(1) Interviewer: Could you talk a bit about how and when you came to writing?
Vicki Grant: I have worked as a writer all my adult life. I started out as an advertising writer, so the first things I was paid to write were literally six words long. I was writing headlines, or print ads, or billboards, and then I moved on to writing for children’s television. That was just a chance encounter with someone in the business. I took a one-day workshop and realized that it was more or less the same process writing a 30-second commercial is not that different from writing a 30-minute or 15-minute television show. So I moved on to that.
I did that for about ten years, and basically just needed a break from the stress of writing deadline work and keeping a whole bunch of producers, directors, and distributors and what-have-you happy. I really just decided to take a break. And again, another chance encounter. I talked to someone who happened to be writing a YA novel. I didn’t even know what YA meant. Young Adult – I had no idea what that meant. And she explained it to me.
Literally the next day I started writing this book which became The Puppet Wrangler, on a whim, thinking, “I’m just going to take four months off from the television business, see if this works.” I sent it off, it got picked up, and that was it. At that point I decided this is what I really want to do, the type of writing.
(2) Interviewer: What is your process?
Vicki Grant: As far as my process goes, I’m going to try to make this sound like I actually have a process and it’s not just utter chaos.
Ideally I get up early and start writing first thing, because I’m always having to keep slightly ahead of my brain. I can talk myself out of writing pretty easily. I find that if I sit down, write very quickly – especially first drafts – it works a lot better. I have an office at home. I sit down and I will write for two hours. I basically, at the first draft stage, write whatever comes into my head. I’m trying not to edit at all at that stage. Or think too hard about it – again, partially just so that I don’t engage that part of my brain that says: “this isn’t working.” I will start writing, and I don’t care if I’m starting at the beginning of the book or the middle of the book. I don’t care if I’m, at the start of the page, writing about a boy named Tom, and by the end of the page he’s morphed into a girl named Janet. I just write whatever comes into my head.
I’ll take a break, then come back. At that stage I read it out loud. This is one of the things I always tell kids, including my own, which is to read everything out loud because your ear will hear a lot of things your eyes don’t see. So I read it out loud.
I’m a brilliant typist, I have to say – mostly because I was always running late in my entire life, so I really learned to type as fast as my brain works. As I’m reading out loud, I’m making changes on the fly.
That process just continues. I’ll do that for a while, then I’ll come back, I’ll sit down again, read out loud what I’ve rewritten, continue to make changes, and hopefully it works a bit like the run before the high jump. As I’m fixing that, it gives me the momentum to carry on. That’s basically my process.
(3) Interviewer: What drew you to the various audiences you write for and the characters you’ve created?
Vicki Grant: When I wrote The Puppet Wrangler, my kids would have been more or less that age group. My son was about twelve, I would say. That’s where I was in my life, and those were the books I was seeing. In terms of the story that popped into my head, it’s about a girl who ends up helping out on a television set as a puppet wrangler, so realistically she’s not going to be younger than twelve.
I also, like I say, didn’t even know what “Young Adult” was. I think, had I written it again, I probably would have made the girl fifteen, because now I know twelve-year-olds are reading books about fifteen-year-olds. That was something I had to learn.
But the other thing was, I came to realize that age really appeals to me. Every writer is at some level writing about their own life. I mean, the great thing about writing is you get to re-imagine the way things could have turned out. If I think about my own life at that age – I don’t want to make it sound like I had an unhappy childhood, I didn’t at all – but that was the time my parents were breaking up. A little bit older, my older brother would have left to go away to university. I think too, I really disappointed my mother for a certain period during that time. My teeth came in very crooked. I ended up getting these huge, thick glasses. The sort of goofiness that was maybe cute when I was little started to kind of worry her. I think she really thought: “Oh my god, what are we going to do with this kid?” I didn’t figure that out until high school when I thought: “Hmm, maybe I gotta figure out what everyone else is doing and try to conform a little bit…” So I think at some level I’m still writing about that kid. I think that’s the appeal.
(4) Interviewer: How would you describe yourself when you were a teenager? Is there any character you’ve created that particularly reminds you of yourself?
Vicki Grant: There’s always a bit of me in my characters. One is Telly in The Puppet Wrangler. What’s interesting is, I didn’t in any way think of her like myself. I had this idea for a story, then I conceived this character out of thin air, I thought. When the book came out and was published, my older brother called me and said: “This reminds me of what happened to you when you when were twelve.”
