The Next Chapter

Why Allan Stratton believes empathy is the key to great literature

The award-winning YA author of The Way Back Home sees value in empathizing even with the cruelest of characters.
Allan Stratton is the author of several YA novels, including The Way Back Home. ( Canada)

The Way Back Home is the story of Zoe Bird, a straight-talking teenager living in a small town in Ontario. The one person who loves her unconditionally is her grandmother. But Zoe's parents want to put Granny into a nursing home. Zoe hatches a plan to set her free and they go on a journey to find Granny's long-lost son. The Way Back Home is a road story, a story of betrayal, a story of emotional rescue and, ultimately, a love story.

Allan Stratton is an award-winning novelist and playwright. The Way Back Home was a finalist for this year's Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text. This interview originally aired on Nov. 13, 2017.

Granny's surprise appearance

"Granny, surprisingly, wasn't even in the original idea for the story. It was a story about Zoe — I had her voice and I knew her frustrations. It was originally about Zoe running away to Toronto. Then I realized it was a picaresque novel, where she was meeting different people on the street, but there wasn't the ability for her to connect emotionally with the other characters. Every time she would meet someone, they would disappear from her life. It was a very different kind of story. I asked myself, 'Who does she care about?' That's when I came up with the idea of her grandmother. Granny is the one person Zoe loves — that's her one area of stability."

Feeling for your characters

"'What would I feel?' 'What would I do in response?' That's how I fleshed Zoe out — by way of empathy and by way of analogue. That's the key to literature. That's why we are able to read across centuries and continents and communicate with minds who are long past. It's a human thing. All of our situations are different, where we come from is different, but we have all felt love, hate and generosity. We've been cruel, we've been bullied and we've been bullies. It's about acknowledging that we're human. As an actor, I always think, 'What does my character want?' and 'What is my character going to do to get that?'"

The road to reconciliation

"When the road trip begins, Zoe has finally figured out that her uncle isn't, in fact, dead. There has been some kind of rift. She's sure something has happened, but she can fix it. It's simply a question of getting Granny out of the home and taking the train to Toronto and everything will be fine. But things begin to unravel when Uncle Teddy isn't where they think Uncle Teddy would be. A crisis allows you to see that people are behaving badly because there are secrets. Secrets are what really kill us. That's where understanding comes from — through the truth. To be able to step into somebody else's shoes and see things from the other side."

Allan Stratton's comments have been edited and condensed.