Illustrator Kate Beaton is perhaps best known for her humorous work, with comic series including Hark! A Vagrant and The Princess and the Pony. But her new book, Ducks, is a compelling shift away from her usual genres—it’s a memoir of her time working in “an oil-industry man camp” to pay off her college loans. Beaton was one of only a few women toiling for two years in the Alberta Oil Sands and her stories are so moving and shocking, Ducks is hard to stop thinking about once you’ve spent a little time with it.

I’m not the only one who finds the book praiseworthy. Fun Home author Alison Bechdel called Ducks “Devastating,” adding that “Beaton captures the humanity of people doing a kind of ‘dirty work’ in which we are all complicit, and it shimmers with grace.” “A masterpiece,” said Publishers Weekly. “Unforgettable,” said Kirkus.

We reached out to Beaton for an email interview about her book, the catharsis of writing about an extremely difficult time, how her home has changed, and what she’d like to try next.

Since Ducks came out, have you received feedback from any of the people referenced in the book?

Oh yes. Almost everyone I could message who was in the book, I messaged about it before it came out, so they knew it was coming. It’s not a surprise you want to come afterward, I think. So the feedback I’ve gotten has been very good—affirming. I’ve had anything from short texts to long conversations talking about it. I have also had messages from people I used to work with, excited to read the book and then silence after that, which is the closest thing to negative feedback. Fair enough! 

Have you heard from other women who are currently working in the oil fields?

I don’t think I’ve heard from anyone currently working there actually, only women who used to, or who grew up in Fort McMurray. As in people who are writing to me that I don’t know. But I also know people, from my village and my area, who still work out there. My own relatives. 

Do you know if life on the oil fields has changed since your time there?

It has changed but I could not tell you in what day-to-day details that matter the ways that it has, because I have not been back myself. I’ve talked to my cousins who still work there, and they say it has.

Did writing the book change how you think of your time there?

I believe it did. It was cathartic, a release, there was a necessary before and after to making it. So it definitely changed the way I thought, probably in ways I never even noticed it doing.

As a parent, what advice would you give young people considering an oil industry job after college? Or thinking about leaving Cape Breton, where you grew up?

Well, those jobs are all different. Some people come in with a trade. I don’t know what it is like coming in with that, that is coming in on a career track and making more money than I ever did there. I don’t know about it and I don’t know what the alternatives you are looking at there when you are starting out.

But for me, coming in with no trade and making far less than anyone, and being so naive, I believed people when they told me I had no power. No one told me that specifically, but you know what I mean. When they talked down to me or made me feel small, I believed them. But you always have power, you always have a voice, you can stand up for yourself. And you should. 

As for leaving Cape Breton, when I was young, the message was that we had to. It isn’t the message anymore. The internet has changed everything—you can work from here doing anything if you can open a computer. That is why I can live here. People are moving home, people my age with families in tow, it’s exciting, and I hope it shows that message that we never got—you don’t have to leave.

How do you describe Cape Breton today versus how you thought of it when you first left?

I guess I just did. It’s also more diverse because more new people are coming though, that is true. That’s a nice thing.

You’ve published a lot of comedic work, historical work, and now a very personal work—is there a topic or genre that you’d like to explore next?

Yes! I’d like to try fiction. I wonder if I am any good at it. Knock on wood.

Kate Beaton will be in conversation with Claire Dederer at Town Hall Thurs Nov 3 at 7:30 pm.