Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Our interview with Jill MacLean

Our Red Cedar Book Award Club had the pleasure of interviewing Jill MacLean by email last week. The students came up with the questions and we emailed them off to her.

Jill MacLean is the author of The Hidden Agenda of Sigrid Sugden, a poignant book about the trials and tribulations of teenagers in Newfoundland. When Sigrid's best friend moves away, she gets drawn into a group of bullies and at first she likes the friendship they provide. However, she eventually realizes how hurtful and mean these friends are and tries to break free. This takes a lot of courage and perseverance as Sigrid is now seen as a bully, as she herself was involved in tormenting other students. Jill is a master storyteller who creates very strong characters. The reader can't help but be drawn into this adolescent world full of hurt, and growing pains.

Thank you so much for the interview, Jill MacLean!

What are my other interests?
I love to garden, canoe, hike, and travel – some of my best trips were to Devon Island and Ellesmere Island in Canada’s high arctic, to Iceland, as well as Paris, the Netherlands, and southern England. Greenland is still on my list, although why I’d want to go to Greenland when Nova Scotia is waist-deep in snow, I have no idea.
My canoe is lightweight, with a built-in solo seat. Is there anything better than paddling alone at dawn with a mist rising from the lake?
I’ve taken up piano lessons again, after a gap of many years. I have a digital piano with earphones because I live in an apartment, and – believe me – no one would want to hear me practising. Not even me, some days – the piano, I’ve decided, is meant to keep me humble.
I love family get-togethers, and dinners with friends. I love reading and going to libraries – amazing that they’re still free! If you’ll let me boast a little, we have a great new public library in downtown Halifax, with cafés, lots of places to sit and sip your coffee and read, an outdoor patio overlooking the harbour – and, of course, books, books, and more books.

How did I come up with the idea for The Hidden Agenda of Sigrid Sugden?
At the end of “The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy,” which is told from Prinny’s point of view, there’s a scene at the wharf where Prinny is forced into a dory by the Shrikes when the tide’s on the turn; later, she finds out that Sigrid is the one who phoned for help. I was left wondering what would happen to Sigrid if the other two Shrikes found out she’d ratted on them. Which of course they did….
After “Present Tense” was published in 2009, I wrote two other books (“Home Truths” and “Nix Minus One”) before Sigrid grabbed me by the sleeve and said okay, it’s my turn.
I was also interested in someone who bullies and then tries to change her ways. Would the other kids ever trust her again? Sigrid finds out how difficult change can be, and how lonely she is when she’s no longer a Shrike. The “bully” label can cling, and trust doesn’t come easily.

Have I always been a writer?
I’ve written for a long time. A poetry collection that I’d worked on over a period of ten years (!) was published in 2003, and a month or two later my 9-year-old grandson Stuart asked me to write him a book; it had to have hockey and skidoos in it. From this request (many rewrites and three rejections later) came the publication of “The Nine Lives of Travis Keating.”
Astonishing how a single question can change your life! I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to me to write for young people, but I’ve loved writing each of my five books. I’ve gone back into the classroom, me with my grey hair, terrified out of my wits the first time, and I’ve met so many terrific kids. Sure, there can be hassles in the writing life (I did mention rewrites and rejections, didn’t I?) But when somebody comes up to me and says, “I loved your book” – well, that’s what it’s all about.
 I have a degree in biology, and worked at the Fisheries Research Board, in hospital labs, and at Mount Allison University as a lab technician. Although I no longer work in these fields, my training in biology has translated into a love of the outdoors, and of identifying wildflowers and birds. For instance, I want to describe the barrens and the ocean so that you can see them too.
I’ll never forget how the Arctic flowers, brightly coloured in pinks and blues and yellows, grow on a tundra that stretches to the horizon and that at a quick glance looks lifeless – a second look is often a good idea.

 Who is my favourite author?
Always a difficult question to answer. I went through a phase of reading free verse novels, and loved Karen Hesse’s “Out of the Dust,” Sharon Creech’s “Love that Dog,” and Virginia Euwer Wolff’s “Make Lemonade.”
Martine Leavitt “Tom Finder” and “Heck Superhero”; Kenneth Oppel’s Batwing series; “Hunger Games”; anything by Pete Hautman and Laurie Halse Anderson; Don Aker’s “The First Stone”; Vicki Grant’s humorous, wise stories. Hilary McKay, Patricia Reilly Giff, Budge Wilson. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s “Shiloh” books.
I could go on….obviously I don’t have a favourite author. Give me a good story well-told with interesting characters, and I’m happy.

