Smart People: Writer Kyo Maclear has a way with words

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diaspora Dialogues

In our Smart People series, we take a closer look at the six categories that make up the theory of multiple intelligences. Each week, we'll introduce you to some clever Canadians who exemplify each of the intelligences in their careers and daily lives — they'll tell us how they draw on those strengths to do what they do best.

• Read more: Smart People: Dr. Jennifer Gardy leverages logical intelligence »

This week, we delve into the lore of language with award-winning Toronto novelist and children's book writer Kyo Maclear, the author of two acclaimed novels and six books for kids. (Her knack for linguistic intelligence could very well be hereditary — it just so happens her father, Michael Maclear, was an acclaimed foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker, including working with the CBC for many years.)

Maclear, a doctoral candidate at York University who also holds degrees in fine art, art history, and cultural studies, has had her short fiction, essays, and art criticism widely published across the globe. Her debut novel, The Letter Opener, was a finalist for the 2007 in Canada First Novel Award, and in 2009, she was awarded the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature. Her sec­ond novel, Stray Love (2012), received a starred review from Quill and Quire magazine and was an Amazon Editor’s Pick. 

Her first children's book, Spork, a delightful tale of a mixed-identity kitchen utensil, was inspired by the birth of her first child, and Maclear's own dual British-Japanese heritage.


VIDEO: Book trailer for Kyo Maclear's first children's book, Spork (Kids Can Press, 2010)

Whether writing for adults or kids, Maclear brings wit and whimsy to creating wonderful worlds through words, from reimagining writer Virginia Woolf's childhood through a modern-day tale of sisterly love, to drawing inspiration from Julia Child for a story about two friends who share a joy of cooking.

Authors like Maclear spend their days steeped in words and language, making her the perfect person to help us better understand linguistic intelligence. She told us all about how she draws on linguistic skills to pen her brilliant books.

A love of language

Linguistic intelligence isn't simply the ability to learn or speak languages, but rather how we all use language, both written and verbal, to achieve our goals. Some of us are excellent writers, while others might be better at picking up a new language, or giving a compelling speech in public. Maclear's love of words manifests itself not only in her daily work as a writer, but in other aspects of her everyday life, she notes.

"I’m a word-a-holic," she declares. "I paper my days with text. It begins at breakfast with the newspaper and continues until I fall asleep, often with several books abutting my head. Reading is part of my daily emotional and mental upkeep.

"I’m fairly monolingual, but growing up in a bilingual household has made me more attuned to people who have multiple languages moving through their brain on a regular basis," she continues. "I think that kind of code-switching is so healthy and cosmopolitan (in the best sense)."


VIDEO: Book trailer for Virginia Wolf (Kids Can Press/La Pasteque, 2012)

More than words

This way with words is also instinctively paired with a keen visual intelligence — Maclear's background in the arts lends itself well to her children's books, which feature gorgeous illustrations that help kids better envision the characters and stories within the pages.

"My picture books start with text and image. I weave an ‘art script’ into my text manuscripts because my stories are visually driven, but these art notes are always open for interpretation by the illustrator," Maclear explains. "The word-image dynamic is so enmeshed in my books and often so amplified by the metaphoric intuition and intelligence of the illustrator, I find it hard to separate one aspect (or intelligence) from the other. By the end, the collaboration is pretty seamless."

Similarly, Maclear finds many of the other intelligences often play a part in her overall approach to writing, especially given that writers ultimately aim to examine the human condition — in all its many facets.

"I think I’m a multisensory writer — as much influenced and inspired by music, noise, smell, the visual and tactile world as anything else," she muses. "I often work alongside other art forms. When I wrote my novel Stray Love, for example, I listened to The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset on repeat for months because it gave me just the right tone I needed to build part of that story.

"When I wrote the picture book The Specific Ocean, I surrounded myself with paintings, films and photographs of the sea, including ones the illustrator Katty Maurey had posted on her Tumblr. I could give you a hundred examples of the ways my work has been cross-fertilized by other modes of intelligence, especially by the intelligences of the musicians, filmmakers and artists in my life."


IMAGE: Detail from Kyo Maclear's The Specific Ocean (Kids Can Press, 2015), illustration by Katty Maurey

Road to writing

You'd think someone with such an obvious affinity for words and language might have developed linguistic acumen early, but Maclear says it actually took her some time to discover her inner author.

"Writing didn’t really happen for me until late high school when a creative writing teacher took my under her wing. I was writing these horrible impersonations of Evelyn Waugh," she quips. "I had all these words, but I was stalled by antiquated ideas about ‘proper’ storytelling. Anyway, this teacher blew everything wide open by introducing me to stories from all over the world."

These days, Maclear's work as a writer means she now gets the chance to share the magic of storytelling — not only through the pages of her books, but also via public readings across the country.

"When I visit schools, I meet a lot of kids who are first-generation immigrants and I see myself in them," Maclear says. "Many of these students have super-strong linguistic skills (often serving as interpreters for their families, as I did for my mother). Yet, if asked, many of these verbally dexterous, multilingual kids would not imagine themselves as future writers.

"I think it would be a great public service to explore how children’s linguistic hesitance (both in reading and writing) is tied to experiences of migration, social marginalization, and a dearth of role models. There are children with amazing verbal/narrative imaginations who are simply not finding their way to the language-based arts. And I believe that’s a loss for our literary cultures."

Maclear sees plenty of promise in the next generation of future scribes, however, and she has some beautifully simple advice for how they can exercise their linguistic muscle.

"Read, read, read — seriously and playfully, in fragments and snippets, all the time, as much as you can," she encourages. "Read promiscuously (poetry, long-form essays, graphic novels, works in translation, song lyrics, experimental novels, especially stuff outside the current market). Study sentences, notice how the rhythm of language can create feelings of quietness, suspense, tension, openness — both in your mind and in your body. Write down words that make your skin prickle, or brain alight, or that just make you hot under the collar.

"Also: walk, walk, walk — go beyond the books and listen to the world outside. Notice how the street is full of dialogue, hear how that man is chatting to his very old dog, absorb the talk of kids strutting at the mall. Eavesdrop whenever you can."


IMAGE: Detail from Kyo Maclear's Julia, Child (Random House, 2014), illustrations by Julie Morstad

Scribbling smarts

This self-professed word nerd also knows another thing about linguistic intelligence: those highly skilled in this area are also known to be excellent at problem-solving and abstract reasoning, including games and puzzles — not unlike the tricky word challenges on Canada's Smartest Person! Seeing as she's one smart scribe, Maclear says she's confident she'd be ready to take on a challenge like Definition Dilemma.

"I love Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, crossword puzzles," Maclear admits. "I played a lot of word games as a child (with my ruthlessly competitive great-aunt) and I still love the problem-solving aspect. In fact, in the final stages of writing revisions, I often feel that I'm tapping into the same problem-solving part of my brain."

Do you always have your nose in a book, or write endlessly in your journal? Your linguistic strengths might prove ideal to tackle the challenges on the Canada's Smartest Person interactive app, which include many fun word-based tests! Try the daily bonus challenges, or play along with Sunday's show, and let us know if you achieve a word win — or find yourself at a loss for words!