Personal Stories

Resident author writes her sixth mystery at age 94

Victoria novelist Gwen Southin was selected as an Inspiring Senior of the Year at Amica for writing her first Margaret Spencer mystery book in her 70s

Gwen Southin a resident spotlight

Novelist Gwen Southin has had a remarkable career: her books are sold on, have been featured in The Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post, and have taken her to appearances at international authors’ festivals. What’s even more remarkable is that she only started writing after retiring: In her early 70s, Gwen published her debut novel, the first in the popular Margaret Spencer mystery series set in British Columbia. Speaking of remarkable, Gwen just finished writing her sixth book. This one took a little longer due to all the activities and pleasant distractions at Amica Somerset House, the Victoria senior lifestyles residence where she lives. “Plus I’m 94,” she says on a Skype video call from her suite overlooking the ocean. “I’m starting to slow down.”

For decades, Gwen nurtured a dream of writing. “I was brought up in the Depression and the Second World War years. Money was tight but my parents loved to read so we always had books and magazines,” she says, content to spend hours as a child reading by the fire or making up stories. In 1952, she and her husband moved from England to Montreal with two young children, welcoming two more after they’d settled in Canada. “When everybody is grown up, I’m going to write,” she promised her family at a time when it was tough to steal a few moments to herself to read, much less write. “No one believed me.”

After living in Montreal for about 30 years, including 12 working for Teleglobe Canada, Gwen convinced her husband it was time they stopped working and followed three of their grown children out west. The first thing she did after arriving in Sechelt, B.C. was sign up for a creative writing course at the local high school. Gwen connected immediately with instructor Betty Keller, an award-winning editor and author of 18 books. “She became my friend and editor and she gave me a lot of encouragement,” says Gwen. Through Keller, she was a founding member of the SunCoast Writers’ Forge, an association launched to support and develop local talent.

When Keller later hatched an idea to start a writers’ festival and writer-in-residence program in Sechelt to showcase Canadian writers, Gwen was one of the co-founders who helped make it happen. The Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts is now in its 37th year as Canada’s longest-running summer gathering of Canadian writers and readers. Despite a shoestring budget in the early days — Gwen cooked the visiting writers’ meals and the organizers fundraised by hosting a garage sale — the festival went on to feature luminaries such as Doris Anderson, Dennis Lee, Shelagh Rogers, Austin Clarke, Joseph Boyden, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Off and Esi Edugyan.

Meanwhile, Gwen worked on her writing. Meeting weekly with fellow scribes in The Quintessential Writers Group provided inspiration and peer editing as she developed a murder mystery around a strong and likable female character. She published Death in a Family Way in the year 2000 when she was in her 70s. Set in the 1950s, the tale stars Maggie Spencer, who abandons her stuffy marriage at age 50 to take a secretarial job at a detective agency. Four more books followed Maggie’s adventures, including In the Shadow of Death, then Death on a Short LeashDeath as a Last Resort and, in 2012, Death as a Fine Art

Most books take about a year for Gwen to write, and their plots are as much a surprise to the author as they are to her readers. While many novelists labour over their outlines, Gwen starts with an idea, leans on intuition, then sits at her computer and writes. She realized near the end of writing one book that a character she’d pegged as the murderer actually wasn’t — so she added a twist. “I have an idea where I’m going but once I get started, the characters become so real to me that I imagine them speaking to me. Sometimes they go off on their own so I just follow.”

One of the most challenging yet enjoyable stages of writing for Gwen was research. Having lived in England and Montreal, suddenly she was writing about the west coast. She spent hours getting to know Vancouver’s streets, neighbourhoods, people and history to create credible, accurate settings. That’s how her late husband got on board with her time-consuming second career after initially feeling resentful that she was always busy. They’d pack the RV and take research trips around the province, talking to people and learning about places that would find their way into Gwen’s stories. “I think these books have appealed because they’re not serious literature, they’re fun stories, and people recognize the names and places. I had someone ask if I was going to a reunion for a particular Vancouver high school — she thought from reading my books that I’d lived here.”

At the time of this interview, Gwen was about to take a float plane to visit her dear friend Betty Keller. For a few days they planned to talk, go fishing and do a final edit on her sixth novel, Death Plays With Fire. “You never know,” she says, hoping the publisher will be interested in printing it. “It might see the light of day!” 

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