Guest Offers Great Insights

Young adult author Jacqueline Guest, recently responded to some questions I had for her about reading, writing, childhood, and how she interacts with many of her readers on an ongoing basis. Her responses reflect her thoughtfulness, her obvious love of reading, along with a keen sense of what it takes to be such a successful writer for our youngest readers. Expect more great fiction from her in the near future and know that her most recent novel, Ghost Messages, is just the latest in over a dozen books that she has previously published. I trust that you will enjoy our conversation as much I have.

JO: Jacqueline, can you discuss some of the challenges of writing fiction for younger readers?

JG:  Every children’s writer knows the big challenge is to write a cool book with a great plot and super characters which will keep readers engaged all within the fewest pages possible. No one reads War and Peace any more!  Time squeezes for kids means the book must move along at the speed of light as their free time is usually eaten up by all those extracurricular activities like hockey practice and piano.  This can be tricky. Another problem is that vernacular and jargon changes almost daily which means that writing a novel with trendy chat runs the risk of ‘stale dating’ the book before it is even released.  This makes referencing music, brands, and terms, really dicey, and adds an extra bit of pressure to my job as a juvenile or YA writer.

JO: What were some of your favourite titles to read from your childhood?

JG: When I was a young reader, we didn’t have a library in our school or one in our town.  Books at home were a rarity – expensive.  Consequently, I had only two: A Child’s Book of Bible Verse and Alice in Wonderland.  You can bet I read those books cover to cover and over and over.   When I was about 10, I started reading Sci Fi – real Science Fiction from the masters: Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter of Mars Series, he wrote way more than Tarzan! I really grokked Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers and I devoured anything by that genius Arthur C. Clarke.  And don’t forget Isaac Asimov! Sigh. Here’s the cool thing about those books: they are still great reads today.

JO: Oftentimes, adult readers mention books from their childhood as among their favourites; why do you think these books stay with many of us years after we’ve read them?

JG:  When we are young, we can tap into the world of magic which is all around us.  Part of that magic is the new and exciting experiences we encounter as we begin our journey through life.  When one encounters something new, it makes an impression for just that reason, it is something new!  The worlds we find in well written books are so real; they become part of our new life experiences as though they actually happened.  It’s exciting, it’s memorable, and it stays with us.

JO: Do you continue to read a lot in the genre?

JG: I read everything from Top Gear Magazine to Airborn to the Uglies and everything in between.  Lots of books, all genres, but absolutely, positively, without a doubt, I read the genre I write.  It’s a must – refer to question one!

JO: You do a lot of speaking engagements with children – what emerges from these events, for you as a writer?

JG:  HOPE!  Kids today have so much opportunity and potential and if I can convince, cajole, and persuade them to keep reading, then I know the future is a bright one.

JO: Jacqueline, who are some of the writers that have the most influence on your writing?

JG:  I love Mark Twain: riverboat captain, extraordinary man, insightful, wicked sense of humour and a writer for all ages. (Not to mention gorgeous!) The man is my fave writer of all time.  I also cry and sigh every time I re-read the four hundred year old book, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, but it has to be the right translation, and speaking of waterfalls of tears- don’t forget Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  So many books, so little time!

JO: Did you always plan to be a writer? If you weren’t writing, what might you be doing career-wise?

JG:  When I was in grade ten, the class was given an aptitude test: what would you be best suited for career wise.  So, when mine came back I had two choices: nurse or teacher.  Not doctor or professor, nope, not in those days.  Women were not supposed to aspire for such lofty positions.  Leave those top jobs to the men folk.  I was not impressed.  I always dreamed of being a writer, but that was what I thought it was, a dream, especially after that aptitude test.  Then the Beatles released Paperback Writer and it crept into my head and as I hummed the song – out of tune – I decided if I wanted the dream to be true, then I was the one to make it happen.  Time was going by.  I started writing in the evenings after my children were in bed, then on weekends, then every waking minute.  It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees, but I would not work any other job and I’ve done everything from waitressing to cleaning houses to drilling core analyst!

JO: Do you seek feedback from young readers in the preparation of new novels? Are your ‘editors’ always adult readers?

JG:  I love to hear from readers.  Connecting with readers is important, whether it’s bouncing ideas off kids or asking how they would like to see the story unfold, they are in the creative process.  As an example- one of my books, Belle of Batoche, is dedicated to the grade three and four students of Louis Riel School as a thank you for all the help they gave me.  I was doing an extended project in their school at the same time I was penning the book.  I would write a chapter, and then bring it in for the kids to hear.  They would tell me what they liked and what they wanted to happen.  It made for a wonderful experience and I think the book reflects that perfect ‘kid touch’.  Children are who I write for and their opinion is very important.  They are like ‘junior editors’ and much appreciated.  If a student wants to talk to me about their stories, poems or ideas, I always listen.  They are the next generation of great Canadian authors.

