Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Mary Jennifer Payne

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Mary Jennifer Payne

When Edie Fraser's mother disappears, Edie is left with no one to turn to. Her and her mother only recently arrived in London, England, on the run from Edie's abusive father. With good reason to distrust the police and her teachers, Edie finds herself utterly alone in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. It's not until she finds an unlikely ally that she is able to set out on a nerve-wracking and gripping race to find the most important person in her world.

Edie is the protagonist of Since You've Been Gone (Dundurn) by Mary Jennifer Payne. Since You've Been Gone is Mary's first YA novel, but she isn't a newcomer when it comes to reaching and relating to teens. She has published several YA graphic novels and also works as a teacher for the Toronto District School Board. Since You've Been Gone displays Mary's understanding of the struggles facing teens today, as Edie is a complex, compelling narrator.

Today we're speaking with Mary as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Mary tells us Open Book about the real student who inspired Edie's story, why she hopes teens will write their own stories and the cafes in which you might catch a glimpse of Mary working on her next book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Mary Jennifer Payne:

My new novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, is actually a story I completed a few years ago. The inspiration for my novel was partially a former student who I taught about ten years ago. Like my main character, Edie, she and her mother had lived in many places for a short period of time, and there seemed to be something they were running from. One day this student didn’t show up, and never came back to school. She left all of her books and belongings in her desk and locker. It made me wonder what she and her mom had been running from. Another main character in the book, Jermaine, is an amalgamation of many students I’ve taught, especially many young, black men trying to navigate a world in which their talents, potential and intelligence are often not appreciated. They deal with immense stereotyping from a young age. Jermaine was also strongly inspired by a very special young man I had the privilege to teach and know named Tyson Bailey.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


My book is about the realities that many marginalized youth in our inner-cities face. It’s about their resilience in the face of huge odds. I’ve met the most incredible individuals during my teaching career. Really, I’d rather see them writing these stories. One of the things I found interesting from a few of the book’s early reviews was how upset some of the readers felt about Edie not going to the police, and how they felt that was unrealistic. What people need to understand is that this is real. Not so much in Edie’s case, but for a segment of our population, the police are not always a “safe place.” There are many incredible police officers out there doing great things, but there are also an awful lot of young men, again especially young, Black men, who are harassed due to Toronto’s carding and London’s stop and search policies.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


There weren’t a huge amount of changes to this. The YA author, Marsha Skrypuch, was instrumental in making the novel start at the right place in Edie’s life, and gave me invaluable insight into the YA narrative-writing process. The scene where Edie confronts her father once he’s charged was also added later. I think it was important for her to experience that moment.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I love writing in public, and am a fixture in the Distillery District’s restaurants and cafes! One of my favourite writing places was Davy’s Wine Bar in Greenwich, London and a great deal of the novel was written there. (Davy’s Wine Bar is now one of Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurants). Really, I just need my Macbook, some wine or coffee and a space that is not too noisy. As I teach full-time, I write whenever I can find a spare moment.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I just keep writing. Some days the writing comes easily whilst others are not as productive. I always find it harder during the school year as I am often exhausted.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


A great book opens the door to another’s world, tells us a compelling story, and makes a reader think. I think the greatest books in the world also confront issues of social justice. Some of my favourites are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses books, Arundhati Roy’s The God of All Small Things, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I also love Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and absolutely everything Nadine Gordimer wrote. There are just so many great books! I can’t even mention a fraction of the ones I love here.


What are you working on now?


I just finished what I hope will be the first novel in a trilogy. It’s called Stolen Sister and deals with our world as it seems to be teetering on disaster due to climate change, but there is actually something much more sinister afoot, and salvation lies in a group of strong, female twin teens called Seers. Currently I am working on a YA novel tentatively called Enough. It’s about a girl who flees her home because of an abusive stepfather.

Mary Jennifer Payne's writing has been published in journals, anthologies and magazines both in Canada and abroad, and she is the author of several YA graphic novels. Since You've Been Gone is her first YA novel. She teaches with the Toronto District School Board and lives in Toronto.

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