STEPH: Can you tell me a little bit about your background as a writer? From Google I know (or I think I know) that you:
1) are currently teaching Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal
2) have an MFA from the University of British Columbia
3) were the books columnist for The Vancouver Sun and on Freestyle, a CBC Radio One show
4) are widely published here in Canada as a literary journalist
5) have published at least two works of fiction for adults
6) have won awards for your playwrighting
7) have already written the sequel to When You Were Small
8) have written a YA novel with your oldest son
Is it fair to ask what kind of writing you prefer? Did you always want to write for children or did the desire come out of having children of your own?
SARA: I've been writing since I was young (she says, realising that she no longer is). Studied poetry as a teenager with people like Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier , then fell into fiction and had a dalliance with postcard stories, followed by flirtations with playwriting and screenwriting. Once I had children of my own it seemed a logical progression to start writing children's stories. I'm still writing fiction but I'm also doing more writing for children – including writing a YA novel with my son Liam. It's called Malone Alone and is about a boy whose parents take him from Vancouver to a little village on the Bay of Fundy. Which is exactly what happened to Liam. Only in the novel, the boy's parents are sucked into a time portal and vanish. Which didn't actually happen to us when we moved to St. Martin's although we did feel like we'd travelled back in time when we were told there was no high speed internet in the village.
As far as what genre I prefer, I'd probably be better off if I did have stronger tendencies in one direction. I often feel that rather than being like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain, I am frantically trying to keep a number of smaller rocks rolling in unison. I love fiction, all forms of fiction. Writing the novel with my son has been great fun, but now that it's done I'm going back to a collection of short stories I have underway.
STEPH: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
SARA: Except for the times when I desperately wished to be almost anything else.
STEPH: How is writing fiction for adults different from writing it for children?
SARA: I think the main difference is in the perception, actually. People seem to think that writing for children is much, much easier than writing for adults. Which it is not. And I have a pet peeve about bad writing being passed off as appropriate for YA novels. Like they aren't going to be able to tell the difference.
STEPH: I read in one of your reviews (of the Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books) that when you were reading the Nancy Drew books as a child, you wanted to be Nancy Drew. And that, at a certain point, reading about Mma Ramotswe as an adult, you felt the same way. I love that. What were some of your favourite books as a child? What are some of your favourite books for children now? And what are some of your favourites for adults?
SARA: That's a huge question and I could go on all day about favourite books for children. I will say that I've always been a huge fan of Maurice Sendak's books and I think the world would be a much colder place without Max and the Wild Things. And it's lovely reading books to your own children that you remember having read to you – my mother saved my Alice and my Mother Goose and other things which has been lovely. And I can still read Dr. Seuss with my eyes shut.
New books: I love anything Oliver Jeffers does does and we're besotted with Ian Falconer's Olivia books - I sort of want to be Olivia these days. We're also big fans of the series of books by Robin Mitchell and Judith Steed that my publisher did. They are about these little doll characters named Sunny and Windy. There are others too but I have a hard time remembering which ones are theirs and which ones my son made up. I think Rainy is the one that he made from a clothes pin and some felt and then made his own book. Which leads me to Euan O'Leary – another of my favourite authors.
For older kids, I loved the Lemony Snicket books and for anybody else who did I would also recommend Philip Ardagh, a British author with a fantastic sense of humour. The Fall of Fergal is one of his. Philip Pullman, Eoin Colfer, and Marcus Sedgwick are all good. I seem to be reading more boy books because of what comes into the house.There are some very scary books by a fellow named Joseph Delaney which we liked. Also an Englishwoman named Michelle Paver I interviewed last year who has done a series of novels called Wolf Brother.My son is addicted to the Ian MacKellan cd versions of the books. Susan Juby, whose Alice books I love, has a new book out called Another Kind of Cowboy which is very, very good. I have just read a book called Very Serious Children by my friend Caroline Adderson and it was very funny – about two little boys with circus clowns for parents who try to run away to small-town Saskatchewan to have a normal life where they can do things like eat vegetables.
