An Interview with Mary Schendlinger

By Gillian Jerome and Chelsea Novak

Fact things:

Pulp Press: My official job at Pulp was typesetter. Everyone who worked there or hung around was welcome to do editorial work, write for 3 Cents Pulp, etc., on our own time, and we did.

Talonbooks: My official job at Talon was Promotion Manager. The staff was tiny (3, then 2, then 3) so I ended up doing production, sales, editorial, admin, and so did everyone else.

Press Gang/Makara: Press Gang was a printing company and, later, a book publisher. Makara was a commercial graphic arts company and, later, a magazine publisher. They were sister companies who recommended each other to clients. When Makara started the magazine, Press Gang printed it. There was overlap: friends, lovers, co-parents, housemates, and so on.

1. You’ve been working in publishing for over forty years, and in that time you’ve been involved with several feminist publications—the South Hill Daycare newsletter, Makara magazine (which was published by the Pacific Women’s Graphic Arts Co-operative) and Room of One’s Own magazine. You’ve also been an editor at Pulp Press, Talonbooks, Harbour Publishing and Geist magazine (which you co-founded), and you’ve operated your own editing firm. How have you seen women’s roles in publishing change since you first started? Do you see progress?

2. What was Pulp like in the 70s? And how did you become involved? Also, were you loosely affiliated with Press Gang at one point or another? Feel free to tell us any stories at all about what Vancouver publishing was like in the 70s and 80s when many of us at CWILA were babes-in-arms. 

3. How was your life and work affected by the second-wave feminist movement in Vancouver?

On the west coast in the 1960s and ’70s, as in every other region of Canada, trade publishing was on a roll. People started new magazines and book publishing operations because Canadian writing was flowering and the few large publishers were too exclusive and/or too far away to accommodate it. Non-mainstream publishing in Vancouver ran along some parallel tracks. One of them included Pulp Press, Talon, blewointment (bill bissett), Tish, etc—the upstart literary people, led mostly by men. Another track grew out of the ’60s-’70s wave of the women’s movement, as women in North America and Europe got up on their hind legs and objected to the status quo—everything about the status quo. Among other things, we wanted to read, write and publish women’s stories.

Those were the days of communal houses, consciousness-raising groups, self-defence workshops, sexuality and racism workshops, transition houses, sexual assault organizations that cared for traumatized women and set about educating police officers, judges, doctors, etc. The term “broken home” was giving way to “single-parent family” as separation and divorce statistics went nuts. It was the Age of Aquarius, for middle-class people anyway. The birth control pill had given women new choices; Dr. Spock had said it was all right to pick up and comfort a crying baby; ordinary people making a fuss had changed public policy on the war(s) in Southeast Asia. We had a sense we could make a difference.

On the writing and publishing side, women rejected the prevailing view that the important subjects in fiction and non-fiction writing were war and government and work and sex as experienced by men, and the trivial subjects were the concerns of women and children—i.e., all of the above matters, as experienced by us, as well as “our” bailiwick, domestic politics. So we started up our own discussion groups and companies and bookstores and formal courses to get the word out about our reality and our reason for living. Some women decided not to have kids and devoted their time and energy to devote to this and other work. Where there are women, though, there are children, and the rights of children (along with women’s reproductive rights) were bound into everything we did.

In the trade publishing business I have known, mainly independent literary and political publishing, women have not been deliberately, actively excluded. Publishers are a fairly enlightened lot, and anyway it’s a poorly paid profession. But then, as now, it was mainly men who were the entrepreneurs and publishers, and women (as well as men) were doing editorial, production, marketing, admin, managing. In the independent publishing companies of the 1970s—as in many small businesses then and now—policy and esprit de corps got built informally outside the office as well as in. People put their hearts into the place and worked many unpaid hours and naturally hung out together. At Pulp Press, the playground where that spiritual work got done was the bar, so if you didn’t hang out at the bar, you were not privy to the centre. At Makara and Press Gang, the playground was—well, the playground, and people’s homes, and women’s coffeehouses, and benefit dances, and other places where women and children hung out. Not just because the children needed looking after, but because we were figuring out how to raise our kids in the world we wanted to make.

