Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Jan Andrews

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Ten Questions, with Jan Andrews

Jan Andrews talks to Open Book about storytelling for children and adults, the resonance in folktales and her latest book, Rude Stories, published this fall with Tundra Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your newest book, Rude Stories.

Jan Andrews:

Right off the bat, I want to get it out there that this one is for fun. It’s a follow-up to my previous Tundra book, Stories at the Door. It has the same quirky-type illustrations by my friend and compadre, Francis Blake. I hope there will be belly laughs at the belching contest between Ella and her sister Bella; I want young readers to turn the pages of “The Skeleton in the Rocking Chair” over and over, waiting in joyous anticipation for the moment when that dreadful old woman dances herself to naught. I hope everyone will fully appreciate the lunacy of the mosquito who trades his own head for that of a chicken; the villain who mistakenly grows his own bottom with a magic fan.

These are stories taken from the world’s great folktale bag, however. There is, therefore, a guarantee that all sorts of interesting concepts are being transmitted along with the glee. In the writing, I’ve tried very hard to keep a sense of narrative voice. The stories are going to be read, of course, but I still want them to have a spoken-ness to them — a feeling that the storyteller is actually right there, with that reader, in that place, at that time..

OB:

What was your first publication?

JA:

A book called Fresh Fish…And Chips, published by what is now Women’s Press. It was a picture book in verse about a mother who goes fishing and comes home with a somewhat extraordinary catch (including an octopus, a whale and various other odd sea creatures). At the time, it was considered revolutionary and consciousness-raising because it was the mum who went out to do the deed instead of the dad. I’m happy to say I don’t think anyone would give the slightest thought to (or even notice) that aspect now.

OB:

How did you choose which stories to include?

JA:

I suppose it was by guess and by gosh — the usual intuitive process of selecting what I especially liked (if I didn’t like something, how could my readers?); putting it all together so there were plenty of delicious surprises, so the stories formed a unity but didn’t overlap; making sure there was an appropriate balance of heroes and heroines. In a way, I felt I couldn’t go wrong. After all, at heart these are stories that have been told and retold, honed over generations. There’s not much doubt they have plenty to offer and carry an abundance of appeal.

OB:

When did you first become interested in traditional folk and fairytales?

JA:

I was working on contract for the Department of Heritage, putting together a storytelling program for Expo '86 in Vancouver. I heard some of the country’s greatest tellers and I was hooked. The odd thing is that I hadn’t even liked folk and fairytales as a child. I think that’s because I didn’t know enough of them to know their scope and range. (I knew Snow White and knew I didn’t want to be her and that was that!) I now see these stories as carrying all the wisdom of the ages, operating on as many different levels as there are readers to read and listeners to hear. I love telling in schools for students of all ages because the profundity of the experience is so vividly revealed. I also tell a lot for adults — the same stories have just as much to give.

I’ve told a lot of epic and in fact have produced and performed in a series of epic tellings every Sunday night through the three months of the winter for thirteen years. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Mahabharata, The Mabinogion and The Kalevala were all on the menu at various times. We told them in portions and then told The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Mahabharata in completion over weekends, gathering tellers and listeners together in our own backyard. Hearing the full sweep of each piece was life changing. No one wanted to miss a word; everyone was touched at this chance to experience great works of literature in a way that is now utterly out of the ordinary.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

JA:

I guess I have it: a desk by a window looking out onto the lake where I live. I would note that a door I can close is also crucial. If I can’t find quiet, I can’t travel where I need to go.

OB:

What Canadian artists or authors inspire you?

JA:

I always feel I read my way into being a Canadian. I came here in 1963 from Britain knowing almost nothing about the country. It was Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman, Timothy Findley, Marian Engel who furnished me with the back-stories which are the stuff of any country’s world. Now I’m most impressed by the fact that our cultural life is all so flourishing, all so various in every discipline and genre. Maybe, though, I should mention Alice Kane who was the storyteller who shaped my telling and who had a faith in the old stories that shone in every word she spoke.

OB:

Do you spend much time revising your work?

JA:

There’s a question to conjure with! I revise and revise and revise — not with a book like Rude Stories which I want to get tight and compelling but where I already know what happens and so don’t have to worry about plot. Plot seems to be the hardest part for me. I’ve come to the conclusion my modus operandi is vaguely like composting a garden. I create version after version and it’s out of that the final version grows. Part of me enjoys this process. I also like cutting, so by the time I’ve finished there are many spare words around. Part of me is driven to distraction (and not infrequent bouts of despairing). If I could make it all happen more quickly I most certainly would!

OB:

What are you currently reading?

JA:

I’ve just finished The Book of Silence by English writer Sara Maitland and The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger. I found both hugely stimulating. I’m not actually a continuous reader, so I may be in for a lull.

OB:

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

JA:

My all-time favourite came when I was doing a reading in Regina. I was working with my book The Auction, which is about the sale of a family farm on the prairies. I talked about other farms being sold and how a way of life was disappearing; I told an African folk tale called “The Cow Tale Switch.” That’s about a hunter who goes into the forest and is killed by a leopard but is brought back to life by his sons. The message is stated in the story: “No one is ever dead as long as they’re remembered.” A boy put up his hand. “I know why you wrote The Auction,” he told me. “You wrote it because you want us to keep those farms alive in our hearts.” I couldn’t imagine ever hearing anything better about my work.

OB:

Do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

JA:

I always have other projects in mind! Right now I’m finishing up a young adult novel in which the central character has decided not to speak. After that, I’m hoping to have the time to work on a hip hop version of The Odyssey. I have a feeling that, in the right format, Odysseus’s story might speak loudly to a lot of youth who currently don’t see themselves in literature at all.

That’s on the writing end. There’s the storytelling too though. My partner and I have just formed a production company called Two Women Productions. We have a show about our lives called The Book of Spells we’re touring, and we’re about to start thinking about The Ring Cycle from Norse myth.


Jan Andrews was born in England and now lives at the end of a country road on a lake in eastern Ontario. She has a passion for the Canadian wilderness and for traditional folk and fairy tales. A past National Coordinator of Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada, she is also the co-founder of the eastern Ontario arts education organization MASC: Artists in Schools and Communities. Jan Andrews is the award-winning author of ten books for children and has received many honours, including the Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Text. Visit her at her website.

For more information about Rude Stories 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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