Razzell, Mary (Catherine) 1930-

views updated

RAZZELL, Mary (Catherine) 1930-

PERSONAL: Born February 20, 1930, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; daughter of Stephen Braerie (a mechanic, air force flight sergeant, and instructor) and Margaret Elizabeth (a domestic worker and homemaker; maiden name, McConnell) Slinn; married Bill Razzell (a microbiologist), September 22, 1951 (divorced); married Eric Nicol (a writer), February 11, 1986; children: (first marriage) Daniel, Robin, Jim. Ethnicity: "Irish-English." Education: St. Paul's School of Nursing, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, R.N., 1951; also attended University of British Columbia. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, working out with weights, bike riding, walking, swimming, camping, baking, oral history.

ADDRESSES: Home—3993 West 36th Ave., Vancouver, British Columbia V6N 2S7, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Writer, 1979—. Worked as a registered nurse at hospitals in Illinois and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, retiring in 1993; also certified childbirth educator.

MEMBER: Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers, Children's Literature Roundtable, Children's Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia.

AWARDS, HONORS: Poetry Prize, Knowledge TV Network, 1991, for "Death of My Mother"; also finalist for other awards, including Canada Council Children's Literature Prize, Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize, West Coast Book Prize Society, and Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction, Canadian Children's Book Centre.



Snow Apples, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.

Salmonberry Wine, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1987.

Night Fires, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.

White Wave, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.

Smuggler's Moon, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.

Haida Quest, Harbour Publishing (Madeira Park, British Columbia, Canada), 2002.

Author of short story "The Job," included in the anthology Takes: Stories for Young Adults, edited by R. P. MacIntyre, Thistledown Press (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1996. Contributor of short stories to periodicals.


The Secret Code of DNA (nonfiction), illustrated by J. O. Pennanen, Penumbra Press (Manotick, Ontario, Canada), 1986.

St. Mary's Catholic Church: The First Fifty Years, Elphinstone Pioneer Museum (Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada), 2000.

Contributor of poetry and articles to periodicals in Canada and elsewhere.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Turkey Weed, adult fiction; a young adult novel set in British Columbia during a typhoid outbreak in 1968 and 1969.

SIDELIGHTS: Mary Razzell's novels are rooted in places she has visited, people she has known, emotions she has wrestled with, and experiences she has weathered. "When I write," she once commented, "I'm trying to work out something that's bothering me, trying to find out why things happened. When the stories or books are written, I feel a sense of ease." Writer and critic Michele Landsberg detected this personal motivation in Snow Apples, Razzell's first book. In Michele Landsberg's Guide to Children's Books, she wrote, "One feels the presence of a passionate, sometimes angry, adult sensibility, reliving the bitter injustices as well as the intense yearnings of young womanhood."

In an interview with Dave Jenkinson of Emergency Librarian, Razzell said, "In all those YA books, the starting point's been something that's been bothering me that I'm trying to work out. Trying to work out my mother in Snow Apples and also Nels, my first love. . . . In Salmonberry Wine, I was trying to figure out how you come to terms with your ideals in a working world. Night Fires was an attempt to understand why a marriage of two intelligent people with good will, who seemed to be in love, didn't work out. With White Wave, I wanted to write about fishing, and I wanted to write about my father."

Family life was a conundrum for the young Razzell. She felt loved and encouraged by a father who was rarely home. At the same time, she felt unloved, discouraged, and even disparaged, by a mother who was never away. Razzell's father was a mechanic by trade and, she told Emergency Librarian, "a philanderer" by nature. By choice as much as necessity, he was away from home and out of touch for a great deal of her childhood. Her Catholic mother, who had come to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, from Belfast, Ireland, in 1921, found herself on her own with five children to raise and little in the way of reliable financial support. Still, she managed to eke out enough of a living to support her family through the Depression and war years.

The effort took its toll, however. Bitterly resentful and disappointed in the turn her life had taken, she vented much of her anger and frustration at home. There, as the second oldest child and only daughter, Razzell became a sounding board for her mother's hurt and disillusionment, and a target for much of the pessimism, criticism, and suspicion this hurt and disillusionment bred.

