Hearing the Lost Footsteps of War | Review of “Letters to Vimy” by Orland French (2017) FriesenPress

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Image linked from the author’s website

I remember clearly the look of  confusion on my public-school teacher’s face  when I asked him detailed questions about World War I. Yes, there were texts available that described the events about the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ but there were still details lacking about the causes and the effects that my mind wanted to know. And while I did gain some knowledge of the conflict it took was almost 40 years until the personal reflections and writings of another instructor of mine aided me in truly grasping the event. Hence Orland French’s Letters To Vimy deserves a decent mention here.

Page 3 Introduction: Pte. Oscar French Goes to War

By the early summer of 1915, the First World War was going badly for all sides. The whole world knew that the military struggle of European empires would be a long and bloody confrontation. The boys who had rushed to sign up the previous autumn lest the war end early, before Christmas, had become seasoned soldiers or dean men. Christmas 1914 had come and gone, Easter 1915 had come and gone, and nobody talked of getting home before Christmas 1915. It too would come and go, as would Christmas 1916, then Christmas 1917, and on and on, week by bloody week, before the war was halted just one month before Christmas 1918. The blood of thousands, and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, would stain the soil of Europe before all the exhausted armies quit fighting in November 1918.

I had Orland as a journalism teacher and as a managing editor at my college’s newspaper where he imparted his wisdom from his many years of working on such stalwart newspapers like The Globe and Mail and The Ottawa Citizen. But Orland has done something a bit more personal and much more noble with this book than just document facts in a whimsical manner. In a quiet corner of the family home, Orland knew that an official portrait of his Uncle Oscar existed. Orland knew that his uncle had volunteered – like many young men of that era – for service and was killed at the infamous battle at Vimy Ridge. But when Orland found a box of letters that his uncle had written, something stirred in him to explore the life his uncle had. So Orland began a series of correspondence back to his lost family member through time.

Hello, I’m Your Nephew Pages 11, 12, 13

January 2016

Canada

Dear Uncle Oscar:

Though you have been dead for many years – almost a century – I feel a strong desire to write to you. You have never heard of me for the very simple reason that I was born 27 years after you died. My name is Orland Clare French, and I am the third son of little Elmer, your kid brother you spoke of so fondly in your letters to your mother. I am your nephew.

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I am writing to you from a hundred years hence, in your time. These letters to you have been prepared, in a general sense, on the one-hundredth anniversary of what we call the First World War, World War I, or WW I. I came into possession of your letters after my older brother, Gerald Oscar French, died in 2010. He was Elmer’s first born, and you can see he was named in honour of you. Elmer repaid your fondness for him. Your mother packed your letters tightly in a flower-print cardboard box, along with some other official papers and memorabilia I will describe in due time. They were placed in an old wooden chest along with other family mementos, where they rested in the upstairs hall in the family home in Waverly for many decades.

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I knew nothing about you, except that you were one of Dad’s older brothers and that you enlisted with the army and were killed in the war. If there is an afterlife, I assume that is where you are, but I hope they have gotten you out of those muddy, lice-ridden uniforms and into some decent civvies. I the afterlife, do you have a memory of your previous life?

Do you remember that awful day on Vimy Ridge where you and your crew trained your machine gun on the enemy? Do you recall the choking smoke, the gritty dust, the ear-thumping noise of battle, the whine of bullets and the stuttering of machine-gun fire, the burst of shells, the cries and screams and moans of dying men? Do you recall the whistling approach of a shell with your name on it, just before oblivion?

Do you know you were one of about 65,000 Canadian soldiers who died on the battlefields of the First World War? That on the Easter Monday of April 9, 1917, you were on of the 37 machine-gunners killed in the battle to secure a spine of shell-scarred farmland called Vimy Ridge?

Orland has done something with this book that many of us have a inkling to do but never act on. We hear that events from history are being commemorated to which we know that our forgotten ancestors participated in. In Orland’s case, he polished off the old family mementos of his Uncle Oscar, then researched the dusty archives into who Pte Oscar French – regimental number 408445 –  was and then considered who his Uncle was and what the aftermath of his fatal actions at Vimy  were. Orland turned that inkling into a an actual collection of ink worthy of reading and pondering over as the centennial of the battle of Vimy Ridge comes about.

Drawing Lines in the Desert Pages 78, 79

Napier Barracks, Shorncliffe, Feb 21, 1916

I suppose you have been reading of the great Russian victories over the Turks. It will help a lot to relieve the British forces in Mesopotamia. If the war ends this year, as a lot of people here think it will, the new battalions they are recruiting now will hardly see active service.

Dear Uncle Oscar:

Ah, Mesopotamia. If you knew what a mess the Brits made of Mesopotamia after the war, you might not cheer so hard for the Russians. The seeds of conflict in the Middle East were planted after the First World War, and we are still reaping their harvest a century later. History doesn’t just happen and stay dormant. It is an ongoing living creature. It is the cause of “cause and effect.”

*****

Canada went to war again. Just as you fellows found out, it wasn’t over by Christmas. (And don’t worry about those new battalions being disappointed by an early end to the war. They will be dying to get home in one piece.) I doubt if our new war will be over in my lifetime, even if I live to a great old age. And it’s not even a war, in any sense that you might recognize. We don’t declare war any more, we just off and fight evil (as we perceive it) and hope we do the world some good.

You see, it’s not against a recognized state. The enemy is not in uniform. We’re battling a movement, and idea, with rockets and jet aircraft and shells. We’re fighting something called the “Islamic State” in the Middle East. This is a self-defined terrorist gang that has taken control of swatches of Arab countries and is threatening Turkey. The group is called ISIS, standing for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Their intent is to establish a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by a religious and political leader) by sheer force of intimidation and violence.

Orland French has created a noble and endearing book with Letters To Vimy. His letters to his Uncle Oscar have made history more personable and more understanding for many of us to comprehend. And the book is a great addition of literature which combine personal reflection and historical facts which is being crafted these days for us discerning readers. 

