Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 48: A Discussion of the Work of Max Turner

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interrogate the work of Max Turner, an author who explores the notion of the psychiatric institution through the perspective of a vampire. Turner sets his vampiric character in a former psychiatric institution in Peterborough Ontario called the Nicholls’ Ward. In this discussion of Max Turner’s work, I explore ideas of aging, coming-of-age narratives, expectations of young adult fiction, vampirism, assumptions about psychiatric institutions, and general ideas of home and belonging.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

You can explore Max Turner’s work at http://maxturner.ca/

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Psychiatric Vampirism

A review of Max Turner’s Night Runner (Harper Trophy Canada, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I am excited to be able to talk about a book that deals with Peterborough, the town that I have come to call home. Max Turner’s Night Runner takes place in the Nicholls’ Ward in Peterborough, the city’s former psychiatric facility. The Nicholls’ Ward closed in 2010 due to issues of cost for repairs and updating of equipment and spaces and it was moved over into the main Peterborough Regional Health Centre building. Throughout the building’s history, it was at various times used as offices for the hospital, archives, a nursing residence, a meeting space, and a library. It was only in its final years that the building was switched to primarily a psychiatric facility. 

Max Turner’s Night Runner takes a novel approach to the teen vampire story by setting the vampire initially in a psychiatric facility. Zach Thomson grew up in the Nicholls Ward after his parents died when he was young. Night Runner takes place when Zach is 15 years old. His experience of youth hasn’t been the same as that of other kids – which is not surprising because children rarely grow up in psychiatric facilities. But his experience is different from that of other children for a variety of health related reasons outside of his mental health. He has an allergy to sunlight, he has a limited diet and is allergic to most foods, and he has bouts of anger and silences that can last for days. Zach has been recognized by his nurses as being in need of specilized medical care. Growing up in a psychiatric ward, Zach has never considered himself normal and he isn’t even certain what ‘normal’ for a teen should be. 

Max Turner creates a novel that questions ideas of normalcy and appropriateness by disrupting ideas of what can be considered normal. He challenges the behaviour of society in ostracizing certain people because of their difference. By situating Zach in a psychiatric institution, Turner questions ideas of family and the type of people that can make up family, extending the idea of belonging to a wider group of very different individuals. 

Night Runner, like many Young Adult tales, is a story about self discovery and the idea of developing a purpose. Zach believes that his life so far has been one of uncertainty and a lack of purpose because he has been in a psychiatric facility all of his life uncertain about what is “wrong” with him and waiting for a cure for his various allergies. 

Turner explores vampirisim as a blood-based pathogen, an infection, but one that radically changes the body, and one that can be spread through the bite. It is also an infection that generally comes with an end date – as every vampire eventually experiences Endpoint Psychosis, a psychiatric illness as they reach the end of their lives and therefore radically change. It is appropriate that a story that deals with the idea of Endpoint Psychosis begins in a psychiatric institution where the same issues of determining “capacity”, self control, and selfhood are diagnostic features both for the psychiatric nurses and for the vampire council who kills vampires they see as being dangerously out of control due to Endpoint Psychosis. In both areas it is up to others in positions of power to determine mental health and ability.

Night Runner, like vampirism itself, is about radical change, coping with different social and emotional pressures and the process of discovery. 

To discover more about the work of Max Turner, visit his website at http://maxturner.ca

To discover more about Night Runner, visit  http://us.macmillan.com/nightrunner/maxturner

 

Speculating the Queer: an LGBTQ2 Canadian Speculative Fiction Reading With ChiSeries Peterborough Featuring Tanya Huff, Michael Rowe, Don Bassingthwaite, and Derek Newman-Stille.

