Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Gena K. Gorrell

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Ten Questions with Gena K. Gorrell

Where on Earth did the English language come from? The answer is that English isn’t just the speech of one nation. It’s the memory of thousands of years of history and it’s still changing and growing every day. Open Book talks to Gena K. Gorrell about her latest book, Say What? The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language (Tundra Books, 2009).

OBT:

Tell us about your latest book, Say What?

GKG:

Say What? traces the English language back to its roots, to show how words and spellings and rules that seem weird or illogical are really "footprints" of people who spoke earlier languages – Vikings, Greeks, Romans, even prehistoric tribes. The book uses quizzes and games to show examples of how all this happened. Once you see why English turned out this way, it's easier to remember the tricky bits.

OBT:

How did you research your book?

GKG:

I read! I skimmed an entire etymological dictionary, to learn where various words came from. I reread my old language textbooks, and stacks of books on language and history.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote Say What?

GKG:

It's partly for those who already enjoy language, and want to understand it better – but also for New Canadians who have to learn English by studying, instead of absorbing it at home. They must find the inconsistencies very frustrating.

OBT:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

GKG:

A collection of fairy tales – Stories of the Witch Queen – was published in 1985 by a fine press near Toronto but the print run was very small. North Star to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad was published in Toronto in 1996.

OBT:

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

GKG:

For nonfiction, at least, plan before you write. Get organized. Find a beginning and an end. Make an outline and think about it. (Thank you Mr. Schick, my grade 10 English teacher.)

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

GKG:

Maybe a villa in Tahiti? I need lots of space to spread out books and papers, and not too many interruptions – I'm a sucker for distractions. But I'm a big believer in the subconscious – hand it a problem, and leave it alone to figure it out.

OBT:

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

GKG:

That depends on the people! If their English is limited, I'd choose Janice Weaver's Mirror with a Memory – great archival photos, with text that puts them in historical context. The Canadian Encyclopedia would answer a lot of questions, and the illustrations are terrific. After that, there are too many choices.... Maybe just give them a laugh with Melanie Watt's picture book Chester – to reassure them that Canadians aren't so boring after all.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

GKG:

The Secret Life of Words, by Henry Hitchings – fascinating but slow going; Changing Heaven, by Jane Urquhart; The Wind in the Willows, because I somehow missed it till now (how embarrassing!); and some books I won't name (see question 10).

OBT:

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

GKG:

Don't submit a 700-page opus – who has time to read it? Send a brief summary of the kind of book you mean to write (so the publisher knows if it fits the list), and enough of a sample – a chapter or two – to show that you're capable of writing it.

OBT:

What is your next project?

GKG:

I've just started researching a biography of one of the most intriguing people of the twentieth century – but it's not under contract yet, and I'm superstitious about discussing it. Stay tuned!


Gena K. Gorrell is not only a highly respected editor, but also an award-winning author of nonfiction for young people, including In the Land of the Jaguar: South America and It's People and Working Like a Dog: The Story of Working Dogs through History. Her books have won many honors, including the Norma Fleck Award for Nonfiction for Heart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale. Gena K. Gorrell has also been a first-aid instructor and a volunteer officer in the Toronto Police Marine Unit. She lives in Toronto with her husband and dog.

For more information about Say What? The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language please visit the Tundra Books website at www.tundrabooks.com.


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

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