Books·Magic 8 Q&A

The one writing rule YA novelist Alice Kuipers never breaks? Read 50 pages a day

The author of Me (and) Me answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Alice Kuipers is the author of the young adult novel Me (and) Me. (alicekuipers.com)

The question "What if?" is a constant in Alice Kuipers' latest YA novel, Me (and) Me. When a character's life is cleaved in two by a devastating decision, the consequences of both choices are explored. 

Below, we asked Alice Kuipers, who also wrote 40 Things I Want to Tell You, to answer eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Timothy Taylor asks, "Writers often use their own life as a springboard for fiction. Could you relate a real incident in your life and then tell us how it got changed into fiction?"

I tend to invent when I write. Fiction makes me understand my real world better. When I make up characters, I do research and try to make them feel as real as possible. But one of my characters, Sophie in my second novel, suffers from panic disorder. I suffered from that for years and the incidents in that book, the moments when she's shaking and unable to breathe, these are all based on my real experiences.

2. Louise Penny asks, "What themes re-occur in your books that you need to explore?"

Every single one of my main characters is a writer of some description. In my first novel, Life on the Refrigerator Door, Claire writes poetry, which Sophie begins to do in The Worst Thing She Ever Did. In my picture books, Violet is keen to write the "best ever book in the whole entire world." In my chapter book series, Polly writes in a book which makes her words come true. In my latest novel, Me (and) Me, Lark is a songwriter. If you look at my website, you'll see how passionate I am about writing — it's the thing that fuels me, drives me, calms me, helps me understand my world. On my site, I try to share insights about writing so that other people can find their own ways to tell the stories they want to tell. For me, stories keep us rooted. My characters all need to find their voices and, I guess, each of my books is about me finding my own voice.

3. Elisabeth de Mariaffi asks, "Are you a dreamer? Do you remember your dreams — and if so, are they notions or vivid with detail? Do you have a recurring dream?"

I have vivid dreams, yes. I remember them so clearly sometimes that it takes me a moment to realize they didn't actually happen. Two of my recurring dreams are both frightening. In one, there is massive flooding. And now, as a mother, in the flooding dream, always my children are lost. My other recurring dream involves flying. I take larger and higher steps through the air. The sensation isn't as terrifying as the flooding dream, but it is fear-inducing. Gradually, I get into it and stop being scared. Every time I have this dream, I wake saying to myself, "I knew I could fly!"

4. Michael Christie asks, "What is the book you're most embarrassed to admit that you love?"

When I was a kid, I read every single one of the Sweet Valley High novels. I don't know if I'm embarrassed, so to speak — I'm not the sort of reader who discriminates, really. I read everything from Proust to True Confessions to shampoo bottles. I suspect some books have higher intrinsic value, but I judge a novel or story by the effect it has on my emotional self. That's probably why I write books that are deeply sentimental, possibly too sentimental, but that is what is important to me as a reader. (Does this excuse my delight when my grandmother slips me Mills & Boon novels? I'm not sure about the emotional effect there!)

Saying that, I do wish I'd been a cooler teenager who'd read cooler books — fortunately I can make my teenager characters far cooler than I ever was.

5. Cea Sunrise Person asks, "Have you ever scrapped an entire manuscript, and why?"

I have scrapped so many manuscripts. Far more manuscripts than I have published. In the "scrapped but loved and completed" pile I have two middle-grade novels, two chapter books, three adult novellas and two book length collections of adult short stories and several picture books. Alongside that are all of my unfinished books — and there are many, many, many of those. The reason I scrap them is that I lose interest. I don't want to work on those books anymore so I put them to one side. I'm lucky that I have lots of ideas and lots of projects that interest me, so leaving one for a while just makes me feel relieved. I will obsess about a book until I don't — and when I am no longer interested in a project, I can't expect a reader to be interested either. The books that I've published are the ones that I haven't lost interest in, ever. Despite rejection or thousands of rewrites, those stories keep me wanting to work on them.

6. Emily Schultz asks, "Which do you prefer to write: characters that are more like you, or less like you?"

My characters feel like distinct people in my head. When I read them later, I see that they have many attributes that I have, but they don't feel anything like me during the writing process. I prefer that — I don't enjoy writing about myself very much, most of the time. Saying that, I do want to, one day, write about my travels when I was 18 and suffering from horrible panic attacks.

7. Linden MacIntyre asks, "Is there value in what I'd call 'literary collegiality'? How useful are the workshops and writers' retreats?"

I think every writer is different. My partner [Yann Martel] is a writer and he is very solitary. He doesn't share work until it's finished — and then he only shares it with his editors and with me. I'm a much more flighty writer, working on several projects at once, writing thousands of words at a time, needing to edit regularly, easily distracted.

So, I enjoy the socializing that literary collegiality brings. I like talking about writing and meeting other writers. I love hearing their ideas and anticipating reading their stories. I enjoy teaching workshops, I have tons on my website and I teach in person too, but I also like going to workshops to hear other writers share their knowledge of the craft. I did an MFA in creative writing when I was younger, and clarified my passion for writing during the two years I was there. The collegiality fuels my social side and lets me talk about my favourite things: books and writing.

But, saying all that, I actually do the same thing that my partner does. I never, never, never share work with anyone until I feel it's finished. If I'm going to ask someone to read something, I want to make sure that I'm not able to push the work into a better place alone first.

8. Kate Taylor asks, "What does a good writing day look like for you?"

Oh, I love this question — I've been so busy not writing for weeks that I'm starting to lose my mind. A good day? Two hours of writing. Coffee. Two more hours. Time with the children who are all going to be sweet and not screaming at me. A workout. Read 50 pages of a book — that's my real rule. It's the only one I never ever break. I read 50 pages a day, every day, and I have done for years. The rest, the writing part, the not-shouting children (I have four under the age of eight) is all fantasy right now.

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