Interview with Holly Bennett

An interview with Holly Bennett by Derek Newman-Stille

It is always exciting to meet an author who lives in the same town as I do, so I was really pleased to come across Holly Bennett’s name when I was searching for new authors on Kobo, and then to find out that she also lives in Peterborough. I was very pleased that she was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada. If you have an interest in Teen Fiction, music, Peterborough, the role of fantasy writing to open up new ideas, ghosts, character development, or myth, I think you will enjoy hearing Holly Bennett’s insights.

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Author photo courtesy of Holly Bennett

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Holly Bennett: Oh dear. I’m sort of embarrassingly average, really. I grew up in Montreal, came to Peterborough to go to Trent, and turned into one of those Trent alumni who stay — we are legion. I did live in Toronto for a while after graduating, but came back to Peterborough in search of a cheaper, saner lifestyle, mainly so we could afford to have kids.

Career-wise, I started out in non-profit work, doing research and program development with various Aboriginal organizations (my undergrad degree’s in Native Studies, and I studied Adult Education at OISE). Then a couple of years after moving back to Peterborough I lucked into a home-based job as an assistant editor at Today’s Parent. I loved the work, and discovered I am pretty damn good at it, and have made my living as an editor and non-fiction writer ever since.

I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.

Spec Can: Why is the supernatural so popular in Young Adult fiction at the moment? What is the appeal of the supernatural for teens?

Holly Bennett: I think it’s the same appeal as for adults, really. The supernatural — or let’s broaden that out to fantasy in general — it’s the appeal of what lurks at the edges of things, I suppose. The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, “What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?”  At the same time, fantasy stories allow us to grapple with huge issues— questions of good and evil, oppression and freedom, terror and courage—in a kind of “safe” way. We know it’s not real, so that frees us to dive into things that might be too painful or threatening in ‘real life.’

I do think the ‘quest’ nature of many fantasy stories is very well-suited to this age group. It’s the mythic journey of the young adult, really. So it resonates with kids who are starting to imagine and test themselves as young adults.

Spec Can: What are some of the key differences in writing characters for YA than for adult fiction?

Holly Bennett:  Well, publishers will tell you the main characters in YA must be young people themselves. I’ve broken that rule fairly often myself, and so have many others. I think it’s a rule that’s easier to break in the fantasy genre, but I do think you need to create characters that teens can identify with and/or think about how to draw them into the world you have created. Another way to look at it is, are your characters dealing with issues that teens can relate to? The classic mytho-fantasy themes are pretty ageless: readers of any age (if they like the genre) can relate to them, even if the character is older. But if that character is feeling bored and depressed by his retirement, or trying to come to terms with a marriage gone stale, then no, that’s not going to captivate many young readers.

For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.  What is often different is the pace of the writing. You don’t have a lot of room for descriptions of anything, including characters, so the characters have to unfold, to a large extent,  through their actions and the plot.

Spec Can: What myths of the magical do you draw on when you write?

Holly Bennett: I’ve been especially drawn to the Irish Celtic myths — two of my novels are retelling/embellishments of old Irish stories that date back to the Iron Age, which I found really resonated richly for me. But I find I also borrow quite a bit from some of the spiritual ideas and practices I learned back in Native Studies at Trent — in the Warrior’s Daughter for example Luaine attends a kind of sweat lodge ceremony, and she also does a version of a dream fast. The Celts did have some kind of sauna or sweat lodge, and they did have the “bed of dreams” I described in the book, but we don’t have much knowledge about their ceremonies or practices. I drew on aboriginal ceremonies I’ve attended when imagining what actually happened.

Spec Can: What is the role of the outsider in your work? How do you bring ideas of diversity into your work?

Cover photo of Shapeshifter courtesy of Holly Bennett

Cover photo of Shapeshifter courtesy of Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett: It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too! Dirk, in The Bonemende, was my first outsider character, and he started out as a simple plot device. Then Gabrielle brought him home, and the second book was really spurred on by my need to explore his experience.

Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey. In The Bonemender, the Greffaires are just “the bad guys” until we meet Dirk.

I think another form of the Outsider is the Outcast. That was a really dominant theme in Shapeshifter, where Sive is forced to leave not only her world but her human form. Thinking about the loneliness of that experience, the struggle to adapt and yet still hold on to who you are, was very moving for me. And there are so many real, contemporary human experiences that would be in some way like Sive’s. I think of the experience of refugees, of the homeless, so many others.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Holly Bennett: Oh yes. I think this is my very favourite part of writing, and also sometimes the scariest. At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.

This happened with my very first novel, The Bonemender. I looked down at my computer screen and saw that Féolan had just decided to travel over the mountains into Greffaire territory, and I had not planned that at all. My first thought was, “Oh crap. Now I have to come up with a whole new country, and a whole new subplot.” But it was absolutely the right thing, both for Féolan and in terms of keeping the story interesting.

I don’t mean to suggest that as a writer you end up at the mercy of your characters.  It’s more that as the characters develop and change, the story has to kind of adjust itself around them.

Spec Can: Your novel Redwing follows the lives of musicians. What role can music play  in literature? What appealed to you about writing about musicians?

Holly Bennett: Some of my favourite books are infused with music. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is so full of music Tim O’Brien made an album of it.  It’s tricky, because music is not going to speak to everyone, especially described in print! But music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.

It’s amazing, really, that I haven’t written about musicians earlier, considering I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t play. At a certain period of our family life, it wasn’t unheard of to have four instruments going at once, and not together—from traditional Irish fiddle to black metal guitar. So it’s been an important backdrop to my life for a long time.

Spec Can: In Redwing the ghost of Rowan’s sister forms an ever present voice, preserving him from danger the same as she did while she was alive. How do ideas about ghosts and haunting add to the human experience? What do haunting narratives teach us?

Cover photo of Redwing courtesy of Holly Bennett

Cover photo of Redwing courtesy of Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett: I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear. Somehow even people who firmly reject the notion of an afterlife are attracted to the thought that the people we love could still exist in some form, or even communicate with us. It’s a very seductive thought.

I think because of that shared desire — who hasn’t thought, “if only my Dad could see this” or “I wish I could talk to Grandma now”?— the idea of ghosts can seem more “possible” than some fantasy elements.  I’m attracted to these supernatural or fantasy elements that seem like they could be possible; we know there are many things about our natural world that we still don’t understand or perhaps even know about, so why couldn’t there be the Second Sight or a genetic mutation that enhances telepathy or a spirit energy that remains after death? To me, these ideas are more intriguing than magic swords or invisibility cloaks.

Spec Can: As a Peterborough author, how have you found this area as a place to create a writing community, and how has this place influenced your writing?

Holly Bennett: I confess I’m kind of a solitary writer. I tell myself from time to time that I should join a writing group, that it would be fun and make me a better writer, but the fact is I don’t like to share writing-in-progress. I just don’t.  I do have some people I consider my “writing buddies” and at least one of them is here in Peterborough but they tend to be scattered about.

However, I do believe living in Peterborough has helped me write. First, the thriving arts community here is simply encouraging — all kinds of people I know, of all ages, are making different kinds of art. Second, living here gives me more time and mental space to do the writing. Because we could live cheaper here, I was able to work four days a week instead of 100% full-time and that was a fantastic gift.

I want to thank Holly Bennett for being willing to share some of her insights here on Speculating Canada and hope that we get a chance to hear from her again. If you haven’t yet had a chance to explore Ms. Bennett’s work, you can check out her website at http://www.hollybennett.net/ . There is also a review of her novel Redwing on Speculating Canada at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/

Dragonville

A review of Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy (Viking, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Cover photo for The Painted Boy courtesy of http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/

Charles de Lint often takes his readers into the hidden parts of the world and brings attention to the things that people ignore in the world around them, whether that be the fantastic side of the world and the potential for a magical viewpoint or attention to those within our society that are often ignored such as the homeless, or those on the social fringes. In The Painted Boy, de Lint takes on gangs, a part of our society that most people prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist outside of the media excitement over violent attacks (and then they are only noted at a distance). De Lint reminds readers that they do exist and that kids in gangs have a reason for being in them that can’t be gotten rid of just by punitive actions – rather, we need to look at the social issues that give rise to gangs: poverty, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, racism, exclusion, social ideas of masculinity, a society that celebrates violence.

