Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
Jacqueline Pearce Interview
6/15/2010 6:41:11 AM
B.C. author, Jacqueline Pearce talks about her works and the business of writing.
LTS: Today’s guest blogger is my Twitter pal and fellow local writer, the incredibly talented Jacqueline Pearce. Jacqueline is the author of popular middle-grade and YA novels.
I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers. When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
JP: I like to explore –whether it’s other countries or just different areas of my own city (and usually it’s the latter). I work from home, so my time is pretty flexible, and quite often I’ll take an afternoon break and go off on some kind of exploratory mission (sometimes it’s as simple as a visit to the library, art gallery, beach, or an interesting old part of town that’s full of history, or the best cherry blossom streets in the spring). My teenage daughter would probably say I’m “weird,” but I never get tired of looking at things around me and noticing nature, architecture, interesting graffiti, etc. Also, when I’m traveling on the bus or walking around, I can let my imagination wonder, so I often end up working on stories in my head while I’m on my “break.” I also like to work on art projects and read or listen to audio books. I like sports too, and used to play ball hockey every week, but I haven’t played in awhile.
LTS: I believe your daughter will think I’m ‘weird’, too! I get my best ideas when I’m just walking around by myself. As for your writing, you’ve been doing this from an early age, publishing your first poem at the age of 12. Was becoming a published author a life long dream?
JP: Yes. When I was about 12, I read the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, the Anne and Emily books by Lucy Maud Montgomery, and several other novels that I loved. Opening the covers of those books was like stepping through a magic door into another world. I guess I wanted to be able to create that kind of magic myself. Also, I felt a compulsion to write (and to draw, too). I kept a diary, wrote poems, short stories, the beginnings of several novels… But it was a long time before I actually finished a novel and got one published.
LTS: With seven books to your credit, let’s talk about your first, your latest and what’s to come.
I understand your debut novel ‘The Reunion’ is a story that takes place during the height of WW II. I find it so interesting that you chose to write about two characters, one of which is a Japanese girl who is interned in a prison camp. This is something that happened to my father who was born in Richmond. It was a subject that was not mentioned when I was in school and only mentioned in passing in my daughter’s grade six class. What made you think about writing about this subject matter when it is something most people would rather not think about or forget about this part of Canadian history?
JP: I’ve always been interested in history –not so much big world events, but what life was like for ordinary people during different times and situations. Other than some general “pioneer studies,” I don’t recall learning much about the history of ordinary people when I was in school. I found out about the WW II internment of Japanese-Canadians (and Americans) by chance during a summer job when I was a university student. I was working for an intercultural and immigrant aid society in my hometown on Vancouver Island, and someone there was collecting photographs as part of an oral history of Japanese people who had lived in the nearby town of Paldi. I was drawn in by the photographs of school kids and surprised at the different cultures represented. I’d grown up knowing that Paldi had a Sikh temple and was a place where a lot of people from India had settled, but I’d had no idea that there also used to be a Japanese Buddhist temple in Paldi and a large Japanese community (as well as people from China and Europe). It was a bit of a shock to see all the Japanese faces suddenly gone from the school photos after 1944, and it seemed wrong that I hadn’t known this bit of history, which had happened in my own backyard. The photos also got my attention because a girl in one of the Paldi school photos looked just like a friend of mine --but the photo was taken in 1945, and my friend wasn’t born until almost 20 years later. I found out later, it was my friend’s mom in the photo.
LTS: What I found shocking was that one of the youngest prisoners sentenced in Oakalla prison was a 12-year-old boy who was separated from his family and interned to Alberta. His only crime was returning to Vancouver to find his parents when the war was over and they were released from the camps, but all those of Japanese ancestry were not permitted to return to the coast for some time after the war ended. And I digress! What was the inspiration behind this story and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonists?
