“I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances.” | Q&A with writer JonArno Lawson on his new book “Uncle Holland”
I don’t think there is a more versatile writer right now than JonArno Lawson. And certainly not one as dedicated to his craft. His new book children’s book – Uncle Holland – is coming out April 1 from Groundwood Books. And he is probably one of the most productive writers I know of this year . His listing of new titles is impressive. Lawson took some time out from his writing and editing to answer a few questions for me.
1)First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Uncle Holland?
In Uncle Holland, a young man who’s constantly getting into trouble with the law – he steals things – is finally given a choice between jail and the army. He chooses the army, and finds an unlikely way to make something positive out of his new environment.
2)In reading the descriptions that Groundwood Books has for Uncle Holland, I gather that you have a personal connection with this story. Is that the case? What are you hoping – if anything – that Uncle Holland will accomplish?
Uncle Holland is based on my actual Uncle Holland, who died before I was born. In real life, he did get into a lot of trouble – and he really did start out in the army, but he became a jeweler afterwards. I was only guessing that he joined the army (in the 1930s) because of legal problems, but in the fall I asked his big sister, my Aunt Jean (who turns 100 this year!) why Holland joined up and she said “I don’t know – he was in some kind of trouble, but I can’t remember what”.So it was a good guess!
I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances. The Army might represent any kind of problem – in a way, school is like the army for children – you’re forced to go and you have to struggle all the time with pressures to conform.
3)How long did it take to write Uncle Holland? Was it an easy or difficult book to write?
I wrote Uncle Holland almost ten years ago – I wrote and illustrated the first version in one morning, as a self-challenge, at my favourite coffee shop (which no longer exists – it was called ToGo, at Yonge Street and Shaftesbury Avenue in Toronto – I still miss it) . My daughter’s kindergarten teacher wanted every parent to come in and read a book to the class at some point during the year, so when it was my day I thought – I’m supposed to be a children’s book writer – why don’t I see if I can come up with a story and pictures all at once on the day I’m supposed to present?So I did – it was very exciting – it created a lot of pressure. I used my Uncle Holland as the main character, and a few details of his life, to save myself the trouble of inventing everything on the spot.
The story went over well with my daughter’s class, but I never really thought about publishing it. For fun, I showed it to Sheila Barry, who was my editor at Kids Can Press in those days. I wasn’t submitting it, just showing it to her because I liked the way my parrots came out – and she thought it was funny, but again, we never talked about it as a book. Then a few years ago she said she was still thinking about the story and wanted to look at it again. It needed a little editing, there were a few inconsistencies, and odd phrasings, but it pretty much stayed as it was.
4) The illustrator Natalie Nelson has agreed to do a Q&A for me but I was curious to hear how you two connected?
Sheila was working with Natalie on a book to do with Flannery O’Connor by Acree Macam. I love Flannery O’Connor’s work too – so that was immediately interesting to me. Sheila showed me Natalie’s pictures and said she thought she’d be perfect for Uncle Holland, and I agreed, completely!
4)I know you are busy with other books right now but are you planning any discussions/signings/etc. in relation with Uncle Holland?
There aren’t any plans for it at the moment. I wish Natalie and I could meet up to do some kind of event together – she and Sheila and I had an interesting exchange about how to talk about army life (and the point of armies) in the classroom, because that question had already come up for Natalie in a presentation.
My father was in the army too, and so was one of my Aunts – a fair number of my cousins have been as well – so it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
5)Many of my followers use social media to track events that their favourite writers/illustrators may be involved with. You posted on your Facebook profile that you won’t be on FB for the “next long while.” Any idea how long that will be?
I’m not sure. . .I’m just checking in once a week or so now (that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks). Some people seem to be good at using social media in a thoughtful, responsible way, but I find I just keep getting sucked in, and not using it productively at all. So I had my daughter change my Facebook password (I don’t know what it is anymore), which means that now I can only go in by request. I’ve felt much, much happier since. Not only were the posts distracting and often upsetting to me, but the sense of badly used time made me feel doubly awful.Spending five or ten minutes on it once a week seems the best solution for me.
6)In your last Q&A with me, you listed a number of projects that you are working on for this year. What is the next item you will be releasing for publication?
I regret everything came out two weeks ago with espresso books. (Link to their website) That was exciting for me – they did a lovely job with it. The next one to come out is a non-fiction book with Wolsak & Wynn publishers, about playing cross-culturally with children. The title (as of now) is But it’s so silly: a cross-cultural collage of nonsense, play, and poetry. That should be out in August. And after that is Leap!, in the fall, a picture book with a poem as its text, with Kids Can Press, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. So a busy year ahead. . .
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the new book, Steven! I appreciate it.
Thanks for answering these questions JonArno! I know my followers appreciate your time and your writing!