James Li is a Chinese-American teen who, at the age of 11 had a tattoo suddenly appear on his back; a tattoo of a dragon that meant that his life had changed and that the weight of traditions that he knew nothing about had come down on him. He is sent out into the world at age 17 to discover himself and find the dragon within him (literally since he is a dragon shape shifter). When he arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, he is instantly pursued by gangs who think that he is part of a rival gang infringing on their territory. But he is the fundamental opposite of the gang mentality, though bears enough similarities to contain a social commentary on gangs.

Like gang members, James Li’s body is marked with his particular group affiliation (the dragon), he has had a strict regimen of control, loyalty has been bred into him as an essential part of his being, he could be killed by those in charge if he disobeys the authorities in place, dragons are territorial so he embodies a sense of place much as gang turf does, his body contains a potential for rage and violence. But his role shows the fallacy of the claims that the gangs make. They are not actually loyal as the dragon is, they are afraid of those in control. The gang leaders will kill those under them from a sociopathic whim, whereas the dragons will only kill of one of their members becomes a threat to others. The gangs aren’t actually part of their turf, they don’t respect it or the people on it – they control it with fear. James holds a distorted mirror up to the gangs, illustrating that they are hollow and that all of the values and ideas of belonging that they claim are shallow and without substance. Gangs don’t protect or guard anything despite their claims to protect their members, where James as a dragon is the literal embodiment of protection. De Lint evokes the history of the dragon in China as a protector of emperors, but notes that over the years as empires have fallen, dragons have become guardians of places, linked to the spirit of the place and guarding over locations. They protect spaces, but aren’t lords over a territory.

De Lint’s interest in place is common to many of his stories; featuring various genius loci (spirits of place) and focussing on the distinctiveness of landscapes (even urban landscapes) as having both distinctive physical but also spiritual features. By creating a figure who is a shape-shifting dragon, de Lint brings extra attention to ideas of space and place. James Li has to connect with the embodiment of the spirit of his new town in order to drive the gangs and drug lords out and protect his new home. But he also has to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his new home and learn about how to deal with the social issues that have become embedded in this place such as fear, poverty, threatening notions of masculinity, general disrespect for others, and the realities of a community in threat. De Lint doesn’t create a magical cure that fixes the society, but rather requires James to find himself within his new community and acknowledge and work on notions of changing social issues gradually. James is required to create friends, acknowledge the community around him (both human and supernatural) in order to prevent him from becoming like the previous gang leaders of the place, who weren’t really attached to it or its communities but viewed it instead as a territory to be controlled. When his dragon threatens to consume him and destroy the city he is supposed to protect, it is only through the collective efforts of the community of friends he has made getting together to have a concert and the rhythmic beat of the music that holds the collective heartbeat of the community that brings him back to himself. He learns that he cannot guard a place from a distance, but rather has to be part of it, to have connections to the people around him and to care for them. Here de Lint once again contrasts James to the gangs – whereas the gangs have a false community based on fear, James is able to establish a community based on mutual respect, cooperation and the desire for collective well-being.

Key figures in this change in society are the lesser cousins – shape-shifting supernatural beings who are generally seen as weaker. Despite being self depreciating, the weaker spiritual powers are the ones who gather people together, who create connections and open pathways of communication. The Painted Boy acknowledges the importance of all members of a community in creating a society and that the under-represented often have a key role that is ignored by a society that focusses on the ‘big’ powers.