A government program that sponsored domestic and farm workers had brought Razzell's mother to Canada. Though she had only a grade-four education, she possessed a very strong love of language and a great love of literature. She wrote poetry and short stories, and her work was published occasionally in community papers along the British Columbia coast. She was also interested in history and politics and served as secretary of the North Hill Social Credit Party when she lived in Calgary. "My mother was a Stone Angel type of woman, strong and capable of doing whatever she had to do," Razzell once noted. "During the Depression, she took in boarders and did housecleaning. Unfortunately, 'doing whatever she had to do' had a price. It was as if the strength to do it came at the cost of any tenderness there might have been."

If tenderness was in short supply, though, there was lots of enthusiasm for language and literature. "The biggest thrill of my childhood was to get my own library card. My eldest brother, Steve, used to bring me home picture books on his card, from the time I was four until I was six," Razzell told the Canadian Children's Book Centre. She also recalled writing her first story in grade five. She still has it and remembers "the pleasure it gave me to use words, create pictures."

By the time she was ten, moving had become a regular feature of Razzell's young life. When her parents could no longer meet the mortgage payments, they lost their house in Calgary. This blow, coupled with her father's recurring pneumonia, prompted a move to British Columbia, Canada, and, after this, the family moved every year or two. Razzell believes that all the moving contributed to her eventual decision to become a writer. She once commented, "I thought, What's the use of making friends? I became solitary. School work and reading were my focuses."

When it came time to think about a career, though, writing was not even a speck on the horizon of possibilities. Although Razzell recalls an early impression that she might enjoy being a home economist, the cost of a university education was beyond the family's means. What could be managed was the $100 tuition fee for a nursing program in Vancouver and, in 1951, after three years of training at St. Paul's Hospital, Razzell received her registered nursing diploma.

She also married in 1951. However, there was no settling down. The pattern of frequent moves she had experienced as a child persisted in her new life with her husband, Bill Razzell, who was pursuing his academic studies in the United States. Razzell nursed while her husband completed his doctorate in microbiology and until she had children. After raising two sons and a daughter, she returned to nursing where, over the years, she worked her way through the gamut of hospital nursing services. She especially enjoyed doing an oral history of nursing in British Columbia for the Registered Nurses Association of British Columbia. She was a certified childbirth educator when she retired in 1993.

When her children were in high school, Razzell's early interest in writing resurfaced. She registered in a night-school writing course one day when she realized just how soon her children might be leaving home. Taking this course was an important first step toward changing careers. Razzell liked the teacher and sold an article. The heady thrill of seeing her name in print encouraged her to continue writing. A year later, she enrolled part-time at the University of British Columbia, tackling courses in literature and creative writing. The writing courses gave her the opportunity to study under authors George McWhirter and Carol Shields.

Razzell's efforts paid off. She began to sell articles, as well as poems and short stories. At this stage, she was writing a lot of short stories. "All my novels, except Night Fires, began as short stories," she related. In 1979, "Two Septembers," a forerunner of Snow Apples, shared second prize in a University of British Columbia Alumni Short Story Prize contest.

The inspiration for her short stories, which frequently feature a young girl from British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, tended to come from her own experiences.

When Shields, her creative writing instructor at the time, became intrigued by this young girl and encouraged Razzell to write about her in greater depth, she started work on an adult novel.

Razzell was well into work on this novel when she learned from her husband, who was out of the country, that their marriage was over. Fortunately, the writing project gave her a focus at a hurtful and difficult time. She finished the book but set it aside, feeling that it was too personal to publish while her mother was still alive. When she finally decided to seek a publisher, she sent it to her agent in London, England. Although she had experienced success selling a story which was a chapter in Snow Apples to the British Broadcasting Corporation, there were no takers for the book. The British market for first novels was flat.

Still, Eric Nicol, a writer Razzell met in 1979 when he served on the judging panel for the University of British Columbia Alumni Short Story Prize, provided encouragement on the home front. When he suggested that Douglas and McIntyre, a Vancouver publisher, might be interested in her book, Razzell followed his advice. The response was heartening. Although Douglas and McIntyre was not publishing fiction at the time, their representative offered to refer the book to Patsy Aldana, publisher of Groundwood Books in Toronto.