*****

Link to FriesenPress website for Letters To Vimy

Link to Orland French’s publishing company “Wallbridge House”

Gritty and Enlightening Read | Review of “The Break” by Katherena Vermette (2016) House of Anansi

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For many of us, literature is a means of understanding a way of life of people different from us. In reading a book, we learn the hardships and difficulties of others whom we may or may not have contact in our day-to-day lives. There has been an interest with a lot of people in my circles  trying to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people in our society.Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break gives us readers insights and something to start conversations to improve life for all peoples.

Page 4

In the sixties, Indians started moving in, once Status Indians could leave reserves and many moved to the city. That was when the Europeans slowly started creeping out of the neighbourhood like a man sneaking away from a sleeping woman in the dark. Now there are so many Indians here, big families, good people, but also gangs, hookers, drug houses, and all these big, beautiful houses somehow sagging and tired like the old people who still live in them.

The area around the Break is slightly less poor than the rest, more working class, just enough to make the hard-working people who live there think that they are out of the core and free of that drama. There are more cars in driveways than on the other side of McPhillips. It’s a good neighbourhood but you can still see it, if you know what to look for. If you can see the houses with never-opened bed sheet covered windows. If you can see the cars that come late at night. park right in the middle of the Break, far away from any house, and stay only ten minutes or so before driving away again. My Stella can see it. I thought her how to look and be aware all the time. I don’t know if that was right or wrong, but she’s still alive so there has to be some good in it.

Vermette has given a detailed book here using a complex set of characters trying to deal with a violent and desperate situation. One evening, Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window and sees a violent attack on the Break (a field on an isolated strip of land  outside her house.)  She calls the police and a chain of events – which include thoughts, emotions, actions and frustrations – are documented through the book.

Page 24-25

Phoenix falls up the snow-packed front stoop and jerks open the screen door. She knew it would be unlocked, but thought, in her last steps that it might not be, just this once. That would just be her luck, wouldn’t it? But nah, it’s open, so she can stumble into the warmth. Thank fuck.

Her uncle’s house smells like smokes, dope, and old food, but it’s great to her. And warm. Phoenix takes he hands out of her jacket sleeves, and rubs them together, blowing on them to help get the feeling back. They’re raw and red, but she keeps rubbing at them anyway.

Some skinny girl is passed out on the couch, and another is on the armchair. They look like they fell over in the middle of talking and no one bothered to move them or cover them up. One of them snores lightly, her face against her bare arm, drool dripping over an awful rose tattoo and track marks. Fuck. Phoenix can smell the booze from her, that ugly day-after stench. They look pretty rough, even passed out. Most people look so peaceful when they’re sleeping, but these girls just look a little less used up.

No one else is in sight. The house feels asleep. Phoenix hears music coming quietly from her uncle’s room so she knows he’s there. He can’t sleep without music playing, usually old school rock stuff. Aerosmith and AC/DC. Classics, he’ll say with a smack across the head if anyone ever tries to say no one listens to that shit anymore. Phoenix has always liked the music. It reminds her of him, of back when she was small and he was a good kid, before all these other people started hanging around him and he had to get hard.

She’s so fucking glad to be here.

The language Vermette is frank, bold and gritty at times. But it reflects the reality the story is set in. The language can also be tender and sad. Again reflecting the scene or an emotion. And while the whole narrative is somewhat complex, it is a great story illuminating an element of the human condition we may or may not be aware and creating empathy.

Page 290-291

“PHOENIX ANNE STRANGER . . .”

Scott turns his radio down again, rubs his eyes, and tries to concentrate. He needs to get to sleep. He needs to text Hannah and tell her he’s still working. No, he just needs to get an actual good night’s sleep.

Christie looks straight ahead as they drive. Tommy can tell he’s annoyed and want to ge this over with. Tommy’s been leading him around for days. The sergeant was no help. He didn’t see anything linking this Monias guy to the assault. The numbered company turned out to be in the name of Angie Dumas, the skinny girl, Monias’s girlfriend and no one was home at her residence so Christie suggested the sister.

“What was her name? Settler?”

“Settee,” Tommy had said and looked up the address in his written notes. Pritchard Avenue.

They are going there now. But it is all starting to feel like a circle.

After they talked to the sergeant, Sunday night had descended on the northside as predicted. Tired drunk people fell out of tired drunk houses. There were only two domestics as if everyone was too tired to fight too hard. As if they were only going through the motions, passionless. Tommy had just pulled a large, handcuffed man into the squad car and looked back at the women left behind, standing impassively.

He shivers and wants a coffee. If he doesn’t find anything soon, they’ll just have to leave the case unresolved, and the words will become numbers. Emily will become Case 002-121869, never to be opened again. He thinks of the other girl, Zegwan. It means spring. He thinks of his language teacher again. His face was always  on the veryge of a smile, a light smirk as Tommy tried to make his tongue wrap around the strange words.

“Zeeg-wahn.”

Katherena Vermette has given the literary world a great bit of insight with her novel The Break. It is an emotional, gritty and complex novel but one that builds empathy and enlightenment about Indigenous people in our time. A great read and a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Break

Link to Katherena Vermette’s website

 

 

A Modern Wilderness Saga | Review of “The Wolf Road” by Beth Lewis (2016) Crown Publishing

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Thanks to Luanne at “A Bookworm’s World” for bringing this book to my attention! (Link)

For many of us in North America who descended from European immigrants know the love they had for literature dealing with the North-American hinterland.  Those stories of frontiers and beginning anew hit a nerve with them as they came to the wilds of the “New World.”  But as time passed and we ourselves matured, we realized that many of those stories were a somewhat fantastic and unreal. So it was great to find Beth Lewis has given us a story set in the wilderness that is: placed a bit in the future, shows the hardships and dealings of people in the past PLUS the emotions of our modern age. In short, The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis is a great piece of literature.

Page 6 –  The Beginning, or Close as You Gonna Get

When the thunderhead comes, drumming through the sky, you take cover, you lock your doors, and you find a place to pray because if it finds you, there ain’t no going back. When the thunderhead came to Ridgeway, my clapboard town, I had nowhere to hide. Seven years old I was and screaming up something fierce at my nana. She wanted me to go collect pine resin for the lamps. Said it made ’em burn with a pretty smell. I told her pretty is for fools and I didn’t want no pine smelling up my house.