JO: Can you talk about some of your researching methodologies in preparing to write Ghost Messages?

JG: Ghost Messages required tons of research, books and more books, lots of reading to verify facts and stats, videos, internet, phone interviews, emails, just about every method out there.  I take great pains to make sure my information is correct.  I love it when fiction and fact are woven together so meticulously that kids can’t tell where one stops and the other starts.

JO: Any words of advice for aspiring writers of juvenile or young adult fiction?

JG:  Read!  Read everything you can get your hands on from old masters to modern writers, but choose wisely – read award winners when you can, Governor General and Newbery, but remember there are a lot of extraordinary books out there that never won an award.

JO: Jacqueline, are there any specific projects that you are working on that you can share with us at this time?

JG:  Whew! Too many to go into without an hour or two and a pot of tea.

In Conversation With Julie Booker

What follows is a recent interview with the very talented Julie Booker, author of Up Up Up from House of Anansi. Her candour and sense of humour can be found throughout the entire exchange. I wish her nothing but the best for her ‘percolating’ projects; and remain pleased that I escaped the interview with my life intact (see her response to my final question). I hope you enjoy her responses almost as much as her short story collection.

JO: Julie, can you discuss some of the unique features to writing a short story collection?

JB: I think it’s unique for anyone to even attempt to write a short story collection when the whole industry states loud and clear: short stories don’t sell.

JO: As a reader, do you enjoy short stories more than novels?

JB: I love both. But really good short stories remind me to pay attention, to really look. Several years ago I went to art college to be a better writer. I knew my eye needed training. Some of my best poems were written during life drawing class. In my plein air class, I sat for a whole week on the grass near Queen’s Park and painted a portrait of a tree. You’d think the bark was brown, right? It was green, blue and orange, with changing tones depending on the time of day. Now I can’t look at a tree trunk without seeing those colours.

JO: Do you have any plans to move your writing to other genres in the future?

JB: Well, I’d be smart to do a novel next. Isn’t that what people expect after a first book of short stories? For awhile I asked every writer: how do you write a novel? The best answer I got (from a first time novelist): “I have no f-ing clue.” The language of short prose is so tight; like poetry, every word counts. I’m trying to figure out how to sustain that same interest/energy in a longer work.

JO: To term many of your characters as complex and interesting on many levels would be an understatement, where do you find them?

JB: The characters are full-blown imagined versions of people actually walking around in the world. They begin with an overheard conversation, an encounter on the streetcar or something scribbled down in the many journals I kept travelling through Asia, Australia, Africa.

JO: We don’t seem to see nearly as many short story collections as in years past, any thoughts on why this might be?

JB: Is that true? I’ve totally fallen for the publicity of YOSS (Year of the Short Story) and I’m thrilled two Giller nominees last year were SS collections.

JO: Julie, whose work do you enjoy reading when you get the opportunity do so?

JB: I go back to Grace Paley often, particularly for voice. For inspiration: Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Miranda July.

JO: Which writers have had some of the greatest influences on your writing? Why?

JB: Lisa Moore. When I read Open, I remember thinking, wow, you don’t have to write a story in the traditional straight-ahead trajectory. She directs the eye to look at specific details, kind of dot-to-dot style, until you’re left with a complex picture that always surprises.

JO: Julie, as a child, what did you hope to be when you ‘grew up?’

JB: I wanted to be a teacher. I used to practice reading picture books to my stuffed animals turning the pages like my grade two teacher, Miss Homer, with her long nails, only I didn’t have any. I was a nail biter. Then I won ten long red Dracula nails at a fun fair and they were perfect. I spent hours wearing those blood-red hooks pointing to details in the pictures, then at my teddy bears: “Yes, Paddington, do you have a question?”

JO: What have you learned and what did you find surprising in the process of publishing your first full-length collection of stories?

JB: I’ve learned that writers can’t exist without editors. I’m shocked at how many times you go through the material. After many many rounds with Melanie Little (my Anansi editor), there’s the line editor, and the proofreaders. I found things I’d missed right up until the final hour.

JO: Can you discuss what readers might be seeing from you in the near future?

JB: Well, it’s just percolating. If I tell you I’d have to kill you.

