Books·How I Wrote It

How Iain Lawrence grew his scary middle-grade novel The Skeleton Tree

The YA author talks about how he wrote The Skeleton Tree, one of the finalists for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
Iain Lawrence's The Skeleton Tree tells the story of two improbable friends and their quest to survive the Alaskan wilderness. (TD Canadian Children's Literature Award)

Iain Lawrence is a bestselling author of books for children of all ages. The B.C.-based writer won the 2007 Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature for the novel Gemini Summer and his latest book, The Skeleton Tree, was a finalist for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.

The Skeleton Tree is a survival tale that tracks two boys who need to quickly learn how to survive in the wilderness when their boat sinks off the coast of Alaska.

In his own words, Lawrence shares how he wrote The Skeleton Tree.

Adventurous inspiration

"I've spent a lot of time on the north coast of British Columbia, the part that's now the Great Bear Rainforest. I would spend two or three months a year in very remote places in this region, which would become the setting for this book.

"The story appeals to me because it's just like the stories my father read to me when I was a child. Stories like Treasure Island, tales that had a sense of adventure and danger in them. The original idea for the story was simply about survival on the water — a boy, a lifeboat and how he tries to survive. The story changed, over several revisions, to become The Skeleton Tree."

Scare tactics

"I think I enjoyed being scared by stories as a child. I wanted today's young readers to have that same feeling. I think the bar has been raised on fear. The Wizard of Oz terrified me as a child and it probably has no impact on children today.

"The biggest challenge in writing The Skeleton Tree was thinking that there wasn't enough material for a whole novel. But that is a typical fear for me —  that a story won't properly develop. But it always seems to in the end. I think I go as far as I can in terms of darker themes and imagery. And it's a story for children and for adults. The things that scare adults can scare children as well." 

A lengthy creative process

"I started it just after my mother died and it was hard to write. It probably took over two-and-a-half years to write and went through three completely different drafts. It was probably the longest it has taken me to write a book.

"I'm at the computer every morning. I consider writing my job. I listen to classical music while I'm writing and CBC Radio while editing. I see what I write, but it's also auditory for me — as I write I'm saying the words aloud. By the end of the session I have a sore throat."

Iain Lawrence's comments have been edited and condensed.