“My house, girl,” she said, “you just a guest here till your parents come back. Pray that it be soon.”

I think I had a different name back then. Don’t remember Nana every calling me Elka.

I told her to go spit seeds and started howling.

“That mouth of yours is black as the goddamn devil’s” she shouted in that tone what meant I was in for a beating. Saw her reaching for her walking stick. Had me welts the shape a’ that stick fresh on my back.

Lewis has given us here a classic saga here written in the vernacular. Readers follow Elka as she is literally ripped away from the last contact of her family  – her Nana – and dumped into the wilderness where is found and raised by “Trapper.” She learns the ways of the woods – tracking, hunting and survival techniques and she is grateful to the solitary hunter. But as she learns the ugly truth about her caretaker, she runs away and he is fast on her trail to find her.

Page 52 – Top of the Ridge

I always figured I could run faster’n any fella in the Mussa Valley, sure as hell could outrun Trapper, but no matter how fast your legs can carry you, there ain’t no way you’re outrunning a six-hundred-pound brown bear. I put everything I had into my legs, making ’em hurt, making ’em jump over logs and slip ‘tween close trees. Guess that bear didn’t like me touching his rubbing tree or drinking out of his river.

I know I shouldn’t have run. I know it like I know the sky is blue and snow is cold. You run, bear gonna chase you. But shit, that bear was big and it came up on me quick. White foam poured out of his mouth and I felt his breath on my back, hot and heavy and too damn near. All that water I just drank came out my skin in sweat and panic and I felt my blood drying up and slowing down.

Dense trees and brush slowed that lumbering beast I gained a bit of ground on him. My lungs burnt like smelting fire. Hottest you can get. Turned all the water straight to vapor. I couldn’t see nothing but strokes of mushed-up green and brown. All I knew was the thundering bear. I felt every footstep shake the earth and send critters dashing for cover. Felt every roar vibrating in my chest but I just kept running.

Then I saw something up ahead that scared the spit out a’ me.

A clearing.

Lewis uses a great mix of emotion and drama in this story. This was the first time in a long while I felt compelled to sit down with a book in a quiet corner and read it from cover to cover. And I was glad I did too. The story felt real and relevant to me with a hint of mystic to keep me reading.

Page 87 Somethin’ Like Paradise

Wolf cam up as normal but when he spotted me so close he growled low and rumbling. I figured that was more a Hey, what you want? Rather than an I’m gonna have your head. This was new territory for us both and I weren’t in the mood to get bit. When he figured I weren’t after his dinner and I weren’t about to skin him for bedding, hes started crunching that rabbit head. He didn’t take his yellow eyes off me, his big tongue lapped up all them guts and brain like it was separate from the rest of him. Weren’t no ferocity. This he was curious about me. Maybe saw me less as one a’ them human hunters wanting his fur and more as a member of his pack.

Beth Lewis has certainly given us back the joy that our elders found in wilderness adventures stories with her book The Wolf Road. It is rich with emotion and filled with realistic detail. It was a pleasure to read and a great piece of literature. And I will gladly add my voice for the call to see more from this author.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for The Wolf Road

Link to Beth Lewis’ website

 

 

Exploring Elements of the Human Condition in a ‘Rapid Read’ | Review of “The Middle Ground” by Zoe Whittall (2010) Orca Books

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Since the release of Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People a few months ago (link to my review), people in my circles have not only been talking about her book but also their own actions and desires in comparison to that story. So it seems fitting that some of her other writings need to be explored, especially her work for Orca Book’s Rapid Reads series entitled The Middle Ground.

Pages 1-2

When he put the gun to my neck, I closed my eyes. A simple reflex. I imagined the cold metal tip was really just a magic marker, a wet cat’s nose, or the small superball my son was always losing behind the couch cushions.

What happens when you feel the graze of a gun against your skin? Either you die or your whole life is changed.

I’d been doing this thing while drinking black coffee. I would close my eyes so I could pretend it still had cream in it. Apparently, you can lose five pounds in a month just by giving up the half-and-half. I’d been trying to psych myself out. Eyes shut, I’d imagine it all differently.

It didn’t work with the gun either.

Whittall knows what great literature is suppose to do, give readers pause to consider the ‘human condition.’ And she manages to do it with this small story about Missy Turner.  Readers are vaulted into Missy’s ordinary life – a good job, a great husband and a teenage son who is a great kid – but all that is ruined in one bad day, and as we follow the narrative, we share Missy’s emotions and heartache through the story. Then the man with the gun appears and a rush of chaos and confusion envelops us all.

Page 29-30

Instead of quietly backing toward the door or trying to dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone – I kept it turned off and buried under all my purse crap -I walked around the counter and stood beside Christina. Maybe it was the look of complete terror on her face. Or the fact that I had held her as a squirming pink newborn. Or the whimper she made as she dropped the book and fumbled with the cash register.

He let go of her necklace and placed both hands on the small pistol.

“Don’t hurt her,” I heard myself saying. “She’s just a girl. Whole life ahead of her.”

“Shut up, lady, and get back around to this side of the counter, all right? Don’t push any buttons. Just vie me the money, and I’ll be on my way.” He tapped his foot, like he was impatiently waiting at the bank on any non-felony errand.

The scene was nothing like on TV, where the music starts, cueing your heart to speed up. It felt slow, like molasses pouring from a cup. Christina handed him a handful of bills. He stuffed them into a yellow bag advertising the new superstore on the outskirts of town. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred bucks.

The plot moves fast here but it is filled with detail and emotion. And no flowery prose or psychological definitions. Missy Turner could be easy one of us or our neighbours. Whittall has documented an element of the human condition in detail for us here while keeping the guidelines of the Rapid Reads series in check.

Page 54-55

I tried to pretend everything was normal. But one moment I’d see the scene in the kitchen that I’d stumbled into that morning, the next I’d feel the gun on my neck. The house didn’t feel my own anymore. The walls made me anxious. The sound of the clock ticking loomed. Outside, a car backfired, and my skin was instantly covered in sweat.

