Monday, March 26, 2012

Interview with Alice Kuipers, Author of 40 Things I Want to Tell You.

We're excited to welcome Alice Kuipers to the blog today. Alice was born in London, England, and moved to Canada in 2003. She lives Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which took her a while for me to learn how to spell.  
Her first novel, Life on the Refrigerator Door, was published in 28 countries, won several awards and was named as a New York Times book for the Teen Age. Her second is called Lost For Words in the US, and The Worst Thing She Ever Did everywhere else. It won the Arthur Ellis Award, was shortlisted for the White Pine and Willow Awards, and was published in eight territories.  Forty Things I Want To Tell You is her newest novel for young adults.  The Best-Ever Bookworm Book by Violet and Victor Small is her first picture book.  It’s in production with Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, and a sequel will follow.

She's had non-fiction published in Easy Living Magazine, the Sunday Telegraph and the Bristol Review of Books; several short stories turned into radio productions; and one short story which was used to inspire a short film. She won the LG award in Saskatchewan for most promising artist under 30, when she was under 30, not soooo long ago. Please visit her website for writing tips, news about her books, and writing prompts!

Novel Matters: Alice, You recently completed a one year stint as Saskatoon Public Library Writer in Residence where you met with many writers to talk about their work. Tell us about this experience, and how it influenced you as a writer. Were there any patterns you saw as you read the work of new writers? Any advice you'd like to share?

Alice Kuipers: The residency taught me how much of a role writing plays in the lives of so many people in the community.  I was astonished by how many writers I met, and how many of them wanted to share their work with me. I divided the writers up in my mind into two groups – one group wanted to rush the work out to publication, and had no trouble writing loads of stories and ideas down, but needed to spend a bit more time editing, perhaps.  The other group felt overwhelmed by the blank page, wanting to get the words down but worrying that they weren’t good enough.  It seems to me that there are two stages to the writing process.  The first stage is when you write for yourself – and the first group was good at this.  The second stage is when you polish the draft for publication, so you write for someone else.  The second group was excellent at this, but they forgot the first stage.  I tried to encourage each writer I met to work hardest on the stage they found difficult.

NM:  What a great perspective. I don’t think I’ve heard it expressed that way before. Gets me thinking about which group I fit into. I think both at different times. With all your experience with new writers, what is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?

AK: Write. Really, sit down and get writing. Your story is worth telling.

NM:  Deceptively simple advice, Alice, but that is what makes it the best advice. In the end, it takes a great deal of faith and self-permission to put your butt in the chair and write. Okay, what is the worst piece of writing advice someone ever offered to you and why?

AK: My art teacher insisted I had to do a sketch and preparation for every piece of art work at school. It was terrible advice for me as I never prepare.  I prefer to edit something a thousand times but the first draft is a thrilling ride for me alone.  My art teacher had a different way of working and tried to enforce her way of working artistically upon me.  I’d extrapolate from this that it’s not a good idea to try and follow someone else’s work practice when you’re doing something creative.  Find your own way.

NM:  Finding your own way is great advice. It’s time consuming, and even frustrating at times, but it’s the only way. So, when you need a break from finding your own way, what is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you be a better writer?

AK: Other than reading? I guess hanging out with my children.  One of them is yelling at me right now.  I’ll be back!

Yes, hanging out with my children is so time consuming that it involves all of my brain and I can’t think about writing at all.  When I get to the blank page, I sometimes feel like weeks have gone by and so I’m ready to work with new insights and able to see the page almost as if I hadn’t written it in the first place.

NM: I’m still thinking about your art teacher. There is a big different between being influenced in a positive way by other writers, and trying to bend ourselves into a pretzel imitating them. It’s almost like we need to read and read and be inspired but at the same time remain true to our unique vision and way of doing things. Which novels have informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?

AK: I read as much as I possibly can, all the time.  The novel I most loved is called The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.  A friend of mine read it after I suggested it and he actually thought I was joking, as the book is dense and hard work.  But there is a moment within the novel of such great beauty that I was profoundly moved when I read it and this moment has stayed with me.  Every year, I try and read the Booker shortlist, several of the GGs (Governor General—book awards for the best English language and French language books in Canada ) and I buy at least one young adult novel a week.  I’m just about to sit down and read a book called Mad Love as recommended by the fifteen year old I live with.  Books are the soil from which a writer grows.  My only writing rule is to read (50 pages a day) and from all those books, I think the words I write bear fruit.

NM: One thing every writer loves is another title to check out and add to their to-be-read pile. I know I’ll be adding The Glass Bead Game. With all the reading you do, is there a writer in history, or living today, you’d love to sit down and chat with? Who would it be and why?

