Mitchell Toews

My first question is about your neighborhood. How would you describe it? Do you consider it as a perfect place for a writer?

My wife and I are retired, and we live in a beautiful location next to a small lake on the fiftieth parallel in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park. To imagine the landscape, think of the paintings of the famous Canadian Group of Seven. We live in the boreal forest in a lightly-populated part of the province. 

In many ways, this location is perfect. It is serene, beautiful, and inspiring. The downside is our distance from urban centres where writing groups, libraries, and other literary resources are located. It’s a fair trade-off and I make do, mostly thanks to the internet.

I’ve read most of your short stories in online journals. Let’s highlight three of them only. Which three of them do you pick as your finest works (so far)?

The dominant influences in my early life are depicted in “Nothing to Lose” (Dad), “So Are They All” (Grandma T), and “Fast and Steep” (Mom.) These three are among my most-commented upon, the most vivid, and each comes close to allowing me—through fiction—to accept and understand these wonderful, größer als das Leben (larger than life) loved-ones whose invisible, umbilical guidance direct and nurture me still. 

Ask me this question in a year and the answer may be different, but the underlying precept will remain the same, from Van Gogh: 

That which is done in love is done well.

Van Gogh

I have around 80 published stories. See them here:

What makes you feel proud as a Canadian citizen? And if you weren’t Canadian, which other countries would you choose to live in?

This question is hard for me to answer without comparing Canada to the USA. Living as we do, about two hours drive from the border, I have grown up in the shadow of America. I’ve been to the States hundreds of times for work and play. Employed by U.S. companies, I’ll always have a soft-spot for baseball, JFK, Steinbeck-Hemingway-Vonnegut-Harper Lee (and more), and great institutions like the Peace Corps. All flawed, all breath-taking in the scope of their endeavour.

But… beginning with the Vietnam War and Kent State, my opinion has been changing and now—in view of recent events—my esteem has fallen to an historic low. 

Within this context, I feel proud of the Canadian approach to diversity—a patchwork quilt versus a melting pot. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an extraordinary document and it gives me confidence that my two daughters live in a place where their ability to achieve equality, although still far from perfect, is on the march. Canadian spirit, our spectacular physical land from sea-to-sea-to-sea, our place in global leadership are also touchpoints for me. And let me list Miriam Toews-Richler-Kinsella-Mowat (and more) on my all-Canadian bookshelf.

Canada is all ten of my top-ten choices for a place to live. But, having only visited, not resided or been a citizen anywhere else, my opinion is subject to change.  

Do you also write non-fiction stories? Do you have some non-fiction pieces published in literary journals?

I have had a few short CNF essays published and I plan to continue to expand this side of my writing.

+ Read Our German Relative by Mitchell Toews

How much time do you typically spend on writing every day? Do you have a fixed schedule for writing (and reading)?

I write every day, except for times when we are travelling (mostly to visit the grandchildren in BC) or when I have a construction or a fix-it-up-chappy project here at home. Our house is 70-years-old and frequent repairs and upgrades are needed, especially in winter.“Our plumbing defines us,” is something James Joyce never said, but he might have if he had lived in our cottage.

I tend to write most in the morning.

How can a writer improve her/his works? I know we must read, write, and edit. Is this enough? Shouldn’t we enroll in a writing class or join a writing group?

Great questions. There is balance required, so the quick answer: “Yes, to all,” is not necessarily true, in my limited experience. Would I be a better writer if I had first equipped myself with an MFA? Sure, but the way editors and readers have responded to me most often is to say that my rough style, “untarnished by too much constrictive education” is a unique attribute. So, I carry on, “metaphors blazing,” in my own “raconteurial high vernacular,” as editors David Cramer and James Mcknight have, respectively, described it. 

I use my life experience, long and varied with learn-by-doing boot-strapping (aka “blunders” or, Flaubert’s more elegant, “tentation of tribulation”) and I incorporate this personal narrative as a central ingredient in my creative process. From early on, I have been faithfully observant of characters and strange plot twists drawn from real life. This, and my imagination, a little humour, and some snippets of Plautdietsch (Low German) serve me well.

Could I use more study and attention to craft? Yes, no doubt about that. At my stage of the game though, I am borne up by associating with friendly, knowledgeable, skilled, and honest people from whom I learn by osmosis and by their frank critiques. 