A Mystical Meandering

Ghost Messages

By: Jacqueline Guest

Coteau Books, April 2011, 192 pp, Trade paperback $8.95 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

While I have not formally reviewed children’s literature, it remains a genre that I read actively and have done so for more than thirty years. Because I my children have reached reading age, I now have the opportunity to re-read several of my favourite childhood titles such as Treasure Island, Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While Jacqueline Guest’s latest book may not join the list of children’s ‘classics’, she has written an entertaining novel for young readers that will also provide some basic historical information within the context of the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Jacqueline Guest lives in the foothills of southern Alberta. She has written more than a dozen books with many of her novels featuring either sports or history as themes. She also does several presentations at schools for children with history as a major theme.

Ghost Messages is well written with Guest using language that is accessible for readers from eight or nine and older. While it is accessible, she includes words that will encourage young readers to seek meaning from context – one of the best ways to learn new words and expand a growing vocabulary. Guest is respectful of her readers – never demeaning them or dismissive in her treatment of them as an author.

The main narrative is focused on Ailish, a thirteen-year-old Irish girl with some extra-sensory powers to see the future. In the pursuit of a stolen treasure, she ends up as a stowaway on the Great Eastern ship; a ship that is responsible for laying the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Once onboard, she is forced to adopt the identity of a cabin boy in her quest – and I use that word with purpose as the narrative arc follows one of the older and more effective plot devices in children’s literature – the quest. While the trip, at least for Ailish, across the Atlantic is unintended, it is an ‘out and back’ journey. Guest also skillfully weaves in the larger narrative drama associated with the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable on the ship on which Ailish is pursuing her stolen treasure from the thief, Rufus Dalton. Ailish is helped by a number of good people on the ship including a fellow labourer, Davy Jones, as well as a fellow ‘Irishman,’ Paddy Whelan.

In the following excerpt, Ailish witnesses her nemesis, Dalton, stirring up the passions of some of the crewmembers following the sabotage of the telegraph cable by Irish Fenians:

The cable had ceased to work again after having been so laboriously repaired and Ailish, exhausted herself, felt the despair of those around her as mutterings grew louder that the Fenians had struck again.

She was about to try and find Paddy to tell him what was going on, when Dalton jumped atop one of the cannons that lined the deck and called to the crowd.

“This second fault is proof of sabotage and we cannot let it go unchallenged,” he shouted, stoking the unrest. “You have worked as no other crew could and I’m proud of each every one of you. And now tired as we all are, we must splice the cable again. I haven’t left this deck, but someone has and that man is our Fenian traitor. I say we find the dog and deal with him ourselves!”

There was a chorus of agreement and Ailish had to give the devil his due: Dalton had a way of speaking that was very persuasive. The men, frustrated and volatile, were close to rioting and she was sure who Dalton would suggest as a target. She couldn’t believe the cable would have to be spliced again! Her own back ached at the thought. she admired the toughness of these sailors and was very glad she wasn’t the one who would have to fix the blasted thing.

“Wait!” Cyrus Field pushed to the front of the throng. The American raised his hands for silence. “The signal’s started again! The cable is sound once more.”

The book is not only well written, but it is historically accurate – a credit to Guest and her researching abilities. While she admits to some literary creativity at various points in her story, historical fiction always benefits from the imagination of the author. Young readers will certainly be swept up very quickly with the initial crime of Dalton happening in the book’s earliest pages. A final exemplary feature is that Guest uses the vernacular of life on the ship in this era and provides a glossary that explains the terms that she uses throughout the book. I think it is much more effective to do this as a glossary, rather than have it woven into the main text as readers would have felt preached to at these moments.

The strengths of Ghost Messages far outnumber its minor drawbacks. Unfortunately, the book ends rather abruptly and even younger readers may find the final chapters both wanting and rushed. While Guest does not patronize readers with a ‘pat’ ending, at least one significant plot feature seems contrived after several chapters of fine writing. I also found the character development to be thin and simplistic in more than one instance. I think that Guest could have spent some additional time in developing her main characters with both dialogue and character sketching.

Ghost Messages is highly recommended and will be enjoyed by both the novice and sophisticated juvenile readers. Adults will also be entertained if they choose to read this well-researched novel alongside a younger reader. Not all books intended for our youngest readers can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Hopefully Guest continues to write in the genre of historical juvenile fiction – her skills are unquestionable.

*An advance copy of Ghost Messages was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.


Vortex and Featured Interview

I am very excited to write that I will be receiving an advance reading copy of Vortex from Tor Books in the coming weeks. Award-winning author Robert Charles Wilson has graciously agreed to do a feature interview with me as well. I hope to have both a review and the interview posted by the early part of July. If you have not read Spin & Axis yet, the first two books in Wilson’s sci-fi trilogy, I encourage you to do so. An earlier review of them can be read on this link – Spin & Axis reviews.