Telly, in the book, gets sent away to stay with this aunt who works in the television business and she really doesn’t want anything to do with her. She’s kind of stuck with this kid. What I never thought of at all until that moment was: when I was twelve, I got sent away to stay with a relative who didn’t want me. It wasn’t because my sister stole a bus, though she could have, lord knows – no, she wasn’t like that at all.
My mother was from Winnipeg, we lived in Halifax, and I think she just thought I should get to know her mother. I don’t know if my mother ever okay’d it with Gaggy that I was coming for the summer, but anyway, I spent the summer with this really scary old English lady who wanted to have nothing to do with me. That was really the beginning of the period in my life when I was thinking there might be something the matter with me. Everyone else thinks of their grandmothers as a nice, soft, loving, adoring person. My grandmother was: “Children should be seen and not heard.” She decided I was too skinny. Here I am in this sweltering Winnipeg summer, and I would have a bowl of porridge. There was butter for her and margarine for me. I mean, it wasn’t quite Dickens, but…
And interestingly enough (I think it’s interesting enough anyway) in the book I have a bad character and the bad character lives in this village. I had to come up with a name for this village. The name that popped up was Bousefield, which just so happens to be my grandmother’s last name. So there’s obviously a lot of me in it. Here’s this twelve-year-old suddenly in this hostile environment and having to make her way through it.
The other character who’s kind of like me is Betsy Wickwire. She’s an idealized version of my high school self, I guess, but… I had just started to write this book. I had this idea that I thought would be kind of fun – these girls who have a cleaning service. This idea just came to me because I was looking for a cleaning lady myself and realized how much they were paid now. I suggested to my own teenage daughters that they, instead of working at Tim Hortons – why don’t they start a cleaning service? They were like: “You want ME to clean someone’s house?” So anyways, it was just supposed to be a fun idea.
Around that time Not Suitable for Family Viewing had come out. Someone emailed me from high school ‘cause they’d heard about it – they’d seen something in the paper about it, and said: “Vicki, I saw this, I saw your writing, and this doesn’t surprise me at all ‘cause you were always confident and outgoing.” I looked at this email and I was shocked. I mean, confident is the last thing, the very last word, I would use to describe my high school self. In fact when I think of high school, I think of embarrassment, or looming embarrassment. Everything I did – there was the capacity of humiliation in anything I did. But then when I thought about it, this is someone who didn’t know me very well, and if I thought of what I did in high school, if she just saw me goofing around in the halls (which is what I did), and in the classrooms, I could see how she could think I was like that.
That changed what Betsy Wickwire became. It became about a girl who has this outside persona, and then loses all the things that makes that possible for her, so loses the boyfriend, loses the best friend, feels that she’s lost her popularity – her having to come to terms with who she is inside.
(5) Interviewer: You’ve written an amazing number of books over the years! What inspires you? How do you keep them coming?
Vicki Grant: As far as ideas go, I don’t think of them being particularly precious. I think that comes from my years in advertising and television, where I was really paid to come up with ideas, so I realized early on I couldn’t wait to be inspired. I couldn’t hope that the “Idea Fairy Dust” would land on me when I needed it.
It’s like anything else, you just work at it. For instance, sometimes a publisher will get in touch with me, like in the case of Orca. They produce quite a number of their Soundings and Currents yearly, so they’re always looking for ideas. Either they’ll get in touch with me, or I’ll get in touch with them. I’ll say, “Is there anything you’re looking for now? Do you need something for Soundings or something for Currents?” Then whatever it is, whatever they need, I’ll go work to that.
They won’t say: “I need a boy and a racing car!” They’ll say: “We’ve got some room in the Sounding series for next time.” So I know they’re looking for something for a particular age group; they want something kind of edgy. I know they want a story that can be told in 100 pages. In a way it’s not that different from a kid getting an assignment at school: these are the parameters, come up with something.