In fact, I met the Makara women, who became my publishing colleagues and my BFFs, and who are my BFFs today (those who are still with us), through a daycare centre in East Van. I installed my two-year old daughter there in 1972 because it was close to home; it happened also to be inhabited by some articulate, aggressive, feminist advocates for children who were about the smartest people I had ever met. I fell in with them right away. A year later we sued the province to license the daycare we wanted even though it did not have “regulation blocks.” Two years later, when the provincial government cut off funding for our modest lunch program at the daycare, and we found out that these same MLAs were enjoying a heavily subsidized lunch at work, we organized up a hundred women and children and took them to Victoria to chow down with our elected officials in the legislature dining room. The literary and political sensibilities were conjoined for us, in life and in our magazine, Makara (“A Canadian magazine by women for people”). There we learned to write, edit, design, produce, set type, woo subscribers and all the rest. And how to work in a group of smart, courageous women who were still learning to appreciate our own smartness and courage. I cannot imagine a better foundation for the writing and publishing life, or for adult life in general.

When Makara was a few years old, we grew weary of the demands of it and the endless financial worries, and we stopped publishing it. The design company continued for some years as a solid graphic arts firm, but everyone in our gang left the business and went to work elsewhere. A friend of mine told me Pulp Press (now Arsenal Pulp) was looking for a part-time typesetter, and a couple of weeks later I was tapping away at the Compugraphic 4, setting type for them and their clients.

One afternoon two years later, when we Makara friends got to talking about the old days, we realized that one of our mistakes had been to try to pay our suppliers on time, at our own expense. It was a common small-business blunder that we could see clearly, now that we were working for healthy organizations that were in hock up to their eyeballs at all times. I have heard it said that women are naturally more financially conservative than men, more afraid to take risks. Our beginnings seem to support that notion. Makara got its start as the Pacific Women’s Graphic Arts Collective, aka the Ad Company, a well-funded federal make-work program to get women with kids off welfare. Press Gang began as a printing company, a collective of men and women that was later taken over by the women, who kept the print shop and added a publishing program. Talonbooks grew out of a magazine published by high school kids in the garage of the parents of the editor. Pulp Press was born when one of the principals bought a small offset printing press, which he did not know how to operate, from a junk store. Then again, it’s quite financially risky to shack up with a twenty-one-year-old man and go through with a pregnancy, right?

The great thing about learning publishing in the 1970s was that we all figured it out together, at the same level. Everyone knew a little about something, and we tried things and tried again. We often got them wrong, and we about fainted with excitement when we got one right. A beautiful cover, a piece of writing that glowed on the page, a blowout benefit dance. Now we’re elderly and we have four or five decades of experience and the young people who want to succeed us have to deal with us saying “Ya, we tried that in 1924 and it didn’t work.” This worries me. It is not necessarily a step forward for the young women to have the old bags around with all our wisdom.

So, to answer question 1 more directly. . . in my view there has been terrific progress. The young women I work with are much more confident about undertaking tasks and learning skills than we were at that age, and they seem to like themselves better than we did. Both young women and young men have very different expectations than we did. Change is slow, yet in only a couple of generations, they have become sensitive to gender imbalance in all kinds of arenas, including the literary life. And more women rise up against lower pay for comparable work, against the double workday, against service roles in non-service positions, against sexual harassment in the workplace, etc., and they are taken more seriously when they do so. I see this in post-secondary classes and in cultural work, as well as in other spheres. Our work is not done, but it is starting to bring some rewards.

And to answer question 3 more directly, the movement saved my effing life.

4. You’ve worked within several feminist collectives over the years. Given your experience and hindsight, what are your thoughts about the effectiveness of the feminist collective as both an organizational structure and a political strategy?

I love working in collectives and co-operatives, and I still tend to participate in any working group as though it were a collective. I wish I had a loonie for everyone who sneeringly says “decision by committee” as if it were organically, inherently doomed. What could be more efficient than taking the time to ensure that everyone is heard and respected? That decision will be the most durable one you will ever make. In a collective, as in any working group, there is a distribution of natural authority. Some people are consensus builders. Others are aces at pointing right at the elephant in the room. Still others complain endlessly, or spout idea after idea, or always suggest throwing money at a problem, or calmly summarize a discussion in one beautiful sentence. It is a good idea to see the value in these and to acknowledge the points of natural power and authority in a group, collective or not. We live in the world. The means defines the end.

