Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Ellen Schwartz

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Ten Questions, with Ellen Schwartz

Ellen Schwartz talks to Open Book about her writing process, her writing retreats, her sources of inspiration and her new book, Avalanche Dance, published this fall with Tundra Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Avalanche Dance.

Ellen Schwartz:

Avalanche Dance is a book about friendship. It explores what being a true friend really means. It’s also about secrets, and how keeping painful truths inside can harm us. The book follows two 14-year-olds, Gwen and Molly. Former best friends, Gwen and Molly have had a falling out and now are barely speaking. Then they both get into trouble. Gwen, who aspires to be a dancer, gets injured in an avalanche and falls into a depression. Molly, partying with new friends, burns down a cabin belonging to Gwen’s family and gets in trouble with the law. When Molly is sentenced to community service at Gwen’s home, the two girls are unwillingly thrown back together. Will they rediscover their friendship? Will they tease out each other’s secrets? Will they reach beyond the sense of betrayal they both feel to help each other?

OB:

What was your first publication?

ES:

My first book, Dusty, was published by Solstice Books in 1983. It is a picture storybook, illustrated by Ann Swanson Gross, and is a fictionalized version of a true story about my friend, Pam, and her adventures with her bike, Dusty, when she was a girl living in Denmark. I can still remember the day I received the first copy of the actual book. I sat on the front steps of my apartment building, turning the pages, and murmuring, “I wrote this! I wrote this!”

OB:

Did your experiences teaching help you write this novel? Was there any particular inspiration for Avalanche Dance?

ES:

The idea for Avalanche Dance came to me many years ago. I had always wanted to be a dancer (still do, but at age 61 I don’t think it’s going to happen) and got the idea for Gwen, a dreamy, idealistic girl who loves to dance. Then I thought it would be interesting to pit a very different character — an outspoken, brash, rebellious girl — against Gwen. At the time, my younger daughter was going through some teenaged rebellion, so I loosely based Molly on her. Interestingly, Molly’s character — what her situation is, what happens to her — changed several times through the various drafts of the book, but Gwen’s character and situation remained the same.

OB:

How much of Gwen’s character is autobiographical?

ES:

I think there’s always a little of me in all of my main characters. Like Gwen, I love to dance and have always wanted to be a dancer. Like Gwen, I tend to be a little dreamy and impractical — I’m much more interested in what’s going on in stories than in what’s going on in the real world. And, like Gwen, I adore my father and feel guilty for having hurt him — in Gwen’s case, she feels responsible for the injuries her father suffers in the avalanche; in my case, I feel I hurt my father’s feelings by moving far away from home — so I suppose Gwen’s guilt is also an exploration of my guilt.

OB:

Describe your writing process, from story idea to publication.

ES:

For me, stories almost always start with a character. Maybe I see someone on the street, or read about someone in a book, or a character just pops into my mind, and I think: Who’s this? What’s this person like? What kind of situation is the person in? What problem does the person have?

If the character “sticks,” I start thinking about the story more fully. What kind of story could it be? Who would it be for? What would it be about? What might happen? I start making notes about the main character and the secondary characters. I think of names. I start getting a feel for the tone of the book — funny or serious, a family story or an adventure story, dramatic and emotional or everyday and calm. I start thinking about the opening scene. What’s happening? What’s the environment? Who’s there? What are they doing? What are they saying? What are they feeling?

When the first scene starts writing itself in my mind — when I can hear the characters speaking — I start writing. (I write longhand, using a battered old clipboard, scrap paper and a Pilot V5 Extra Fine pen.) I go back and forth between my “journal” (a spiral-bound notebook) and the manuscript. In my journal I brainstorm and make notes about the next scene, and then I go and write it. Sometimes I know a scene isn’t working, so I go back to my journal and brainstorm in a different direction. I keep going until I have a first draft. I hate first drafts because I don’t know where I’m going and don’t know if the work will be any good. But the only way to find out is to write the damn thing. So I keep going. Once I have the first draft written, I type it onto the computer, making changes as I go. I print out the story and give it to my writing buddy for feedback. Then I continue to rewrite, usually doing two or three major drafts and seven or eight polishing drafts before I send the manuscript to my publisher. (I always feel kind of empty at this point. The story has been such a huge preoccupation for so long, and now it’s out of my life. It feels strange.)

Then I do at least one more major re-write based on the editor’s substantive comments (we may even change the story at this point) and one more copy edit with the copy editor. Then I proofread the galleys and the book is off to print.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

ES:

Anywhere away from home. Because I do other types of writing for a living, I don’t have much time for writing books. And because I’m easily distracted, I can always find excuses for not working on my book. So I find that what works best for me is to go away for several days or a week by myself and just write. Fortunately, I have generous friends who give me the use of their homes when they’re away. I love these writing retreats and always get tonnes of work done. Some of them are in beautiful places — for example, one is a townhouse in Whistler, and another is a condo on the waterfront in downtown Vancouver — but it’s not the view that’s important, it’s the solitude. I love being able to concentrate and “live” the story for days on end.

OB:

What Canadian authors do you admire? Why?

ES:

Among children’s writers, I think my favourite writer is Sarah Ellis. I love her blend of dry wit and compassion, combined with excellent writing. I’m also in awe of Iain Lawrence. I recently read The Giant Slayer and was blown away. And of course I have a soft spot for Lucy Maud Montgomery. Among adult writers, probably my favourite book is The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. I also admire Joseph Boyden a great deal. My current favourite writer, not Canadian, is David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas. Brilliant. What I love about all these writers’ books is the way they manage to put together great characters, interesting stories and wonderful writing.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

ES:

The Droughtlanders by Carrie Mac. She’s another terrific writer. I’m amazed by the way she and other fantasy writers create such complete, convincing worlds and make us care about the characters who inhabit them.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

ES:

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Those are really the only two ways to learn to write. Also: think in scenes: characters doing and saying things, things happening to advance the story. That’s the way stories get told. Also: don’t worry about teaching a lesson or conveying a theme. That’s the best way to kill a story. Don’t set out to write a story about greed. Set out to write a story about a pig named Jervis who gobbles up all the feed in the barn. Just tell the story and let the “moral” take care of itself.

OB:

What is your next project?

ES:

I just submitted The Teaspoon Detectives to my publisher at Tundra Books, a mystery for 8 to 12 year olds. It has recipes woven into the story (contributed by my older daughter, a pastry chef) and was very difficult and very much fun to write. So editing that will be my next writing job. Beyond that, I have an idea for a YA novel about a runaway teen and an idea for an early chapter book about a girl whose father has died and whose mother gets a new boyfriend. And I hope to make The Teaspoon Detectives a series, so I’d better get cooking….


Ellen Schwartz was born in Washington, D.C., but moved as a baby to New Jersey, where she grew up. As a child, she loved to dance and wanted to be a dancer. In 1972, she moved with her husband, Bill, to Canada. Before she became a writer, she taught children with learning disabilities and also primary grades. She has several books published for children and adults. Ellen Schwartz writes both fiction and non-fiction for young people. I'm a Vegetarian and I Love Yoga were both critical successes, as was her novel about baseball in the time of Jackie Robinson, Stealing Home. Ellen Schwartz and her husband live in Burnaby, B.C., with their two grown daughters. Visit her at www.ellenschwartz.net.

For more information about Avalanche Dance 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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