At that point I will sit down, either with a piece of paper or in front of my computer, and I’ll just throw ideas down. It’s a bit like the process of the first draft – I’m just throwing out everything I can think of. In the back of my head are the parameters, but I’m not worrying too much about that. Maybe I’ll come up with 100 ideas, and I’ll immediately cross out 90 of them because there’s no hope for a story there, or they don’t fit the parameters. Then I’ll take the five, or six, or seven that I’ve got left, and think: “Can I take this germ of a story and blow it up enough to become a book?” It’s a pretty – as much as anything I do is logical – reasonably logical process.
I certainly mine my own life, or the lives of my kids. For instance, in Dead End Job, which I think was the first Orca Soundings I wrote – it’s about a girl who gets stocked. When I was in my twenties, and working at a bar, and living above the bar, I got stocked by one the guys who worked there. Nothing happened to me. He ended up moving into the same building with me and coming to the bar one night and saying: “I’m watching you when you don’t know I’m watching you.” That was enough the landlord moved him out. End of story. That wouldn’t have made a good story, but certainly lots of kids in their teens, working in convenience stores or Tim Hortons, have had the experience of just being friendly to a customer and that being misread. So I took that idea.
I will take ideas from the newspaper. Again, the germ of an idea. I think the other thing it’s important to say is: once I plug in the parameters of the project, and once I spend a bit of time throwing ideas out there, I can leave it and head off and go for a walk, or clean the house, or whatever. It’s a bit like putting soup on the stove to simmer. Four hours later, out of the blue, an idea will pop into my head, which is kind of what happened with Quid Pro Quo. I was actually on holiday, and I was walking up for the beach. I was like: “Oh, here’s an idea. How about a legal thriller?”
So there’s a bit of work, and there’s a bit of magic that happens.
(6) Interviewer: Some of your books demonstrate a high level of knowledge in a certain field. Res Judicata and Quid Pro Quo, for instance, have a great deal of legal content. Were you already familiar with this field before you began writing? If so, how did you gain this expertise? If not, what’s your research process?
Vicki Grant: I generally speaking avoid facts. Facts are not my strong point, I have to say. I think I’ve got twelve years of public school to prove that, and more.
I am married to a lawyer, and all my siblings became lawyers, believe it or not. Cyril in Quid Pro Quo – I’m basically Cyril. I know just enough to kind of: “Maybe there’s something here.” I do do a certain amount of research, but it’s really only Quid Pro Quo and Res Judicata that I have to really know what’s going on. A certain amount of that is elbowing my husband as he’s nodding off to sleep, asking him to explain something to me again.
In those cases [Quid Pro Quo and Res Judicata], he’s certainly read [them]. He’s not a criminal lawyer, so I have another friend who’s a criminal lawyer and would read it for any major problems. That said, I want that to be correct. But I’m writing in entertainment.
I’m currently working on a mystery set in Halifax during the Second World War, so I’ve done more research for that. One of the things that I’ve found is: it’s paralyzed me. When I said before my process is to sit down, just write whatever comes into my head, well … I’ll start doing that, then I’ll think: “Geez, did they have doorbells in the 1940s?” I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’m terrified I’m going to be making a mistake. So I’ve done quite a bit of research interviewing people, one of whom is Budge Wilson and her husband, and that was fabulous. But too, I had to, at a certain point just say: “I’m not a historian.” I want to do enough research so it’s not laughably bad, but I really can’t worry too much about what mascara was like in the 1940s. If I’ve got it wrong, I’ve got it wrong. It’s not going to destroy the book.
(7) Interviewer: Could you tell us a bit about some of your favourite books, or about the books that came the easiest or the hardest, or were the most surprising? Are they linked to particular influences?
Vicki Grant: I would say I have two favorite books. One was The Puppet Wrangler, just because I really started it on a whim. I wasn’t one of those people who grew up always wanting to write a book, so I didn’t have any of that pressure that comes from that. Instead I just sat down and wrote this book and I had so much fun. All my life I’d been a writer, but I’d always written for someone else, I’d always had a boss, I’d always had a deadline, I always had a certain length I had to write to, certain characters I had to write to, and here for the first time in my life I could write whatever I wanted. It opened this door for me; it really changed my life. It didn’t change my financial situation for the better. Maybe I shouldn’t like it as much as I did.
