Miss Hurka: The First Writer I Ever Knew

Posted by on Mar 30, 2011 | 14 comments

Is there anyone whose books you loved? Anyone whose diary prompted you to pick up a pen? Anyone in your family, maybe, or someone you knew growing up, who loved books and encouraged you to write?

This was the question posed to me this week by the lovely writer Erin Thomas.  Today on her blog, she’s posting an interview with Marthe Jocelyn about Marthe’s new book Scribbling Women, and as a lead-up, Erin wanted to include a few blurbs from authors she knew about the scribbling women who had inspired us.  Immediately, I thought of Miss Hurka.

Miss Hurka was a boarder who lived in the attic apartment of my grandmother’s house.  She had lived there before I was born and was still living there when I went away to university.  Every few years she’d announce that she wasn’t paying us enough and raise her own rent.  My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid of anyone, was a little afraid of her.

Miss Hurka had been a dietician during WWII and, after that, the private secretary to a famous poet.  Now she was retired and writing a novel.  I would hear her old typewriter late at night as I was going to sleep.

In High School, a girl on my block told me that she and her siblings had thought Miss Hurka was a witch for most of their childhoods.  This was probably because Miss Hurka always wore black and took long walks while scowling.  Writers will suspect what those long, scowling walks were really about.  I do it myself now.  I think she was unraveling novel problems.

As a child, I found Miss Hurka fascinating.  Although my grandmother was always telling me not to bother her, about once a week I would call up the stairs and ask if I could come up for a visit.  Miss Hurka was always more than happy to feed me dry cookies and tell me highly age-inappropriate stories.

And what wonderful stories she told: stories about growing up in Cedar Rapids Iowa, stories about the famous poet and how drunk he could get (very), and stories about the many ghosts that had appeared to her over the years.  (One, which she saw while visiting Czech Republic, had identified himself as “The Knight of the Lemons.”)

But the story she told over and over again, the story which was, I believe, the topic of her novel, was the grand passion she’d had during the war with a married man.  It had all the elements of epic melodrama.  He could never divorce his wife because she was “an invalid.”  The affair lasted many years, during which time they would meet in a hotel in New York City.  But Miss Hurka finally ended it when the married man took Richard Nixon’s side during Watergate.

(I did not make that up.)

As far as I know, Miss Hurka never published her novel, but the portrait in my mind of what it means to be a writer will always be a little coloured by her.

From her I learned that writers should be unconventional, take long walks, have grand passions, and, most importantly, that they should talk to children as if they were equals, because those children’s will grow up to thank them heartily for it.

And now I throw Erin’s question back to you:

Is there anyone whose books you loved? Anyone whose diary prompted you to pick up a pen? Anyone in your family, maybe, or someone you knew growing up, who loved books and encouraged you to write?


  1. love this !

  2. Ooh! Thanks Sheree! And thanks for stopping by!

  3. Great story. Especially the Nixon part…

  4. What a lovely account of an influential woman, Lena. And Miss Hurka probably had no idea she had the impact she did, and would be remembered by the little girl downstairs all these years later. I wonder if she’s still around – physically, I mean. Any idea?

  5. lovely story, lena!

  6. Kathy, unfortunately she died a few years ago, but she did live into her 90’s. I kept up with her with Christmas cards and she would often send me articles she thought I’d like about children’s publishing. I’ll miss her.

  7. Thanks Marthe!

  8. My inspirations were, curiously enough, two English teachers. One in elementary school who scrawled complimentary remarks over my “compositions,” a man I later met in a bar in Toronto when it occurred to me for the first time that he was rather a dissolute, possibly gay man who had found refuge in a boys’ private school where I met him. The other was my only high school English teacher in another private boys’ school, name of Alfred Beaufort Belcher, nicknamed “Duke”. He was a kind of Shakespearian character, quietly theatrical, who loved to read to us and got flustered when the ministry inspector showed up to check whether the school was really doing what it should in the way of education. We all felt great loyalty to him and so faked socratic dialogue with him to help out. But he introduced us to all kinds of great writing, and encouraged my writing at a time when I was wasn’t much good at anything else — to the extent that, when pressed by the school to predict my career, I said: “writer” — which morphed into “journalist.” When I later became a teacher, I spent six months as a substitute teacher working with Duke, subbing for him when he had a heart attack, and found him just as stimulating and generous.

  9. Lena, the fact that the connection with Miss Hurka went on through the years… hmm, maybe the relationship will turn up in something bigger than a blog post someday? (when you finish with all your other brilliant ideas, of course).

  10. What a great story! I didn’t know any writers as a child, and I’m not one to send fan mail. But when I read Wintergirls last year, I wrote to Laurie Halse Anderson and told her how wonderful that book was. I reread it a few weeks ago and it was equally terrific the second time around.

  11. Maybe, Kathy. I’ll think about that. I’ve always wanted to write something a bit autobiographical, but at this point it’s way down on my list.
    Peter! I think I remember you telling me about Duke. Is he the one who, when an inspection was imminent, said to the kids, “If you know the answer, raise your right hand. If you don’t know the answer, raise your left hand.”? I always thought that was brilliant.
    Hi Beth. I was just drooling over the Costa Rica pictures on your blog. I’ve got Wintergirls on my shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I will definitely be getting to that one because I loved Speak.

  12. Oops! You got caught in my spam filter for a while there, Art. A belated thanks for dropping by!!

  13. That sounds like my great-aunt Eleanor. Every last bit of it.

  14. She was a wonderful woman, Kevin. I miss her, as I’m sure you do, too. Thank you for commenting.

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