Catherine Austen books for young people

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"Her writing cuts straight to the heart."

(The Globe and Mail).

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Red Cedar Author Interview

In April 2012, I was interviewed by students of St. Michael's University School-Junior School who were reading Walking Backward as participants in British Columbia's Red Cedar Awards. Here's the full interview.

Why did the mom have to die? It seems that mothers always die in novels and then the family has to cope.

True. Moms die a lot in fiction. Partly this is because stories are about characters under stress, facing problems and working through them, and a parent dying is a huge stress in a young life, so it’s a way to test a character and show his or her growth.

Partly it’s because moms and dads worry over what would happen to their children without them. Writing a story about a dead parent is like leaving a message to your kids, and to all kids, that you can be okay even after something truly horrible or tragic or heart- breaking.

But if you’re tired of fictional moms dying, take a look at Gordon Korman’s wonderful book, No More Dead Dogs (about a boy sick of reading “serious books” where the dog always dies) and write a class story called No More Dead Moms (or protest the way Korman’s main character does).

What was it like using First Person perspective of the boy? How did you do it? How did you know how to speak for Josh?

It was easy peasy. I have sons (only), and they have their friends over all the time, so I’m around boys a lot. I had brothers growing up, and most of the books I read as a child had male main characters (they seemed to be much more common in my day). So the idea of speaking as a boy wasn’t weird to me.

Whenever you write, you speak as someone you are not. Different interests, different ages, a different gender, sometimes a different species – these are big leaps of imagination but not impossible. I believe that we are all basically the same in what harms us and what makes us happy, and though we may all hope for or worry about different things, the feeling of hoping and worrying is the same for all of us. So thinking like someone else is easy, or at least possible, if you keep compassion in your heart.

My first teen novel, All Good Children (which just won the Canadian Library Association’s 2012 Young Adult Book Award), is also a boy’s story in first person. He’s not as young and sweet as Josh – he gets in fights and plays tricks on people – but it was AWESOME to think like him. When I write, I get completely into a character – I start thinking and talking like them even when I’m not working.

Why and how did you choose the boys/ males in the story? Why wasn’t there a girl in the family?

They are completely based on my kids. My kids are almost 7 years apart and they were the ages of Josh and Sam at the time I started writing Walking Backward. Some of the things Josh does (like get his trading cards stolen at school) are taken from my oldest son’s life. Many of the things Sammy says are taken from my youngest son. (He really did say, “Every day is a good day.”) When my youngest turned 8, he read Walking Backward and said, “I can’t believe you put my Scooby Doo obsession in a book!”

Do you brainstorm ideas before you write or do you plunge right in ?

I start with the voice: an image of a character doing something pops into my head, and I get into his or her mind, and write something from his or her point of view. If the voice captivates me so that I keep thinking about it for a few days, I work out a story to go with that character (it feels more like discovering the story rather than making it up). If the story grabs me, I work it into a full outline. This way, the story and its characters are fully alive in my head before I draft (though I might not be sure how it ends).

There are many different ways to write a book. I use an outline but once that outline is done, I don’t necessarily write the book from start to finish. I might draft a scene from the middle of the book one day, then draft an earlier scene the next day. But there are many other writers who don’t use any outline at all, who write a story from start to finish without knowing where it’s going until it’s done.

Why the mean girl, Karen?

I don’t think Karen is mean. She is bold, but I don’t think she wants to hurt anyone. She just makes a stupid mistake and has a terrible time facing it. (I feel as if Karen is a bit like me, and I’m not mean!) Some adult readers have told me they feel sorry for Karen and want to know what happens to her. They pity her, because they judge her by her intentions (and she didn’t intend to hurt anyone). Maybe child readers are more likely to judge her harshly because they focus on the effects of her actions rather than her intentions (and the effects were awful).

That could be an interesting thing to study: whether adults and children tend to view the same character in different lights.

What inspired you to write this book about this topic?

When I was young I met a man who was building a time machine in his basement. Seriously. He was a cook in an Italian restaurant where I waitressed. He was not a scientist, just an ordinary man who was building a time machine in his spare time. This is something I never forgot.

After I had kids, I wanted to write a picture book about a man who loses his wife and wants to build a time machine to go back to when she was alive, but in spending all his time on the machine he misses the only real time he has with his kids. I thought about this for a long time, but it seemed too sad a theme for a picture book.

I spent a couple of years working on a werewolf horror- comedy novel for adults that was kind of stupid. Then I had a health scare and I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t die and the only book I leave behind for my kids is that stupid werewolf book!” So I went back to the file “Time Machine” about the mom who dies, and I wrote Walking Backward. (But I’m not like the mom, and my husband is not like the dad. The kids are a little bit like mine but, really, it is all fiction.)

Did anyone help you write the book and if so, how did they help you?

My oldest son proofread it before I sent it to Orca Book Publishers, and he did a great job. I paid him in chocolate bars.

I’ve always been shy about my writing and I never had a critique group until very recently. When I had my book launch for Walking Backward and invited neighbours and acquaintances, most of them had no idea that I was a writer (except of conservation reports and such).

Now I am much more likely to ask people to read my work and make suggestions before I try to publish it.

Did the book change a great deal from your original idea?

Yes. From a simple picture book idea to a 40,000-word novel. My first draft was 90-pages, and my revision was twice that length. Then it changed some more working with my editor at Orca. (But it improved: editors make you write with the reader more in mind.)

Why did you choose Snakes as the cause of mom’s demise?

I heard of a real story about a person crashing her car (with her family inside) because a bee flew in and she freaked out. I chose a similar situation with snakes. I know several people who are afraid of snakes (but not me – I love snakes!). There’s nothing symbolic about the snake. But the randomness of it is important, and Josh reflects on the randomness and almost silliness of dying that way.

Are you related to Jane Austen?

I don’t know! Maybe. I have to look up my geneology. It certainly is a good name to have (as long as people don’t compare me to her – it would be hard to live up to that!).

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