Magic 8 Q&A

How Danielle Younge-Ullman overcame the heartbreak and rejection that come with being a writer

The Governor General's Literary Award finalist answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
Danielle Younge-Ullman's YA novel Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature. (danielleyoungeullman.com)

Danielle Younge-Ullman is a playwright, novelist and former actor. Her years spent bringing characters to life on stage and film have given her insight into what really makes people tick. Her latest YA novel Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature. 

Below, the Toronto-based author takes the Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight random questions from eight fellow authors.     

1. Kevin Hardcastle asks, "What would you say to a younger version of yourself, or another emerging writer, who doesn't know what you know now about writing and publishing or how long that road can be?"

Well, I would definitely not tell her how long the road would be or how bumpy and discouraging at times. I would tell her to hold onto the joy of the work itself and to be patient. I would tell her to put less sex in the first book and make the protagonist in her second book more relatable in the early chapters. I would tell her to connect sooner with fellow authors and publishing people in Canada, because it's a wonderful industry full of great people. I would tell her she will have moments of happiness equal or greater to the moments of despair. And I would tell her it will be worth it.

2. Claire Messud asks, "What is your favourite book from childhood, and why?"  

It's not a children's book, but someone who knew me very well gave me a copy of Jane Eyre in Grade 6. It gripped me and sucked me in so deeply — it scared me, moved me, electrified me and finally left me a sobbing mess. I'd read a lot of books by then, but that was the first one that took me on such a massive emotional journey, and it felt like a whole new world had opened up for me.  

3. Lynn Coady asks, "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist outside the world of fiction who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"

I'm going to go with the late Robin Phillips, who was one of our most brilliant theatre directors. Before I started writing I was an actor. In 1998, the summer of Soulpepper's inaugural season, I was part of their Young Company. Robin was directing Don Carlos and The Misanthrope as well as teaching the Young Company. He was incredible — so raw and intense, so terrifyingly bright, and also shocking and  hilarious.

You could see the work just move through him, to the point that he was like a raw nerve. He was wide open and searching and brave and exacting. There was a scene I was working on, and he had me do my entrance over and over, cutting me off before I said even a single word and sending me back off the stage to try again. He was looking for intention, emotion, and some intangible element that's difficult to explain. When I finally entered with it, he rang this bell he had — rang it like crazy to show me that that was it — that I'd found it. (I'm sure every actor who ever worked with him saw that bell in action.)

That is where I learned the feeling of connection, of resonance, of truth, that I now strive for in my writing. I also remember Robin describing what he did while preparing to direct a play — how he would immerse himself in current news, while reading and rereading the play, and also learning as much as he could about the history and time period the play was set in. Being deeply engaged with all of those elements with as many of his senses and thoughts and emotions as possible would lead to him to finding his way into the world of the play, and eventually to his vision for it.

I was struck by this description of process, and profoundly affected by everything he taught us that summer.  I've always wished I'd been brave enough to track him down after I finally got published and tell him I'd found a way to use so much of what he taught us. But it had been 10 years, and I was too shy.

4. Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over  the course of writing a book?If so, how?"

Absolutely. Often I plan for a character to be a villain, but find as I fill in their details and grey areas that they are not such bad guys after all, and then I end up giving them a slightly different storyline. Sometimes it's like, 'Crap, there goes another villain down the drain.' In the big picture, I am always working to get deeper into the skin of my characters, to draw them closer to me.

It's a tricky, spiraling process of asking questions and then listening almost without breathing, for the answers, of leaning in so close, with all feelers out — almost the way I imagine you might try to talk to a ghost. I get some answers, move forward, pause again, feelers out. Sometimes I get nothing, and just forge ahead anyway.

But eventually, this sort of... unconscious channel opens up — sometimes all at once, other times in fits and starts, and then the character is with me, their voice in my head, their words coming out through my fingertips, and everything resonating — ringing like that bell of Robin's.

When and if I can get to that point (there is always an if), the story comes to life. Once you've forged that connection, you can write a scene that you've planned and find that it just flops around in the page like a dying fish because the character has taken over and doesn't agree with what you've planned for them. From then on, it's like playing a game of hot and cold — you follow what they show is you is hot, all the way to the end of the book.

5. Eric McCormack asks, "Honestly, what does your writing tell you — both the good and the bad — about yourself?"

Writing has shown me my preoccupations, secret tendencies, obsessions good and bad. That stuff could fill its own book. Writing has also shown me that I am not a very visual person — I hear and feel more than I see. This means that for me dialogue comes more easily, as does description of deep emotion and emotional states.

I can write pages and pages without putting in a single physical or scenic description, and I always have to go back and layer that in. Writing has also taught me that I have far more self-discipline than my years of formal schooling led me to believe.

6. Jowita Bydlowska asks, "Would you rather win the Scotiabank Giller Prize (if you've won one already, relax) or have your book made into a movie starring Kiefer Sutherland and why?"

Giller, hands down. Mainly because if it was about the money, by now I would be doing something else. And because I am writing novels, not screenplays, so for me the book is always the end goal. (But I would be delighted should Kiefer be willing and am not averse to making money!)

7. Charlotte Gill asks, "Describe your alter ego in personality and appearance."

My alter ego is far more blunt and brilliant and sassy and kick-ass than I am. She can fly, speak a bunch of languages, she does all kinds of martial arts and she takes no crap from anyone.

She still looks like me, but me with a couple more inches of height and evidence of a terrifying personal trainer. She can do all the things — singing, dancing, visual art, incarcerating bad guys and healing people with her mind.
 

8. Cynthia Flood asks, "What did/does your family feel about your being a writer?"

The short (and true) answer is that my family is awesome, and they have always been incredibly supportive. My husband has been my number one fan and supporter since we met, and my two little daughters have never seen me do anything else, so they're fully on board and proud of having a writer for a mother.

The longer (and also true) answer is that my immediate and extended family have been incredibly supportive of all my creative endeavours, but my parents were of course a bit concerned when I told them I was quitting acting to become a writer. I feel like my mom kind of... wilted when I told her. I'm a parent now too, and I get it.

You want your children to lead fulfilling lives, but you also want safety and stability for them. You don't want to see them repeatedly heartbroken, rejected and struggling financially, and the fact is that those things are an almost guaranteed part of being any kind of artist.

Regardless of their worries, they supported me back then, and support me now. My stepdad, in particular, has always understood that I am driven to create, and that I was not attracted to taking the safe route through life. He always seemed to get it, and he has never, not once, wavered in his support. Everyone should have a parental figure like that in their lives.

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