Thursday September 18th at 8:00 PM, ChiSeries Peterborough will be having a reading by LGBTQ2 Speculative Fiction authors Tanya Huff, Michael Rowe, and Don Bassingthwaite hosted by Peterborough’s Derek Newman-Stille at Sadleir House, 751 George Street North in Peterborough.speculating the queer

We often focus on realist literature when we think of queer lit, but what about science fiction, fantasy, and horror? Queer-identified Speculative Fiction authors are able to explore the extents of queer identity in other worlds, throughout time and space, among the darkness, and within all of those spaces on the edges of imagination. Queer fiction has been under-represented in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, so lets let our authors imagine queer worlds.
Tanya Huff is the Aurora Award Winning author of The Smoke Books, The Blood Books, the Quarters Series, and the Keeper’s Chronicles. Her Blood Books were turned into the television series Blood Ties. In addition to the Aurora Awards, she has received nominations and made the short list for awards such as the Gaylactic Spectrum award, Locus Awards, and the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award.

Author photo of Tanya Huff

Author photo of Tanya Huff

Michael Rowe is the editor of the anthologies Queer Fear and Queer Fear 2 as well as being the author of the recent novels Enter, Night and Wild Fell. In addition to his speculative work, Michael Rowe is an award winning journalist and has published for the National Post, The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, and The Advocate. He has won the Lambda Literary Award for the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender awards for the year, the Randy Shilts Award for works of non-fiction of relevance to the gay community, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award and has been a finalist for the Aurora Awards and the Shirley Jackson Award.

IMG_3647 - Version 2

Author photo of Michael Rowe

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of several books in the World of Darkness ethos, and for the Dungeons & Dragons series, and has published short stories in Bending the Landscape: Fantasy and Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction.

Author photo of Don Bassingthwaite

Author photo of Don Bassingthwaite

Derek Newman-Stille is a PhD Student in Canadian Studies researching Canadian Speculative Fiction. His review and interview website Speculating Canada (www.speculatingcanada.wordpress.com) has won an Aurora Award and he has been a juror for the Sunburst Awards.

Derek Newman-Stille with the Prix Aurora Award, October 6, 2013. Photo credit Dwayne Collins.

Derek Newman-Stille with the Prix Aurora Award, October 6, 2013. Photo credit Dwayne Collins.

From bisexual and lesbian vampires to gay and lesbian wizards to trans ghosts to queer voyagers through space to shape-shifting lovers, the characters created by these LGBTQ2 authors are complex, powerful, and fascinating. Their works explore ideas of homophobic violence, oppression, complex relationships, changes in body, queer futures, ideas of acceptance, and notions of resistance. Prepare to see characters that are far beyond the stereotypes and one-dimensional references to LGBTQ2 people we often see in popular media.
To join the event on Facebook, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/1525545660996707
And for more information about ChiSeries Peterborough events including this one, visit http://chiseries.com/reading-series-peterborough .

Interview with Ursula Pflug

An interview with Ursula Pflug
by Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille, Ursula Pflug, and Leah Bobet (left to right) at The Cat Sass Reading Series

Derek Newman-Stille, Ursula Pflug, and Leah Bobet (left to right) at The Cat Sass Reading Series

I am very excited that Ursula Pflug was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada…. and not just because she complements me several times in this interview (thank you Ursula, I am honoured). I have wanted to interview Ms. Pflug since I read her bio and found out that she was living in my own town, Peterborough Ontario.  I hope you enjoy the interview she has given here on Speculating Canada.

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

Ursula Pflug: I was born in Tunisia to German parents; my mother, sister and I immigrated when I was a pre-schooler. We lived in my grandmother’s basement in Downsview before my father came from Tunis to join us and we rented a flat above a store on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. My parents spoke French and German at home so I didn’t speak English when I started school. I remember a friend patiently trying to explain how I was interchanging mouse for mouth. My sister and I were close both in age and by temperament. We were nerdy readers who survived by writing and drawing and inventing time machines in the sandy alleyway behind the church. My parents were painters, my father was also a doctor; he had to re-do his North African residency at TGH before he could practice here; for many years we lived on his intern’s income and my mother’s CC grants.