5. You worked at Talonbooks as the promotions manager and, as the Senior Editor of Geist, you’ve edited a book review section. You’ve also written, illustrated and edited several books, including The Quotations of Chairman Zalm, The Little Greenish-Brown Book of Slugs, Little Blonde Book of Kim Campbell, Encyclopedia of British Columbia, Guests in Your Garden, and Prepare to Be Amazed: The Geniuses of Modern Magic. As someone who’s been on all sides of the book industry, what do you make of the CWILA numbers? Do they confirm or contradict your own experience as an editor and writer?

The CWILA numbers don’t surprise me one bit. To read the numbers is to have a “Forty years of feminism for this?” moment (like hearing a woman use the word “douche bag” as an insult), but no one ever said change was quick, or lasting. I have always enjoyed welcoming support for my writing and publishing and my teaching of writing and publishing, and I have not perceived any deliberate conspiracy to keep women away from the writing desk or, when we manage to get there anyway, to keep us off the radar. In my view the trouble is more insidious. Women still do the lion’s share of looking after home, hearth and children, including grown children. We care for the sick and the sad. We maintain neighbourhoods and circles of friends and networks of colleagues. We support and encourage the writers and other cultural workers we care about. We actively observe milestones and manage rituals: betrothals and weddings, births and birthdays and miscarriages and abortions and adoptions, starting school and graduating from school, holidays and anniversaries, reunions and retirements, book launches, sickbeds and deathbeds and funerals and memorials. I know there are women who are hopeless on this stuff, and men who are as amazing on it as any woman. I know a few of those men personally. Here I am speaking of defaults and statistics. Statistically, it is women who make the phone call and show up with the pot of soup, or manage others to do it. Statistically, this work contributes mightily to the quality of everyone’s life and to our emotional intelligence, and it demands a lot of our time and love. Statistically, it allows men more wherewithal to get better and better at writing and publishing beautiful writing and artwork about important things.

Recently I moderated a panel discussion about press coverage for books, and all of the panelists, including a young woman, had a high awareness of the questions and declared a fervent wish to achieve a better balance, not just in gender but in gender identity, region, age, ethnicity, etc. All panelists had anecdotes about seeking and sometimes finding reviewers/interviewers who are not privileged white males aged twenty-eight to fifty, and offering assignments, and being turned down because those writers were way, way too busy and were fielding dozens of similar requests all the time. As for a gender balance in the works being reviewed, all of these people say what I have heard from others: they are working in a sector that is, in the modern parlance, “under-resourced.” So, although they know they ought to actively seek more work written by women, they are barely staying on top of things as it is. We know that to some extent, people find the resources for what matters to them, but as a longtime cultural worker I also know that one is hard-pressed even to accommodate one’s own priorities.

6. You teach publishing at SFU and creative writing at UBC. More women faculty members are being hired in Creative Writing, Publishing and English departments than ever before. Female students tend to outnumber male students in these programs. We have so many powerful, smart women working in Canadian book publishing. We also know that women buy more books than men, on average. Given these circumstances, how do you make sense of the CWILA numbers and the larger conversation about gender discrimination in Canadian literary culture? Are we experiencing a backlash? Are we still dealing with deeply entrenched systems in which men still have more relative power despite the overwhelmingly presence of women?

Canadian independent trade publishing is an arena with a lot of female energy in it—one reason why I like the business. My understanding is that in the academy, women in higher places are sought after to populate boards, executives, committees, and so on because there are so few of them, percentagewise, and everyone is trying to achieve a better gender balance. So, echoing the experience of the review editors mentioned above, these women are always overcommitted and they have to say no. Why does the imbalance persist in the upper echelons of trade publishing? Je ne sais pas. I never heard of any woman in publishing being keen to rule and deliberately slapped down, and almost anyone who wanted to take the helm without an argument could scrape up a few thousand bucks and start her own press. (Probably that is still the case—thousands of self-publishers certainly hope so.)

During the 1980s and ’90s, I was invited to take up co-ownership in two companies, both with do-able buy-in plans, but I turned them down. I was pretty much on my own with my two children and I already felt compromised in that role by having a full-time job. If I could muster up any extra time or love, I’d give it to my kids, or to the tiny amount of space I had for writing, not to a business, even a business I liked.

So again, it’s a good idea to look at the larger, more systemic imbalance to find the root causes. We in capitalist consumer society (and others) have got into some very bad habits, such as expecting men to be better leaders and women to be better caregivers. We learn this from birth, or even earlier. Perhaps men actually are the better hunters and rulers, and women and kids the better carers and gatherers, and our bad habit is to have overvalued one sphere and devalued the other. Either way, the bad habits reinforce the status quo, which is not OK.

