Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Cindy Watson

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Ten Questions, with Cindy Watson

Cindy Watson talks to Open Book about the famed Canadian musician Jeff Healey — why he inspired her to write, how she brought his personal story life, and what he can teach the young people who read her new book, Out of Darkness: The Jeff Healey Story, published this fall with Dundurn Press.

Read more about Out of Darkness: The Jeff Healey Story in Cottage Country Now.

Open Book:

Why were you inspired to write Out of Darkness: The Jeff Healey Story?

Cindy Watson:

I met Jeff Healey once. He had a powerful presence with a grace that commanded the room. I had just started writing again and thought of interviewing him — thought it would make an interesting article. But as with many things in life, I set it on the back burner and didn’t get around to it right away. I didn’t know it at the time, but Jeff had already been diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer. He died before I ever got to do that interview.

My husband had grown up with Jeff and his family. Talking about Jeff and researching about him, I quickly realized that this was someone worth remembering. His life story brought a strong message of hope, passion, empowerment and overcoming adversity. I believed it was an important message to share.

As a proud Canadian I’m also always happy to flout the success story of an outrageously talented Canadian, to brag about a Canadian icon who achieved great things against all odds.

OB:

Your book is directed towards a YA audience. What sorts of things did you try to keep in mind to ensure that your book would appeal to your audience?

CW:

It’s funny you should ask that. A lot of people have asked me why I targeted the young adult market for this subject matter — as many in that age bracket probably haven’t heard of Healey. There were a number of things about this story that grabbed me, and particularly for this market. Jeff Healey had all the excuses in the world to under-achieve. He was given up at birth, diagnosed with cancer, lost both his eyes before his first birthday, lost his adoptive mother to cancer and had a recurrence of his own cancer later in life. Yet he chose to embrace life — to squeeze every ounce it offered and suck it in. He believed in following your dreams and believing in yourself, even when everyone else may tell you to give up or "it can’t be done." What better message for a young adult market? Believe in yourself. Be passionate about whatever you choose to do. Don’t take life for granted. Embrace it. Live it large. Love. Laugh.

Obviously with a young adult market, I stayed away from any hint of tabloid exploitative matter. That wasn’t the point of this book. I wanted this to be a story of hope and empowerment.

I also hope to attract some otherwise reluctant readers. The subject matter should help with that — Jeff Healey is a pretty impressive, larger than life character. I was also sure to include lots of pictures, mementos, and sidebars, with interesting tidbits on corollary issues. The hope is that there will be something for everyone.
My narrative style is also relatively informal — I want it to read like we’re having a conversation.

OB:

Tell us about the research process for Out of Darkness.

CW:

That’s also a bit of a funny story. I had always been advised not to ever write the manuscript for a non-fiction book unless you had queried a publisher with a proposal and received a specific request to go ahead with the project. So, I sent off my query in this case, only to get a response that the publisher was interested in the book and wanted to see my completed manuscript. Of course, I hadn’t actually started writing the book yet! Needless to say, it was quite a scramble as I tried to put everything else on hold to focus on getting this story out.

I knew it was the first hand accounts that would make the book. So, I set about building a network of people who had played pivotal roles in Jeff Healey’s life, starting with his family, friends, old school mates, band mates, CNIB contacts, musicians, managers, etc. It was those personal accounts that gave Jeff form and substance on the pages and made the book come alive with him.

OB:

What was the biggest challenge in the writing of this book?

CW:

Other than the mad scramble and timing problem I just referenced in the question above, the biggest challenge at the outset was getting the family on side with the project. As I mentioned, I knew it would be the first hand accounts that would make the book, and I needed to make sure I had those personal contacts in place. Jeff’s death was still fresh, so the emotions were raw. It was delicate to balance my need to move quickly on the project while ensuring everyone realized that I intended this project to be a tribute to Jeff and an inspiration to today’s youth. That was the real selling point for Jeff’s wife, Cristie. She flat out said that she loved the idea of the book for a young adult market, but she would not have supported the project otherwise.
Once I started the project, the next greatest challenge was finding a way to tell the story so readers cared about both the story and its "protagonist" Jeff Healey, whom they likely hadn’t heard of before.