There were often friends over for dinner and discussions regularly included snippets about Rosa Luxemburg, Kafka, Burroughs and Ginsburg, and of course visual artists  from Europe and North America, both historical and contemporary. The older I get the more I (somewhat belatedly) become aware of how materialist our culture actually is; I think I was protected from this understanding because of the emphasis my parents put on creative and intellectual pursuits to the exclusion of almost  everything else.

I attended the Ontario College of Art and the University of Toronto but I also travelled widely and that was perhaps more formative. I lived on my own as a teenager in both Hawai’i and in New York City, for a year in each. I met my husband, the new media sculptor Doug Back when I wrote about his early work for Now Magazine, where I had an occasional column about art in the early 80’s. I was a self taught graphic designer and that was my day job before we moved out of the city although I had been publishing short stories for awhile.

Doug and I decided to rent part of my father’s farmhouse in Dummer Township when we started a family—coincidentally, as it happened. I didn’t know the area well, but the year before I’d participated in the first SF Ink workshop at Peter Robinson College, a workshop facilitated by Judith Merril who lived, as we did, near College and Spadina. We drove up with Judith as we didn’t have a car and afterwards stayed in touch. At the workshop I shared scenes which later became parts of The Alphabet Stones.

Eleven years later Doug and I bought a house in the village of Norwood. It’s a century brick, backing onto conservation land and the Ouse River. The Ouse in England was the river Virginia Woolf drowned herself in. It’s always seemed fitting that I live beside a river with such a literary name. I’ve grown attached to living in the woods surrounded by trees, rivers and wildlife. Eastern Ontario has seeped into my bones something fierce and been a big influence on my work.

The Peterborough arts community was very welcoming to us. Doug chaired the board at Artspace for a time and I worked for many years in theatre. I had several plays produced or funded by professional companies, including Susan Spicer’s Writers’ Workshop, the late Rhonda Payne’s Riverbank Productions and 4th Line Theatre. I was part of SEASKUM, a feminist comedy troupe that was active in the 90’s. I teach night school at Loyalist College and have met some amazing people doing that. I’ve also grown a big vegetable garden ever since we left the city and have been active in the food sovereignty movement.

Spec Can: What role can technology have in changing the future of our society?

Ursula Pflug: E-mail and search engines (there was life before Google, believe it or not) seemed magical at the outset, hard as that is to believe, now that it’s the bane of our existence. And, of course, there was the sudden ease of research. In Toronto we would go to the big Metro library on Yonge Street once a week with paper folders full of saved up questions. The internet created a change in many ways larger than the advent of the telephone. No one really saw it coming, Gibson and Ballard and Vernor Vinge notwithstanding; but the enormity of the change and how it impacted us wasn’t predicted or well-understood by social scientists. Anyone with access to the internet can get an education now—also, while history has always been written by the winners the web allows each of us to have our say.

My personal wish list for technological research includes larger investments in safe and green energy. We need to invest in research, in installations, and also in transmission and distribution infrastructure.

I backpacked across Japan in 2012 with my sister. We spoke to a gathering of Buddhist monks and peace workers from around the world in front of the A-Bomb dome in  Hiroshima on the August 6 anniversary. The young Japanese people I spoke to explained how, to them, the disaster at Fukushima and the dropping of the bomb are in important respects the same. When your child or grandchild is dying of leukemia do you care whether it is because you were living near Hiroshima or Fukushima?

Sadako Sasaki folded into each of the thousand cranes she made her intense desire to live, to be free from illness. Decades later I wonder—is the A-Bomb disease leukemia, which we will be seeing in rising numbers in Japan yet again—or does our illness lie in believing we can only meet our energy needs by ransoming our children’s futures?

Spec Can: In what way can SF encourage readers to think in new and innovative ways?

Ursula Pflug: By breaking down the barriers of how we define reality, obviously.

