Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Don Sawyer

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Ten Questions with Don Sawyer

Award-winning author Don Sawyer's popular children's books, The Meanest Teacher in the World and Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin, are published by Chestnut Publishing. His forthcoming book, The Lunch Bag Chronicles (Playfort Publishing), will be in stores in the fall.

OBT:

Tell us about your book, Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin.

DS:

Chestnut brought out the second volume of my Miss Flint stories, Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin, as well as a reissue of the original stories, The Meanest Teacher in the World. I also completed a teacher’s guide with lots of ideas for using the stories creatively in the classroom with the emphasis on having fun. I’ve delivered dozens of readings and writing workshops using the stories, and they never fail to engage and entertain kids.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

DS:

These books are aimed at the upper elementary levels, but they are being used successfully right through middle school. The stories (seven in each book) are fairly easy to read (written at about a grade 3 level), but more importantly they’re just plain fun. They focus on the dastardly Miss Flint and how her ever-resourceful charges at Haywood Elementary get even. Kids at all levels can relate since, it seems, everyone has had a teacher like Miss Flint.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

DS:

I have a great office with lots of light and a comfortable chair, and I also enjoy writing outside on my deck using a laptop. The big thing is being somewhere I’m not distracted by, well, life. This February, my wife and I rented a place on an island in southern Alabama. It was a kind of winter-averse writing retreat for me. I managed to finish off a book I’d been working on for months in three weeks. I love being involved in my community, international development work, gardening, walking Farley (our SPCA refugee Lapphund), working out and so on. But darn, it sure gets in the way of writing.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

DS:

Very first? A poem called “Chuckie” that appeared in The Fiddlehead in the winter of 1977. I still have the cheque: $5. My first book was Tomorrow Is School and I Am Sick to the Heart Thinking About It (Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver: 1979), a non-fiction account of our first teaching experiences in a Newfoundland outport.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

DS:

It’s difficult to tease out any one incident. I have lived in Newfoundland outports and small BC native communities. I have given workshops in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. I have taught on reserves and at universities. I have managed CIDA projects in West Africa. I have canoed the Fraser River and climbed in the Selkirks. My wife and I took our honeymoon travelling from Windsor to Vancouver by train. I have seen suicides on reserves and on the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit. I’ve seen my kids grow up in a multicultural society that has equipped them to work effectively in extraordinarily demanding cultural and social milieus. I’ve written a book for kids about Confederation, and I’ve worked with Secwepemc elders while writing a book about Shuswap communities for elementary grades. All of these are uniquely Canadian. And all of them affect who I am and what I write.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

DS:

The Fourth World, George Manuel
The Pelican History of Canada, Kenneth McNaught (Yes, Virginia, Canada does have a history.)
A Jest of God, Margaret Laurence

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

DS:

About three things. I’m (slowly) working my way through William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth. For fun I’m reading Carl Hiassen’s Lucky You. I just picked up The Dominion of Love, a great collection of love poems edited by Tom Wayman.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

DS:

When Tomorrow Is School was published, the first review (in the Vancouver Sun) panned it. I was devastated. Scotty McIntyre took me aside and told me two things: 1. If you accept the good reviews, you have to accept the bad ones. Better to not pay much attention to either. 2. Writing a book is as close as a man can come to having a baby. After months of labour, you finally produce the manuscript. After careful and loving editing, it toddles out the door. Then it’s on its own. You’ve done your best and now you have to let it go.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

DS:

The usual: be persistent. I’ve never been able to nail down the exact figure, but legend has it that John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected more than 30 times. (Which means that 30 editors have now either jumped from high buildings or been fired.) Editors for the most part are not particularly good at picking stuff to publish. That’s why they rely on established writers. You just have to be at the right place at the right time. (Oh, and have a really good piece of writing.) One other note: I’ve been published by big houses and small ones. My best sales have come with the smaller publishers. They often take more time marketing your books, and they also may have specific niches (e.g. aboriginal schools) where they have established themselves.

OBT:

What is your next project?

DS:

I’m writing two books for Chestnut that are very interesting. They are novels for adult readers with low reading skills. I wrote three of these for the BC Ministry of Education several years ago, and they have proved very popular with ESL and adult education students, as well as in alternate high school programs. The two I’m working on now are mysteries. The first is completed: Hurricane on Grimm’s Island. We are hoping to have both out this fall. The trick with these is to write a fully adult novel at a grade 3 reading level that is engaging and entertaining. (Sound easy? Try it sometime.)

I am also working on a labour of love. For years I drew pictures attached to jokes on my daughters’ lunch bags. They liked them so much, they brought them home, and eventually I had collected over 1000 bags. I am now working with a small local publisher, Playfort Publishing, to bring a sample of these (along with a bit of narrative) out in book form. The working title is Lunch Bag Chronicles, and we hope to have this book out by Christmas.



Don Sawyer is an educator and writer living with his wife, Jan, in Salmon Arm, BC. Don recently retired from Okanagan College, where he taught adult education, served as the college’s ABE Department Chair, and Director of the International Development Centre. Don coordinated and managed five CIDA-funded development projects in West Africa, including the West African Rural Development Centre (WARD) project, shortlisted for the 2005 Canadian development project of the year.

Don is the author of the award-winning young adult novel Where the Rivers Meet (Pemmican); a non-fiction account of his first teaching experiences in rural Newfoundland (Tomorrow Is School, Bendall Books); several children’s books, including The Meanest Teacher in the World and Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin (Chestnut Publishing); a series of novels for beginning adult readers, and numerous curriculum guides and manuals. His essays have appeared in most of Canada’s major newspapers. His website is www.northerned.com.

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