Despite being one of those big powers because of his dragon heritage and supernatural abilities, James considers himself a social outsider, a kid who wants to learn and above all else wants to belong. He faces the struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, while simultaneously wanting to be unique and special. He is in a war with himself both through his desire to lead a normal human life and his need to fulfill a destiny that has been inscribed onto him.

To read more about Charles de Lint, you can visit his website at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/  and can read more about The Painted Boy at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/painted-desc01.htm .

Upcoming interview with Holly Bennett on Wednesday, January 30th

Holly Bennett is a fantasy author living in the same city as I, Peterborough Ontario, and I was excited to find another author in the same area. She is primarily an author of Young Adult fiction, and it is great to get the perspective of a Canadian YA author since many of the authors I have interviewed write primarily adult fiction.

In a very typically Peterborough way, I first encountered Holly through her books and only later discovered that we knew many of the same people. Peterborough is one of those strange towns where even if you think you may not know someone, odds are that you have a connection to them – the perfect space to inspire fantasy writing because the unusual just seems to happen here.

In our upcoming interview on Wednesday January 30th, Holly Bennett discusses her transformation from being a non-fiction writer to suddenly developing the confidence to write fiction, the appeal of fantasy to our society, the difference in writing fantasy for teens versus fantasy for adults, the ability of fantasy to deal with social issues, the role of the mythic,  the power of music, hauntings from the past, and the strength of characters to wrestle the plot away from author and make their story their own.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Holly Bennett: “I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.”

Holly Bennett: “The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, ‘What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?’”

Holly Bennett: “For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.”

Holly Bennett: “It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too!”

Holly Bennett: “Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey.”

Holly Bennett: “At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.”

Holly Bennett: “Music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.”

Holly Bennett: “I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear.”

Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday January 30 to see the full interview with Holly Bennett. You can check out my review of her book Redwing at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/ if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You can also explore her website to find out more about her at http://www.hollybennett.net/ .

The Bookstore of Belonging

A review of Claude Lalumiere’s The Door To Lost Pages (ChiZine Publications, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art for The Door To Lost Pages courtesy of http://chizinepub.com/books/lost_pages.php

Cover Art for The Door To Lost Pages courtesy of ChiZine Publications

In The Door To Lost Pages, Claude Lalumiere once again shows his ability to add a hint of the mythic to the underpinnings of reality and challenge the hegemony of the real by suggesting that there is more to the world than what we deem to be real. Lalumiere creates the ideal bookstore, the one that every person who has been a social outsider dreams about, a place to escape from the humdrum world around them and find a place to belong and a place that acknowledges that reality itself may be more diverse than mainstream society accepts or portrays it to be.

Lost Pages is the ideal bookstore for those who have been cast as “weird” to find themselves. It captures the ability of bookstores to create a place of escape and comfort for many of us who are social outsiders. Lost Pages is a place OF the strange and FOR the strange. It is a physical embodiment of the fringe, existing on the edge of reality and changeable, only really noticed by those who need it. Lalumiere illustrates that stories and myths themselves are places of belonging, as uncomfortable, weird, and simultaneously homey as the people who read them. The space between words is one where one can discover a place of belonging, discover one self, and be able to be comfortable and even revel in being weird, different, socially abject.

As with many of his stories, Lalumiere’s The Door To Lost Pages evokes in the reader a desire to question that reality is just what we see or make of it. He plays with intersections of multiple realities, duplicates, changeable worlds, and diversity of perception. He acknowledges that for a world of diverse people, the way we see the world, the way we define reality, is itself diverse, multiple, and changeable. We do live in a world of multiple realities and every person has their own reality, their own way of viewing the world and we neither can nor do see what others see, but we need to learn to try.

Claude Lalumiere evokes the dreaming mind, the subconscious, unconscious, superconscious, and the semi-permeable barrier between dream and reality becomes the space between one page and the next.

You can read more about Claude Lalumiere at his website at http://lostmyths.net/claude/ . To explore The Door To Lost Pages, you can visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/ .