Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Vikki VanSickle writes for her 11-year-old self

The YA author of The Winnowing answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Vikki VanSickle is author of YA novel The Winnowing. (Mischa Bartkow/Scholastic Canada)

Vikki VanSickle's The Winnowing is a tale of tragedy and vengeance that affects a small town. When an incident separates young heroine Marivic from her best friend Saren, she decides that she will stop at nothing to avenge her friend.

VanSickle is a seasoned YA writer. Her previous books include Days That End in Y and Summer Days, Starry Nights, which was nominated for a Red Maple Award.

We asked VanSickle to take the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answer eight questions from eight of her fellow authors.

1. Lynn Coady asks, "Why do you write fiction? That is, why is it your chosen genre? What is it about the genre that you think makes it distinctive and vital?"

I like fiction because I love getting into the heads of other people. Humans are ceaselessly fascinating. For a brief period of time, I considered being an actress. I loved building a whole person around a text. Figuring out motivations, phrasing, physical affectations, etc., was the best kind of work. Eventually I realized that I liked building these characters more than I liked acting and switched gears into writing. In my writing, I start with the characters. Plot is almost always secondary. Once I know the cast, what they want and what they fear, the plot falls into place. Fiction will always be a successful genre because people will always want to know what's going on inside other people's heads. We're fascinated by motivation and stacking our own experiences and decisions against those of others.

2. Claire Messud asks, "What is your favourite book from childhood, and why?"

I was an avid and, not in any way, a discerning reader. Therefore choosing a favourite book from childhood has always been a challenge. Mostly I wanted to read about other girls' experiences. I read a lot of series, including the Nancy Drew Mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books, The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. The Giver by Lois Lowry was the first time I had read something dystopian/utopian and it blew my mind wide open.

3. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

There is a huge connection between my writing and my childhood. In many ways I am always writing for my 11-year-old self. If she likes the book, I'm all set! Because the spectrum of what I read was quite broad, my own books cover a lot of territory, from contemporary to historical to science fiction. The common denominator in my books is the emotional core — what does it feel like to be 11 (or 12 or 13)? I mine my own memories and journals all the time to make sure that emotional resonance is there. I never want to write down to a child reader, I want to be present alongside them the whole time.

4. Sandra Ridley asks, "Writing isn't always a pure joy. (Is it ever?) Where do you find joy or where does it find you?"

There are many parts of the process that I enjoy. I love when I'm so full of a story that I walk around with it in my head all day, like the most delicious secret. I love the "a-ha" moment when a plot snag unfurls, which is almost always unexpected and not to be forced. I love when a character's name clicks into place and you just KNOW it's right. I love the moments I get so lost in the writing that a whole afternoon goes by without my notice. I love when a scene I've been imagining for weeks comes together and it's almost as good as the one in my head.

5. Durga Chew-Bose asks, "Is there a book you believe is best read aloud to a friend?"

Reading children's poetry aloud is one of the greatest gifts language has to offer. As adults we grow to roll our eyes at rhyme, but I don't think we ever truly grow out of the delight in a clever turn of phrase or the fun in figuring out what a word will be the second before it's spoken aloud because we know the rhyme scheme. There are also so many opportunities for puns, silliness and other forms of wordplay. Dennis Lee and Jack Prelutsky have a number of fantastic collections of poetry for children.

6. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "What role does your mother play in shaping your female characters?"

My mother is not present in my female characters in any conscious, intentional ways. I've always been interested in unfamiliar experiences, and so the families I have built in my novels do not resemble my own. It's more fun to explore a different set of circumstances. I am more likely to put a bit of myself into my protagonist and set her loose in an unfamiliar setting than I am to write about other people in my life.

7. 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?"

I do all my thinking in pen. Specifically, a cheap medium ink ballpoint pen, the kind that will leak all over you at some point. It reminds me of writing as a kid, plus there is something deeply satisfying about pages grooved by handwriting. I brainstorm by hand until I get to the point where I need to start writing and then I switch to my laptop. I almost always write in first person and when I'm in the zone I can't write as quickly as my brain moves. When I get stuck I revert back to pen and paper.

8. David Szalay asks, "Do you find it difficult to finish writing a book? I only feel my own books are finished years after I actually stop working on them — perhaps at the point when I am simply no longer the same person I was when I wrote them. Is this a common feeling?"

I don't like endings that are tied up too neatly, which isn't easy in children's fiction. Kids like resolution, perhaps more so than adults. I've always left my endings a little open or, if not open, then I'll drop the seed of something else coming down the line for the character. Not to indicate there will be more books about her, but so the reader understands she will live a life outside this book and that all stories are just parts of our lives.

Vikki VanSickle's comments have been edited and condensed.