Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Dirk McLean

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Ten Questions, with Dirk McLean

Dirk McLean talks to Open Book about his inspiration for going into theatre, his favourite writers and actors, his advice for young writers and his new book, Curtain Up! A Book for Young Performers, released this fall with Tundra Books.

Dirk McLean will launch Curtain Up! at Another Story Bookshop at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9th.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Curtain Up! A Book for Young Performers.

Dirk McLean:

Amaya, chosen for the lead role, takes the reader through the audition process, rehearsals, learning lines, costume fittings, observing sets and props being built, to opening night and press interviews.

I already had two children’s books published when I looked around and saw that there wasn’t a book which took a young reader through that process, along with encouraging an awareness of the other roles involved in bringing a play to life. That is when I took some early, 20th century, advice to “Write what you know.” Even so, I still had to use my playwriting background and create a play as a backdrop to the book. I was fortunate to have France Brassard bring her amazing talent as an illustrator to the project.

Kathy Lowinger, publisher at Tundra Books, saw the vision instantly and shepherded it through the pipeline before retiring from the business. Lucky me!

OB:

What was your first publication?

DM:

My first children’s book was Steel Drums and Ice Skates which was published by Groundwood Books in 1996. In a meeting with publisher Patsy Aldana she said that she had always wanted to publish a children’s book about “a child coming to Canada and experiencing snow for the first time.” I took that as a cue. Two weeks after that meeting I delivered an outline. Five drafts of the entire manuscript and three years, two months later the book was published to strong reviews.

OB:

What inspired you to start writing?

DM:

My Grade 9 English teacher, Judy Millen, encouraged us to keep a journal which she checked weekly. She taught me that my poems did not have to rhyme. That was creatively liberating. I then continued by exploring stage plays and other forms of writing. I arrived at children’s picture books after writing plays for children which had toured elementary schools in Ontario.

OB:

Why did you get involved with theatre?

DM:

Ian Waldron and Ron Cameron. My high school drama teachers. During those years I experienced working front-of-house, backstage on the stage crew and building sets, as well as acting onstage and performing in the Sears Drama Festival. I also saw a lot of theatre in Toronto and Stratford. By Grade 13, yes there used to be such a grade, I knew that I wanted to become an actor.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

DM:

Anywhere! I write on streetcars, buses, the subway, a park bench—though not in winter—and in any of the 99 branches of our world-renowned Toronto Public Library. Re-writing, however, is best at home at the kitchen table—on a computer. Only interrupted by a cat.

OB:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

DM:

Being at the Caribana Junior Carnival and seeing children enjoy one aspect of creative expression. In essence, it is street theatre. Being there reminded me of my desire to share many stories with children…and subsequently with the adults who love children’s books.

OB:

What’s the best response you’ve ever received from a reader?

DM:

During an Author’s Visit to a school a girl asked me if Hollie in Steel Drums and Ice Skates was a real person. I was touched that Hollie, a character I created, was brought fully to life for her.

OB:

What Canadian writers or actors do you admire and why?

DM:

Writers: Austin Clarke. Bold talent re-invented and re-invented. He uses the pen like a fencer. Michael Ondaatje. For being a poetic novelist and a poetic playwright.

Children’s Writers: Barbara Greenwood. For mining Canadian history for young readers. Paul Kropp. For attaching literacy issues to his large body of work.

Actors: Ardon Bess. For longevity with a forging spirit despite barriers. Christopher Plummer. For endurance across continents with a variety of skill. Tonya Lee Williams. For successfully working both borders and creating a showcase for filmmakers.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Actors?

DM:

Aspiring writers: Treat the story ideas that come to you like an exploration into an unknown world. Make sure you have a sense of humour on the journey.

Aspiring actors: Have a big WHY. Remember why you are doing it for it will sustain you.

OB:

Tell us about any of your upcoming projects.

DM:

I am currently revising what I hope will be a companion children’s book to Curtain Up! There are different characters and situations involving the arena of movies.


Dirk McLean was born in Trinidad and Tobago. At the age of thirteen, he moved to Canada, where he developed an interest in theatre during his highschool years. McLean went on to study creative writing at York University and, later, speech and drama at the Royal Conservatory of Music, from which he graduated with a gold medal. McLean now has over twenty-five years acting experience, and he has expanded his writing to include radio drama, screenwriting, memoir writing, technical and other nonfiction writing, as well as children’s picture books.

For more information about Curtain Up! A Book for Young Performers please visit the Tundra Books website.

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

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