Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Janice Weaver

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Ten Questions, with Janice Weaver

Janice Weaver talks to Open Book about her interest in Canadian history, why she writes for young people and her latest book, Hudson, released this September with Tundra Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book Hudson.

Janice Weaver:

This book is a biography of Henry Hudson for younger readers. Most of us know Hudson from all the places he gave his name to—Hudson Bay, of course, but also the Hudson Strait and, in New York, the Hudson River. We may not know much else about him, though. In fact, his life was a fascinating adventure story—a tale of great drama on the high seas that ended tragically when he was cast adrift by his own men during a mutiny. The book is illustrated by David Craig, whose breathtaking paintings make real the majesty and danger of the seas. This year and next, 2010–11, mark the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s final voyage and the mutiny that cost him his life.

OB:

What was your first publication?

JW:

The first book I published was called Building America. It’s a survey tour of architecture in the United States from its days as a fledgling colony to the 2000s. I wrote the text and Bonnie Shemie, a terrific painter and architectural illustrator, did the artwork. Together, we tried to show how buildings often reflect the social and cultural concerns of the times in which they were built.

OB:

What inspired you to write non-fiction for young people?

JW:

I love writing for younger people because so often they’re really impassioned and they look at things in unique ways. I hope I’m able to fire their imaginations and introduce them to people or events they didn’t know much about before. One of the perennial problems, though, with teaching kids about Canadian history is that so many have the impression it’s boring. I know that was certainly the case when I was in school. We thought the really exciting stuff happened south of the border, where they had revolutions and civil wars and great thinkers with grand ideas. Canada was all about following the rule of law—peace, order and good government—and it seemed dull by comparison. I didn’t realize until much, much later that nothing could be further from the truth—that there are so many dramatic stories to tell, and so many bold and forward-thinking people to write about. If I can bring some of those stories alive for the kids who read my books, then I’ve done my job.

OB:

Tell us about your research process.

JW:

The key for me is lots and lots of reading. I like to read as much as I can about a subject, to learn not just about the person but about the times he lived in. Henry Hudson was great to write about because so many original documents, like ship’s logs and journals, have survived, and they are easy to find in other books or even just online. I also read books on scurvy, on the spice trade and on seafaring in the great Age of Sail. I tried to evoke the challenges of shipboard life—the cramped quarters, the atrocious food, the really rudimentary tools sailors had to help them find their way—but also to bring to life some of the thrill of discovering new places and things. If you’re lucky enough to have first-hand accounts to draw on, that can really help you to imagine what it would have been like to live in the place and time you’re writing about.

OB:

What is your ideal writing environment?

JW:

Above all, I need peace and quiet, because I’m easily distracted and have to be able to concentrate when I’m writing. I almost always work from home, so I can turn the phone off and ignore emails if I need to. Quiet and no interruptions and a fresh pot of coffee—that’s my ideal environment. If I have those things and the words are flowing—which doesn’t always happen, believe me!—I can write for many, many hours at a stretch.

OB:

Do you spend much time revising your work?

JW:

Because I also work as a book editor, I try to choose my words carefully, so I would say that I mostly revise as I go along, sometimes just in my head before I even put a word on paper. I spend a lot of time thinking things through before I commit anything to the page. Still, if I’m really having trouble with a section, I will occasionally just put something down, even if I know it’s not too good, so I can move beyond it to a part that will come a little more easily. Sometimes just putting those problem sections aside for a few days is enough that I can see clearly how I need to rework them.

I try to deliver a manuscript in the end that is as polished as I can make it, but like any writer, I need the services of a good editor. Sometimes it takes someone else to show you which areas aren’t working or where there are holes you still need to fill. Another set of well-trained eyes is always welcome.

OB:

Who are your favourite Canadian historical figures?

JW:

Like most everyone else, I’m drawn to the adventurers and the risk takers, the ones who went to places where no else had been or tried things no one else had tried. You have to admire the will and determination of people like that, and their ability to see the world not as it is but as it could be. Hudson appealed to me because he was so driven and single-minded. He was looking for a passage to the silks and spices of Asia, and he was determined to find it. Even though he was not successful in the end, his voyages did so much to help draw the map of North America, and in that way, he advanced our understanding of the world.

OB:

What are you reading now?

JW:

I usually have several books on the go at one time. At the moment, I’m reading the short story collection Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and Simon Winchester’s book about the great San Francisco earthquake, A Crack in the Edge of the World. And my guilty pleasure is The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second volume in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I will read just about anything—fiction and non-fiction, books for kids and books for adults. I’m not too fussy.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

JW:

Read everything you can get your hands on! I think that’s the best advice anyone can give to someone who hopes to be a published author one day. There’s nothing like reading a great writer to learn to become a better writer yourself.

OB:

What is your next project?

JW:

I’m planning to do a companion volume to the Henry Hudson book on Jacques Cartier, another man of great vision and resolve, and someone who, like Hudson, wrote an important chapter in the story of Canada. And there is someone else—very different—whose story I’d also like to tell, but I have to keep that one under wraps until I’m a bit further along with it!


Janice Weaver is a highly respected editor and the author of several acclaimed works of non-fiction for young people. Building America and From Head to Toe: Bound Feet, Bathing Suits, and Other Bizarre and Beautiful Things were each named Notable Books by the International Reading Association. From Head to Toe was also a finalist for both the Rocky Mountain Book Award and the Ontario Library Association's Red Maple Award. She is the author of Mirror with a Memory: A Nation's Story in Photographs. Janice Weaver enjoys sailing near her home in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about Hudson 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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