Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Body & Words: The ballerina who learned how to write

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Body & Words: The ballerina who learned how to write

Simple ambitions, complicated tea.

This is the story of a ballerina who stopped dancing so she could learn to write songs. Or perhaps she learned how to write songs because she stopped dancing. Either way, the artistic life of Jill Zmud has not been plotted or charted, and it seems to be working out just right.

The Saskatoon native agrees to meet in a coffee shop on a recent sunny spring afternoon in downtown Ottawa. She orders an improbably named Osmanthus Scented Silvery Green Tea – (earning an ‘A’ when she is asked by the hardcore coffee-drinking interviewer to spell the name of the tea) – and she settles in to discuss words, music, grief and beauty.

Words were not the first form of artistic expression for Zmud, who spent the better part of her life training as a classical dancer. “That was my life,” says the former student of the National Ballet School, “but I was always steeped in music. If you’re in dance, you’re around music all the time.”

It would take the end of dance and a year of living in South Africa in ’94-‘95 – a time of great transformation as the revered Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency and set out to dismantle apartheid – to begin the transformation from dancer to writer.

“I was starting to record my impressions, stream of consciousness stuff. I remember being in a car in South Africa and watching everything around me and taking it in and having a notebook in my hand and just really wanting to get those impressions down on paper.”

Over the years, the reflections became poetry and the poetry became songs. And then somewhere in there her well-meaning brother bought her a guitar and she took the final unknowing step toward the future that awaited her.

“I had a normal life after dance, I went to university,” she says. “But my brother showed up at the house one day and he said ‘I think Jill needs something creative’.”

The rest, goes the cliché, is history. Zmud polished enough songs to compile her debut CD in 2009, the spare and moody ‘as we quietly drive by’. Today the former ballerina is at work on her follow-up album, having taken a long break to process the sudden death of her father in 2011. He had entered hospital for a routine procedure.

“It was a Tuesday morning. I got a call. Things had gone south very quickly,” she says. And the following days and weeks and months became more about “getting by” than focusing on art. And then, when she finally felt herself returning to her centre, she hesitated “because I knew when I got around to it, the first thing I would write was going to be about my dad.”

Words became a way to make sense of the world, and as always music was there to help everything flow. Zmud says her influences in writing and music were always of the spare variety. She lists Hemingway’s classic memoir, A Moveable Feast, as a favourite book.

“The way he writes almost reminds me of the prairies. There isn’t a lot of fuss. What you see is what you get. Being excited by something so simple and beautiful.”
Leonard Cohen also left a strong impression. She has fond memories of listening to his music with her mother.
“We would be washing dishes to Joan of Arc or So Long, Marianne.”

There is no doubt there will be a new offering of songs and music from Zmud in the coming year. She just doesn’t have a deadline in mind.

“I hope my music finds a way to get out into the world the way it is supposed to,” she says of her simple ambitions.

Discover the music and words of Jill Zmud here:

(C.B. Forrest’s latest novel, The Devil’s Dust, is available in stores and online. He is currently at work on a new crime novel. An excerpt from a forthcoming noir collection will be published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine this June.)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page