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.