And then as far as really enjoying writing a book, I really enjoyed the process of Not Suitable for Family Viewing. Writing a mystery – there’s an intellectual side to creating a puzzle that I really enjoyed. Finding that balance between too obvious and too hidden. What I want people to do when they finish reading one of my mysteries, when they see the solution, is to have that moment where it’s kind of like: “Oh!” Kind of a predictable surprise. I want them to have a moment of shock, then all the pieces fall into place for them, as opposed to either having figured it out at page twenty, or having that feeling they’ve been robbed at the end, because come on, we only saw the bus driver once, how could he have done it? Trying to get that balance – I enjoyed that process.
I would say that there isn’t one of my books that I couldn’t pick up and open to a page and cover my face with my hands thinking: “What was I thinking?? Why didn’t I take that word out? That’s lumpy! That’s a stupid scene!”
But the other thing for me too, and I guess for all young adult or children authors, is unlike other authors, we’re writing for an audience that isn’t ourselves. It’s not until the book is out there that I know what works.
It’s always good for me to go to schools and read. I’ll read a passage that I’m thinking is hilarious and there’ll be stony silence. Then I’ll read something else and the kids will laugh. In fact, in Dead End Job there’s this one line – it’s describing the stocker before you know he’s a stocker – and I say something like: “He’s skinny … and something … and he could have used a shave too.” The kids always laugh at that. I’m like, “He could have used a shave? That’s funny? Who knew?”
I would say the sequel to Pig Boy, which is a Currents book – it’s called Hold the Pickles – when I got the finished book back I squirmed a bit with it. But you know – I just found out it got nominated, so I don’t know. That wouldn’t be my favorite book. It’s working for somebody. I would rather … I don’t know. I’d rather we’re both happy, frankly.
(8) Interviewer: You’ve written several books for Orca Publisher’s Soundings series, books with high interest and low vocabulary requirements. Do you approach these books differently from the others? That is, do you have particular guidelines in mind to distinguish between the different audiences you write for?
Vicki Grant: I don’t really write the high-low books all that differently for a few reasons. One is, again, this background I had in advertising. I’m used to writing in short sentences. Generally speaking, in advertising you’re not throwing out your fifty dollar words. You’re getting the point across in the fastest, pithiest – hopefully funniest – way you can. That was my background.
Also, when I started writing those books my son was in junior high. He was a reluctant reader. I wouldn’t have known that’s the term for it – I just knew I had a kid who didn’t want to read. He had no problem reading – he just didn’t want to read. So at some level I’m always writing a book for a kid like my son. I don’t want to put any obstacles up there, whether those obstacles are highfalutin language, or long paragraphs, or clever structural things. That’s not the type of writer I am.
I like to think the high-low novels I write, if somebody didn’t know they were in that category, wouldn’t think of them that way. They don’t have the whiff of the remedial reader about them. That said, some of my longer books … kids who aren’t big readers probably aren’t going to pick up a book that’s 80 000 words. So I give myself a little more leeway with those. But I don’t feel at all constrained writing high-low novels.
I would say too, as much as I say I avoid big words, if I feel “perspicacious” is the right word, I would throw it in. Kids – if they’re involved in the story, and they’re enjoying it, and it’s not twenty pages of big words, there’s just that one word standing out – they’ll go for it.
(9) Interviewer: Would you say that any of your books fit what have come to be called “crossover” books?
Vicki Grant: Not the high-low ones, probably, but I’ve certainly heard that about Not Suitable for Family Viewing, and Quid Pro Quo, and The Puppet Wrangler too, and I guess Betsy Wickwire. All those, because, unbeknownst to me when I started wring these books, there are a whole bunch of people – adults – who are reading Young Adults, and they’re not librarians necessarily, or teachers, or what have you. They just like that setting.
This mystery that I’m writing, set in Halifax – I’m consciously writing it as a crossover book for two reasons. One is, I think there’s an interest in the Second World War, but I think we tend to think of the Second World War fought by adults, and in fact it was fought by kids. I was inspired to write that book when I took my own son, at seventeen, to university. I’m leaving him in a locked dorm with an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and I’m sobbing to leave my child – my baby – and it hit me that at that age my grandmother was saying goodbye to my father. My seventeen-year-old father was leaving Stittsville Ontario to fight a war. I even tear up thinking about it. To me it’s just ripe for that. For kids, the realization that, 70 years ago, they’d be heading over to Europe with a bayonet. You can imagine. But for adults there’s an interest in that.
