News and Interviews

Betsy Warland on Memoir as "the Mother Genre" & What She Loves about the Fluidity of Creative Nonfiction

author_Betsy Warland

It's been more than twenty years since Betsy Warland's Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (Inanna Publications) was first published, and the revolutionary, genre-bending memoir is still as powerful and singular as it was at the turn of the twenty-first century. 

Warland's unflinching examination of gender and the complex bond between mother and daughter, told through the lens of her own mother's final year, is essential feminist reading. Tackling aging, secrets, ailing parents and caregiving, grief, and more, the new, updated edition of Bloodroot is the perfect book to launch the Inanna Signature Feminist Publications series. 

The new edition is also timely for Warland, who has recently been honoured with the creation of the VMI Betsy Warland Between Genres Award. The prize recognizes innovators like Warland, who create books that combine two or more genres. The new award, administered and supported by the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, will be launched at 2021 Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs from October 18 to 24. 

We're excited to welcome Betsy to Open Book today to discuss Bloodroot as part of our My Story interview for memoir writers. She tells us about how the book changed between the 2000 and 2021 editions, how memoir's identity in the nonfiction landscape has evolved in recent years, and why she loves playing with the "fluidity" of the creative nonfiction form.

Open Book:

Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?

Betsy Warland:

This is an important but complex question because the first edition of my memoir, Bloodroot —Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss, came out in 2000. This second edition of the book has two additional new pieces: a Foreword by Susan Olding; a long essay by me investigating what the book taught me about narrative, form and the act of writing. In the 2000 edition, my central question was how can I recognize and trust a way to finally be close to my mother before she died. In my essay for this second edition, I unearth even more about the smoke and mirrors process I had to find my way through to be closer to my mother’s reality. Also in the essay, I reflect on how memoir may not be a minor or subgenre but the mother genre from which all other genres evolve. 


What was your research process like for this book? Essentially, the research was internal. Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?


The “research” was often disorienting and startling. It “schooled” me in how to follow a very different narrative pathway—a pathway that backtracked, camouflaged, collaged, contradicted itself: had been forgotten then suddenly emerged. In sum, learning to follow a narrative that upended assumptions about our literary tenets of storytelling and my own assumptions regarding how the story should be told. An important element of this was scoring the unspoken and unknown with “scored,” blank space within the text.


A lot of nonfiction prizes and anthologies have expanded to welcome more personal nonfiction as well as strictly research-based nonfiction. What do you think of this shift within the genre?


HURRAH! To our detriment, we’ve been uneasy about broadening our notions of nonfiction in Canada. This second edition of Bloodroot was one of fifty-seven new nonfiction books profiled in the CBC Fall Book Preview. When I scrolled through these books I was elated by the vibrancy and variety: I want to read a lot of them! There are countless nonfiction narratives that have been absent or considered nonliterary and tertiary until recently.


What does the term creative nonfiction mean to you?


The term is a conundrum. I was a cofounder of our national Canadian Nonfiction Collective (CNFC) and we actually did debate several different genre terms but this was the most easily recognizable. I’ve been working in cross-genre forms since my 1987 book, serpent (w)rite. Not fitting into the time-honoured genre categories has been very detrimental in terms of grants, etc. but I relish the freedom and authenticity of how perception (of all kinds) naturally evolves and takes form in an unpredictable mixture of “genres.” I relish the freedom and discovery among the CNFC writers: our genre is more fluid and far less regulated. Fortunately, a number of genre writers are elbowing their way in to more alternative strategies for evoking narrative — particularly writers from a broad diversity of backgrounds.


Do you remember the first moment you began to consider writing this book? Was there an inciting incident that kicked off the process for you? 


Vividly. It elbowed its way in while I was in the final stages of finishing What Holds Us Here. Still puzzled after writing several pieces, as to what “this” was, I wrote the bizarre conversation I’d had with my mother the year prior. In that conversation, my mother confessed in her Alzheimer–logic mind, that she “had another daughter” (adopted and abused) that she longed for me to meet. By splitting me into two daughters she could finally cry and acknowledge she regretted not wanting to know much about my life at all.


Did you write this book in the order it appears for readers? If not, how did it come together during the writing process?


Indeed. In the order it appeared. Very important as I wanted the reader to go through the same bizarre, nonlinear process in which perception amassed. As a writer, it taught me so much about how narrative actually accrues.


What defines a great work of nonfiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


Its veracity, vividness, quirky perceptual process, unique style and deep attentiveness to language that takes me somewhere I’ve not quite been before but quickly sense I need to go. I’ll pick two that inspired me before I wrote Bloodroot. The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid; A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir.


Betsy Warland has authored 14 books of creative nonfiction, essays and poetry. Regarding her 2020, Lagoon Lagoon/lost in thought, the Vancouver Sun wrote of her “magisterial (and yet, paradoxically, minimalist) distillation,” and The Ormsby Review: “her command of art and language is that of a virtuoso.” The Winnipeg Free Press review of her 2016 book, Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas, called it “an astonishing book by a truly luminous writer.” A mainstay for writers and teachers, the second edition of Warland’s Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing (with new added material) will be released in 2022. This 2021 second edition of Warland’s first memoir, Bloodroot—Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000), includes a new, long essay by Warland reflecting on what Bloodroot taught her in terms of craft and the nature of narrative over the past twenty years. Former director and mentor in of the Writer’s Studio and Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, Warland received the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Literary Excellence Award in 2016. The creation of an annual book award honouring Warland, The VMI Betsy Warland Between Genres Award, will be launched in 2021.

Buy the Book

Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss

In Bloodroot, Betsy Warland traces how a mother and daughter’s shared gender can shape the very anatomy of narrative itself. In her mother’s final year, Warland quietly discovered how to disentangle a crucial, concealed story that had rendered their relationship disconnected and fraught. Warland weaves a common ground that moves beyond duty and despair, providing both questions and guideposts for readers, particularly those faced with ageing and ill parents and their loss.

The 2000 edition of Bloodroot broke new ground in memoir form and uncharted storytelling. The 2021 edition, reprinted by Inanna for the launch of its Inanna Signature Feminist Publications series, includes a new foreword by Susan Olding and a new essay by Warland that explores subsequent questions, insights and tenderness only the passage of time can enable.