JP: When I learned about the town of Paldi I immediately began to wonder what it must have been like to live in such a multicultural community at a time when there wasn’t much acceptance of cultural differences outside of that community. I wondered what it must have felt like to be a child forced to leave home and live in an internment camp, or to be a child whose best friend was suddenly taken away. Since I hadn’t known about Paldi and the internment of the Japanese-Canadians, it was likely that many other people didn’t know either, and I wanted to remedy that. I knew right away that I wanted to tell a story about two friends from different cultures who lived in Paldi during WW II, but it wasn’t until almost twenty years later that I sat down to write it. When I did, I was able to interview my friend’s mom, whose family was originally from India. I found out that she did indeed have Japanese friends who were suddenly taken away. Some, she never saw again, but one, at least, she was reunited with several years later. The main characters I came to write about are figments of my imagination, but many of the details of what they experienced came from the memories shared by my friend’s mom and other people I interviewed during my research (including a woman whose family was taken from their home to an Japanese internment camp).
LTS: Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the reader when they crack open ‘The Reunion’?
JP: The story actually starts with two modern-day girls and takes the reader back in time to WW II through the story told by the grandmother of one of the girls. So, it’s actually about two different friendships, one in the present and one in the past, and what happens when anger threatens both friendships.
LTS: Your latest title ‘Manga Touch’ has my daughter thoroughly intrigued. She’s a fan of Manga, so of course, I’m going to ask you about this book. Can you tell the readers about the protagonist, Dana and her struggles to fit in?
JP: With Dana, I set myself the challenge to create a character who is not necessarily likable at first glance and who has a much tougher skin and a harsher way of responding to people than my other main characters or I have. When I found myself going on a trip to Japan, I knew it would be fun to take this character along and see how she reacted to all the new things I would be experiencing there. I have a good friend who lives in Japan and who is always sending me and my daughter manga, anime, candy, toys and other fun gifts from Japan, which is what first got me interested in modern Japanese culture. My character, Dana, is also interested in these things. She’s been feeling like an outsider at her school in Canada and jumps at the chance to go on an exchange trip to Japan. Unfortunately, her arch nemesis and ex-best friend is also on the trip and seems determined to keep reminding Dana that she doesn’t fit in.
LTS: Can you tell our readers what your latest story is about and when can your fans anticipate its release?
JP: While I was in Japan researching “Manga Touch” I was also fascinated by all the old culture and history that exists side by side with all the modern stuff, and I came home with several historical story ideas. One of these, a picture book about the origin of the Japanese beckoning cat statue (also known as the “lucky cat”), was supposed to be published Fall 2010. Unfortunately, it was cancelled by the publisher (long story related to the illustrations)), and I am currently waiting to hear back from another publisher who expressed interest. I used some of the research for the lucky cat book to write a chapter book, tentatively called “The Lucky Bakery,” which will be out with Orca Fall 2011. I also just finished writing a chapter book for a Korean educational publisher, which will only be available through a Korean ESL program, and I am working on a middle-grade novel set in a 1930s floating logging camp on Vancouver Island. Coincidentally, the setting for the 1930s historical novel is just down the road from Paldi (the setting of “The Reunion”). I don’t have a contract for it yet, but I’m hoping it will also be out in Fall 2011. After that, I hope to return to Japan (in writing if not in person) for a middle-grade historical novel (which I did further research for on a second trip to Japan last spring).
LTS: Now, to get to the business of writing! Was it difficult for you to land an agent? Do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?
JP: I don’t actually have an agent. I haven’t needed one to submit to Canadian publishers. Basically, I just started with a list of Canadian publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts (available from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre: http://www.bookcentre.ca/), and sent my stories to the publishers I thought would be appropriate for the type of stories I was writing. I began with picture book stories, and sent the first one to Orca. It was rejected, but the editor added an encouraging personal note to the form letter. Several years later, it was Orca who accepted my first novel. Before the novel, I had two young adult short stories published in anthologies with Thistledown Press, so that may have helped a bit when I submitted “The Reunion” to Orca. I don’t know if this experience is helpful to anyone else, but I would suggest not being adverse to starting small and to being encouraged by constructive criticism and suggestions (if an editor or agent rejected your story, but liked it well enough to give you some advise for improving it, then you must be on the right track). I also think it helps to do your homework and make sure you’re submitting your work to the right editor or the right publisher for that work.