The potential answers to that question are basically uncountable, which is cause for optimism. I think the answer we choose will depend on where our focus is, as readers and as writers. To illustrate, in my little sketch about Japan, I see the possibility for a story that includes the ancient art of origami, references to nuclear arms and nuclear power, and a theme of the collective desire for peace becoming powerful enough to catalyze real change.

I see a little girl in a hospital bed folding paper cranes, and how this simple poetic act had a ripple effect, influencing countless people. I think of the giant jellyfish that live in the Sea of Japan, and how the scientists studying them aren’t sure what their message to us is. I see a second character, the Vietnam veteran we met who was with Veterans for Peace—he had been part of a summer long group walk that included stops at all the nuclear installations in Japan, ending in Hiroshima on the anniversary. The speculative element will be to include a trans-temporal and trans-species link, some kind of conversation  between Sadako and this man, and the giant jellyfish in the Sea of Japan. Here are images, rich and poetic, which could become a story. I’m a writing teacher, so that is where I begin, is with the elements of story. Anything can happen, and at the beginning of telling the story we have no idea what that anything will be. No matter how detailed our preliminary outline is, as writers we may still deviate—our characters often turn out to have minds of their own. So—for me, any story can encourage readers to think in new ways. Perhaps visualizing new technology, or describing systems of magic that allow us to see ourselves as multi-dimensional beings living in a multi-dimensional universe—or, as I have done here, to imagine trans-temporal interspecies communication—such things may be more specific to science fiction and fantasy than to mainstream.

Spec Can: How can SF help readers to question social messages and ideas that are taken-for-granted?

Ursula Pflug: Some very wonderful and successful speculative fictions have been published as mainstream in recent years, such as Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, to name just a few. These books are genre books by any other name. Before it was picked up by Tesseract Books, my first novel, Green Music was turned down by (among others) Shelly Shapiro at Del Rey. She told me to try Four Walls, Eight Windows. 4W8W did publish genre writers including Shepard, Butler, Doctorow, Rucker and so on but it wasn’t exclusively a genre press. Shapiro told me genre was actually a very conservative publishing scene, which made me sad as SF was sold to us as the literature of ideas.

Russel Smith just commented in the G and M that SF will include thought provoking  ideas and narratives (he included Gibson here) but be written in a conventional style, and postmodern literary writers will experiment stylistically but their themes will follow convention. Why, he asks, must this be so? I have been told it’s because the ideas are challenging in SF and so we must write conventional plots and sentences so as not to inordinately challenge our readers, but isn’t that a bit condescending? And in any case Mitchell proves it’s possible to do both in the same book.

Given how much genre work is socially conservative and “stodgy in its style,” to quote Smith, then we may at times have more luck breaking down the barriers of how we define reality if we read speculative novels published as mainstream.

I’ve gone off on a tangent here—discussing style rather than content but it’s something I think about a fair bit.

At its best, speculative fiction, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream or anything else, allows us, both as readers and writers, a larger canvas. We can draw outside the lines. As a younger reader I was struck by how LeGuin’s iconic early novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness challenged received notions about class and gender.

Spec Can: What is unique about Canadian SF from that of other nations?

Ursula Pflug: I was on a panel at Anticipation with Nalo Hopkinson, Karl Schroeder and Bob Boyzcuk which used a quote from David Ketterer’s  1992 book Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy as its starting point. I bought a used hardcover on Amazon and really enjoyed filling in some gaps in my knowledge of the early history of Canadian SF. We need more books like his, and yes, that’s a hint. Unfortunately I can’t find the Ketterer book or my notes! I do remember that one of the things I did to prep for the panel was to read some  introductions to the Tesseracts series. 1999’s Tesseracts 8 (in which—shameless hype alert—I had two stories) was edited by Candas Jane Dorsey and John Clute. In his introductory essay Clute remarks, “What came through in many of the stories we eventually selected was not, what excited my own exilic nerve endings, was not loneliness (loneliness is the lowest form of exile) but solitude: the solitude of the prairie gaze upon multitudinousness, the solitude of the bullet hit, the task of seeing undertaken.”