I’d rarely felt the house so empty without Mike and Dale. I normally relished the rare opportunity to be alone, but the quiet was unnerving. I kept seeing Christina yelp and the drop her book. I felt the pressure of the robber’s arm against my neck.

I heated up some leftover pasta but couldn’t eat it. I didn’t want to be alone but couldn’t bear the thought of calling anyone either. The phone rang and rang, and the answering machine filled with messages from nosy neighbors and Mr. Harlowe and Jackie and my mom. Everyone who had heard about what happened. I turned on the TV but only paced in front of it, until the coverage of the robbery came on. It was a very short clip, mostly Christina, with me standing beside her like a goofy, useless tree. Is that what I really look like now? So old. I used to be stylish and young. How did I start dressing like a mother who had given up?

Zoe Whittall is an excellent novelist whose works clearly document the human condition we can all relate to. And her contribution to the Rapid Reads series entitled The Middle Ground, clearly and simply does that. A unique read and a good one to ponder over.

*****

Link to Orca Books website for The Middle Ground

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to my Q&A with Ruth Linka –“Rapid Reads . . . aims to have excellent writing, great stories, well-known authors, all the things we value in longer fiction, but in a shorter, more accessible form.” | Q&A with Ruth Linka of the Rapid Reads program at Orca Books

“(T)here are many, many details that made their way from family history and into DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.” Q&A with author Janie Chang on her new novel

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Janie Chang enthralled many readers with her first novel Three Souls. She had carefully crafted that work with a mixture of history, emotion, mysticism, and romance. Now Janie has come out with a second book called Dragon Springs Road and it promises to be just an equally endearing read. Chang recently answered a few questions for me.

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1)      First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Dragon Springs Road?

The novel is set during the early decades of 20th century China, and opens with a young girl named Jialing who’s been abandoned in the courtyard of an old estate outside Shanghai. She finds out very quickly that her life is going to be terrible, because she’s a girl, orphaned, and worst of all, Eurasian. Even though she’s taken in as a bondservant by the family that moves into the estate, Jialing’s life is always going to be difficult. The two main concerns in her life are: how can she survive once the family is done with her, and how can she find her mother? It’s a turbulent time in Chinese history – the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the birth of a new republic, the rise of warlords, and all sorts of social upheaval. There’s a murder, political intrigue, supernatural elements that include a Fox spirit, and themes of race and identity, acceptance and friendship.

2)      Your website states that you draw on family stories for your inspiration for your writing? What or who inspired your to write this book?

 My first novel, Three Souls, was inspired by my grandmother’s life, so the premise was taken from family history. Dragon Springs Road, on the other hand, started off as a detour while researching turn-of-the-century Shanghai when I came across references to the Eurasians who lived during pre-War China. Imagine pre-War Shanghai and its decadent reputation. There were thousands of children born to prostitutes and poor women. If they survived infanticide the girls were often put to work in brothels. They were unwanted and unacknowledged by Chinese and Westerners, an embarrassment to both sides. So I tried to imagine what life might’ve been like for such a child, to grow up in a society that valued males, family connections, and lineage. 

But there are many, many details that made their way from family history and into Dragon Springs Road – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.

3)  On your website, you have enclosed photos that provide readers some insight for the book. Did you do much outside research for the book? If yes, what exactly did you do?

Wow. I’m so glad you checked out the Gallery (Click for link). It’s meant to help readers visualize the world of the novel. As for research, you start with the least expensive – online research. And that includes looking for books that might be helpful. I bought a LOT of books, because while they might be available at a library, I like to have them right there on my shelf to flip through as needed. It feels as though I used only 10% of all the information I researched! If you love history, you have to be disciplined when doing research or else you end up down the rabbit hole.  Even though both Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road contain elements of fantasy, they are solidly researched. They are historical novels.

It was actually quite challenging because there were almost no contemporary accounts of the lives of Eurasian orphans and the poor; I found some academic books about Eurasians in China, but much of those accounts were of biracial Chinese from the upper and middle-classes, who were literate and whose lives were documented. There was almost nothing when it came to the far larger population of the poor and orphaned; back in those days, no one wanted to know. Then a friend suggested looking into the memoirs of women missionaries and that really helped because those women were the ones who ran schools and orphanages, who could remark on what happened to the children. 

4) Dragon Springs Road may have just come out but it looks like reaction to it has been very positive. Is that the case? Have there been any memorable comments to the book that you care to share?

 This is my second novel, so I think my publishers have more to work with in terms of readership and media attention – they’re no longer trying to promote a one-book author! Memorable comments? Well, I suffered from the Dreaded Sophomore Novel Syndrome while writing Dragon Springs Road and thought that it was going to be a terrible book! So when my editors came back after reading the manuscript and said it was an even better, more accomplished novel than the first, I was so relieved! So the email from my editor was definitely memorable.

5)      Are you planning on partaking on any public readings of Dragon Springs Road at all? If yes, are there any dates/events that you are looking forward to participating in?

I’ve had a couple of events locally (in the Vancouver area) including the Canadian launch; also the US book launch at Kepler’s Books (Click for link) (Menlo Park, CA) and Vroman’s Bookstore (Click for link) (Pasadena). I’m really looking forward to the first literary festival of the year, which is the Galiano Literary Festival (Click for linkheld on one of our beautiful Gulf Islands. Everything that’s been scheduled for sure so far is on my Events page (Click for link).

6) You seem to be active on both social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Are you hoping that readers connect with you through those means to comment on this book? How do you like using those means of communication in relation to your writing?

Social media is a requirement these days for authors unless you’re Elena Ferrante, who every author envies for having sidestepped the time drain that’s social media. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, probably more Facebook than Twitter. In general, social media makes me nervous. My background is in high tech and I am so aware of the privacy issues surrounding these free services, such as what corporations can do with data mining to cross-reference your personal information from different sources. And don’t even get me started on the decline of civil conversation in an age of tweets. 

