Books·How I Wrote It

Mariko Tamaki: How I wrote This One Summer

The author shares the story behind her award-winning graphic novel.
Mariko Tamaki is the author of the graphic novel This One Summer. (Mariko Tamaki/Groundwood Books)

Mariko Tamaki's graphic novel This One Summer is her second co-creation with her cousin, illustrator Jillian Tamaki. The book racked up a shelfload of honours, including two Governor General's Literary Awards nominations (Jillian won for children's illustration), best YA title in the CBC Bookies, and the 2015 Eisner Award for best new graphic album.

In her own words, Mariko lays bare her diverse influences for this tender and beautiful coming-of-age tale set in Ontario's cottage country. 

From Atwood to the Borg

"There is this element of writing that feels very studious and calculated. I admire works by other writers — for example, I was reading Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood — and it just seems like the composition is so incredible and thought out. Everything that happens feels perfect. It seems architectural, almost. The only way to make this seems like it would have to be so composed and so controlled. 

"But actually, there is a part of writing that is very slapdash. For me, there is a part of writing that is sort of thinking through what each decision means, and what each word means, and there's a part of it where it just pops into your head and you throw it down on the page. It's like two-in-the-morning moments where you're watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and you're like, 'Huh, that makes me think of this. I'm just going to write that down and throw that in there.' So there is this serendipitous nature to it that is married with this 'sweat it out, look at a comma, look at a word and decide if that's the best word' type of situation. It really is both of those things." 

Field trip!

"The best part of This One Summer was that it involved research. I was writing this book based on my own experience and my own understanding of northern Ontario cottage country, but Jillian's from Calgary, and she'd never been. So it was actually really fun to just go and do this anthropological research of cottage country. We went to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, which is in the book. It's funny because you think, 'This would be really funny if it was in a book,' and then as a writer you get a chance to do something like that. So now there's a part of this graphic novel about Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, which is this theme park place that I went to a zillion times as a kid because it was the only somewhat educational thing to do around my cottage, so my parents were always making us go. We watched these teenagers in traditional Huron garb walking around and talking to kids about how soap was made." 

Closer to the heart

"I have a really complicated, detailed playlist that I use for writing. I feel that it just hits those heartstrings really easily for me. And it's hard sometimes when you're revising to go back and dip in and out of an emotional state, so I use music a lot to cheer me up. For This One Summer, I tried to use a lot of the music from my youth, in terms of remembering the summer times from my youth. I used the Beach Boys' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and also, even though it wasn't music I listened to as a kid, I feel like Rush is a really great summer soundtrack, so I used them a lot, and actually they ended up in the book."

Mariko Tamaki's comments have been edited and condensed.

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