A profile of Vancouver-based novelist Chelsea Rooney. Published in the 2019 issue of Pacific Rim Magazine, distributed to BC subscribers of the Globe & Mail. Published online here.
When she was in seventh grade in rural Nova Scotia, Chelsea Rooney was assigned to research what she wanted to be when she grew up. An internet search of the term “professional writer” on her family computer led to her discovery of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. She set her goal then, at twelve years old. Though Rooney was initially discouraged by her teachers and guidance counsellor from leaving her home and moving across the country, this only strengthened her resolve. “They kept telling me, ‘it’s too far, you’ve never even been to the campus. Go somewhere nearby,’” she says. Six years later determination and a rebellious nature brought her to Vancouver, where she went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts and a master of fine arts in creative writing.
It was this same determination that led to the completion and publication of her first novel, Pedal, which was published by Caitlin Press in 2014. The novel was originally her master’s thesis, though her initial concept evolved dramatically over time. She planned to write a non-fiction book about sustainable farming practices across Canada, but she kept finding her focus and research drifting toward—as Mary Schendlinger of Geist put it—“severe social taboos” and the complex topic of sexual abuse. With graduation quickly approaching, Rooney decided to trust her instincts. “I don’t think I would have pursued this scary idea that I had to work through a lot of personal stuff for if there wasn’t that pressure,” she says. Nonetheless it requires bravery for a first-time novelist to take on the topics of sexual abuse, incest, and pedophilia. As Brett Josef Grubisic of The Vancouver Sun wrote in his review of Pedal, Rooney “ought to be commended for perceptively addressing such a difficult and inflammatory (and decidedly uncommercial) topic.”
At a time when she needed reassurance, Rooney took advice from her step-dad and committed to the subject. “He said, ‘You have to ask yourself: has this book been written before?’” she recalls. “I realized I was trying to do something that I knew could be done. And I needed to not worry about that and write something I was driven to write.”
Luckily she didn’t have to do it alone. After reading her first draft, her thesis advisor and award-winning novelist, Keith Maillard, told her: “Congratulations for writing something that I can’t stop reading. We’re going to make this into something you can get published.” While Rooney does not think school is essential for prospective writers, believing that as an art “there’s not a ‘right’ way to do it,” connections definitely are. “In Canada, because the writing industry is so small, you really need to know someone who is championing you. Or you need to get very, very lucky,” she says.
Rooney forges her connections by participating in her local literary community. She has been a contributor on The Storytelling Show podcast, a moderator at Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival in Vancouver, and she teaches at Openstudio Academy of Art and Design. While she does not think you can teach how to write, she hopes to “facilitate writing and give people time and space and encouragement,” as her teachers did for her.
As for what is next, Rooney believes the answer to that question will always be “the next novel.” She says, ultimately, “I needed someone to tell me I could write a book. And now I know I can write a book.” Now, she is only a few weeks away from finishing her second novel. Though she declines to share what it is about, she says, “I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, but the world is on fire … I want to publish something meaningful.”