On the other hand, I’ve become friends with readers and other authors through social media, from reaching out to them and vice versa, so I shouldn’t complain. I know that social media makes it easier for readers to ask questions. When I don’t have time to write a good blog, Facebook is a good place to post an article about something that I’m reading and thinking about.  There are friends I would lose touch with if not for social media.

7) Your website offers a special section for book clubs (and states that you will even participate in a book-clubs discussion groups via Skype). Have you participated in many book-club activities? Is that something you enjoy doing?

It’s good to get out of the writing den! Skype is not as nice as face-to-face, but it means you can meet with book clubs anywhere. Last year HarperCollins New Zealand organized one with a book club in Queenstown, on the South Island of (New Zealand) !

8) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Absolutely. Novel #3 is all outlined. I’m really excited about the premise and can’t wait for the flurry of promotion for Dragon Springs Road to be finished so that I can really get down to writing. What I can say is that the third novel is inspired by family history. Again. And it mixes history with the supernatural. Again.

*****

Link to Harper Collins Canada’s webpage for Dragon Springs Road

Link to Janie Chang’s website

“While the story itself is fun and light, it addresses some serious issues” | Q&A with writer Danika Stone on her upcoming novel “Internet Famous”

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Cover image linked from Danika Stone’s website

Although Danika Stone is quite a busy writer,  her talent does shine through in her works. As 2017 starts to produce a new batch of books, fans of Danika’s are no doubt eager to read her new work Internet Famous. Danika answered a few questions for me, giving some insight to her new book, due out in June.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline for Internet Famous?

Absolutely! Internet Famous tells the story of a successful teen blogger, Madi Nakama, whose internet fame from her pop-culture blog attracts the unwanted attention of a troll. Much like any thriller, Internet Famous lets readers play ‘whodunnit’ with the various characters, as Madi and her friends track down her harasser. While the story itself is fun and light, it addresses some serious issues. It also has an interesting text and multi-media narrative that readers of All the Feels will appreciate.

2) How long did it take you to write the book? What inspired you (if anything) to write it?

Most my YA books take me about six months, start to finish, to complete. Broken down that’s about two months for the rough draft, then a couple months of editing back and forth, followed by a couple more of copy-edits. I’m really lucky in that the rough draft process down pat. It saves so much time!
My inspiration for Internet Famous came from two sources. The first was MarkDoesStuff, a truly fantastic pop-culture blogger. (Link to his website.) I remember watching some of the backlash after one of his posts hit a few readers the wrong way. Another source of inspiration was my RL (Real Life) friend ‘M’, who is truly one of the most positive and outgoing people I know. Her personality became the cornerstone of the fictional Madi.

3) I know the book is being released this June, but are there details on any book tour yet? If yes, are there dates/events you are looking forward to?

I have a number of online blog tours set up. They’ll kick off as we near the June release date, so check my Danika_Stone Twitter for details! (Link to Danika Stone’s profile page on Twitter)

As for in-person tours, it’s still early days, but I do have a few solid dates. I’ll be promoting in Alberta (Canada) at the (Southern Alberta Library Conference)  on March 3rd, 2017 (Link here) , in Atlanta at RT Convention May 4th through the 7th, 2017 (Link here), and (hopefully!) at Comic-Con in San Diego, July 20th through the 23rd, 2017. (I’m still waiting for my CC badge.) (Link here) I also have an as-yet undated interview with CBC Daybreak, with Russell Bowers, arranged for later this spring. (Link to the show’s website here) Truthfully, I’m looking forward to ALL of them!

4) It has been a little while since All The Feels came out. How did you find the reaction to it? Was there any memorable reactions to it you care to share?

I was overwhelmed by the positivity that fans showed the book. When I went to Dragon Con last summer, All the Feels had been out for only a month, and yet there were people waiting for me in the signing room. It was an amazing feeling to realize that the book had connected to them this much!
I was also honored when All the Feels was nominated for the CYBILS Award (Link to the Childrens and Young Adults Bloggers Literary Awards website here), and for YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.  (Link to the Young Adult Library Service Association’s website here) While it didn’t win either category, it was great to be nominated. I hope Internet Famous gets as warm a reception!

5) You mentioned in a previous Q&A that you are always writing. Is that still true? If yes, are you working on a new book?

It’s absolutely true! I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t writing. In the time since we last talked, I wrote a sequel to my contemporary Canadian thriller, Edge of Wild. This new book, The Dark Divide, is now in the editing phase. And my most recent WIP (Work in Progress) is another as-yet-untitled YA, that I’ve been working on for Swoon Reads. Check in with me next year and at least one of those should be on shelves!

6) Have you read any books in the last little while that you enjoyed? What are you reading right now?

I always have a pile of books next to my bed, and I tend to be reading two or three of them at a time. My favorite YA in the last few months was These Vicious Masks, by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas. It’s such an incredibly inventive Victorian Superhero story. (Yes! Those elements CAN go together!) I keep forcing everyone to read it.
My most recent poetry collection is The Princess Saves Herself in this One by Amanda Lovelace. I read an early version last year just prior to its debut, and I knew I needed a hard copy. It’s just as lovely as I remembered.
As to contemporary fiction, I always get “into the mood” with thrillers when I’m revising my own mysteries. I loved The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I’m nervously waiting to see what direction the movie version of it takes.

7) Are you still living in Alberta? How do you like living there as a writer? Do you do a bit of traveling with your publisher being so far away?

Yes, I’m happily settled in Alberta. I really love it! First off, my family is here. Secondly, it’s a beautiful, relatively-untouched part of Canada. The mountains are an hour away, and there are unblemished prairie landscapes preserved just minutes from my door. In fact, the only challenge I’ve ever encountered is that I have to make a concerted effort to actually get out to conventions and do book tours. I am lucky enough, however, that travelling is an option and I love it! It leaves me with the best of both worlds.

Thank you so much for having me on your blog again, Steven. I enjoyed talking to you!

The pleasure is mine! My followers are eager to know about your work!

Danika’s Biography

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Image provided by Danika Stone.