I participate in as many writing circles as I can manage. I do prose readings often and I’m aggressive in seeking opportunities. I draw enormous satisfaction from live reading/open mics and find my true, inner self-confidence is most durably built through this uncomfortable but rewarding exercise. (When they are quiet — listening intently… when they laugh out loud… when they all take a big breath and shift in their seats, murmuring as the story ends.)

Finally, can you take a class to learn how to rip yourself open and spill out absolute truth and reckless honesty? If so, sign me up.

We talked about your three top short stories. Let me narrow it down. If we wanted to read an excerpt from one of your works, what part would it be?

In “Fast and Steep”, I bravely go… attempting to put myself in my mom’s size-small shoes. How can I understand her, or any woman? How can I see the parts in me that poured out of her, filling me, and altering the other constituents—much of it “sound and fury”— whether I knew it or not? 

Here’s a passage where the main character, a young woman, newly married and with a toddler, considers her life and the path it may follow:

[…] “I love you, Hart,” she wants to say, just like that. She wants to tell him that and how their little family is everything for her now, even the prairie winter and Funk’s noisy damn tractor. All of this. Now and forever, she’d tell him, but she knows that’s no good, that he’d just stiffen up and crowd her out. Give him time. He’s still just a boy, really. Mom says these years go by the quickest, but I’ve got to let him get used to it at his own pace. Look at Funk. His wife died inside of a year after they were married. Her and the baby both gone and her just seventeen. 

She sucks air in between her teeth and it seems like they might crack from the cold. Looking at Hart, she can feel him through her thick clothing—no need for words. She senses his pleasure in her and in their son. It’s there like a cat purring in her lap. Even if she found herself, a lifetime later, pushing a walker, hair in a grey bun, and with Hart long gone to his man’s grave and beside her no more, at least she would have had this. Petal, leaf, and stem — growing as one. It’s more than most and today is mine forever, she thought. Come what may. Come what may. […]

(I have an urge to edit this passage—filler words and repetitions—but the emotions and the insight are, I’m told, not far off. And I like the prosody of it, something I listen for.)

Are you working on your “serial story” these days? Do you think you might one day write a novel, novelette, or novel-/novella-in-flash?

The serial is circling the airport right now. I was recently awarded a small grant to create an ekphrastic artbook. (Manitoba Arts Council.) My photographer-collaborator, Phil Hossack and I will begin gathering stories about Manitoba people and places soon — once the covid restrictions are released and it’s safe to travel and mingle. 

I also have completed the second full edit of my novel (almost two years on the rough ride of that corduroy highway!) and hope to begin an uninterrupted and comprehensive third edit this fall. 

These two major projects will gobble up all available time, together with the daily run-of-press short story conceiving, writing, editing, submitting, reading, and bleeding that has been a mainstay for me since 2015.

I have a sci-fi novella up there in a holding pattern too. It’s a fun piece but needs attention before it can be cleared for landing. 

What has been the most heartwarming comment that someone has left on one of your pieces?

Maybe not heartwarming so much as a sure signpost that I am on the right track. Literally Stories editor-contributor Leila Allison wrote this in an interview she did with me a while back:

Your stories seem, to me, situation driven. Yet the characters aren’t under-developed paper dolls who just serve the conceit.

Leila Allison – An Interview with Mitchell Toews

This comment crystallized for me the style and voice that I was working towards but had not yet sufficiently defined. 

To backtrack, my stories are the product of a fond part of my life, when storytelling became a tonic for me and an eclectic group of friends. Driving from our little country town to the city of Winnipeg and back to compete in sports was a regular beat for me from my teenage days until a few years ago. These road trips, including our ritualistic re-hydration at the bar afterwards were highlighted by the stories we all heard and told. A “good story” it seemed to me was one that had an interesting and uncommon premise; that had unique and memorable characters; that was brief but delivered the key elements in sufficient detail; and that finished with a clash of cymbals or concluded in a way, “both implausible and inevitable,” to paraphrase Ms. Flannery O’Connor.

Most profound in these midnight revelations were the times when self-truths were revealed and judgment set aside. Windows frosted, sitting in two rows, all facing forward in our still-wet sweats, speaking in ways that were to us a secret totem, a way to shed shared burdens that complicated our lives. 

