Barbara Nickel

Journey of a Journey

Scooping beech leaves from the bugleweed outside my office in the rain, I listened to a friend tell me about the English botanist Graham Thomas. On a trellis across the yard, his namesake rose had just been pruned. I planted it when we first moved to Yarrow; summer after summer its abundant blooms climb to my bedroom window. But I’d forgotten its name and that it was introduced to the world by the rose breeder David Austin, famous for crossing old roses with modern hybrid tea varieties.

Last month, nineteen days after that garden conversation, David Austin died at the age of 92 in his home in Shropshire County, England. There in his obituary in The New York Times is my rose with a caption: “Recognition was slow at first. But his fortunes changed significantly… when he introduced…this yellow climbing rose…”

Reading about Mr. Austin’s long journey, his patience and persistence, how he “had to ignore doubters who insisted that nobody would grow his old-but-new roses”, I’m reminded of another journey; my hand lands on a book with a cover of hedgerows curving down an English landscape. The hedgerows frame a narrow lane and bring to mind lines of a musical staff, an image just right for a memoir in music by the British-born, Canadian cellist Ian Hampton.

A few weeks ago, when Jan in 35 Pieces made the shortlist for the RBC Taylor Prize, in the midst of my surprise and delight, I thought of the book’s extraordinary journey. I’ve just checked my files. I wrote a response (seven single-spaced pages) to Ian’s first draft of this book on January 10, 2010. I remember reading that draft for the first time, often laughing out loud and at one point in the narrative, almost crying. I held a treasure trove of rare stories and writing about music, a journey, a life, in a distinct and memorable voice I wanted the world to hear.

What happened in the nine years between? Bins full of file folders manuscript-thick in my crawl space, notebooks stacked on office shelves and dozens of computer files tell only a small part of the story. As the manuscript’s editor, agent and advocate, I learned about what it takes to believe in a piece of writing. Many years into the process, after a long string of rejections (many brief and neutral, one long and scathing, one generous, kind and helpful), we were waiting to hear from our very last attempt, steeling ourselves for rejection, resolving to try self-publishing.

Enter an acceptance from that very last attempt, The Porcupine’s Quill, a most excellent and elegant press. Who required us—to accommodate their in-house press—to cut (gulp) about ninety manuscript pages in what resulted in a leaner, sharper volume. Who lovingly and beautifully incorporated Ian’s drawings. Who circulated, by post, hard copy proofs with colour-coded marks from a copy editor happy to enter into an extended e-mail correspondence about the placement of a single comma. Whose cream-coloured paper with the tiny ridges I love to feel under my finger.

After the launches, a few articles and interviews and only one brief online review, Jan was largely ignored. Not surprising—as a musician with a first book, Ian Hampton was unknown to CanLit, so I’m applauding the Taylor Prize jury for recognizing Jan on merit alone. I’m hoping because of the shortlisting, more readers might find pleasure in this book, like the following favourite bits and many others I used to read over the phone to my parents–

On Sir Neville Marriner: “Known to Jan and his colleagues as ‘Nev’, he always turns up to rehearsals smartly dressed, with a box containing a lunch that’s slightly higher up in the food chain than anyone else’s—a globe artichoke, a Belgian endive, kumquats.”

On Bach’s Cello Suites: “The rhythmic complications of the D Major Allemande are such that the cellist has to count sixteen to a bar. Anna Magdalena joined torrents of sixty-fourth notes with wavy lines that resemble the skies of a late Van Gogh painting.”

And the lovely last two sentences that I notice have remained almost unaltered from the very first draft: “In the small hours, at high tide, the freighter, now loading, will announce to its crew and the waiting tugs that it is about to sail halfway round the world. Its long, low horn will break the silence and anybody still awake, if they listen carefully, can follow its attenuating echo as it passes from nearby mountains to ones farther down the valley, disappearing into the Coastal Range.”


Dear Peter, Dear Ulla has been selected as a finalist for the 2023/2024 Chocolate Lily Book Award. 

Barbara’s poem “Three-in-One,” originally published in Grain Magazine, has recently appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2024  (Biblioasis) edited by Bardia Sinaee.

Check out Barbara’s 45-minute teaching video on Creating Believable Characters for the BC and Yukon Book Prizes’ In Class video library.

Dear Peter, Dear Ulla was a finalist for the 2022 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People.

Dear Peter, Dear Ulla has been nominated for the 2023 Rocky Mountain Book Award (Alberta Young Readers Choice Award).

The Manitoba Young Readers Choice Awards (MYRCA) has nominated Dear Peter, Dear Ulla as a 2023 Northern Lights (Grades 7-9) finalist!

Essential Tremor reviewed in The Vancouver Sun. Read full review here.

Dear Peter, Dear Ulla is reviewed and “Highly Recommended” in CM (Canadian Review of Materials)! Read the full review here.

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