Danika Stone is an author, artist, and educator who discovered a passion for writing fiction while in the throes of her Masters thesis. A self-declared bibliophile, Danika now writes novels for both adults (Edge of Wild, The Intaglio Series and Ctrl Z) and teens (Internet Famous, All the Feels and Icarus). When not writing, Danika can be found hiking in the Rockies, planning grand adventures, and spending far too much time online. She lives with her husband, three sons, and a houseful of imaginary characters in a windy corner of Alberta, Canada.
Ms. Stone is represented by Morty Mint of Mint Literary Agency. (Link to their website)

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Link to Swoon Reads’ website for Internet Famous

Link to Danika Stone’s website

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“We are hoping to create something that packages all of the things we loved as kids. High adventure, fantastical creatures and situations, Heroes that grow and change, and irreverent comedy.” | Q&A with Kelly Mellings and Corey Lansdell of Pulp Studio on their project “Hairoes of Haarwurzel: Braues Quest”

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Image provided by Kelly Mellings

Kelly Mellings and Corey Lansdell of Pulp Studios in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, have been busy. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been dreaming. Their social-media feeds have been filled the last few months with illustrations for their work: Hairoes of Haarwurzel: Braues Quest. Now, that their ‘project of love’ is almost at completion, they answered a few questions for me about what they plan and hope for it.

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1) First off, could your give a bit of an outline of Hairoes of Haarwurzel: Braues Quest.

On a medievalish island, that prides itself on it’s hair, a magical curse has stripped it’s residents of their locks and given them to the hairless. Humans, mammals, and birds are all left bare, and the cold blooded reptiles, goblins and fish have become wooly versions of themselves. It’s up to the one armed knight Eine Braue and Jagetta the Huntress to solve the mystery and restore Haarwurzel’s former glory while discovering the root of heroism.

Hairoes of Haarwurzel: Braues Quest is an absurd, exciting, fantasy, comedy adventure for all ages. It is is the first in a series of three all ages graphic novels, each focusing on a different Hairoe of Haarwurzel.

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Image provided by Kelly Mellings

2) Is there anything you are hoping for the book to accomplish? What inspired you to create the book? (Kelly mentioned in a Q&A with me that this book is like “Adventure Time and The Legend of Zelda had a baby that was raised by Monty Python.” Is that still the vision of the book?)

That is still the version of the book, in tone at least. We are hoping to create something that packages all of the things we loved as kids. High adventure, fantastical creatures and situations, Heroes that grow and change, and irreverent comedy. We were inspired to create Hairoes because we have been creating properties and characters for clients and wanted something that was 100% ours. The idea grew from a strange dream that Corey had into the many armed beast that it is now through much collaboration and brainstorming.

3) It looks like there have been test images of the book posted on social media sites for people to comment on and suggest changes too. How has that been working out?

We wanted to commit to creating some artwork for Inktober (A challenge for artists all over the world to draw one illustration a day for the month of October, link here) and thought it would be a great opportunity to create concept art for the book. It’s grown and has taken up November as well. We’ve been so pleased with the positive response. The feedback has been in line with what we were hoping. People are finding humour and joy in the same aspects that we had when we conceived of the characters. 

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Image provided by Kelly Mellings

4) Kelly mentioned to me that the book is 90 per cent finished. Do you have a publisher lined up? If yes, is there a publication date for it?

The manuscript is 90% finished but the art (the longer part) has not yet begun. We will have 22 pages by end of February that we can share with publishers as a proof of concept. We initially started the manuscript after a meeting with one of Canada’s best children’s book publishers, and they expressed a passing interest in the initial nugget of an idea. We’ve yet to share anything with any other publishers, and won’t until we have the finished sample pages and the polished manuscript. We’d love to have it in publishers hands early 2017, and then publication would depend on the publisher. We’ve had such positive feedback, we aren’t worried about it finding a home, we just have to figure out where would be the best for it.

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Image provided by Kelly Mellings

5) How much time have the two of you put into Hairoes of Haarwurzel?” Is it a labour of love for the two of you?

YES it is defiantly a labour of love…if it wasn’t it would not be made. Over the last two years we’ve spent several months writing the manuscript, about 100 hrs in concept art, dozens of hours researching the market and the production side of things. It will be the equivalent of about 6 months work full time for both of us to get the art done, the first graphic novel is looking to be around 220 pages.

6) So when this project is finished, do you two have any idea of what you will be doing next? If yes, are there details you care to share?

If this is successful then the next two books would be a dream to work on,

We originally thought of this as an idea for a 2d platform game, so a game or animated version would be fun to work on and it would translate so nicely.

We just finished the script for a graphic novel biography of Wilfrid Laurier that Kyle Charles and K Michael Russel are illustrating for us (it will be published by Teach magazine).

We have a non-haireo related young adult graphic novel script in production that we would would work with another artist to draw.

Corey and I both want to branch out to the children’s book market Corey has a finished manuscript done with art and he is working on another). We also both have graphic novel Ideas, Kelly has a literary graphic novel planned that focuses on a main character who has Narcolepsy.

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Image provided by Kelly Mellings

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Link to Pulp Studio’s website

Link to Pulp Studio’s Instagram Page

Link to Pulp Studio’s Twitter account

Corey has been creating some videos on his progress of his work and posting them on Youtube. Check out his profile page here.

My Q&A with Kelly Mellings on his work on the award-winning graphic novel The Outside Circle here.

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“Average is a place where we all fit. It’s normal to feel like you don’t fit in and I want to change that. I want young women to realize that they are beautiful just as they are!” | Q&A with Photographer Emily Lauren Dick on Crowdfunding her book “Average Girl: A Guide to Loving Your Body”

Many people have discovered that crowdfunding their publishing project is a better way to bring their ideas to the public than more traditional routes. They are able to control more of the project, enabling their complete vision comes to fruition. Photographer Emily Lauren Dick is doing exactly that through the website Kickstarter. Her project is a noble one, and she answered a few questions for me.

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Image linked from Emily Lauren Dick’s website

1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Average Girl: A Guide to Loving Your Body?

