Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Introducing a Young Writer - Jay Lewis

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Jay Lewis' art on the cover of Boiled Cat.

I first met Jay Lewis at WordsWorth youth creative writing residency. I was struck by her confidence and poise. This was a girl who knew where she was heading and was bound and determined to get there no matter what stood in her way. Later, when I posted a message on Facebook about looking for an artist to create the cover of my upcoming self-published book, Boiled Cat, Jay offered her services. She was seventeen, and after looking at her art, took her up on her offer. I love the cover of Boiled Cat. It’s awesome and makes me break out in a big grin every time I see it.

Of course Jay is not just a talented artist. She’s a writer and teacher in her own right too. She traveled to China at the age of eighteen to teach English. Really, if you don’t watch the career of this girl bloom, you are going to miss out. So, that said, I would like to introduce you to Jay Lewis, pen name J.M.M. Lewis.

How old are you?

I turn nineteen in January of 2014.

When did you start writing?

I've been writing since I was about six years old. Before I could actually write, I would tell the stories to my mom and have her write them down for me. Then I would illustrate them. Oh, and before that I would tell stories in my own language to rooms full of imaginary people. So, you know, it's been a few years.

What kinds of things do you write?

Mostly prose, with special interest in science fiction and fantasy genres. I love writing songs and spoken word poetry as well, but novels will forever be my true literary love.

Who or what influenced your writing?

From day one, my biggest influences have been mythology and folklore. I've been reading and studying these topics for as far back as I can remember. In recent years, my writing has become more and more influenced by science and technology. When I find a topic that interests me, I will research it indefinitely, and usually a story comes out of that. For example, my latest work is really taking shape due to a lot of research in the idea of transhumanism. Be warned: a Google search for that will definitely eat up a strong six hours.

You have traveled quite a bit. How does this impact your writing?

Travel has impacted my writing immensely. My first flight was when I was 18 months old, and I've never really stopped hopping around since then. I've been all over North America, spent some very formative time in the Mediterranean, and then spent four months living in China quite recently.

Travel changes you as a person, and therefore changes the way you express yourself. Everywhere I have visited seems to seep into my writing, whether I want it to or not. Landscapes, cultures, languages, and their particular folklore really begin to appear very prominently in my work. After my time in the Mediterranean, my work seemed to always feature Italy. The last novel I wrote is told almost entirely as a cross-country trek across the place! And my latest novel, the one involving transhumanism, is going to be largely based in China.

I think it always comes back to "write what you know." For me, I had only ever lived in this one place (Lacombe, Alberta), and I had always felt very trapped and isolated. Travel allowed for an escape into wildly different places, and it became much more compelling to write about these exotic locations I had come to know than my same old, depressing back yard.

Now that I have moved out from the town I grew up in, I am beginning to see how people can write about Canada with passion. I see more magic where I live every day. But I suppose that's a form of travel writing too, isn't it? I think I'll always be that little girl trying to escape from a town that felt too small for everything she wanted to do. But hey, that's not necessarily a bad thing! I'm a pretty goal-oriented person because of it.

What were you doing over in China?

I was teaching English to first and second grade students. I went with a language program that sends teachers from North America around the world every school semester.

Did you enjoy the experience?

There are never going to be enough words to describe how much I loved China. My father said, "It's about as close to living among aliens as you can get, while still being on this planet." Truer words were never spoken! The people themselves are no different than you or I -- everybody loves, laughs, hates the same ways -- but the culture and way of life are SO different. So of course, I struggled with hygiene standards and poor air quality and lack of personal space. But I also lived in history every second of every day for 4 months, and fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with the culture. I could write forever and ever about China, seriously. When biographies are written about me, they are all just going to be "life, China, China, China, China, China, China, things, death."

I'm continuing my Mandarin studies, too. Which is a pretty cool skill!

You also do art professionally, is there a connection between art and writing for you?

Before I began making art as a profession, I loved illustrating my own work. Now I find it nearly impossible to capture my writing in my visual art. I don't know if that's a sign of my own self-criticism, the fact that I've matured as a writer, or just an attempt to separate church from state. Probably a mixture of all three. In any case, my own art and my own writing don't really combine.

That being said, other people's art GREATLY influences my writing. The first novel I wrote at age 12 was actually inspired initially by a series of paintings by an artist I stumbled into online. I based entire cultures off of single pieces of artwork. I don't get quite that extreme these days, but I am certainly influenced by the visual art I see in different genres.

And of course, I have a lot of fun creating artwork based off of other people's stories.

Has there been a highlight in your writing life so far and what is it?

The best moment was when author T.A. Barron, best known for his fabulous books about Merlin and Avalon, responded to my e-mail when I was 11 or 12. The second best moment was when he responded to my e-mail when I was 16. That time around I had a fully composed novel that I was shopping out to people, and he sent me recommendations to two highly acclaimed agents without even blinking. Whenever I doubt my ability to write, his kindness and blind faith in me are what keep me going. I still daydream about being able to meet him one day, look him in the eye, and tell him "I did it."

Where do you see yourself going with writing in the future?

When I was in kindergarten, I would bring stories to my teacher. She would transfer them to that clear paper they used to use, I would draw pictures on them, and then we would put them up on the projector and read the stories as a class. I was famous in our little school for my stories: even the second graders knew about me! When I finished kindergarten, I told my teacher that I would let her know as soon as I published my first novel. I still keep tabs of where she is so that, one day, I can show up on her door step with that first book and a big bouquet of flowers in hand for her.

That's the pretty way of saying, I'm going to be writing books until I die.

Do you have any advice for other young writers?

Of course!
1) Never stop writing. Write it all. Write the stupid, the funny, the meaningful, the inappropriately sexual, the exotic, the boring. Whatever you love to write, write it down, even if it's not "good" yet.

2) Ignore anyone who tells you that you should stop wasting your time on writing. You don't have anything to prove to them.

3) This is not a race. Take your time, hone your craft, never stop learning and reading. Yes, 14-year-old novelists get famous more quickly, but it doesn't mean they're getting famous for the right reasons. Your writing will be STUNNING if you give it enough time.

4) Don't take advice from people. Ask questions, absorb answers, but make your own choices and mistakes. You'll figure it out.

Where can people see your work?

The best way to keep up with me is to check out www.jmmlewis.com. When you go there, you'll be able to find all of my other social networking and sharing sites, such as deviantART, Twitter, Youtube, and so-on. I don't have a lot of writing online right now, but there's always the dark corners of FanFiction.net to hunt through if you're really compelled.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page