Saturday, June 1, 2013

An interview with the driven and dedicated Robert C. Belyk

SSJ: Give us a bit of background about you?
RCB: Before writing full-time, I worked in psychiatric facilities, drug treatment units, a maximum-security penitentiary and similar ”fun” work places. I have had the privilege of being involved in two riots at a penitentiary and one insurrection at the Riverside Forensic Treatment Facility. During much of this time I managed to complete dual degrees in Political Science and Sociology. Although I’ve never taken a history course, in graduate school, my thesis was in the area of early British Columbia’s 19th century socio-economic development.

Tell us about your previous books?
My first book was a collection of ghost stories that appeared in 1990 under the title, Ghosts: True Stories from British Columbia. John Tod: Rebel in the Ranks, the biography of a HBC chief trader appeared in 1995. Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast was published in 2001. My last collection of ghost stories was published in 2006. Between authoring books, I write articles on 19th and early 20th century history for Canadian and American publications.  

Tell us about your latest book?
I have recently completed my third collection of ghost stories. This work includes stories from the Prairie Provinces as well as British Columbia. Like my other ghost collections, the book is intended to be for readers who are interested in more than the quick, “fright rollercoaster” type of stories. Wherever possible I have researched the history of the haunting and attempted to draw the readers a dramatic picture of events leading up to, and surrounding the haunting.

What did you learn during the writing process? Can you give us any tips?
One of my interests has been collecting Canadian ghostlore. We sometimes hear a person tell us about their haunted house but the stories are never recorded and they are eventually lost in the ether. My purpose is to collect these accounts and present them in an interesting form. This latest book is my most ambitious ghost project. My wife and I spent more than a month on the road recording interviews across the four western provinces.
My advice to a beginning writer is to be prepared to spend many long hours researching your subject. Many old newspapers, for example, are now available online, but depending on the subject, one has to be prepared to make many trips to various archives to complete a major project.

What is it that you like about British Columbia history?
British Columbia has always been a “get-rich-quick” province. Entrepreneurs have come with the idea of making a fast dollar from our resources and then spending it somewhere else, rather than reinvesting it here. That is why this province lacks a secondary industrial base.
During boom periods, employers have relied on importing labour to keep wages down. In the long-term, the result has been to produce a culturally variant society divided along not only racial, but class and geographical lines. All this is the foundation of our interesting, colourful and conflicted past that puts the lie to any idea that Canadian history is boring.

SSJ: You're a dedicated researcher and writer, Robert.
RCB: Once I begin a project, not only am I committed to it, but also I’m its slave. Working on a book is more than a full time job. Much of my time is spent not only in writing, but also in thinking about the project. I am particularly fortunate in that my wife, Diane, has been supportive over the years.

I simply like to play with words. Not as in Scrabble where no one cares much about what the words mean, but the broader dimensions of the words themselves. Some words I think are beautiful, like “meander,” others seem to be ugly, like, “grizzle.” Interestingly, word meanings can be subtly altered simply in the way they are strung together in a sentence. I can remember a line from the classic film, Network—a writer was harassed by a couple of semi-literate bullies. He had the perfect retort when he turned to them and said, “You’ll never know the joy of writing a perfect sentence!”  (I’ve forgotten the movie’s plot, but not that line.)

That's a great quote. What are you reading now?
Thomas Hardy’s, The Woodlanders. I enjoy 19th century fiction, for it offers a portal into a time I find singularly fascinating.

Tell us about your next project.
A: My latest book, Spirits of the West, will be out in the spring of 2014. I haven’t given much thought to what I will write next.

How can people buy your books?
All my books are available by searching “Robert C. Belyk” at

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