Average Girl: A Guide to Loving Your Body is filled with interesting facts, information, work sheets and quotes from young women. Each chapter focuses on an issue that relates to body image development. For example, Bullying and Harassment and Thinspiration. I’ve interviewed over 80 women and I’ve included direct quotes to give readers a broad spectrum of how these issues make young women feel. I like to think that I’ve taken complex information and transformed it into text that is easy for any young woman to understand. I want to make this information accessible. I also believe that this information must be accompanied with photographs of real women! I’ve photographed 40+ women so far and their images will be included within the book. It’s a book with a little bit of everything needed to fight negative body image. Feel good photographs, information, advice, real perspectives and work sheets!

2) What inspired you to create the book? What are you hoping Average Girl will accomplish?

I decided to create this book because it’s something I longed for growing up as a teenage girl. I studied Women and Gender Studies in university and gained access to some very important information that helped me explain how and why I felt a certain way towards my body. The more I learned, the more I sought out sources of positive body image. I became so aware of why negative body image exists and I wanted to change this, even just for a few women. If more women learned what I had learned about how businesses and media profit off of our dissatisfaction then they could be more critical and in turn could feel better about who they are. My goal is to offer up another source of body positivity so that young women do not feel they are alone. Average is a place where we all fit. It’s normal to feel like you don’t fit in and I want to change that. I want young women to realize that they are beautiful just as they are!
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Image linked from Emily Lauren Dick’s website

3) You talk on your website that you have talked to over 80 girls about “critical issues that affect body image.” How did you choose the girls? Were they willing to be part of the book?

 

When I started the interview process, I created an online survey and asked friends and family to pass it on. I posted on social media and reached out to any female focused organizations and asked them to share it. I garnered responses from around the world and got a variety of perspectives from women young and old. In the survey, I asked them if they would like to remain anonymous or if they would like their name shared but all of them were on board for being a part of this book. The young women that I photographed have mostly been local and we connected in similar ways. The first year was a struggle to find women willing to be photographed but the more people who participated, the easier it got to ask others.

4) How has the reaction been to Average Girl so far?

I have received so much positive attention over this project. I’ve included a variety of women of all sizes, shapes and ethnicities and people seem to really like that. I think what sets my project apart from others is that the girls I’ve photographed are happy and smiling! Some body image projects have featured more artistic, sad looking images to make their point but I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted young women to see these women in a happy place, being comfortable and in touch with their bodies. Of course, you are always going to get negative comments too. I’ve read a few that say I’m promoting obesity or I am only including one type of woman but those people haven’t fully looked into everything that this project is about. I’ve included skinny women and plus size women! It doesn’t matter what size you are, we all face body image issues.

5) You are using Kickstarter to fund this project. Could you explain why you choose to go that route instead of approaching a publisher? How is the campaign going so far?

I tried for quite a while to query my manuscript but I think my book is so different from what people have seen before that their has been some reluctance in picking it up. It’s very hard to get photography books published but from a manuscript perspective I have received a lot of great feedback from literary agents. I decided to self publish because I would get full control over the final outcome. It’s such a personal and visual project that I couldn’t give up that control. I need to see my vision through because I really believe this book can make a difference.

6) How did you come up with the figure of $7,500 as a goal to fund the publishing of the book? What research – if any – did you do into getting Average Girl published?

I’ve been in touch with a Canadian publishing company and that amount would cover the costs associated with designing, editing and setting up the e-book and print distribution. Additionally, I’ve included some cost for shipping and printing. And then of course there are the costs associated with funding the Kickstarter campaign! Kickstarter takes a percentage of the funds raised and a percentage for putting through the credit card transactions. To be honest, I’m not sure if that amount will cover my costs but I did not start this project to make money. All I want to do is get this book published so that it can start making a difference. Even if I affect one person, then I would be happy. I just want young women to stop struggling with the pain of negative body image…there is so much more to life!

 

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Image linked from Emily Lauren Dick’s website

7) Do you have any plans in using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) for readers to keep in touch with you about the book?

Definitely! I’ve created an Instagram account (Link to instagram’s @averagegirlguide profile here), a Facebook page (Link to the Love Average profile on Facebook here), twitter (Link to LoveAverage ‘s twitter feed here) and I have a website ( Link to www.loveraverage.com here ) which I try to keep updated. Especially now that we are getting some great media coverage, I will be posting as much as I can!

8) Do you have any plans after Average Girl is published? (promotional tours, sequels, other book projects?)

We definitely have to see how this book goes first but I absolutely would love to continue my work in fighting negative body image! It would be a dream to do another edition! 🙂

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Reading and Seeing the Souls that Create Great Works | Review of “Portraits of Canadian Writers” by Bruce Meyer (2016) Porcupine’s Quill

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I have dabbled in both the printed word and photography. Both forms seem to have a certain appeal to different sections of the mind. A carefully crafted phrase seems to enlighten a part of the human psyche while an image tends to bring a certain pleasure to the same spirit, somehow making the whole reading experience complete. Bruce Meyer has been documenting Canada’s literary scene in both written word and in photos for over 30 years, and his efforts have come together in a charming manner in Portraits of Canadian Writers.

Introduction pages 19-20

This collection of photographs and accompanying essays is by no means a complete catalogue of the most important Canadian authors of the past thirty years – though many of them are here – but a small measure of the voices who have contributed to the cultural dialogue Canadian literature has grown into during that period. There are so many I wish I could have met and included – Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Morley Callaghan and many more. I met them or corresponded with them, but I never thought to bring a camera along when I was with them in a restaurant or at a reading. It would have seemed awkward and artificial at the time, and perhaps, something in me thought that those I held as personal icons would live forever.

Our literature is still a very young, very immature literature – we are just now making tentative forays into those literary expressions that signal a certainty and a maturity in a national canon, and chief among those expressions is tragedy. We have, as readers and as makers of literary culture, steadfastly refused to entertain tragedy. This is partially because the idea of hope is so very central to our sense of who we are, and partially because our sense of poetic justice is ingrained in our political and social institutions. We cannot accept the destruction of a protagonist as a viable outcome for imaginations. We seek resolution. We still seek a just society. Perhaps we are too comfortable, too content with our own situations to accept the discomfort of tragedy.

