to have some friends who are writers that you can talk to. I also like working in different areas for my creative writing, so I can sort of hop around and go to another genre if one is not working for me. If you want to be a lifelong writer, you have to be resilient. And you have to realize that your writing career might not end up looking the way that you expect it will.
Can you share advice for others who might want to get into professional writing, journalism or writing their own books?
READ and just start writing your own stuff. Talk to people working in the fields that you are interested in. Look for programs like those run by the Writers Guild of Alberta. There are lots of writing and journalism courses available, and the learning never stops.
This winter, I took classes virtually from the Horror Writers Association and it was a lot of fun. Talk to writers in residence. There are some through the public libraries, and I think Grant MacEwan has one too.
I would also add that you should consider keeping a day job. It’s not very easy to make your entire income from writing. Barely anyone does. I’ve heard people say they want to quit their job to write a book, and I would never recommend that anyone do that.
Can you tell me about your hobbies! What do you do for fun?
I write (ha ha). I also read constantly and I’m in a couple of book clubs. I play classical guitar. I spend a lot of time going on walks with my partner Nathan and our Boston terrier, Edie. We like to take her on long walks in the river valley. I love going to the movies. I like trying new recipes. I get a dopamine hit when I make something that tastes really good. I love to exercise and spend time outside and I’m finding new ways to do that at this stage of the pandemic.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work professionally, personally, or anything that I’ve missed that you’d like mentioned?
I never expected to be an agricultural journalist. I always wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t sure what path it would take. And I know I’ll always be writing, and I hope to write more books.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix?
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
During the pandemic, I really fell in love with horror fiction, and started reading more of it. I fell in love with Talking Scared podcast. Neil McRobert is the host of the show. He reads horror novels, and then interviews the authors. He’s an excellent interviewer- he asks lots of good questions and is very enthusiastic. I’ve learned about so many good horror authors from listening to his podcast.
What is one of your favourite local restaurants or stores you’d recommend?
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
I would recommend that people check out Alberta Open Farm Days. Most people have never been to a farm. There are a lot of gems in the province. It’s on August 13 and 14 this year. (August 13 is my birthday!)
Thanks Alexis, for sharing your story!
You can connect with Alexis on:
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