Cabin Tales Author Interview #16: Cary Fagan

An interview with Cary Fagan, multi-award-winning author of over 40 books, including short story collections, picture books, middle-grade novels, and adult novels. Hear about his typically lengthy revision process, his love of texts within texts, and his experiments with narrative voice and how he has come to look differently at the idea of rules for writing fiction. 25 minutes.

Read the full transcript:

Show Notes

[0:00] Intro

[1:20] Interview with Cary Fagan  

CF: It’s very hard to be pretentious as a children’s writer. …

[2:45] CA: Have you ever based a story on other stories?…

Boy in the Box cover

CF: … I can think of picture books I’ve written where structurally I have learned from some other book and adapted the way that author dealt with how to tell a story and told my own story using some of the things that they had figured out… I would say The Boy in the Box… was really influenced by Dickens. …

[4:35] CA: You’ve written about siblings; did you have siblings as a kid?

CF: I have two older brothers… they had no artistic bones in their body, it seems. And it was a way I could define myself that was different from my brothers. … I’ve written about siblings a lot, but not in a way that’s like my brothers. … My Kaspar Snit books, which I wrote early in my career… I was in a classroom and a kid put up his hand and he said, Why is it that the brother and the sister in the book never argue? … And I it was that kid who really made me think about trying to make them more realistic. …

[7:20] CA: Do you have a favorite plot twist…?

Mort Ziff cover

CF: … The books that I really like, like for example I love Kate DeCamillo…It’s really the voice of her books that I love…

[8:05] CA: Do you have any techniques to recommend for building tension…?

CF: …Events in your novel need to have consequences. … I like to define my characters by having them make decisions. … All decisions have consequences, and making those consequences potentially bad and uncertain, I think, is what creates the tension. … There is a fallout from it that makes us worry for the character’s future.

[9:50] CA: Do you have a favorite first line…?

CF: …I think first lines are important… That does not mean the first line has to be, “As Gerald looked over the cliff’s edge he thought of how his poor parents would miss him.” …. To be honest with you, for me it’s much more a matter of getting the voice right. … I probably could name a lot of Dickens’ novels, like David Copperfield

[10:45] CA: Have you ever opened with dialogue?

Danny cover

CF: Yes. Danny who Fell in a Hole opens with … “’It’s really nothing to worry about,’ Danny’s mother said.” …So yes, I have opened with dialogue. I would say not that often though….

[11:25] CA: Have you had a narrator who talks directly to the reader?

CF: Yes. I love thinking about the relationship between the voice of the book and the reader because really, that is your point of intimacy, of contact, is that voice. … I definitely love to think about what that relationship is. Some stories, I feel, have to be in third person because the character just doesn’t have the sort of voice where he or she could tell her story, even if it’s to an imaginary reader. …

[12:40] CA: And have you ever switched points of view while drafting…?

CF: I did that for an adult novel. … The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster has two voices…. A few years ago I would have probably told you, You can’t have this first person voice interrupted without any explanation by a third person voice giving you information that your main character doesn’t have… But as I get older, I realize that you can break the rules….

Gretchen Oyster cover

[14:20] CA: Have you ever written an unreliable narrator?

CF: Probably not. I like the idea of one. It’s really a hard thing to do. …

[15:05] CA: Do you tend to revise as you draft or does it change book by book?

CF: It doesn’t. I’m extremely consistent. I will start a novel on page one and I’ll write it to the end. And then I’ll put it down for a while. … I’ll wait at least three months. Sometimes I’ll wait a year… I’ll create a scheme of what I actually did in my first draft and I’ll note the scenes that I like and I’ll note the scenes that I don’t think are working… And then I will write a second draft by starting on page one and rewriting the entire thing. And then I’ll do that 3-6 times. I used to do it like 12 times. …You know which draft I love is draft 3… the third draft is often the one that gets it to the point where I think, Yes, this is actually a book that I’m going to want to publish eventually. …

[18:00] CA. And do you read your work out loud at any point in your writing?

King Mouse cover

CF: Yes I do, wearing funny hats often. …Unfortunately we’re not going into schools right now, but I will read something new to the kids. … It is really nice to have an audience.

[18:50] CA: Did you tell stories around account fire as a kid?

CF: I don’t think so. But I did start writing early when I was a kid. …I actually won my grade six public speaking contest by writing a speech, but apparently I was terribly boring in how I presented the speech. …. I hope I’m better at it.

CA: Have you ever written that experience in some way into one of your books?

CF: I haven’t, but I do have a novel idea about a public speaking contest at school which I do want to write. … So don’t write it, if you’re listening to this. …

[20:35] CA: And do you have any collections?

Mr. Karp cover

CF: I collect postcards, vintage postcards, … And to some degree I collect chapbooks, like small press chapbooks…. But when I was a kid… I had a collection of beach glass. I liked to collect rocks. …I did write a book called Mr. Karp’s Last Glass, which is about a kid who collects things, who meets a man who has very strange collection… of … famous water….

CA: That’s excellent. Thank you so much, Cary…. 

CF: Have a good day. Cheers. Bye bye.

[22:30] Cary Fagan introduces himself  

CF: Hi. I’m Cary Fagan. And I am a writer of novels for kids, what we like to call middle-grade novels rather than teen novels, and picture books, and I also write quite a lot for adults. I have been writing since I was a kid. And I can look back now and see that kid is still a great influence on me as an adult writer, that the way I write as an adult is very thoroughly and deeply connected to the way I wrote as a kid and my interests as a kid. I live in Toronto and I like to do other things, but I still love to write. And I’m grateful for that.

[22:30] Find out more about Cary Fagan  

You can hear more creative writing advice from Cary Fagan on Cabin Tales Episode 3.5: “Author Interviews about Inspiration”; on Episode 4.5: “Author Interviews about Plotting”; and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Cary Fagan and his books from his website at

[24:30] Thanks and coming up on the podcast  

I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with Lena Coakley, author of middle-grade and young adult fantasy novels. Thanks for listening.


Music on the podcast is from “Stories of the Old Mansion” by Akashic Records, provided by Jamendo (Standard license for online use).

Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at

Visit the Cabin Tales home page.

Photo by Mark Reynes Roberts

Guest Author:

Cary Fagan writes picture books and novels for children and adults. His many awards include the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, the IODE Jean Throop Award, the Betty Stuchner–Oy Vey!–Funniest Children’s Book Award, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for his body of work. Cary lives in Toronto. Find him online at

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