It seems almost cheap to ‘blog’ this well-crafted book here but I get Meyer’s joy of enlightening fellow readers to a new work or a new thought in regards to a favourite author. I have been doing that for a short while here now while Meyer has been both interviewing, writing and photographing authors for decades. That is the joy of this book for us fans of literature. That element of enlightenment about writing we gleam from both the words and the pictures, printed on the quality stock that Porcupine’s Quill always uses for the books.

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Scanned image of “Leonard Cohen” (pages 52-53) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016). Published by Porcupine’s Quill.

I took my time looking at this book, sometimes putting it down for a few days and then reviewing sections I had already read. In short I savoured the enlightenment it gave me from both the well-crafted words and the accompanying images. And I have no doubt I will refer this book about writers and their books again in a few months time. There are subtle details and references here that would pique a book-lover’s interest therefore they should not be missed by a “rushed” reading.

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Scanned image of “Catherine Graham” (Pages 86-87) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016). Published by Porcupine’s Quill.

Yes, this is a book that should be in every Canadian library for reference but it is also a book that should be read and discussed. Not in a critical way but one that starts thought process and spawns reflections and considerations. It is a gifted read. And charming one at times.

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Scanned image of “Allan Straton” (Page 180-181) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016) Porcupine’s Quill.

Bruce Meyer has given us readers a serious bit of enlightenment for our minds with his Portraits of Canadian Writers. The combination of writing and images engage any reader’s complete psyche and give insight to some of Canada’s greatest wordsmiths.

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Link to The Porcupine’s Quill’s website for Portraits of Canadian Writers

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“Everyone shares the same type of moments through time. Looking at your own reflection in a puddle, looking at dust in a beam of sunlight, hearing the wind in the trees. Putting poetic details of personal yet universal moments in a story makes it relatable no matter how foreign the setting is. Boiled down it is a story about a human, beautiful and complicated.”| Q&A with Illustrator Sydney Smith

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Sydney Smith is a very busy illustrator and a very dedicated one. Since the release of “Sidewalk Flowers” a few years ago, he has enchanted book-fans young and young-at-heart with his work. Now in 2017, he has a couple of new releases coming out and he took a few moments to answer a few questions for me about those works.
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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline for “Town Is by the Sea?”

“Town Is by the Sea” is a picture book written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books and illustrated by me!  The story is a day in the life of a boy who lives in a mining town by the sea. As he describes his day he reflects on the sea and his father who is working below it in the mine. There is a beautiful rhythm to Joanne’s text and there is plenty of room for the illustrations to play. 

2) Am I right in assuming that you hailing from Nova Scotia that working on this book would have a special meaning for you?

Both Joanne and I come from Nova Scotia. I have been wanting to work on something about home for a while, especially since moving to Toronto. I miss so much about the east coast and this book gave me the opportunity go back and bask in all of the things that make my home so unique and special.
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“From my house, I can see the sea” Illustration by Sydney Smith for “Town Is by the Sea” (2017 Groundwood Books.) Image provided by him.

3) How long did it take you to create the illustrations for “Town Is by the Sea?” How did you get involved in illustrating it?

 
Sheila Barry, the wonderful editor from Groundwood Books brought the story to my attention two years ago. I had a lot on my plate at the time but I was so excited about the project that I started thinking about it far in advance of working on it. My process is never efficient and I can get lost down rabbit holes so I ended up with a lot of versions of each image. If I felt like something wasn’t working so I wouldn’t sleep until I took another swing at it. 

4) I know many people living here in Ontario who have originated from Atlantic Canada are always eager to explain to their children what life is like on the eastern region of the country. Is that something you are hoping this book will aid in doing?

What I like about this story is that you could say it’s about growing up in the late ’50’s in a mining town in Cape Breton but you could also say its just about being young. The writing captures this and I wanted the illustrations to do the same thing. Relatively few people know what its like to grow up in a mining town but if you can show personal and human moments that we all share than it doesn’t matter where or when the story takes place. Everyone shares the same type of moments through time. Looking at your own reflection in a puddle, looking at dust in a beam of sunlight, hearing the wind in the trees. Putting poetic details of personal yet universal moments in a story makes it relatable no matter how foreign the setting is. Boiled down it is a story about a human, beautiful and complicated.  
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“Far out at sea, the waves have white tips” Illustration from “Town is by the Sea”(Groundwood Books 2017) by Sydney Smith. Image is provided by him.

5) “Sidewalk Flowers” was a very popular book in my circle of readers. Are there any noticeable similarities/differences you found on working on the two books?

I think there are a lot of similarities. There is a depth to the main character. A quietness and a seriousness. This book is kind of heavier than “Sidewalk Flowers.” I showed the story to a group at a workshop recently and when I finished there was a moment of silence. I hope just meant that there was a lot to take in.

6) I know it is a bit of time before the release of “Town Is by the Sea” but is there a book tour being planned for it?

There is a book launch planned for mid-March in Halifax and there will also be a release in Toronto around the same time. I’d be happy to go anywhere people are interested with this book. I’m really excited to share it.
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“My father is a miner and he works under the sea, deep down in the coal mines” from “Town is by the Sea” (2017 Groundwood Books) Illustrated by Sydney Smith. Image is provided by him.

7) You mention in my last Q&A with you some unease with the use of social-media ( “There are a lot of people (in the children’s book universe) that just want beautiful books for everyone.” | Q&A with Illustrator Sydney Smith ) Do you still feel that way? Are you comfortable with fans of your work using social-media to contact you?

 

8) You have been busy with a few items since our last conversation. Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I am finishing up illustrating my last book before I take some time to focus on some of my own projects that have been waiting patiently for the past few years. I can’t really say too much about those personal projects because they are still being chiseled and shaped. But I am excited. I love collaborating with other people, and I’m sure I will work with other writers again soon but i need to see this through right now.
 
The book I am finishing up is called “Smoot,” written by Michelle Cuervas, published by Dial Books and its a very fun story about a boy and his shadow, Smoot, who decides to separate and have an adventure of his own. I really like this story and working with Lauri Hornik and Lily Malcolm from Dial is such a pleasure. (Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “Smoot”)
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