What do I do if I get writer’s block?
In a major way (touch wood) I’ve never had writer’s block. But on a day to day basis, there have definitely been times I’ve written myself into a corner, or I’ve had no idea how to begin the next scene, or the darn words just won’t do what I want them to do (a perennial problem, I suspect, with most writers). On those days, I’ve learned to turn off the laptop and head outdoors – for a walk, to the beach, to Starbucks with a book – anywhere where I’m not staring in total frustration at a blank screen.
I find walking is best – all that blood going to the brain? I carry a notebook, and can be seen on the side of the road near my apartment scribbling away because I’ve just discovered what Sigrid’s going to do next…the neighbours must think I’m nuts.

Am I working on another novel?
The $64 question. When I finished Sigrid, I had ideas for two other YA novels. But the energy just wasn’t there (it takes a lot of energy to fill all those empty screens). In ten years, I’d written five books for young people, four set in Newfoundland (where my son and his family lived for 17 years), and four to do with bullying (“Home Truths” is actually told from the point of view of, through the eyes of, a bully).
I felt I was getting in a rut. I felt I needed a new challenge.
The medieval period has always interested me, so right now I’m writing a novel set in southern England (where I was born) in 1348, the year of the Black Death. It’s fascinating – and at times downright difficult – to see the world through the eyes of someone who lived 650 years ago (my main character, Edmund, is 18 and just back from taking part in the war in France). And the amount of research I’ve needed to do, and still need to do, is mind-boggling – let alone remembering everything I read. I wanted a new challenge? I got one.

Will there be another novel in the series?
I don’t know. Tate interests me as a character, and I love the northern Newfoundland setting, and the way Travis, Prinny, Hud and Sigrid are interweaving their lives. Plus the cats’ lives! But I guess I can’t answer right now – I’d have to drag myself back to the 21st century, right?

How long did it take to get this book published?
Not long at all, because Fitzhenry & Whiteside, my publishers, were happy to have the third volume in the series.
However, it took me about five years to get “The Nine Lives of Travis Keating” published. My first version (what I see now was really a first draft) was called “Making Waves.” I thought it was brilliant, two of my friends thought it was brilliant, so I sent it off to a publisher – who didn’t think it was brilliant. Rejection #1.
I rewrote the manuscript from beginning to end, deepening the characters and the story; I went to a writers’ workshop at Humber College, and rewrote the ending. I sent the manuscript off to an agent, who rejected it, although with very helpful editorial comments. Rejection #2.
I made a few more changes, sent the manuscript off to another publisher, and got the nicest possible rejection letter; I should frame it and hang it on the wall. Rejection #3.
Then I tried Fitzhenry & Whiteside and they let me know right away that they wanted my book – and how exciting was that.
You usually have to wait for publishers to read your manuscript, so in between these various rejections, I wrote “The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy.” In consequence, I was able to tell Fitzhenry when they accepted “Nine Lives” that I had a sequel ready to go – a good marketing strategy, although at the time I didn’t know have a clue about such matters as marketing.
I often tell kids about the two R words: Rejection (always hard to take – you put your heart and soul into something, and then someone tells you it’s not good enough? Ouch); and Revision. I love revising, because anything that makes my story better, more interesting, more fun, more readable – how can that be anything but good?

Here’s a question of my own: do I have any advice for young writers?
1)      Write. It’s the only way to learn. Tough, but true.
2)      Read. And read. And read some more. If you feel like it, try and figure out in your favourite books how the author writes a scene that sends you into the middle of next week. How he/she creates that sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-chair suspense. How she/he gives you just enough detail to make you long for more.
3)      Pay attention. Use your five senses as well as your iPhone. I have a regrettable tendency to eavesdrop on conversations (one of my jobs is to write good dialogue); I watch people’s body language; I try and figure out what makes them tick (an impossible task, but still…).
4)      Above all, have fun with words. They can do amazing things.
And remember – without readers, we writers are out of a job.
Thank you all so much. I wish I could drop in to your classroom for a visit!

Jill MacLean

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