LTS: Excellent advice, Jacquie! Now, Becoming a published author is truly a difficult road to travel, so we’re always pleased when a fellow writer is plucked from relative obscurity to land a book deal. Can you share that moment when you sold your first novel to Orca Books?
JP: Since I don’t have an agent, I heard directly from the editor at Orca (I can’t remember if it was through a phone call or letter), and it wasn’t actually a sale to start with. What I originally submitted to Orca was a picture book (or so I thought). Maggie de Vries, who was the editor of both picture books and novels at the time, told me she liked the story, but thought it would work better as a novel in Orca’s Young Reader series (for ages 8-11). She wanted to know if I’d be willing to rework the story and resubmit it, but said there would be no guarantee that Orca would accept the revised story. Still, I was thrilled! I went back to the drawing board, did more research, rewrote the story, and got the contract. It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt now, but I know I was elated! I don’t think it felt real until the book was in my hands, though.
LTS: I’m curious about your writing style. Are you one of those disciplined writers who must dedicate a certain time each day to producing so many words, or are you more relaxed and tend to write when it strikes your fancy?
JP: I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I try to write something every day, but this doesn’t always happen. When a story gets interrupted for a few days I find it hard to get back into it. For me, writing is like swimming in a cold lake. It takes me ages to get myself into the water, but once I’m finally immersed, it’s hard to get me out.
LTS: Still on the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.
JP: I usually have a plot outline, but not all the details. I know where the main character is going, but don’t necessarily how he or she will get from A to B. My experience working with Orca Book Publishers is that they want to see either a finished novel or the first few chapters with an outline of each following chapter, so this does force me to think things through fairly well. I don’t always stick with the outline, though. Sometimes a character goes off in a wrong direction, and I have to back track and start over.
LTS: With so many books in print and another novel underway, where do you tend to find most of your inspiration?
JP: Inspiration can come from anywhere –personal experiences, stories shared by friends, overheard conversations, something I heard on the radio or saw on TV, etc. I’m especially inspired by nature, local history, myths, legends, places I visit, and ordinary experiences involving friendship, regrets, embarrassing moments, joyful moments, loneliness, as well as moments of connection with other people and animals. There’s something that inspires me almost every day. I have piles of notebooks filled with ideas (not all of them good) and a huge back log of stories waiting to be written.
LTS: Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?
JP: Actually, I have quite a few rituals associated with taking a break and relaxing (for example, going on one of those exploratory “missions,” or sitting down with a cup of tea and some good chocolate), but I don’t really have any rituals around getting down to writing. I usually get up in the morning, have breakfast, then sit down at the computer in my home office, check my email, then start writing. If I’m having trouble getting into a story, then I can spend a lot of time procrastinating before I actually start writing. Maybe I need to think of some rituals that will help me get past this.
LTS: At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
JP: As I mentioned, I tend to get writers’ block when I’m trying to get back into a story that’s been interrupted for awhile or when I’m starting something new. I’m not exactly sure why, but the first few pages always seem to be the hardest to write. Sometimes it helps if I’m thoroughly prepared before I sit down to start (know my characters well, have all my background research done, etc), but sometimes I can use the need for more preparation as an excuse to avoid starting the writing. What I have to do is force myself to stay off the Internet, avoid distractions and excuses, sit in front of my computer and write (the old “butt in chair” approach).
LTS: Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?
