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.
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?
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?
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/