Best-selling author and University of Winnipeg alumnus David Bergen is offering his expertise to aspiring young writers. At the beginning of January, Bergen became U of W’s fifth Carol Shields Writer in Residence.
Bergen became a student at the U of W at the age of 23. While one would assume English to be the focus of such a renowned author’s studies, this was not the case for Bergen. Although he did minor in English, he received his bachelor of education degree with a major in French.
“You almost wonder what I am doing claiming I am a writer,” Bergen joked.
When asked about his seemingly unconventional choice of studies, Bergen said his motivation was strictly practical.
“I knew that I needed a job and I knew that that was where the jobs were,” he said, explaining that at the time, his French degree gave him an advantage as a teacher, a profession he maintained for 15 years.
Bergen went on to write four highly celebrated novels, including The Time in Between, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as a collection of short fiction.
Although the university has changed substantially since he was a student in the ‘80s, Bergen said it has managed to retain its charm.
“It still has the intimacy that I recall and it’s very fine to be back,” he said.
Evidently, Bergen’s experience as a student at the U of W has worked its way into his writing. In his latest novel, The Matter with Morris, which is set for release in September, the main character was a student at the U of W.
“In some ways [it is] perhaps more autobiographical than my previous work,” Bergen said, adding that he borrowed heavily from personal experience to create Morris, the middle-aged protagonist of the tale.
Catherine Hunter, chair of the U of W English department, thinks U of W students will likely have a deeper connection with Bergen’s work because of the familiar setting.
“I think that it is important for students to hear work that is really based at the place they are,” she said.
Marika Prokosh, aspiring poet and honours English student at the U of W, attended Bergen’s on-campus reading on Jan. 13. She said she enjoyed hearing references to the U of W in his work.
“One of the characters ... is based on a professor that used to teach at the U of W,” she said. “It was really neat to talk to people afterwards because people at the university knew who that was.”
Prokosh said she is looking forward to sharing some of her own work with Bergen.
Both students and community members are encouraged to submit their writing to Bergen for one-on-one critique. Bergen hopes that by offering his feedback, he can give aspiring writers what he felt he lacked as a young writer.
“I wish I had known better writers earlier in my life,” he said.
Bergen will be available for consultation until his term ends on April 30, 2010. He can be reached by phone at 786-9203, or in person in office 2M69.
Published in Volume 64, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 28, 2010)