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How a Kamloops author took a leap of faith to make her dream come true

Author Elma Schemenauer is pictured at a book sale at St. Ann's Academy in Kamloops in November, 2022.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/ Elma Schemenauer

Elma Schemenauer is a familiar face in Kamloops. She can usually be seen chatting with people at local farmers' markets and selling her collection of books.

The author has published 78 books over her lifetime, and while it might come as no surprise she always wanted to be a writer, it took a lot of courage, and a leap of faith to make her dream come true.

Schemenauer is a first-generation child of Mennonite immigrants from Russia and grew up on a farm several miles east of a tiny town in Saskatchewan.

“I really wanted to be a writer but how do you do that when you grow up so rural the only the writers we knew of were the ones who wrote in newspapers and we didn’t even have many newspapers. That was the extent of knowing about writing.

“Mennonites are practical people and it wasn’t obvious to me how you could make a living as a writer, so I went into teaching. It’s a well respected and useful profession, and you can make a living.”

She became a teacher and completed a year of teaching in Nova Scotia before she made a bold step to follow her dream and moved to Toronto.

“I thought if I’m ever going to be a writer, this is the time, but I was so rural and so naive. It was scary, I was unemployed in a big city, I didn’t know how to run my life."

She rented an apartment with a friend from Saskatchewan, found a low level job to help pay the rent while she did interviews for writing jobs.

“I went to Maclean's magazine and the guy was nice, he said to go to a small town and work for a newspaper for a few years and come back. I thought, I’m not doing that, I’m here in this exciting city, I can’t go back.”

Eventually she got hired by an educational publishing company writing books for schools and libraries. 

“I was just beside myself, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write," she said. "I was writing stories for kids, hired because of my teaching experience.”

Novels written by Kamloops author Elma Schemenauer.
Novels written by Kamloops author Elma Schemenauer.

A few years later, Schemenauer got married and continued working while her husband was in university.

“He wasn’t making a lot of money, I was working, and we’d just bought a house and had mortgage payments to make,” she said. “Then I said I wanted to go freelance and that really scared him. He didn’t want me to do it, but I did it.

“You can make enough money in educational publishing but you have to write what other people want you to write.”

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Schemenauer has earned her income as a freelance writer ever since.  

In 2006, she moved with her husband to Kamloops where she fell in love with the community and unique terrain.

In her later years, the author has focussed on writing fiction novels publishing Consider the Sunflowers in 2014 and Song for Susie Epp this year, where she weaves elements of her Mennonite cultural roots and memories of her upbringing into her settings and characters.

“I have more memories of my first seven years than any other time,” she said. “I remember little details, what the old ladies in the church said, the smell of dill pickles.”

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A well-developed character present in both novels is called Adeline, and she lives in the same place Schemenauer grew up in.

“She’s the mother-in-law everybody loves to hate. We had a little Mennonite church and she goes to that church and brow beats her son and daughter-in-law to go. She’s a nosy, overbearing neighbour. We have strong women in our family, including my grandmother. When the first novel came out, I said to my sister, do you know who this character is based on? And she knew.”

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Another character in the books, Adeline’s son Simon, is a functioning alcoholic.

“There’s a lot about drinking in this book,” she said. “Mennonites at that time in the 1970s, the era this book is written in, were not supposed to drink, they were not supposed to dance. There were a lot of things they were not supposed to do, so there’s a lot of that in this book.”

Schemenauer is part of a local author’s group where she and other authors take turns evaluating one another’s work.

“I tend to get a little farfetched and I have to get people to tell me when I’ve gone too far,” she said. “In Song for Susie Epp, the character of Simon goes on tour to the Maritimes with a parrot who sings opera.”

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Song for Susie Epp is set partly in Kamloops and partly in Saskatchewan. The cover of the book shows the Kamloops grassland. In the book Kamloops is Sage City and there are elements local readers might recognize.

“There is the sage brush and the mountains,” she said. “There is the ease of getting around and the emphasis on the arts. The main character goes to a Mennonite church similar to the one in Valleyview.”

The author is currently working on another novel and said she is enjoying working on more personal work that is closer to the heart than having to write for money. 

“Sometimes I think, what if? What if I hadn’t taken those chances and like many people just stayed in that little town and got married? I never would have developed, I’d never have fulfilled my dream.” 

Go here to order Schemenauer's most recently published book.

— This article was corrected at a 10:55 a.m. Wednesday, July 3, 2024 to clarify the author and a main character did not live close to a village but several miles east of it. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Ainslie or call 250-819-6089 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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