‘I’m new to this world… it helps to work with someone who’s not!’
Jennifer Thornhill Verma knew the story she wanted to tell: a book that “shared the struggles and successes of Newfoundlanders, including my own family” during and after the life-altering, community-changing cod moratorium. In 1992, Ottawa closed down that iconic fishery, costing 30,000 Newfoundland fishers their livelihoods and threatening a community connection to a nearly 400-year tradition.
But Verma — a Newfoundland-born-and-raised, Ottawa-based writer whose day job is in the non-profit healthcare sector — also knew that, “if I was ever going to write this book, I needed structure and guidance… Nothing motivates an outcome like a hard deadline. “
So Verma, a University of King’s College alumna (a 2002 Bachelor of Journalism Honours degree), chose King’s recently launched MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. She has no regrets.
This summer, even before she begins her final year in the program, Verma has sold her MFA book project-in-progress — SALTWATER COWBOYS: What Happened to Newfoundlanders When the Cod Fishery Closed — to Halifax-based Nimbus Publishing. The book will be published in Fall 2019.
Verma, who notes “the entire [MFA] program is specifically and expertly designed to help you write a book,” adds the “one-to-one time” with her first-year mentor, best-selling Canadian author Ken McGoogan, “has been the most invaluable part of the program. We’ve talked about everything from the book title to the table of contents and book proposal to work planning and chapter revisions to negotiating a contract with my publisher. I’m new to this world, so it helps a great deal to work with someone who’s not!”
Verma, who didn’t have a literary agent of her own, hired Sally Keefe Cohen, a Toronto-based literary consultant — “she was introduced to us through one of our residencies” — to guide her through the negotiating-a-publishing-contract process. “Sally picked up on things I wouldn’t have even thought about,” Verma says today.
Verma remembers an exercise during her first summer residency in which students visited a Halifax bookstore “to envision our book on the shelves. We walked around and thought about where our book might be featured. The idea of one day walking into a bookstore and seeing my book actually there makes me giddy.”
That said, she knows there’s still work to be done. “I heard musician-author Alan Doyle say, ‘the hardest part about writing a book is writing a book.’ I’m in the midst of all that, still writing, self-editing, writing more and experiencing self-doubt in the process. The King’s MFA gives me a group of supportive people who are going through the same thing or have been there before. I’m glad I have them to lean on and I think that’s been the best part of this whole experience.”
Verma is the 17th MFA student or graduate to land a book deal in the program’s brief five-year history. You can find out more about the program here.