Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with P.J. Bracegirdle

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On Writing, with P.J. Bracegirdle

P.J. Bracegirdle, author of Unearthly Asylum (Simon & Schuster), talks to Open Book about this latest book in his The Joy of Spooking trilogy.

OBT:

Tell us about your latest book, Unearthly Asylum.

P.J. Bracegirdle:

Unearthly Asylum is the second book in The Joy of Spooking trilogy, a darkly satirical horror-mystery for middle-grade readers. The story follows twelve-year-old horror fan Joy Wells as she investigates the secret history of her dilapidated hometown while safeguarding its character against the pernicious influence of suburbia.

In this installment, Joy puts herself in yet more danger when her pet frog Fizz becomes trapped behind the walls of the mysterious local mental asylum. Death masks, lobotomies and an army of undead Revolutionary mercenaries all make hideous appearances....


OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you started writing the Joy of Spooking series?

PJB:

That’s an interesting question. Middle-grade fiction is generally directed towards 8 to 12 years olds, so my number-one priority was to make the story appeal to them. That said, children’s literature has become more and more sophisticated these days, attracting a readership of all ages in search of a gripping story. With this in mind, I wanted to add a satirical dimension to the series that would specifically entertain sharp kids and adults alike. So I cast the central villain, Mr. Phipps, as an aging punk rock musician who had since become an evil, embittered civil servant.

In fact, a fair amount of the story is told through this character’s point of view. This is a bit uncommon in children’s books, I must admit, as the usual theory is that kids want to read about other kids, not about grownups. But that isn’t necessarily true. I personally believe that children simply find most adults fairly boring. But if you have an adult character who is exciting enough and perhaps a little ridiculous, kids are happy to give them a chance.

Also, don’t the books we read as children tend to live in our hearts forever? The thought that my young readers may one day return to The Joy of Spooking and have an entirely new perspective on the story really appeals to me.



OBT:

When you begin a story, are the characters and plot already fully formed in your mind? Do they ever take a surprising turn?

PJB:

You know, I feel jealous of authors who have everything worked out in advance, with corresponding charts, timelines and character bibles to draw from. They’re probably the same people who are at the gym every day at six, and who never have to iron because they fold their clothes straight out of the dryer.... But I’m not one of them. Almost everything that ends up on the paper ends up being somewhat of a surprise to me.

But then again, that’s how I like it. I get too bored banging out a predetermined sequence of events. I want to have fun, and cackle evilly to myself as I come up with stuff.



OBT:

Tell us about your inspiration for the character Joy Wells.

PJB:

I knew at the outset that I wanted a young gothic-inspired heroine for the series, but one that didn’t conform to the Tuesday Addams model or the Emily the Strange cliché. So I first thought of my Scottish niece Sadie, who is blonde and beautiful with a brooding character and offbeat obsessions. I thought it would be a fun to do an homage to her. Also, I was just getting into Joanna Newsom, an amazing but somewhat polarizing musician who plays harp and sings in turns like a little girl and a withered old crone, or so she is often described. And I created a fiction in my head of what such an startlingly unusual artist might have been like as a child.

Visually, I didn’t want Joy to dress in black and lace like a Goth, but rather imagined her looking more like a paranormal investigator from the 1920s. So instead she wears musty old tweeds she recovered from her basement, the property of long-dead adventure-woman Melody Huxley, a character who becomes increasingly significant in time.



OBT:

Who are your influences?

PJB:

Gosh, a lot of people influence me, and as you might now guess many aren’t even authors. In The Joy of Spooking, there are obviously a lot of references to Lovecraft and Poe (the Ethan Alvin Peugeot character is a composite of both), but I’m in no way even dreaming of replicating their work. In Unearthly Asylum, there are a few nods to Moby Dick and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I would love to say I’m taking cues from someone like Kurt Vonnegut — an author who pulls off outrageous narratives that are both hilarious and dark, with quirky, endearing characters that readers are willing to follow to improbable places.

People sometimes compare me to Lemony Snicket, which while flattering might be more a result of my similarly implausible name (mine appears on my birth certificate however). In truth, I try not to be too overly influenced by other children’s authors. Actually, I won’t even read another book for young readers while working on a project in case something rubs off on me. Appearing derivative ranks highly among my mortal fears, which is probably why faeries and vampires aren’t making it into my work any time soon.



OBT:

What was your first publication?

PJB:

My very first book was a little rhyming sticker book called Comet Can't Wait for Christmas, about an excitable female reindeer living at the North Pole. More astute readers might have wondered whether Comet was cohabitating with the portly penguin lounging around her house, but I will never tell. The book was illustrated by my wife Susan Mitchell, who has since gone on to produce over sixteen more children’s titles with various authors.



OBT:

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

PJB:

Hmm.... Instead of the usual bit about persistence and working on one’s craft, I would like to warn people off the pursuit entirely.... Okay, I’m kidding. But being a published is probably a bit less fun than most people imagine, when every creative choice then almost becomes bogged down uncertainty, and the question of succeeding or failing. Then there’s all the self-torture: get a good review, you’re delighted for the day; get a bad one, you’re seriously depressed for a month. And truly, having your work dismissed in public is a hundred times worse than being rejected quietly in private. But if after knowing this, you still can’t stop yourself: congratulations, you have taken your first step towards being a published author!



OBT:

What's your next project?

PJB:

I’m currently working on a young adult novel called The Dark Empress that I’m excited about it. It’s a harrowing story for older readers, set in an old Victorian theatre in Scotland. Unlike The Joy of Spooking, it’s definitely in no way comedic!

I also just finished a picture book called The Dead Family Diaz which is currently being illustrated and will be out in the next year or so. With a dead kid as its main character, it’s got a bit of edge for something for 4 to 7 year olds, so I’m pretty eager to hear the response....


P.J. Bracegirdle has done everything from tending the stage door of a haunted old Scottish theater to pushing laundry carts through dark tunnels under an insane asylum. His last job involved writing thick manuals that nobody really read for products that few people ever used. He lives with his wife and son in Montreal — a spooky old town with a cemetery at the summit. For more information, visit www.pjbracegirdle.com and www.joyofspooking.com.

For more information about Unearthly Asylum please visit the Simon and Schuster website.

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

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