Adult books, hmm. I just read a fantastic new book called The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Published by Anansi and it was the first thing I'd read in ages that really felt fresh to me. Also just read the new A.L. Kennedy novel, Day, and … well, would have to go look under my bed to tell you what else. I want to read that Margaret Wise Brown bio that you've been talking about – maybe I can find something to offer in trade. I miss writing a weekly column because for years I had a steady influx of new books. I got kind of spoilt.
STEPH: I read that you got the idea for When You Were Small from a family joke. Can you tell me about that?
SARA: My husband – who is brilliant by the way – used to tell our older son that when he was small, he used to carry him in his shirt pocket. And he would produce an old shirt with a torn pocket as evidence. He told this story so many times that it produced a sort of false memory syndrome in our son and lead to me thinking of other "small" tales.
STEPH: How did you find your publisher? He sounds very passionate about children's book publishing and extremely attentive to detail -- you said somewhere that he actually used scented glue for the binding. And that he debated over exactly which shade of white the paper should be.
SARA: Because I worked as a literary columnist for about seven years I got to see practically everything being published. And I know quality when I see it. Dimiter Savoff and Simply Read Books are simply producing the most beautiful books out there right now and I wanted in on that. So I dug out a story I'd written for Liam when he was small and sent it in. And a little while later we had the meeting where he brought a briefcase full of blank sheets of paper and spread them all out on the table. It seemed like a perfectly surreal moment but then he asked us which white we liked best and I knew we were in good hands.
I don't like seeing books for children that are badly printed on cheap paper because it seems sad to me that something that could be such an object of love is treated like something disposable. Simply Read uses the best of everything and I think it shows. There's a real European aesthetic to their books. And the designer for the book, Robin Mitchell, is brilliant too. I was pleased to see her win an Alcuin Award for the book's design because I, personally, think she deserved it.
STEPH: How did Julie Morstad come to illustrate it?
SARA: An artist friend of mine in Vancouver, Janice Wong, had seen Julie's drawings in a gallery and thought I might like them. I spoke to Dimiter about it and he knew Julie's work and was happy to set up a meeting. At this point anyone who has published a book with someone else may want to go lie down and have a little cry because things don't often work this way. As an author – unless you are talented enough to illustrate your own work – you may have very little in-put into the illustrations that accompany your text. And it makes such a difference.
Julie draws the way I would if I could. Here's a link to her website so you can see more of her wonderful work.
I was lucky to find her at a time when her career was just taking off because I think she's going to be very busy over the next few years. She has a book of drawings called Milk Teeth being published with Drawn & Quarterly later this year and she has regular showings of her work at Atelier Gallery in Vancouver and she also has a few small boys of her own to keep her busy.
STEPH: Can you tell us a little bit about the sequel to When You Were Small?
Well it's called Where You Came From and the title is pretty self-explanatory. Only you have to remember that it's fiction.
Here's a little bit:
Henry is a boy who likes to ask questions.
Every day it's something new.
Do one and one always make two? he asks.
And never something more?
But there is one particular question
he asks again and again.
Where did I come from? asks Henry.
Well, says his father. It was so long ago now
that it is difficult to remember.
I think that was the day that the stork called in sick
and a flock of crows took over his deliveries.
No, says his mother. Don't you remember?
The fairies brought you. It must have taken dozens
of them to lift you because they were so small
and you were so big.
You'll notice I added the mother to this one – I'm not even sure where she was in the last one. Off trying to write a book, probably.
Henry II, as I like to think of it, should be out in the spring. Julie is just working on the drawings right now. The funny question people keep asking me is what colour the cover will be because the first one was such a perfect robin's egg blue. A friend has the book up on her mantle because she is thinking of painting her living room that colour. And actually, last week Julie Morstad and I did an event in Ella Minnow Children's Bookstore in Toronto and when we got there found that the store's walls matched the book. I asked the owner, Heather Kuipers, if she planned to do that for all her visiting authors but I think we got special treatment.
I can't wait to see the new book. When the first one came I cried because it was so lovely. And you have to understand that I am very, very hard to please.