How watching movies helps Esta Spalding be a better writer

Esta Spalding returns to the brightly-lit world of the Fitzgerald-Trout kids in her latest book, Knock About with the Fitzgerald-Trouts. The middle-grade novel, which is illustrated by Sydney Smith, tells the story of the enigmatic siblings who encounter carnivorous plants and heinous adults in their search for a permanent home.

We asked Spalding to take the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answer eight randomly selected questions from eight fellow writers.

spalding-M8.png(Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada)

1. Susan Juby asks, "What was the most memorable, good or bad, reader comment you ever received? How did you respond?"

Every day, when I was working on my first children's book - Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts and the sequel Knock About with The Fitzgerald-Trouts - I read what I'd written to my 10-year-old daughter. She was very opinionated about what was working and what wasn't working in the story. I remember her being adamant that my villains be truly terrible and I remember her being brutally honest when my jokes weren't funny. But her best advice was that my readers weren't going to have fun if the characters in the book didn't have fun. So even when circumstances are bad for the siblings, I gave them an indomitable spirit of adventure.

2. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

I've been happily pillaging my free-range, 1970s childhood for the Fitzgerald-Trout books. The stories in both novels come straight out of my experiences growing up on in Hawaii: the feeling of mud squishing between my toes while I hiked barefoot besides a mountain stream to pick guavas; the days I spent in the ocean, diving underwater and trying to hold my breath for as long as I could; the school I went to where birds flew around the classrooms; or the old shack I found in the woods near the wreckage of a twin-engine plane. There's been great pleasure remembering (i.e. putting together again) these moments.

3. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Do you think the portrayal of certain character types are beyond you? Can you name a character in a novel, whose personality/point of view/character traits etc. you know you could never write?"

I have real trouble writing destructive, disturbing, vile characters. I want to love everyone I write. Or maybe it's more complicated than that. Maybe I end up loving them because I've taken their point of view and in doing so I've come to understand their wounds and their need to wound.

4. Russell Smith asks, "Have you ever stolen someone else's idea?"

No, but I do believe in a collective unconscious. I've definitely had the experience of telling a writer about something that I'm working on and discovering they're working on something eerily and inexplicably similar.

5. Tracey Lindberg asks, "Who, from literary Canada, is your dream Trivial Pursuit partner?"

Malcolm Gladwell, please. He's full of esoteric knowledge and surprising facts.

6. Richard Van Camp asks, "What's the story you'll never write about that haunts you? It could be delicious. Yes, that's the one we want to know. What is your delicious that you'll never write about? What. Is. It?"

The six months or a year - I'm not sure how long it was - that my sister and I shared a bedroom with two new "step-sisters" named Circe and Pandora. They lived with us and then - when their father moved out - they left. I've often wondered where they are and what they became. I've tried to recall details of our time together, but I will never write about it. (Unless I just did.)

7. Adam Haslett asks, "From which other art or discipline have you drawn the most aesthetic inspiration?"

Film. Absolutely film. I work to conjure images in my reader's mind the way that a film conjures images on a screen. And I love the grammar of film: particularly the "cut." In film, you leap from the last moment of one scene straight into the first moment of another and those leaps tell the story as much as anything else. I find myself using the logic of the "cut" to drive story when I'm writing fiction.

8. Scaachi Koul asks, "What question do you hate being asked about your career or writing? Why?"

Honestly there is absolutely no question I hate being asked. I feel incredibly lucky whenever anyone is interested in my writing.

Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg

Get book recommendations, stay up-to-date on CanLit news, discover the best author interviews on CBC and more with the CBC Books newsletter.