(10) Interviewer: All but one of your books are novels, or at least chapter books. Have you ever been inspired to write in a different genre? If so, what?
Vicki Grant: Picture books. I actually have an idea at Orca at the moment for a picture book, and I’d love to do that. It would just be for fun. I say that because everybody tells me you make no money on picture books. It’s something I’ve really wanted to do.
Poetry – I can’t see myself writing poetry, really. Or … short stories … I love to read short stories, but again, I don’t see that.
Adult books – yes. Adult mysteries interest me. I like to read mysteries. For me it’s finding one. I really don’t want to have someone flayed alive. I think there are people like me out there who don’t want these really, really gruesome ones, who are sort of passed the British Cozies or whatever the term is for them. I’d love to write something in the genre, say, of Snow Falling on Cedars, where it’s definitely a mystery but it’s sort of character-based. You’re not having nightmares over it, but you’re engaged in the suspense. I’m hoping that’s the kind of book I’m going to have created with this Second World War mystery. Those are the ones that interest me.
I feel much more confident writing a mystery because I feel like if I’ve got a dead body in the first chapter, people will follow the trail of blood – as opposed to writing just a straight coming-of-age novel. Are they going to get bored of my whining?
(11) Interviewer: Virtually all your books are narrated in the first person. Why is that? What is it you prefer about this point of view?
Vicki Grant: All the Orca Books, you have to write in the first person because they feel that kids get more engaged that way. I have tried writing books in the third person and a few things happen. One is: I find it hard to keep the focus. I got 20 000 words into a book in the third person, and what would happen is every time a new character would walk into the room, it’s like the camera swung around. I find it harder to control that way.
I also started writing the Second World War mystery in the third person, because part of me really wants to write in the third person. I want the liberty of writing in the third person. When you’re writing from the first person, you obviously can only show what they’re seeing. But for this mystery, I was worried that I didn’t know the era well enough to write in the third person. I feel like if you have a third person narrator, everything’s got to be exactly right. They’re omnipotent; they can see everything that’s going on. It made me a little nervous.
Currently what I’m doing is: I’m writing it from the first person view point of two different characters and they’re looking back. That gives me that one more layer of getting it wrong. I can have them a little bit hazy. Same way if someone asked me how a doorbell worked in 1978, it would be reasonable that I wouldn’t know it exactly. That said, I would still like to try writing in the third person.
(12) Interviewer: All your books have a spontaneous, quick-moving flavor (not to mention a hilarious one!) and you capture teenaged voices brilliantly. Does this writing style come naturally to you, or do you have to work at it?
Vicki Grant: I’m a totally untrained writer, I really am. I actually taught a class once, and it was the first class I’d ever been to. People ask me these kinds of technical questions, and I’m like: “I don’t really know … I just remember that because I was listening in grade eight once, apparently.”
So really, I write instinctually. I write on the basis that young readers especially aren’t going to give me a whole bunch of time to grab them. I think with adults – adults will maybe give you 50 or 100 pages before they decide: “I don’t want to read this book.” A kid, if you don’t get them right away, they don’t want to read it. And that too comes from my background in advertising and television. Nobody wants to watch an ad, so you have to grab them. I don’t have any guidelines or anything – it’s just a gut feeling. I want to grab them right away and keep them going.
In some cases, like in Res Judicata, I started with a chapter that is something that is going to happen later in the book, and then you go back five months. The reason I did that is: I really needed a way to get the mystery started, and there wasn’t an easy way to do that. If your main character is a detective, your book can start with them getting a call on their cell phone: “There’s a dead body!” It’s going to be a mystery, and their job is to solve the mystery. If your main character is a fifteen-year-boy, well … his job isn’t to solve the mystery. In fact, in most cases there are all kinds of reasons that he shouldn’t be solving the mystery. He should be telling somebody. He should be telling his teacher. He should be calling the police. He’s just a fifteen-year-old kid. I have to have something happen that is going to involve him, and then I also have something else that has to happen that has to rule out anybody else being involved in it.
So in Quid Pro Quo, his mother goes missing. What rules it out is, he knows immediately if he calls the police they might find his mother and she might be doing something illegal and then he’s in trouble. Or they might put him in foster care, and he doesn’t want that. So right away, that leaves him to fix it.
