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Of words and worlds: New West teacher turns novelist

Elementary school teacher Lena Gibson publishes debut work, The Edge of Life: Love and Survival during the Apocalypse.
New Westminster based author Lena Gibson, at the book launch for her debut novel on Feb. 7, 2023.

In the summer of 2017, Lena Gibson, a teacher at Skwo:wech Elementary in New Westminster, resumed penning a novel that she had begun two decades earlier.

Her return to the story, after a conversation with a longtime friend reignited her passion for writing, triggered a burst of creative energy that has shown no signs of fading. Gibson has spent practically every spare moment since then writing, and she's finished eight books since that summer day in 2017.

Her debut novel, The Edge of Life: Love and Survival during the Apocalypse will be released in April.

A reader before a writer

In a conversation with the Record, the teacher-turned-novelist traces her passion for storytelling back to when she was eight years old, when she was a voracious reader, seeking books and fictional worlds to escape to.

It wasn’t until her teacher gave her a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods that she became completely immersed in the world of books. She said she eventually worked her way through the whole library in her elementary school, picking out books to read alphabetically.

“In Goodreads alone, I have read around 1,200 books in the last 10 years,” she said.

She comes by her love of books naturally, she said, recalling the voracious reading habit of her mother, who was always reading to Gibson and her siblings when they were little.

“It was like magic,” she remembered. “It was like all this that I had never dreamed of. I know I was little, but [reading books] was like a magic password or a key to get somewhere different,” she said.

Word and world building

One summer, Gibson remembers, she ran out of things to read. That's when she started writing — putting on paper things she wanted to read.

When she was 26, she started writing down her thoughts about what form her first book might take. But despite working on it on and off for two decades, she doesn't intend to seek a publisher for it.

“I consider it my practice book," she said. "I learned a lot about writing. I learned how to write a query letter to send to agents. I learned how to make the summary or synopsis to send to them, and I learned how to edit and revise. But it's not nearly as good as the [books] that came later."

Still, “It mattered to me that I finished it.”

Gibson said that over the past five years she has regularly attended the Surrey International Writers Conference to polish her writing chops. Before then, her writing was based almost on instinct, drawing from what she knew as a lifelong lover of stories.

Gibson puts herself in the story as a reader, feeling what the characters in the books feel. “Nice stories can carry you along [with them]” she said. “You're right there with [the characters] and get to see and experience things you wouldn't otherwise.”

The Edge of Life: Love and Survival during the Apocalypse

Her debut novel — her fifth full-length story, she said — is about two acquaintances who race for the safety of a bunker after an asteroid collision.

The book is a sci-fi-romance, said Gibson, who likes to mix multiple genres. As a novelist who was recently diagnosed with autism spectrum, she reflects on her characters being based on elements of her own personality.

Publishing her debut novel, which is set for release on April 6, 2023, hasn't lacked challenges, she said.

“I have about 700 rejection letters from [literary] agents for the last three years,” she said. “So I submitted to a small publisher instead. They snapped up my book right away in three days; they sent me a contract, which was incredible, considering I have three-and-a-half years of querying agents and several hundred records for five books combined.”

Her second book, The Wish, will be released in August 2023.

“I believed in my story," she said. "I loved doing it. And thought, if I love doing this much and I'm proud of what I make, somebody out there will like it too. I just didn't want to give up. It was important to me to keep going."

Gibson hopes to publish two to three of her completed stories in 2024, and she is working on the next book.