I’d like to posit that seeing requires an ability for solitude and introspection.

“Canadian writing in particular,” Clute says, “has retained an anticipatory hush, an island solitude, a willingness to queue for the epiphany to come.”

That made me laugh, the image of Canadians lining up for an epiphany. Take a number.

Spec Can: You have been a great supporter of the author community. In what way can others encourage the development of community among authors and support authors?

Ursula Pflug: One way we can help our fellow authors is by writing reviews of their work. Since the big dailies aren’t reviewing much we tend as authors to post reviews on GoodReads or LibraryThing. I post on Goodreads but almost all my reviews there have been previously published in places like Strange Horizons, The NYRSF, The Peterborough Examiner, The Link, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and other places. Some of the best known Canadian literary magazines are Descant, Malahat, Prism, Prairie Fire, Room and The Fiddlehead but there are dozens of others. Magazines Canada maintains an online list of literary journals. Almost if not all of these run a few reviews at the back. Some editors assign reviews or they are done in-house but others welcome reviews from freelancers and some even pay. Review credits are good publication credits to have. As writers we often complain that we’re not reviewed enough but if we’re not reviewing our peers can we really complain? Usually it’s a lot faster and easier to write a review than a short story, after all. I was particularly happy when I wrote for publications south of the border, helping to boost recognition of Canadians.

I organize a reading series in my village at Cat Sass Coffeehouse. We’ve hosted amazing authors, both emerging and established, locals and folks on tour.  We’ve had  a ton of fun but it’s been more of a time sink than I’d anticipated, (silly me) partly because we went after Canada Council funding for our authors. I’m very grateful to be able to support the community in this way (it’s a little known fact that writers need to eat like other people) but the CC application process is unwieldy and time consuming. The Writers Union, however, has a one page application form for hosting member readings. There is an administration fee which I wish they’d drop—we pay it out of a donations jar. You can talk a cafe in your town into hosting an author from the other side of the country and TWUC will pay part of the travel expenses as well as a reading fee. Hosting authors doesn’t have to be a huge deal and is a lot of fun—for example the Hastings Village Library hosts one writer a year; they just had Jane Urquhart in, talking about landscape and architecture. Anyone can do this. The host need not be a Union member, just the invited reader. Who wants to invite me to Vancouver to read in 2014? The applications for next year aren’t closed yet.

Spec Can: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your short stories and novels?

Ursula Pflug: I want people to be given more tools for breaking down the ways in which they define reality. I keep going back to your tagline, Derek, but I do think you’ve nailed it so nicely.

Katelyn Shoop was writing about my Tightrope Books story collection After the Fires in the Danforth Review when she said my narratives “began to interrogate the reader’s sense of reality.”

Almost the same words!

As well, a lot my work is a little cerebral and artsy, and that will only ever appeal to some. However, as a person who has fallen in love with so many artsy writers, I know that without books like Bruno Schulz’s The Street of the Crocodiles I would have been a lonelier and more closed-minded person. Russel Smith, discussing Munro’s Nobel win in the G and M, said, “the contempoorary short story is too damn artsy for mass popularity. It’s a form closer to poetry than to novels.”

So there you go.

Spec Can: Your writing style is very poetic. What has influenced the development of your poetic style of expression?

Ursula Pflug:  I’ve published a few prose poems in places like Star*line, Rampike, and Stone Telling and won small press awards for a couple of them. At some time in my life I’d like to focus on the form a little more. Till recently I haven’t even read that much poetry— but nowadays you can catch me poring over a dual language Neruda before bed, pretending my Spanish is improving.