Aldana's interest sparked another metamorphosis in Razzell's work. Her adult novel, based on a short story, was destined to be rewritten for a young adult audience. "What was originally a memoir," Razzell once remarked, "was cut from 70,000 to 40,000 words. I also had to change the voice to a more immediate one." The publishing deadline was very tight but, with Aldana's help, Razzell met it, and Snow Apples was published in 1984. Looking back on the experience, Razzell said, "If I had a chance to do it again, I'd rewrite the sex scene. As it was, it was left as originally written."

Razzell's introduction to Groundwood Books was fortuitous; she found not only a good fit for her voice, but also a working relationship that was comfortable and supportive. "Groundwood treats you so well, you get spoiled," she stated. The collaboration has resulted in the publication of several more novels.

Reflecting on why she writes, Razzell once commented, "I think about what happens when you have young people who start out with high hopes and expectations. I'm trying to say, 'Look at things clearly, don't get caught up in what's not real.' When I was fifteen, the books I had access to told me I only had to look pretty and be nice. That disgusted me. I knew from experience it wasn't true."

Razzell writes in a small but comfortable study she inherited from Eric Nicol when they married in 1986. She tends to start with pen and paper. First drafts go into the computer for corrections. "If the writing is not going well, or if I have an emotional scene," she told the Canadian Children's Book Centre, "I go back to pencil and paper—the work flows more freely."

The personal nature of Razzell's work sometimes makes the editing process more difficult. For example, she wishes she had declined a request to change the setting of one of her books to the 1980s from the 1940s. "While I like contemporary young people, I can't pretend to know what's in their minds and what their experiences have been," she once explained. "What I can write about is my own truth. I have to be very careful that I don't allow my truth, which is real and will ring true to the reader, to be overcome by what someone else wants."

Razzell and her young adult novels about families, identity and strong young women have attracted critical attention. All the books except Night Fires have been contenders for literary awards and Razzell's gritty approach has been widely praised. In The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman cited Razzell as one of the young adult novelists who has "created moving and realistic stories that offer authentic patterns of behavior and sharp insights about life." In Quill & Quire, Phyllis Simon noted, "Razzell does not shy away from controversial topics in her YA writing." And, in Michele Landsberg's Guide to Children's Books, Landsberg wrote that Razzell has achieved "what more clinical authors have failed to do: [she] forcefully conveys the driving urgency of teenage eroticism and the need for love."

Recently, a reader's question stopped Razzell in her tracks. "I was amazed," she said, "when I was asked, 'Why are your males so awful?' I answered, 'Are they? If they are, it's just what the males I knew were like.'" Still, the question caused her to think. "I think, perhaps, I've matured with my new book," she stated at the time. "I may have worked out my angst and, if so, I can go on to my imagination."



Egoff, Sheila, and Judith Saltman, The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1990, p. 87.

Landsberg, Michele, Michele Landsberg's Guide to Children's Books, Penguin (New York, NY), 1985, p. 170, revised edition published as Reading for the Love of It, Prentice Hall Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1987, p. 220.

Saltman, Judith, Modern Canadian Children's Books, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987, pp. 71-72.


Books in Canada, August-September, 1987, pp. 34-36.

Canadian Book Review Annual, 1984, pp. 341-342; 1990, p. 325; 1994, pp. 497-498.

Canadian Children's Literature, Volume 49, 1988, pp. 49-51; Volume 66, 1992, pp. 74-75.

Children's Choices of Canadian Books, Volume 4, number 2, p. 68; Volume 6, number 2, May 1989, p. 71.

CM: Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People, September, 1987, pp. 193-194; September, 1994, p. 139.

Emergency Librarian, March-April, 1995, interview by Dave Jenkinson, pp. 61-64.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 17, 1984, p. B5; June 27, 1987, p. E20.

Quill & Quire, April, 1994, article by Phyllis Simon, p. 40.


Canadian Children's Book Centre, unpublished notes, 1989.