Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shaun Smith Interviewed by Nathan Whitlock for Open Book

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Shaun Smith Interviewed by Nathan Whitlock for Open Book

Shaun Smith, a freelance writer and former bookseller, recently published his first novel, Snakes and Ladders (Dundurn Press), the story of two kids facing very adult challenges in early 1970s Muskoka. Despite its nostalgic and bucolic setting, the story is a dark one, touching on themes of sexual abuse, eco-activism and the pain of growing up.

Nathan Whitlock, the Books for Young People editor for Quill & Quire magazine, recently interviewed Smith about the book, and about his career as a writer.

NW:

How did you end up writing a YA novel?

SS:

I sort of fell into it, but now I’m quite happy to be where I am, like a big, bald, middle-aged Alice down the rabbit hole. When I started Snakes & Ladders, my original intention was to write a story about these two kids in 1971, and then flash forward to the present showing them as adults. But once I got into their childhood story, I couldn’t leave it. I just followed my nose and in the end I discovered that I was a YA novelist. I love the idea of kids reading my work because they are so honest. Diplomacy and tact generally don’t factor into their opinions.

NW:

Do you have any favourite kids' books or authors, or is this all new?

SS:

Some of my favourite YA/kids’ books are Charlotte’s Web (or anything by E.B. White), Wind in the Willows, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, anything by William Stieg. Admittedly I’m a bit behind on my contemporary YA reading, but I’m working to catch up. David A. Poulsen’s most recent novel, Numbers, is brilliant.

NW:

Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn keep coming up in the book. What's the significance of those two books to your story? Do they have a special significance for you?

SS:

Tom Sawyer was a way to get my protagonist Paige to read Huck Finn. Her father gives her Tom Sawyer as a gift and that leads her to Huck Finn. I’m not the first to say that Huck Finn is Twain’s masterpiece. Neither book has an overwhelming personal significance for me. I don’t actually like Tom Sawyer very much, but I love Huck Finn because I am fascinated by fictional characters like Huck who transcend the works that gave birth to them. Think of Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Achilles, Romeo & Juliet, etc.... Almost everyone knows something about these stories, even people who don’t read. There’s a lot a verticality in Snakes & Ladders – characters climb ladders to defend trees and descend steep gullies to battle snakes – and the story of Huck Finn worked well for me because Huck, like some of those other transcendent characters, rises above himself to help an innocent and I think that is the essence of heroism. I also wanted to show that great books can be a source of guidance in life.

NW:

The setting for the book is 1971 - why that era in particular? What kind of research did you do to get the details right?

SS:

I love the 1970s. I was born in 1962 and that era, when I was “coming of age,” has a kind of idyllic innocence for me. I had the option early on of moving the story to the present, but I really wanted to revisit those times. A few editors passed on the manuscript for this reason, but I think that showed a lack of vision, because a lot of kids today are actually fascinated by that era. When I was 13, we were nuts for the 1950s.

As for research, I relied on memory supplemented by many, many Google searches to make sure that the references to songs, movies, clothes, cars, etc. were all accurate for the time. (I took liberties with one cultural reference, but I won’t say what it was. I want to see if anyone catches it.) I also used the web to research NASA’s Apollo 15 space mission, which features in the book, and other extraterrestrial aspects of the book. You can read about those in my OBT blog.

NW:

There's a theme of eco-activism in the book that is strong, but arises subtly – what are your own thoughts on eco-activism?

SS:

I’m not an activist. Like a lot of writers, I am an ideas person. I live in my head and I am awkward in the social sphere, so I have no desire to engage in activism myself. That said, if any ideas I put forward inspire others to activism, I guess that’s okay, so long as they take a balanced look at things. I’m not for anarchy, or anything like that, but sometimes the status quo needs a good kick in the butt. I will say that I love hearing about those tree-sitters who climb old-growth trees to stop them from being cut down. I wonder how many trees had to die for the first print run of my book.

NW:

Given how dark the book is at times, are you worried about reactions?

