Brian Francis faced his fears to write YA — and got nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award

The author of Natural Order and Fruit almost gave up writing his first YA novel, Break in Case of Emergency.
Break in Case of Emergency is a YA novel by Brian Francis. (HarperCollins, Samuel Engelking)

Brian Francis almost gave up writing Break in Case of Emergency, his first novel for young adults. It originally started as the story of Arthur, a female impersonator reckoning with his mistakes. But it morphed into following Arthur's teenage daughter, Toby, coping with the mess her father left behind.

Break in Case of Emergency is a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for young people — text. The winners will be announced on Oct. 29, 2019.

Francis talked to CBC Books about writing Break in Case of Emergency.

A difficult beginning

"It was around 2009 and I was watching a television interview with a female impersonator who was in the last stages of his life. He was talking about the mess that he had made. That was the starting point, in a lot of ways, for the book. I started to sink my teeth into this character and how he would reconcile with his life, some of the decisions that he had made, and also what life would look like as a female impersonator. I spent the first couple of years writing that story and it wasn't coming together. There was no spark.

"The narrative moved to one between the father, Arthur, and his daughter, Toby. It wasn't coming together until I settled on Toby as the main protagonist of the story." 

Finding characters that you need to write

"It's usually the things that I'm most scared of writing that yield the best results. Writing about the female impersonator wasn't much of a stretch for me creatively. Maybe that's why the writing wasn't quite there. The idea of writing a 15-year-old girl with a parent who has died by suicide, an absentee father and mental health issues of her own scared me.

Sometimes it's the characters that you're most afraid to write that are the ones that end up being the characters you need to write.- Brian Francis

"Sometimes it's the characters that you're most afraid to write that are the ones that end up being the characters you need to write. There's a reason they scare you. A lot of that fear comes from my own insecurity as a writer, that I'm not going to be able to accurately and authentically capture this character.

"Any creative endeavour or anything that we do in life that makes us nervous, makes us sweat a little bit, gives us the butterflies in our stomach, is usually a good sign. If everyone's moving within their safe circles, nothing remarkable ever happens as a result of that."

Brian Francis talks to Shelagh Rogers about his new YA novel, Break in Case of Emergency.

Mental health and teenagers

"I wanted to do a bit of research into teen mental health issues. I was very aware of the audience and knew that there could be readers as young as 13 reading the book. I wanted to be thoughtful about the way that I presented the character. Research is a tricky thing. You want to do enough research that you're building your characters from an informed place. But you also don't want to create a case study where you're so heavily entrenched in your research that your characters have no space of their own to breathe and grow.

You have to be willing to open that door and step through it, which is a very vulnerable spot for many people to be in. I wanted the book be a little light for that someone.- Brian Francis

"I remember being a teenager. Your world is so locked down and private. There's no way that anybody could penetrate that. To open up your world to somebody else or to talk about your vulnerability is sometimes perceived as a sign of weakness. There are so many young people who are afraid of judgment or how they're going to be thought about or comments that they'll get from their peers that they don't reach out. It creates an increased feeling of isolation and loneliness. Things can appear fine on the outside but on the inside it's a different story. 

"I'm hoping that a reader who might be feeling isolated and alone will be able to relate to this cast of characters and understand that there are other opportunities. The book talks about opening a door. I hope readers might walk away with a sense that that this book was an open door and that there are doors that will open to all kinds of different avenues. You have to be willing to open that door and step through it, which is a very vulnerable spot for many people to be in. I wanted the book be a little light for that someone."

The dairy farm

"I wanted to make Toby isolated in terms of where she was living. I know youth sometimes feel an emotional isolation, but it's also a physical isolation. She's on a rural farm for that reason. I thought a dairy farm might be an interesting world to explore. Cows on dairy farms are kept in perpetual states of pregnancy because that's how they produce milk. This idea of being in this very female-centric environment appealed to me. It's there symbolically for whatever readers want to take away from it, but I'm not trying to drive any specific point home. It's more the atmosphere that the story takes place in.

"I went to a dairy farm for the day and I realized I will probably never be a dairy farmer. I don't have what it takes, but it was very interesting. I stayed for the day and I got a sense of how the dairy farm works and the milking routines and the equipment that they use. I did not milk any cows. I don't think the cows trusted me."

Finding flexibility

"I was in the habit at one time — this is stupid — I had a banana nut scented candle and I was convinced that it helped me tap into my creative juices. The bottom line is, I just liked the smell of it. I put a lot of magic in that banana nut candle.

"What I've learned, as I've gotten older, is that I need to de-ritualize myself as much as possible. I have become much more flexible with my writing. I needed to take away that sense of routine and be able to tap into my creativity in a coffee shop or in a park bench for 30 minutes or in the middle of a busy mall. It's not always easy, but I've been trying to break myself free of feeling like I have to follow a certain routine."

Brian Francis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.  You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.