Everybody who writes Young Adult novels has the same conundrum: Why would a kid be in a situation where they have to solve this? That’s why you have so many orphans. Nowadays you have to have cell phones fall into toilets … or you have to have them in some dystopian world where they can’t Google the issue.
(13) Interviewer: Most of your books are set in Halifax, or at least in Nova Scotia. Why is that? Do you feel you have a particular role to play as a Nova Scotian, a Maritimer, or an Atlantic Canadian writer?
Vicki Grant: There are two reasons [why my books are set in Halifax]. I mean, one reason is laziness on my part. I know Halifax. I know the area of the South Shore where Not Suitable for Family Viewing took place. I have that map in my brain already. I know what people sound like; I know what it smells like; I know where Spring Garden intersects Robie. When I’m writing a story, I’m not having to have a map like on the inside cover of the Hobbit and figuring out where everything is. It’s easier for me to write that way.
It’s not just that it’s easier in terms of keeping things straight – it’s easier for me to condense what’s happening. I know a place well enough, I can describe it in fewer (and hopefully in more accurate) words. I’m not a big fan of long, descriptive paragraphs. I think I write better about a place I know.
That said, it really annoys me [that] all shows shot in Canada have to look like they’re from somewhere else. We’ve gotta hide the fact that we’re Canadian. The Australians don’t do that. The new Zealanders don’t do that. Not everybody who isn’t the States tries to conceal the fact. I think it’s really great to be able to read about where you’re from.
I’m a huge fan of Anne of Green Gables, but I don’t think the only stories of local interest have to be ones that happened a hundred years ago. So yeah, I do that on purpose.
(14) Interviewer: Would you say that there is some defining feature or indelible mark to literature from the Atlantic Provinces or from Nova Scotia? If so, what would it be?
Vicki Grant: I haven’t really kept up on young adult books, partially because I’m writing all the time. I really don’t like to read young adult novels while I’m writing a young adult novel, partially because I need a break from it, but the other thing is, I’m sort of worried I’m going to get a voice in my head that’s not my own. So the ones I know, like Don Acre, or John MacLean, or Budge … Lisa Herrington – there’s nothing that jumps out at me, like: “This is what we share.” I think we’re quite different writers.
(15) Interviewer: As one of Atlantic Canada’s most prolific YA authors, how did it happen that Orca Book Publishers (in Victoria, BC) is now your publisher?
Vicki Grant: I wrote my first book entirely on a whim. That said, I was able to write it because I have a kind hearted husband who said: “Look, you need a break from television. Take some time off. Take five months off and write a book if you want to do it.”
That meant that for five months I wasn’t bringing in an income. As much as I said, “I’m just going to write a book and I’m not going to worry if it doesn’t get published,” I did promise myself – and my husband – at the end of these five months, I would put my manuscript in an envelope and send it off to publishers.
I didn’t know how to go about that. I Googled Canadian publishers. I came up with the Canadian Publishers Association website. I looked at all the publishers who did young adult fiction. I sent it off to the six who were accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Two weeks later, I got a call from Orca – Maggie Devries, who’s one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met – saying: “We’d be interested in publishing your book.”
Then I got two rejection letters, and then I never heard from the other three. So it was dumb luck that connected me with Orca, and that my manuscript happened to fall on Maggie’s desk, and Maggie happened to like it.
By the time The Puppet Wrangler was on its way to being published, I had had the idea of Quid Pro Quo. I suggested it to them, they said, “Sure.” Then they said: “We have these other series about high-low novels.” I’m like: “What’s that?” So I just started doing it with them.
I have a very comfortable relationship with them where I call them up and say, “I have an idea,” and they say, “Sure, go ahead.” One of the reasons I really wanted to get out of the television business was all the gatekeepers. There’s so much money required to get something on screen, you have to go through all these different people who will say “yay” or “nay,” or change it, or whatever. One of the things I love about Orca in particular is just: “Hey I got an idea,” and, “Sure, go ahead.” They have a wonderful relationship with the schools, both here and in the States, and my books are sold in Germany, and Sweden, and France. They just take it and run with it. So that’s how it happened.
(16) Interviewer: Have you ever been pressured to write a story set in BC, or elsewhere in Canada?
