Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes. No. Sort of. I’ve wanted to be all sorts of things. At nine years old I was already writing long, complicated stories about twins but I wanted to be a spelunker. I loved the sound of the word – spelunk. I spent hours imagining how wonderful it would be to have someone ask me what my job was and to have that word tumble out of my mouth like a pebble rolling down a rock face. I even announced spelunking as my career choice to my grade five class during a what-I’m-going-to-be-when-I-grow-up presentation. I thought I was so cool and that everyone would ooo and ahhh with admiration. Instead they sniggered and rolled their eyes. That embarrassing memory has become a chapter in a novel-in-progress.
The first time I admitted that I wanted to be a writer was in Grade 13. I was sitting in Mrs. Korshak’s English class whispering with Mark McGaw about what the future held. He sketched a picture of the house he was going to build once he became an architect. In return, I told him my dream – that I wanted to be a writer, but since writing novels would never pay the rent, I would study engineering and write in my spare time.
Do you have a special place where you write?
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
That is my favorite first line of a novel. It’s from Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle. It’s also how – and where – I write. Not sitting in the kitchen sink exactly, but finding that one spot that feels right and like Cassandra in the novel, if that spot was the kitchen sink, that is where I’d be.
My computer has a home. Each night it goes to bed in a stand on my quilting table in a room on the third floor of the house. It’s too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer but it’s a great spot to work on days when I need to organize research. I can spread my notes and books all around me. Sometimes, especially when I’m editing, I can’t seem to work at a desk. I need to find a cubbyhole – a giant pillow pile on the floor, or sitting in bed with my MacBook on my lap.
But the best place for me to write is on airplanes. While I was working hard to meet my deadline for The Realm I wished more than once that I could have an eight-hour flight each day until it was done.
Did you take classes to learn how to write?
I never planned to study creative writing. It was a series of fortunate events. The Calgary Herald advertised a short story contest and I decided to enter. I wrote a story called Santini’s Shovel. It was about an Italian gravedigger working in the Jewish cemetery in Calgary. The story won second place.
That win opened doors. The most important door led to Aritha van Herk’s house. She was the president of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta at the time and was hosting a WGA event at her house. I decided to go. I was so nervous. These people were real writers.
Aritha was incredible. She went out of her way to talk to me. She encouraged me to apply for undergraduate credit courses in Creative Writing at University of Calgary. Aritha explained that I would have to submit a portfolio, which would be reviewed by the professor and, if I was selected, I would be invited to enroll in evening classes.
That’s where it all started. Years later I enrolled in a Masters of Creative Writing at University of British Columbia. In May 2012 I got my mortar board and my Masters diploma.
What was your favorite subject in school when you were growing up?
The first subject I can remember liking was English. It was Grade Five at WH Morden. My teacher was Irene Wedeles. She had carrot red hair, a snowdrift of dandruff on her shoulders, a thick Eastern European accent, she spit when she talked and I loved her. We were only nine years old yet she had us reading and acting out Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was awesome!
In high school, English lost its magic. I had one great teacher, Mr. Keay, but for the other four high school years, English classes were dry as dust. Analysing literature may be an important skill, but the way it was presented, almost ruined reading for me. We were never allowed to enjoy, celebrate, or fall in love with the books we read. We never got to hug their warm bodies – we only ever dissected their cold corpses. I quickly began to prefer any subject that could be measured: Math. Science. Even French.
Do you have book recommendations? What is your favorite book?
I have so many book recommendations that it’s hard to know where to begin. I confess to having a rather nasty obsessive-reading habit. It’s bad. Really bad. When I find a book I enjoy I search out all of that writer’s books until I have read everything they’ve written. I think that when I finally switched to eBooks in October 2011 I may have single-handedly saved a forest.
