Mark Abley was born in England in 1955. When he was a small child his family moved to Canada, and he grew up in northern Ontario, southern Alberta and central Saskatchewan. He studied literature at the University of Saskatchewan and, after winning a Rhodes Scholarship, at St. John’s College, Oxford. As a young man Mark travelled in more than twenty countries in Europe and Asia. Aspiring to be a poet, he began work as a freelance writer.
In 1983 Mark and his wife Annie moved to Montreal. His first book, Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies, appeared in 1986. A year later he embarked on the adventure of parenthood and also joined the staff of the Montreal Gazette. He spent sixteen years there, working as a feature writer, book-review editor and literary columnist. His reviews and articles won him the National Newspaper Award for critical writing, and, following a trip to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland, he was nominated for an NNA in international reporting. Along the way he also wrote three books of poetry and the text of a children’s picture book, Ghost Cat. He returned to freelance writing in 2003, though he continued to write a regular column on language for the Gazette. For many years it appeared every second Saturday under the headline “Watchwords.”
His book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages appeared in 2003. It has been translated into French, Spanish, Japanese and Latvian, and earned praise from reviewers in many countries. But the responses that most delighted Mark came from readers who said that the book inspired them to keep fighting for their own language and culture. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005, Mark turned to the amazing changes in the spoken and written English of our time: from hip-hop to Singlish, text-messaging to Spanglish. The result is his 2008 book The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches From the Future of English.
His book Camp Fossil Eyes: Digging for the Origins of Words appeared in the summer of 2009 from Annick Press. It aims to make etymology — the history of words — accessible and intriguing to children between about 9 and 13. (Much to his own surprise, it was recently translated into Korean.) After this book appeared, he accepted an offer from McGill-Queen’s University Press to work there part-time as an acquisition editor. In 2010-11 he also served as the first-ever writer-in-residence at the Pointe Claire Public Library.
Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott appeared from Douglas & McIntyre in the fall of 2013. It received high praise from critics and readers for its balanced yet tough-minded approach to the career of one of Canada’s earliest significant poets — a man who also forged and managed the destructive policies of the Department of Indian Affairs.
In 2015 Coteau Books published Mark’s The Tongues of Earth: New and Selected Poems. Following the publication of that book, Mark returned to writing about language — and to a long-neglected, very personal book about his father.
Despite his dislike of winter he continues to live in suburban Montreal, a few minutes’ walk from the banks of the St. Lawrence River. He is the father of two wonderful young adults and is co-owned by three cats.