Vicki Grant: I know a lot of authors do set their books in the States, or partially in the States, and Not Suitable for Family Viewing is, but that was a demand of the plot. The main character, Robin – her mother is this really, really famous talk show host. I needed somebody that famous. We don’t really have the star system here in Canada, and if we did, she would be identifiable. So I needed her to get totally away from it.
(17) Interviewer: What sorts of responses do you get from your readers? Are they particularly enthusiastic about and/or critical of any specific titles? Are there any gender considerations to these responses?
Vicki Grant: I love doing school visits, partially because I write these books totally alone and I don’t know how they’re going to fly until I have a response from a kid. Certainly with the Soundings and Currents, the school visits have changed the nature of some of the books. I see what works with kids and what doesn’t.
You write for this genre, you’re going to have a certain number of gross-out scenes. You can never lose with snot. It’s just there. Snot is kind of socially acceptable. (There are other bodily fluids we steer away from). It works. Kids laugh.
I’ve also been surprised – Dead End Job has done really, really well, and I wouldn’t have realized why it works without the school visits. When I started writing these books – writing books in general … I’m a mother of quite young children, and I really avoided any sort of whiff of romance at all, thinking that wouldn’t be appropriate, or it wouldn’t be appropriate for my kids. They would be like: “Oh, Mom!” And then reading Dead End Job, in the first chapter the fellow who turns out to be the stocker comes in, but when you’re reading it, it’s not clear if this is a flirtation or what have you. The kids are just riveted at that stage. Especially junior high and up, even the most disengaged class, I can pull that one out and get them interested.
I realized: “Well of course, what are kids thinking about?” Of course you have to have [romance] in them. I would say now – every book that I write there’s some aspect of that. That said, I’m never going to write a sex scene. You’ll be happy to know, it’s never going to happen!
Interviewer: Are there any final points you would like to make for your readers, or for new writers?
(18) Vicki Grant: Just do it. It’s like the T-shirt says. We talk ourselves out of it.
I’m always amazed when I sit down and read something that I wrote, even something that I felt is kind of hopeless. There’ll be something there. There’ll be a glimmer there, and I describe it for kids when I go to schools. I actually have a PowerPoint presentation, and I have a picture – an actual untouched photo – of my 17-year-old daughter’s room. There are clothes everywhere; it looks like someone came with a leaf blower or something into Frenchies. The title of that slide is: “Clean Out Your Closet.” I don’t want my daughter’s room to look that way, but at some level that’s what I do. I empty that big, messy closet of my brain. I throw everything out there. I’m amazed when I find that red blouse that I didn’t even remember I had. Sometimes just getting things down on paper or on the screen is really encouraging in itself.
The other thing I always say is: “Learn to type!” I’m amazed by the people who kind of hunt and peck. For me again, part of the process is the speed of it; I’ve got to get things out quickly while my brain is belching it out. And writing is about rewriting. If you don’t have that facility…I would just cry if I were facing a 60 000 word book that I had to rewrite, if I’d written it by hand. Some people do it.
The other thing is too, you have to work. You have to sit down; you have to get things on paper or on the screen. But also, don’t panic. Don’t let a writer’s block panic you, or don’t let that “beige brain” thing panic you. That’s part of the process too. That’s your brain going – I was going to use an agriculture metaphor which I have no way to use because I have no idea how farms work – it’s like your brain needs that time to just sit with something. The times I procrastinate by going out for a walk, or folding laundry, or baking cookies, or whatever I do – they’re not totally a waste of time if I’ve done the start-up work beforehand.
I wonder if there’s something I should say – and I don’t want this to be too self-serving – but something about the value of teachers having local writing. So often, they’re the big American blockbusters. Not to say that people shouldn’t be reading those. But I think if you’ve got kids reading books that are about their own place, it plants the idea that they too could write about their own place, or that there’s some value to their own place or their own culture. It brings it closer to them. It feeds the whole cultural scene. By consuming local culture, you create local culture, and you create people who are interested in it, and then that moves beyond. We’ve seen it with our music, that so often it’s not until someone has a big hit elsewhere that it’s picked up here. I would say this is true of a lot of authors that I know. We’re better known in Ontario, or we’re better known in the States than we are here. Again, I don’t want to be too self-serving, but I’d love to see more of our books really looked at in schools.