Books·Magic 8 Q&A

'Write what you're passionate about.' David A. Robertson's advice for his younger self

The author of YA novel Strangers and the children's book When We Were Alone takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
David Alexander Robertson is the author of the YA novel Strangers and the children's book When We Were Alone. (Provided by David Robertson)

David Alexander Robertson is a graphic novelist and the author of children's book When We Were Alone, which is on the shortlist for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books.

His YA novel Strangers, the first book in The Reckoner series, features young protagonist named Cole Harper, a teen who returns to his old home in Wounded Sky First Nation only to encounter a series of shocking murders and a mysterious illness ravaging residents in the community.   

Below, the prolific author takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.

1. Kara Stanley asks, "How important are the details of the physical manifestation of your book? Do you fret over texture and weight of the paper? The cover art? The font?"

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I definitely like to have a voice in how the book will present itself physically. I haven't worried so much about font, although I am picky in what font I write in, oddly enough. But the type of paper used in the interior, for sure, was a concern. I really wanted deckle edges for Strangers. For the cover, I was able to look through a number of different artistic options Peter Diamond gave us, and choose which ones I felt suited the story. Throwing some spot UV in there was a pretty nice touch as well. How the novel looks is a pretty big factor in how it sells. 

2. Michael Redhill asks, "If only one of your books survives the test of time, which one would you like it to be, and why?"

I would have to say that When We Were Alone, my children's book about residential school history, would be my choice. Every Canadian needs to learn this history and, in educating youth about it, we are building an important foundation. I believe that change, reconciliation, will occur through our youth, and our job is to ensure that they are educated so that when they teach others, it is from a place of truth, love and respect.   

3.  Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over  the course of writing a book? If so, how?"

Absolutely. That happens when you write good characters. Even if you have a well-defined plot as you're working through a manuscript, characters will surprise you, and grow in ways that you couldn't have anticipated. They are alive. And because they are growing, and changing, your relationship with them adapts. You could plan for them to do one thing, and it's this important action that drives the plot, and then they do something else… and you have this interesting conversation with them about what they did, why they did it, and what you have to do now as a writer. Choch was like that in Strangers. He always misbehaved, went off and did his own thing, and I had to learn how to keep up with him. It was challenging, but fun at the same time.

4. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "How do faith and science intersect for you as a writer?"

In Strangersthey collide in a substantial way, especially as the trilogy moves forward. Now, this is faith in spirituality, I suppose. In the book, this encompasses traditional practices, as well as legends. So, while these supernatural events are occurring, and factor into the book in tangible ways, there is also something happening that is rather scientific. The interesting thing to me is that it is the scientific aspects of the book that are a mystery, at least to the reader, and the supernatural elements that are presented as fact. But in general, as a writer and even outside my writing life, I'm having that conversation a lot, trying to find a balance between the two. It's just that writing's a good way to work through those things. As a consequence, readers are watching me work through them, too. 

5. Pasha Malla asks, "Who is one writer, living or dead, who you wish could edit or critique your drafts?"

Oh gosh. The impossible question. I learned several years ago to read to learn. In other words, when I read, I am trying to learn how to improve as a writer, to find different techniques and approaches to storytelling. When I was writing my novel, The Evolution of Alice, I was deep into J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway. In particular, I love how Salinger wrote. His short stories are just stunning. So, for certain things I've written, I would choose him. But, not to avoid a direct answer, I honestly think it depends on which work I want edited or critiqued. I've read lots of YA lately for Strangers and I would love to get some input from those authors as well.

6. Guillaume Morissette asks, "If we instructed a super intelligent AI to study your writing for years and learn to generate entire books that sound like they were written by you, what would be the title and plot description of the first book that the AI auto-generates?"

What the heck, Guillaume. I've no idea how to begin to answer this question. Partly because I write so many different kinds of books. So, let's say that we're narrowing it down to something like my work in Strangers mixed with my graphic novels.


"A teenage boy discovers that past generations of his family are trapped in his mind, and that each time he dreams, the decisions he makes while sleeping effects who takes over the next day. As the boy watches his life play out, he learns more about himself by those that have come before him."

I actually kind of like that. Hmmmmm…

7. Tomson Highway asks, "If you were a musician, which instrument would you play? That is to say, which instrument would you choose to tell your story with?"

Piano runs deep in my family, and I used to play as well. It just so happens, that I love piano, even listening to it. While writing Strangers, I was listening to Radiohead and Ben Folds alternatively. I love Ben Folds' music. So, I would definitely choose piano to tell my story with. A close second would be banjo, for reasons I can't explain.

8. Kevin Hardcastle asks, "What would you say to a younger version of yourself, or another emerging writer, who doesn't know what you know now about writing and publishing, or how long that road can be?"

I would say a few things. First, I would tell Dave to read more. He never was into reading that much when he was younger (aside from comics, which are awesome to read, so no knock against them), and consequently, his writing wasn't all that great. Reading just to read is great, but reading to learn how to write better is really important to me in my profession. Second, I'd tell Dave to write what you're passionate about, and not to worry about what readers want. If you write from that place of passion, you will find readers who share your passion. It's funny, sounds kind of backwards, but don't write to trends, write for yourself, even if you want your work out there. Readers will feel that passion, and gravitate towards it. Third, write all the time, and never stop.