OB:

What were you most surprised to learn about Jeff Healey?

CW:

Other than the almost unbelievable scope of his incredible accomplishments at such a young age, I was probably most surprised and impressed that he walked away from all the fame and glory once he reached the "pinnacle" of his career to follow his true dream and passion, which had always been jazz. In fact, his father believes that of all his albums and accomplishments, he was probably most proud of his last three jazz albums.
I think it’s another great message and life lesson. Jeff believed in following your dreams and pursuing what you felt passionately about — and he practiced what he preached.

OB:

Did you know much about blindness when you began this project? What sort of insight did you gain into what it would be like to be blind?

CW:

Now that you mention it, that was another challenging aspect of writing this book. I didn’t know much about blindness at the start of the project, and I believed it was important for me to have a solid basis on that piece before I put pen to paper. I quickly became immersed and fully engaged with my research on blindness. It was a huge eye opener for me. I interviewed the Director of the CNIB (who was witty, charming and incredibly insightful), several employees (all of whom were dedicated and passionate about their work) and students engaged in one of the living skills courses offered by the CNIB.

In some ways it was a life altering experience for me, making me re-examine my pre-conceived notions and making me re-examine my own life choices. I felt it was a great opportunity to introduce to young readers some empathy and understanding — to challenge them to consider some hard questions around the issue and about how we live our lives. I believed it was going to be an important foundation for the book, but I needed to balance its inclusion against a backdrop that Jeff Healey never wanted to be remembered as a blind musician, but rather a great one!

OB:

Do you like to listen to music when you write — and if so, what do you listen to?

CW:

I love music, but ironically when I write, even for this story, I need quiet. I become completely engrossed in the story and the words. I need a quiet place without distractions to do that — not always easy to find! I did listen to the full range of Jeff Healey music when I wasn’t actually writing though. It helped me get into the mood and see the complexities of Healey, not to mention rekindle some of the passion that he invariably brought to the table.

Otherwise, my music tastes are pretty broad ranging — it depends mostly on my mood. One staple that I’m almost always in the mood for is Bruce Springsteen. I got spoiled by his intense breed of marathon concerts as a kid and his music never fails to move me.

OB:

Do you read a lot of biographies yourself? What are some of your favourites?

CW:

I have to admit I was never a big fan of biographies growing up. I always found them too academic, and without a story. I always wanted a story. As a big Springsteen fan, though, I loved It Ain’t No Sin To Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen by Eric Alterman. I think he perfectly captured that euphoric awe-inspired infatuation that Springsteen evokes. Not an easy task, as it’s hard to put into words, yet any Springsteen fan I know who read that book felt “that’s me” — it resonated.

OB:

You work as a labour lawyer in Muskoka. Do you think any of your experiences as a lawyer will find their way into a book?

CW:

I swear you must have been renting a little space in my head as you came up with these questions. I have thought about that a lot. After years of specializing in the field and arguing some unique and quirky cases, I have definitely toyed with how to best translate that into a story. I’ve also played with the idea of a "Women in Labour" book, trying to find the best angle to work with the obvious double entendre. My heart is in writing for children and/or young adults, though, which limits how I can use the material. I’m still working on that one.

OB:

What is your next writing project? Will it be for a YA audience?

CW:

A. I’m in the process of polishing up the finishing touches on my middle-grade novel, Dead Bodies, about a girl who thinks her grandfather may be burying dead bodies in his backyard. Ironically, this was the project I was in the middle of when the request came back from the publishers to see my Jeff Healey book. Needless to say, Dead Bodies got put on the back burner and has only recently been brought back out and given a good dusting off.


Cindy Watson is the author of Misunderstood Animals (Enslow). She has published for children with Skipping Stones magazine, Dovetail Press, and South Pacific Press. A labour lawyer, she lives in Utterson in Ontario’s Muskoka region.

For more information about Out of Darkness: The Jeff Healey Story please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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