But, if you’re looking for a good place to begin and you haven’t read the old Boy’s Adventure Novels, they would be a great place to start. There are so many exciting books in that genre. I’ve read them all more than once. Here are a few of my favorites. In The Realm, these books were Alex’s favorites too.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
- The Prince and the Pauper
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- The Three Musketeers
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- Treasure Island
- A Journey to the Center of the Earth
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
- Around the World in Eighty Days
- The Mysterious Island
- Peter Pan
- Sherlock Holmes
Who is your favorite author?
I don’t have just one. I have dozens of favorites from Shakespeare to Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling to DOdie Smith. Lately, I’ve made some lovely YA discoveries.
I adore how Cassandra Clare can draw me into a world so entirely that I leave my Editor’s Hat on the shelf and just fall inside her pages. I met her in New York after she spoke at the SCBWI conference (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Hers was one of the most instructive talks there.
I think Maggie Stiefvater may be one of the finest writers out there. In any genre. She can turn a phrase in a way that takes something ordinary and brings it to life in an almost magical way.
How did you come up with the idea for The Realm?
The first year of my Masters in Creative Writing, I attended the Summer Residency Program at UBC Vancouver. The instructor was Glen Huser, winner of the Governor Generals Award for Children’s Literature. I’m name dropping. I know. But it was amazing to meet him and to have him as an instructor!
During the course Glen gave us writing prompts. Our assignment was to “Write a character and a setting of some extraordinariness.” I wrote about a young girl named Alice who discovers an unusual entrance into a most unusual place. Once inside, she meets Snorri.
The scene I wrote for Glen’s class wasn’t very good, but I couldn’t let go of the idea. Overnight I switched from literature to Children’s Fiction and began building The Realm. If you’d like to read that first writing prompt you can by selecting The Realm – The Inside Story – How it All Began.
What kind of research did you do to write The Realm?
I read, and I read, and then I read some more. I knew that my protagonist was enamoured with the old classic adventure novels. I’d read them all as a girl but I needed to reread them. From all those wonderful books I had to select the one book that my trio of heroes would use for The Game. Eventually I chose Tom Sawyer, but not before I wrote dozens of scenes using other books.
When I finally finished writing The Realm I packed away all the novels I’d read and re-read. Here is a picture of just some of my research.
I also visited the setting of my novel. I flew to Ontario, then I drove to the Muskokas and to Haliburton, looking for the perfect town – the town that could become The Sound. I needed to know exactly what the main street of The Sound looked like. Equally important, I needed to find a setting for The Sound’s library. If my young heroes were going to break into a building in the middle of the night, I needed to know what they would be facing. I took lots of photographs on that trip and from that research I constructed the library. For those pictures and more, you can click on The Realm – Research.
Do you listen to music when you’re writing? What do you listen to?
At home, I don’t listen to any music when I write. Mostly because when music is playing I find it hard not to get up and dance. But, when I’m working on airplanes (remember, I like to write when I’m flying) I put on my noise cancelling headphones and play Glenn Gould in the background.
Do you only write for Tween audiences?
Until now everything I’ve written and published, has been for adult readers. The Realm was my Masters thesis and though it’s not published (nor will it be without a huge rewrite) it set me on my course of writing for MG and YA audiences.
I have a YA thriller titled By Any Other Name that it currently out on submission. The novel opens in steamy Rio de Janeiro and ends up in a snowstorm in Canadian boarding school. But what all my attention right now is younger YA novel with dual protagonists that’s set in 1980. I describe the novel as Hoot meets the Parent Trap.
What other books have you written? What are you working on?
Do you have any pets? Do you have any children?
I have one old cat, two gorgeous children and an exceptionally patient husband.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I used to travel a lot. I don’t think a month went by when I wasn’t heading off somewhere. Check out My Travel page. If you click on any of the underlined links below the map you can see photographs from that location. One of my fave trips was during the summer of 2012. My daughter Katherine (aka Puffin) and I went to Iceland. We went on a four day hike, did some whale watching and puffin spotting on the north of the island, saw to geysers, glaciers and waterfalls, visited volcanoes and crossed the continental divide. It was AMAZING!
I also love to workout at the gym, cycle, play golf, and sail.