AK: Well, other than my darling boyfriend (Yann Martel), I think I’d enjoy hanging out with Tennessee Williams.  I’m sure the way he spoke would teach me so much about writing dialogue and I’d love to ask him about The Glass Menagerie, my favourite play.

NM: Tennessee Williams wrote brilliant character studies, rich, complex, dark, and utterly human. When you begin a book, do characters come to you first, or does plot, themes, or something else?

AK: Titles come to me first.  Often I end up changing the title later on, but something about the selection of words giving me the framework for the story helps me get started.  There’s often a feeling too, a question I want to answer for myself.  Everything else follows.

NM: Was the title what came first for you when you began your latest Novel, 40 Things I want to Tell You? (amazon link)

AK: The title paired with the name of the character.  I liked the juxtaposition of a girl who wants to fly being someone who is terribly controlling because she’s scared of letting go.

NM: 40 Things I Want to Tell You (kindle link) is about a girl who seems to have the perfect life, until the perfect storm of problems, including a love triangle, start cracking her perfect world. What do you hope your readers to carry away from reading your novel?

AK: I think it’s important to be okay with not always being in control.  Trust what your instincts tell you.  It takes Bird a long time to realize this.

NM: I’m still working on that one myself. Writing a story like this one obviously took courage on your part. You had to trust your own instincts. What did you gain from writing 40 Things I Want to Tell You? (Canadian link)

AK: I learned a huge amount about rewriting with 40 Things and with the book before it, The Worst Thing She Ever Did.  A good editor should be brave enough to ask you hard questions and a writer should be brave enough to find those answers.  I was lucky to have a good (different) editor for each novel.

NM: This year, our blog is exploring the question: Why does the novel matter? How do you answer this question?

AK: The novel matters to me on many levels.  Personally, the thrill of reading, of being consumed by a story so much so that the real world ceases to exist, is one of the great joys of my life. Intellectually, it allows me to live other lives, explore other realities, exist in places and in ways I never could otherwise.  Emotionally, I have experienced things that buffer me for the challenges and joys of my real life.  Novels matter to my family because both my partner and I live by our writing, and because our children are at the stage where they are learning to speak so the words and sentences they hear from us are inspired by the words we read and write.  As a form, the novel matters because it is one of the best contemporary ways to encapsulate story without visual influence – letting our imaginations as readers do the work that other mediums may not allow.  Story is essential to being human, I believe, and novels give us those deep, meaningful, powerful, crazy, life-enhancing stories that make us who we are.

Thank you so much, Alice, for being here today. Your insights are inspiring, and we all appreciate your encouragement and positive out look.

As always, dear reader, we welcome your questions, comments, ideas, insights, and chocolate chip cookies.


Megan Sayer said...

Thanks Alice (and Bonnie), this was great! I love hearing about how other writers think.
Sorry, no choc chips today, but I do have a question for Alice:
how did you find your feet in YA?

Alice Kuipers said...

Hi Megan,
When I write books, I write them for the teenager I was. I imagine myself at fourteen and think about the books I wish I'd been able to read then. That helps me find my voice as a YA author because I'm okay with getting it wrong for myself (the fourteen year old me), I'm okay with making mistakes.
I used to write 'novels' for adults, but I tended to have main characters who were in their teens and the books all ended up reaching neither adult readers nor teens so they remain (fortunately) unpublished. I was finding my feet, finding my voice as I wrote these novels. I think the best way to discover what sort of writer you are is to keep writing.
Ask any other questions you like. I'll check in later.
Best wishes,

Melanie Cole said...

Hi Alice!
My question is about plot. When you began writing 40 Things I Want To Tell You, did you know in advance all the problems that would happen for Bird, or did they occur organically as you wrote the story? Oftentimes when I begin writing a novel, I have an idea of a character or the beginnings of a plot, but it peters out before I reach the end. Any advice?

Alice said...