I was a big fan of William Burroughs when I was in my late teens and early twenties and he is a very poetic writer. I remember reading a section of Cities of the Red Night, or maybe it was one of the others in that trilogy, in which Burroughs described a character’s time travel experience. It gave me shivers and I realized he had given me a subjective experience of time travel and not just a description of the externals, including semi-plausible science and gadgetry, interesting as that might be. I understood that for me as a reader, that was a much more moving and powerful experience. It’s interesting because I wrote this before you pointed out that The Alphabet Stones allows the reader to feel what it is like to question reality, to wonder whether she is experiencing the world of the fey or losing her mind. The moments we are most moved by as readers stay with us and influence us as writers, even though most often we’re not aware of the influence when we write.

Spec Can: Many of your stories revolve around the subject of magic. What can reading about magic do for audiences?

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug: When we read about magic are we escaping or are we expanding our notions of what is possible? Doing so always offers hope. They needn’t cancel each other out—both can be true, even simultaneously. Tim Powers once answered the question by saying that magic supplies us with extra dimensions. He didn’t mean it literally; he meant it conceptually. If naturalistic fiction takes place in two dimensions, the moment we add a reality bending element we’re adding an extra dimension. There is more room to play as an author and more room to play as a thinker and reader. This is true of science fiction as well and I think whether we like magic or extrapolated science is largely a matter of  taste.

Spec Can: Why does the topic of magic appeal to readers so much?

Ursula Pflug: Immersing ourselves in secondary worlds can provide relief from care as they  are so far from our own reality—and reading about magic can open our minds.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview?

Ursula Pflug: I’d like to thank you for all that you do, and to congratulate you on your Aurora Award.

I want to thank Ursula Pflug for all of these brilliant insights and for giving us some new techniques to support Canadian SF authors. As always, Ms. Pflug’s writing provides new ways of thinking and new ways of viewing the world.

Speculating Canada ON AIR – A Radio Interview with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers on Trent Radio

For any of you who missed the On Air interview with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers on Trent Radio, here is a digital version of it for you to download.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

Upcoming Radio Discussion with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers Tuesday June 25th at 5:00 on Trent Radio

Yesterday, I was in the studio at Trent Radio having a discussion with Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers, which will be aired on Tuesday June 25th at 5:00. You can check out our discussion at 92.7 FM in the broadcast range or if you are outside the broadcast range, you can visit Trent Radio online at http://www.trentradio.ca, where it will be live streamed if you click on “LISTEN: OGG & MP3 Streams”.

Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi in the studio at Trent Radio

Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi in the studio at Trent Radio

Hear us discuss dark, weird fiction, the power of smaller Canadian presses, SF cover art, fears, mythology, ChiZine Publications, the blurring of genre boundaries, SF poetry, and the ability of fiction to “weird” reality enough that we look at it from a new perspective. Oh, and for those of you in Peterborough, we also talk a bit about how Peterborough is the ideal place for getting ideas for creepy horror novels.

Sandra Kasturi is the co-owner of ChiZine Publications, editor of “Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing”, and author of two books of poetry: “The Animal Bridegroom” and “Come Late to the Love of Birds”, both published by Tightrope Books. To find out more about her and read some of her poetry, visit http://sandrakasturi.com/ .

Ian Rogers is the local Peterborough author of a collection of dark fiction called “Every House Is Haunted” from ChiZine Publications and “SuperNOIRtural Tales”, a collection of supernatural detective stories,from Burning Effigy Press. To find out more about Ian Rogers visit http://www.ian-rogers.com/.

Thanks are well deserved for the assistance of Trent Radio, Alissa Paxton for her tech skills, John Muir and Kathleen Adamson for finding us a place in the broadcast schedule, and, of course to Sandra Kasturi and Ian Rogers for coming in to the studio for this discussion. Thank you also to Brett Savory and Kathryn Verhulst-Rogers for contributing to an amazing conversation.

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.

HollyBennett-13944_2

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/