YA novelist Allan Stratton has advice for you that works in any situation
Allan Stratton used to be an actor and a playwright. Now he writes YA novels like the Red Maple Award–winning The Dogs, the Governor General's Literary Award–nominated The Grave Robber's Apprentice and the Canadian classic Chanda's Secrets. His latest The Way Back Home, a road story about a girl and her grandmother travelling to find a long-lost relative, is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.
Below, Allan Stratton answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Kerry Clare asks, "Do the characters in your books read books? What kinds of books are your characters reading?"
So, I'm Zoe Bird, the one who tells The Way Back Home. I'm not exactly a reader, but I really like Susin Nielsen's We Are All Made of Molecules 'cause she gets that life isn't fair, which is totally true. My granny has a copy of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women in her upstairs bathroom. It's been there for years; I figure she forgot it there and doesn't notice. Mom's books are more like hairdressing magazines in plastic sleeves. Dad does the scripture reading at church, so I guess you could say he's reading the Bible, but only a few verses at a time. My cousin Madi has her friends tell her the stories of whatever books she's studying in English, if that counts. Oh — and I have a favourite relative besides Granny who has a bookcase full of Margaret Atwood. If it ever fell on you, you would die. Seriously.
2. Susan Juby asks, "What has been the most pleasurable or exciting moment in your writing life thus far?"
Going on stage to receive the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play, 1980–81. That fall, I was 29, smoked three large packs a day, was seriously alcoholic, overweight and depressed, and had just $150 in the bank and zero prospects. Then Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii and Rexy! opened at Graham Harley's Phoenix Theatre, a tiny stage over a garage on Dupont Street in Toronto. They became surprise hits with production offers coming in every other day. So hearing my name called out at the end of that season was an out-of-body experience. It suddenly hit me that I had the financial resources and the critical support of my community to make a life for myself as a writer. I quit drinking, quit smoking, lost 50 pounds, and kept going. Lots of people have talent: I think every successful writer should be grateful for the luck that enabled their career. (Thirty-seven years after that premiere, the Polish translation of Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii is into the second year of an open-ended run in Warsaw, Poland.)
3. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"
I always have low points. When I do, I cling to the motto "This too shall pass." Instead of focusing on my fear, I trust that my block will lift when my subconscious has worked out the problems. I puzzle around a bit each day, then read, go to movies and work out. The logjam clears when it's ready. I also think "This too shall pass" in good times. It reminds me to enjoy things in the moment and never to take anything for granted.
4. Tomson Highway asks, "What do you think of the Bible as a piece of literature?"
I love the Bible as literature. Aside from the gore, which is fun, and the prophets' fury at injustice, which is inspiring, I love the theme of renewal. After the Flood, we get to start over. Lost in the wilderness, we find the Promised Land. And the Nativity reminds us that no matter what a mess we've made of things, a baby gives the world a chance to get things right.
5. Tracey Lindberg asks, "Your latest novel is made into a movie. Who is on the soundtrack?"
Tinashe, The Front Bottoms, Adele, Shawn Mendes, Fifth Harmony, George Michael.
6. Caroline Pignat asks, "How do you define success as a writer?"
Success is surprising myself with things I didn't know, opening up things I'd buried and forgotten and, above all, touching the lives of readers who are kind enough to let me know how my books have affected their lives.
7. Trevor Cole asks, "What emotion do you find best fuels your writing — happiness, sadness, anger or something else?"
My emotions run the gamut. My characters are my brain babies and whatever they experience, I experience. Sometimes I laugh at their weird observations; other times, I cry because of an unexpected revelation. The days when I don't know what my characters will end up feeling are the best: all wonder and magic. Anyway, a full range of emotions is my day-to-day writing fuel. But the spark behind most of my books is anger at injustice. The expression of that anger can be painful or funny.
8. Eden Robinson asks, "Who was your most influential mentor?"
Professionally, James Reaney. When I was in Grade 9 in London, Ont., he cast me in the original production of his classic Listen to the Wind. Subsequently, I was part of his Listeners workshops at Alpha Centre. He let me produce my plays there and published one in his literary magazine Alphabet. It ended up on CBC Radio when I was in Grade 12. In life, my mom. She fled a violent marriage in 1952, when I was a baby. Without her unconditional love, I don't know where I'd be. When I'm faced with hard decisions I ask myself, "What would Mom do?" I wrote about her extraordinary life in a Globe and Mail Lives Lived column. You can read it here.