Kit Pearson on conjuring up brave children, and that time she tried writing for grown-ups
Kit Pearson is among Canada's most revered children's writers, celebrated by generations of young readers for her insightful historical novels and fantasy tales. Her latest book, A Day of Signs and Wonders, is inspired by the childhood of artist Emily Carr and is a finalist for the $30,000 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
Below, Kit Pearson answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Dan Vyleta asks, "How many unwritten novels and stories are living in your notebook right now? And how many unpublished manuscripts are living in your drawer?"
I have dozens of ideas and beginnings of novels and stories in my notebook and file drawer, but almost all are incomplete. Many of these beginnings seem to coagulate later into one novel. I do have one unfinished manuscript, a truly awful novel for adults I wrote as a kind of therapy years ago. I only keep it in case I can one day use bits of it.
2. Shane Peacock asks, "Can a writer say anything in his or her work, or are their limits?"
Because I write for young readers, I won't depict graphic sex or violence — that doesn't mean I won't touch on sexual longing or disturbing issues such as the Holocaust. I write mostly historical novels, but I won't include racist or homophobic terms that may have been acceptable then but aren't now — because my readers don't have the maturity to interpret them. And, however bleak a character's life is, I refuse to leave either her or the reader in despair. Children's books don't have to be saccharine, but most of them have hopeful endings.
3. Mariko Tamaki asks, "How much of your writing process involves actual physical writing these days? Do you go write to the computer or do you work things out with pen and ink first?"
Until I developed carpal tunnel syndrome, I preferred to write my first drafts in pen and ink. Now I do all my writing except for my notes on the computer, using an ergonomic keyboard where the keys are in two hollows, like nests.
4. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What role do religion and spirituality play in your writing?"
My books are mostly set in the past, so attending church is often part of my characters' lives. Sometimes it is simply a routine part of their week, sometimes they are stirred by the words of certain hymns and sometimes the building is a place of refuge. In A Day of Signs of Wonders, religion plays a major part. One of the themes of the novel is death and the two girls' different interpretations of it. Both Emily and Kitty struggle with, and are confused by, the Victorian attitudes towards death that they are expected to assume. As for spirituality, my characters, in the good old L.M. Montgomery tradition of young girls responding fervently to nature, are often healed and uplifted by the beauty around them. Above all I try to provide them with enough love and courage to work through their dilemmas.
5. Katherine Govier asks, "What do you think and feel when the first finished copy of your book is placed in your hands? Are you critical, or enraptured?"
I'm a real mixture of feelings: embarrassed that someone else is going to read something that has been so private, fearful that the fragile structure that I've worked over for so long is now being flung into a critical world, relieved that it's finished, proud that I achieved it and absolutely thrilled that my words have been turned into a real book.
6. Caroline Pignat asks, "What's the best writing prompt you've ever used?"
I had to look up what this meant! I don't think I use them. My mind continually buzzes with ideas and I have no trouble starting a piece of writing; it's turning it into something cohesive that is difficult. But I'm so stubborn that by the time I get stuck I just keep going doggedly ahead, sometimes greatly to the detriment of the story.
7. Robert Currie asks, "What writers do you read, not only because you admire their writing, but because you think you can learn from them?"
I rarely read other writers intentionally to learn from them, but I learn something from every book I read. However, at the moment, I am struggling with using the first person, so I've been reading some of my favourite first-person novels to see how they do it. A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith are two I particularly admire.
8. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Who helped you most in becoming a writer? How?"
I've wanted to write since I was 12, but procrastinated for about 20 years! Finally I took two writing courses while I was attending the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature. One was a term long, taught by Nancy Bond. The other was a week long, taught by Jane Langton. Both teachers were immensely encouraging and inspiring. Best of all, they each took entirely different approaches to writing for young people, which made me realize I had to find my own voice and my own way.