7. At CWILA, we’ve been trying to assess our own impact on Canadian literary review culture, including our impact on women, be they writers, readers, publishers, editors or critics. Do the women taking your courses express any concern over the gender discrepancy in Canadian literary culture? If so, how are their concerns similar to concerns you and your colleagues had when first starting out? How do they differ?

Only occasionally does one of my younger women students (under thirty-five) express dismay about the gender discrepancy, and certainly not in the prickly way my friends and I did as young women. But I do maintain quite a woman-positive space in the classroom: the only complaints I’ve had came from male students, who were annoyed by my habit of using “she” in place of the non-existent gender-neutral pronoun.

It makes me sad that of the scores and scores of students I have worked with over the years (80 to 90% women), perhaps half a dozen are proud to call themselves feminists, or can even bring themselves to use the word. On the other hand, they like and respect themselves more than we did, they take for granted the comprehension of and respect for LGBTQA people and people of various ages and people of different and mixed heritages, in the classroom and elsewhere. And as I mentioned earlier, they take for granted certain rights that my generation of women could not—the right to disagree openly with their male colleagues without fear of social reprisal, the right to be and to seem smarter than their male colleagues without fear of social reprisal, the right to conduct themselves in an unladylike way (loud, talkative, angry, makeup-free), the right to take a job involving real responsibility even though they plan to have children, the subsequent right to collect maternity leave benefits instead of a pink slip, the right to expect some sharing of child-raising and homemaking responsibility with a male partner, the right to half of material wealth shared with a male partner even if his is the main or the only cash income, the right to marry a partner who is not a male, the right to make this known without fear of losing one’s job or children, and so on.

Women do not have equal opportunities or status, though, so I worry that young women avoid the F-word (feminism) and therefore the other F-word (fight), which is not won. You can’t change the world by shopping, or by tweeting, or by signing online petitions. On the other hand, the online petition is better than nothing, and Twitter has delivered unfiltered news of important struggles that we would not otherwise have. And I rejoice in the fact that younger women take for granted all of the rights I list above, just one and a half or two generations later, because that is evidence that things have changed, even if only incrementally.

8. Recently you led a seminar on ethics for editors, in which you discussed an editor’s responsibility to various stakeholders, including the earth, the profession, writers and artists, confidential sources, other stakeholders, and society-at-large. How do issues of gender, race and sexuality fit into an editor’s ethics, specifically when editing reviews?

Questions of balances in gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, region, age, size, physical and mental ability, etc., in press coverage are vitally important in publishing. They did not arise in my Ethics for Editors workshop, though, because they have to do with acquisitions editing—i.e., choosing what to publish (both seeking out material and selecting from unsolicited material)—which is really a publishing function. The participants in the workshop were editors working with material acquired, shaped and positioned by someone else. Therefore, the workshop dealt mainly with questions relevant to that level of editorial work—the carbon footprint of computer use, for example, and bias in language, where ethical questions for editors have to do not only with identifying and suggesting revision to passages that contain biased language, but with presenting suggested revisions to authors (and sometimes to publishers), in the context of the publisher’s and author’s purpose, the intended audience, and the medium.


Photo by Mandelbrot

Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, educator, mother and grandmother. She is co-founder and Senior Editor of Geist magazine; an instructor of editing and publishing in the SFU Master of Publishing Program; and an instructor of writing for graphic forms in the UBC Creative Writing Program. She is also Eve Corbel, an illustrator and comics writer/artist.


Gillian Jerome‘s first book of non-fiction Hope In Shadows, Stories and Photographs from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (with Brad Cran) won the 2008 City of Vancouver Book Award and was shortlisted for a BC Book Prize. Her first book of poems, Red Nest (Nightwood), won the ReLit Prize for Poetry in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2010. She teaches literature at UBC, edits poetry at EVENT magazine and is the founder and chair of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts.

Chelsea Novak is the Interim Executive Director for CWILA and a former managing editor of Geist magazine. Her work has been published by Quill & Quire, Vancouver Observer, Geist, Front & Centre, Other Voices and Blood Ink, and she is a regular contributor to Paper Droids.

Published July 3, 2013

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