SS:

No. I don’t think as a writer you can worry about such things. You write the book that needs to be written and then let the world deal with it as it sees fit. I think kids can handle dark stories. I think kids want dark stories. I mean, look at some of the old fairy tales. Struwwelpeter is ghastly, but kids gobble that stuff up. Strong stories need spice and flavour. I tend to like to push the story beyond acceptable limits and then tone it back a bit, if necessary, in the editing process. I want to try to get away with as much as I can, push the envelope, because what’s inside the YA envelope right now doesn’t fully represent real kids, real people. Of course, everything has to emerge organically from your characters. You can’t have a teenager running around saying “fuck this” and “fuck that” just because you want to push society’s buttons. It has to be authentic. But it actually saddens me that YA today cannot represent the kind of language that kids actually use. Did you know you can’t say “boobs” in YA today? That’s ridiculous. It’s such a great word! Boobs.

NW:

What are you working on now?

SS:

The text for a picture book. I don’t want to say too much about it yet because it is still in the formative stages, but it will be about the difference between people and things. I also have a second YA novel on the go about a boy, his father and his (escaped con) grandfather who go on a road trip.

NW:

You are a former bookseller - will you restrain yourself from doing all things you hated that first-time authors would do when they come in a bookstore?

SS:

One of my specialties as a bookseller was cookbooks. I used to be a chef, so I always took great delight in making sure the bookstores that employed me had excellent cookbook sections. Once, while working at a Toronto store, a woman came to the cash desk and asked if we had a certain cookbook that I knew we had never carried. It was something like the Crock Pot Bible or Food Processors for Dummies. This store was pretty edgy. The cookbooks that sold well there tended to be either high-end esoteric, “ethnic,” or vegan. Without even looking in the store’s computer database, I told the woman we did not carry the book but we’d be happy to order it for her. She became immediately skeptical, asking how I was so certain that we didn’t have it on the shelf. I informed her that it was my specialty and that I knew every cookbook in the store, which was true. She then asked me why we didn’t carry it, so I told her we had very limited space and it was not the sort of title that our clientele was likely to purchase. She asked how I knew people wouldn’t buy the book, not accepting the fact that we knew our clientele better than she did. It went on like this for a while, as though somehow such efforts would make the book appear so that she could purchase it. I had my suspicions about where this was going, and when I repeated my offer to order the book for her, she finally played her trump card: She was not a customer, she was the book’s author!

Now, what good does it do to harass, badger and alienate a store clerk in such a manner? How can that possibly help your cause as an author? I really don’t know what she expected me to do after her grand reveal. Was I supposed to gasp out an apology? Was I supposed to cringe in embarrassment because I’d been tricked into talking in front of her back? Well, that wasn’t going to happen. I realize that Crock Pots for Dummies was her baby, but unlike her, I’d done nothing wrong. I didn’t misrepresent myself. So instead of cringing, I told her quite simply that nothing had changed: we still didn’t have the book and we still weren’t going to carry it.

I swore to myself back then that if I ever published a book, there was no way I was ever going to be that author. There are more professionally acceptable ways to get your book in stores.

Oh, and by the way, such actions are by no means restricted to first-time authors.



Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group. As a journalist he has published over 200 articles in such publications as the Toronto Star, Toronto Life, CBC Arts Online, Chatelaine, The Globe & Mail, Quill & Quire, Toro, Argyle, The Writer and LCBO’s Food & Drink. As a bookseller, he worked for many years at such bookstores as Pages Books & Magazines, Indigo Books & Music & Nicholas Hoare Ltd. He was the co-creator and former coordinator of the literary event series This Is Not A Reading Series.

In October 2005, NOW magazine voted him the Canadian publishing industry’s “Most Valuable Player” in their Best of Toronto edition. His website is shaunsmith.ca.

Nathan Whitlock was the winner of the inaugural Emerging Artist in Creative Writing Award and the Short Prose for Developing Writers Award, as well as runner-up for the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. He is the Books for Young People editor of Quill & Quire magazine. His writing and reviews have appeared in The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Toro, Geist, Saturday Night and elsewhere. His first novel, A Week of This, was published by ECW Press in 2008. He grew up in the Ottawa Valley and currently lives in Toronto. Nathan blogs at http://nathanwhitlock.blogspot.com. His website is http://www.nathanwhitlock.com/.

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