It was, at its core, a strange church, where inhibitions were reluctantly sacrificed.

In your opinion, who’s currently the most successful Canadian short story writer?

There are a few undeniable pat answers (Alice Munro, chief among them) but let me give you a list of lesser-known, but truly wonderful artists in command of skill and daring-do. I won’t put them here, but you will find a good, hefty pile of them by joining the Facebook group, Mennonite Lit. Writers.”

Besides writing and reading, what other activities are you crazy about?

I try to be physically active. I windsurf or row almost every day the water is not frozen. Janice and I hike, particularly in the fall, and in the winter we are avid cross-country skiers, huffing and puffing on the rolling, curving trails across the road from us, out in the bush

Beyond that, per Winslow Homer, the stunning American water-colourist, I strive to, “travel broadly, experiment boldly, love deeply.”

Are your family members and relatives interested in your stories? Do you find their feedback helpful?

My wife and I maintain a healthy distance as far as my writing goes. I try not to drone on and on, she tries not to roll her eyes. We both need to improve these skills. She has wonderful intuition and talent as a painter and I hope she can build on this and together we’ll create a portmanteau of art.

Many of my cousins and old friends from the little town where I grew up are avid readers and feel like they have an insider’s viewpoint as they lived the situations with me. Increasingly though, my stories are drawn from further afield and in present-day settings, so I am connecting with disparate readers and write for a more anonymous “ideal audience” than I did when I began.

Many readers and fellow authors have helped me with beta reads and critiques. I try to reciprocate and find this a rich and secret part of the writer’s life.  

Everyone feels down and unhappy sometimes. What do you normally do to feel happier when you feel gloomy?

I am an optimistic guy. That is, when I am lucky enough to have a choice, I choose optimism. Sometimes life does not permit this luxury. When I consider the times I have lived in, and the places where I have resided, and the position in society into which I was—no credit to me—born, I have no business being anything but optimistic. 

My children, their spouses and my grandchildren lift me up. Always. My stoical and abiding wife too. My bare-knuckle life filled with Nick Adams-style adventures (with a distinct Mennonite accent and flavour, mind you) is good for some cheer-me-up nostalgia, now and then.

Can you picture Mitchell Toews in 2025? What are some goals that you’d like to achieve in the next five years?

Well, I am inclined towards the answer, “Who knows? Who cares?” believing in my dad’s motto that, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” but… Here’s a few circumstances I would not mind:

The Manitoba artbook in print and selling…ditto for my novel… on my way to publishing a collection of short stories… a Pushcart nomination or three (I have one)… a collaborator to adapt my Mismaloya trilogy to a screenplay… twenty or so stories/flashes/essays published each year, several in markets where the air is thin and the editors have literally read 10,000 stories and end up choosing… one of MINE!

And, if a crafty lit fic agent shone her ever-lovin’ light down on me to help make all of this schiet happen, that would be cool too. 

And to end our talk, would you please share your most favorite quote and/or piece of poem with us? Thank you!

My old friend from North Carolina, via NYC—one of the numerous (!) Americans I hold dear, Cory Hughes, upon hearing that I had sold my soul to prose offered this advice:

Hey, Toews… shut up and write!

Cory Hughes

Our German Relative

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean—in all that great grass sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered. I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.


Not too far from Odessa and the shores of the Black Sea, there was a place called Molotschna Colony— ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch—the language many Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, this Lehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native Plautdietsch. Obah, for the tjinja, of course Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why, even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was conditionally permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the most innocent Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We Mennonites have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour! (Grandma smiled and winked at the adults as she told this last part.)

Now kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What I am saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry—the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

One year, a few days before Christmas Day, Rosa’s mother baked a batch of secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top—and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her bootheels squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked permission, the answer would’ve been no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty, all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

“Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

“Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her footsteps like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

“Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!”

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and kept glancing at the large mantle clock on the shelf behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein—an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna, far from her native home in Germany. Just ask any Oma or Opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie—why, what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to investigate, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year—a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. Without this visitor from faraway and long ago, our Christmas could not be complete.


Our German Relative is written by Mitchell Toews. Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. Visit to learn more about this awesome writer.