When author Betty Keller answered the phone recently at her Sechelt home, she did not recognize the caller’s name at first. Possibly it was a writer wanting editing help with a manuscript, a task that she has performed for many Coast authors.
It took a moment for her to realize that the caller was Judith Guichon, the Lieutenant Governor of B.C., to personally announce that she had earned the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, a prestigious annual award that honours a lifetime of producing a substantial body of work and making a contribution to the writing community.
In a personal interview with Coast Reporter, Keller, now 84, recalled the short stories she wrote in the early days before the needs of family took her into teaching drama to grades 10 to 12. It was George McWhirter at the University of British Columbia’s creative writing department that sparked her career.
“He knew how to draw the best out of us,” she said.
McWhirter encouraged her to study and she began writing plays, short ones suitable for the kids in her acting classes. Drama was a natural in her household, especially since her father, a lay preacher, performed with Vancouver’s Little Theatre.
“You need to get these published,” McWhirter told her.
November House became her first publisher, and she continued a productive relationship with them.
Although Keller has written plays, short stories, novels and history books, she is most proud of her definitive biography of Pauline Johnson, the poet.
The biography was published in 1983 by Douglas and McIntyre and was later reproduced in a shorter version for use in high schools and colleges. The poet Johnson was everybody’s darling at the height of her Victorian era fame, and Keller became fascinated with her.
Johnson had a non-Native mother and a Mohawk father, although she was considered in the terminology of the time a “red Indian.” Keller undertook comprehensive research by scouring old newspapers and finding vintage photos. A biography of a friend of Johnson’s, Black Wolf: Ernest Thompson Seaton, quickly followed, and she moved from there into ghostwriting for Vancouver’s outspoken politician Harry Rankin in the book Rankin’s Law.
In the early 1980s, Keller took on what was to become a seven-days-a-week job, organizing the Festival of the Written Arts, now in its 33rd year. She did not do it alone — she gives much credit to a formidable crew of women, dubbed the Founding Mothers of the Festival, who put together a lively program of visiting Canadian authors that grew into a three-day event involving writing workshops and Sunday concerts. The popular festival put Sechelt on the map.
“It was a group of remarkable people who worked on the festival,” Keller said.
They successfully raised funds, coped with local politics and built a pavilion. In 1985, the organizers (now all published writers themselves) formed the Quintessential Writers to encourage and critique each other’s work. Keller has co-authored a Sunshine Coast history reference and a book about fish farming with the Quintessential’s Rosella Leslie.
It was Continuing Education on the Coast that first asked Keller if she would lead a writing class. She had been a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia, and teaching came naturally. But when she found that the large classes were not conducive to learning, she organized a series of smaller weekly writing groups.
“The dynamics are different with four people at the table,” she said. “Every-one is equally vulnerable because their work will be discussed next.”
The Keller-led writing groups continue to this day and many of the members have grown as writers because of her encouragement. On her role as a mentor, Keller noted, “I regard that as the most important thing that I do.”
Keller will be attending the BC Book Awards gala on April 25 and will meet the voice on the phone, the Lieutenant Governor. In addition to the honour and a cash prize, she will have another reason to be proud. In one of her many roles as an editor for Harbour Publishing, she edited five of the articles in one of the nominated books, a handsome volume titled The Sea Among Us.
In her lengthy career, Keller has received a long string of honours including the Queen’s Jubilee and the Coast’s Gillian Lowndes Award. But this is bigger — directed toward the achievements of her writing life and, in the opinions of many, well deserved.