JP: Probably the authors who most inspired me are the ones I mentioned reading when I was age 12 or so. For example, Lucy Maud Montgomery was inspiring because I loved her stories and her appreciation for nature (I wanted to visit Prince Edward Island because of her). Also, when I was growing up there weren’t a lot of kids’ novels written by Canadians, so the fact that L.M. Montgomery was Canadian and her stories were set in Canada let me know it would be okay for me to write books too and set them in the part of Canada where I lived. Christie Harris’ “The Secret in the Stlalakum Wild” inspired me in this way too. It was the first fantasy novel I’d read that was set on the west coast of Canada and inspired by the mythology of local First Nations people. It also had a strong message about the need for environmental protection, which had a big impact on me at the time. Another Canadian fantasy author who inspired me was Ruth Nichols, who wrote “The Marrow of the World” and “A Walk out of the World,” two novels I really enjoyed. In fact, “The Marrow of the World” was the first novel I re-read in order to analyze how it was written and why the writing style appealed to me (I was 12 or 13 when I did this). I discovered that I liked the contemporary, clean, directness of the writing (compared to some of the more flowery old-fashioned writing I’d read up until then). This had a definite influence on how I tried to write. Many other authors have inspired me over the years, as well. Currently, one of my favourite authors is Barbara Kingsolver. I love her style of weaving nature and metaphors through her human stories.
LTS: What is the most profound discovery you’ve made in terms of your writing and how it has touched the lives of others?
JP: There have been times that people have told me that reading one of my stories helped them feel better about something that had happened in their lives. Other times, people have said my stories made them think differently about other people or animals. For example, a teacher told me that reading my novel “Discovering Emily,” which is about the childhood of artist Emily Carr, helped her look for the spark of promise in each of her students –even when it’s not always easy to see. A few other people have told me that they felt more understanding and tolerance for rats after reading my novel “The Truth About Rats (and Dogs).” It’s gratifying to hear when a story has had some kind of positive impact on a reader –especially if it’s encouraged someone to think about something in a new way or offered some kind of comfort or inspiration to that person. When I was growing up, reading books opened my eyes to other places, times, and cultures and to both good and bad things that were happening around the world. It helped me develop the skill to imagine myself in someone else’s place and to empathize with all kinds of people. I’d like to think that maybe my books can help other people in the same way.
LTS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?
JP: A key thing I’ve learned is that most authors of books for children don’t make much money or get a lot of accolades. Sometimes the reception you get from kids on school visits can make up for this, but you really have to love writing for kids to keep doing it. Another thing I learned is you need to find where your passion is and where your abilities lie and not be swayed by what other people are writing (at least, this is what I tell myself).
LTS: I think this is very good advice, Jacquie. So tell me, what are you reading now, and how did this particular book make it onto your to-read list?
JP: I just finished reading “The Alchemyst” by Michael Scott, and have started “The Girl Who Chased the Moon” by Sarah Addison Allen. I tend to switch back and forth between books for kids and books for adults. I picked up “The Alchemist” (for kids) because a lot of people said good things about it, and it sounded intriguing. I started “The Girl Who Chased the Moon” (for adults) because I’d read two previous novels by the author and really enjoyed them. She writes contemporary stories with a touch of magic, and reading them is like sinking into a hot relaxing bath or eating my favourite chocolate.
LTS: What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you hope to branch out from Middle Grade/YA into other genres?
JP: In terms of genres, I tend to write historical fiction and contemporary fiction. What I wanted to write when I was a kid was fantasy, and that’s something I’d still like to try at some point. I will probably stay focused on Middle Grade and YA fiction, but I’d also like to write some picture books and possibly something involving poetry. It seems to be taking me forever to finish my current historical novel, though, so I really have to buckle down and get that finished first.
LTS: Thank you for taking the time to share in your works, wisdom and writing experience, Jacqueline! When we get together, I’ll be sure to bring along a box of chocolates to share!
For more information about Jacqueline Pearce and her novels, check out:
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter: .jacquieink
Where to buy the books: books can be ordered through local bookstores, www.amazon.com, www.chapters.indigo.ca, or www.orcabook.com
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