Passion can move people in many directions during the course of one’s lifetime — and, oftentimes, an individual’s passions might include completely disparate ones — as opposite as night and day (or online versus bricks-and-mortar!) You’d never guess Athabasca University’s Jim Sellers’ two polar-opposite passions: delving deep into the environmental, economic, and social nuances alongside the Athabasca River Basin, while moonlighting as an author of Young Adult (YA) fiction, creating fascinating characters that are driven by their desire to know about their personal histories.
We sat down with Jim to chat all-things AU, and his lifelong passion: writing.
What is your role at AU? How did you end up doing what you do?
I am the project coordinator for the Athabasca River Basin Research Institute (ARBRI), which is part of the Faculty of Science and Technology. We now have three funded research chairs, and nine post-doctoral positions attached to the Institute, which started as a collaborative research arm with one employee (me), in 2010. My six-month contract position evolved into an eight-year career at AU.
What is ARBRI? How did it form?
ARBRI was originally proposed in 2008 by Dr. David Locky, as a collaborative centre to promote and facilitate multidisciplinary research regarding every aspect of life (environmental, economic, and social) along the Athabasca River Basin. The Basin stretches from the Rocky Mountains in Jasper, to Lake Athabasca in the northeast, covering 24 per cent of Alberta’s land mass, and includes First Nations and Métis land, rural and urban communities, and practically every form of industry in the province — from farming, to timber, pulp, oil and gas, mining, and the oil sands.
Is coordinating the work of ARBRI your true passion, or does your fiction writing provide that all-encompassing creative spark? How do the two roles lend themselves to each other?
I have been running the show at ARBRI since that first project, so it is my ‘adopted child.’ I didn’t create it, but its growth and success are what drive me. Yet, my passion is writing.
I came from a communications background, starting in television production doing drama, documentary, and corporate work. I have been writing stories (fiction and non-fiction) most of my life, but became a professional when I signed my first contracts for a screenplay in 1994. That changed the world for me.
How did you get started writing? Are you a voracious reader?
I was a late-bloomer in the ‘voracious-reading’ part. I started writing story ideas in high school but never regarded that as a possible career, until I realized I was wrong, and became a writer! My first work was in documentary television. I wrote a few pieces, including scripts for the National Film Board and an episode of Mentors, which was filmed in Edmonton. I read crap until I got into my teens, when I started appreciating the classics. Then I read everything, from Dickens to Tom Clancy.
How did you end up writing a YA book?
I didn’t set out to write a children’s book. I have written all types of stories, including adult fiction, science fiction, and short stories. I wrote them when my children were about that age, so I had a better opportunity to know how kids that age interacted with each other, and how they faced challenges.
It happened that when I was pitching books to publishers, two of the children’s stories I had written, caught the interest of a publisher in Ontario. They ended up picking one of them (Jacky the Brave), and publishing it in 2013. They also asked for a sequel, which I started writing. That’s how I ended up being a YA author. The sequel (A Death of Cold) came out last year. I published that one myself, as the publisher closed shop in 2015.
What is the underlying theme of the two books?
The theme of both books is family, and the connection between moving forward in life by understanding your past. The protagonist faces real challenges and he struggles to understand the complexities of the choices he makes. I just wanted to shine some light on some family issues and tell a good story.
What are your next plans?
I am in the process of writing a completely different (not YA) novel and my work at ARBRI continues.
As of February this year, I am a Featured Local Writer at the Edmonton Public Library and have been busy presenting various talks, at branches throughout the city, on the subject, and craft, of writing.
Jim has been working at AU with ARBRI for eight years. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and pet Labrador, Angus. Besides writing, he enjoys playing guitar, photography, and travelling. He believes life is an ongoing series of stories, waiting to be written.