Hi Melanie,
My way of dealing with this isn't the way that other writers I know of deal with it, but it works for me! I always have more than one book on the go, and I never know which book I'm going to actually finish until I've started them both. Organically, one of the plots becomes clearer and the other story starts to peter out. I tend to have a basic shape for both with the details only becoming focused once the story is begun, but often the basic shape of both books changes a lot while I write. And the book that I don't finish? Normally, I outline it all the way to the end as practise once I've given up the book for good. I realize this isn't a very efficient way of working, but it works for me!
If you are struggling with plot, I suggest that you do some practice outlining for a few story ideas you have. Write long, detailed outlines for each story. Normally, if I outline too much, I never complete the actual book in full, but I do practice outlining with stories so that when the idea comes along, the idea of the book I actually want to finish, I've got a good sense of outlining and shape from all the stories I've begun and not finished.
I'm okay with stories I don't finish. I think of them as ways for me to find the stories I do want to tell.
Oh, and the other thing I do? I make sure I have enough time to keep working on a book so that if I lose momentum, I don't have the excuse of being too busy to stop me plugging away at the story. Sometimes when I get stuck or when the idea doesn't seem to be working, it isn't because I want to quit the book, it's just that I have to work doubly hard to discover which way to turn the story.
With 40 Things, I knew the end and I knew the main obstacles, and I knew that Bird was creating a list. It took loads of rewriting to discover big sections of the beginning of the book and some rejigging to get the order of all the events completely right.
I hope this helps! Remember, someone else's way of working may not be the right way for you to write, but hopefully something I've said here speaks to your own writing!
Good luck, Melanie.

Bonnie Grove said...

Anyone else making notes as they read the interview, and then Ali's remarkable comments here?

My #2 pencil is nubbed!

Great stuff!

Steve G said...

Hi Alice, This is a great interview, with a ton of insight. I like how you answered the last question - the novel matters for so many different reasons. You mention you buy at least 1 YA novel a week - I assume that is because that is what you write.

How do you connect to readers? Where do you think readers congregate?

Kathleen Popa said...

Alice, thank you for joining us today. We are honored.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Alice, thanks so much for joining us today. It's been a pleasure to have you and benefit from your experience.

Alice Kuipers said...

Hi Steve,
I buy YA every week partly to see what my peers are writing from professional curiousity but mainly because I really enjoy reading them. I think looking at the books we most enjoy reading is always a good way for a writer to discover what they most enjoy writing. Getting tangled up in a great teen novel for an afternoon (punctuated with tea and chocolate) is one of my favorite ways to spend time.
Now, the question about readers, I only start thinking about readers when I'm two or three (or even four) drafts into the book. If I think about who might read my words too soon, I get worried. I start questioning every sentence - I'm sure others of you can relate to that feeling. Later on, as I redraft, I try to see the book through a reader's eye to make me work harder and make the book better.
The best ways for an author to connect to readers, I think, is for the author to trust that the reader is smart and curious, with their own vivid and powerful imagination. Letting the reader fill in the blanks and trusting them with your story is the best way for a writer to connect. As for where readers congregate, well, I know in Saskatoon that we all lurk about McNally Robinson's and the library. I see readers there and I go there myself to discover new books. I buy so many books that I don't have enough space to out them all. I used to work Ina. Second hand bookshop. It was brilliant because It was full of books, piles on the floor, on my desk, everywhere.
Thanks for the questions!
Warmest wishes,

Alice said...

Thanks, Kathleen and Debbie. It''s been fun! Good luck with your writing.

(NB - sorry for the typo above, my computer does a little rewriting of its own sometimes).

Latayne C Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Latayne C Scott said...

Alice, I'm finding that even though I have always believed I was an author for adults, my last two novels have focused on the inner world of young girls. I found your comments very helpful, especially about self-testing dialogue and other aspects to make sure they are authentic to the age level.

I wonder if writing from that perspective allows an author to explore things as if they are "new" (as most of life is to a teenager), forcing the author to look for a kind of purity of expression. To use another analogy, if an author is writing about a particular historical epoch, he or she must strive for a universal way of expressing a concept or an experience, so as not to let 2012 intrude on the epoch. Reality as viewed by the character has to be "pure" in that it is free of 2012.

Tell me if I'm wrong about this, but I think similarly an author of YA has to not let adulthood intrude on the way a young character sees life. At any rate, that's a challenge I find for myself.

Great insights, Alice, and thank you so much for joining us on NM.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Refreshing perspective.

Alice Kuipers said...

Hi Latanye,

You make some interesting points and I think it's good to think about these things as you find yourself switching genres in your writing. When I write YA, what I think about is how my main character is becoming the adult they will then be for the rest of their lives. I believe that during our teens there ar moments when we make choices that transform who we end up being, and the is huge possibility for us to become someone very different based on how we respond to the challenges put in our paths. My teen characters get put in very difficult situations and they have to really grow up to find their way through to the other side. I find thinking about this aspect - the metamorphosis of the main character - really frees me up as the writer. So, yes, it is to do with the new experiences the teenager has in the novel, but it's also to do with how much those characters can change.
Good luck with the books you've written that sound just like novels that young adult readers will love.
Best wishes,

Alice Kuipers said...

Hi Cherry,

And for those of you reading the comments, again, sorry for the NEW typos in the last reply. I seem to be having computer issues today (could be because my son got me up at 5 again!)