April 07th, 2008
ERIC WILSON was born in Ottawa in 1940. As a teacher in BC he began to write for reluctant readers with Murder on the Canadian (1976). His subsequent books about a brother and sister team of young sleuths from Winnipeg, Tom and Liz Austen, have well-researched settings in provinces across the country. While incorporating social issues such as the destruction of forests, disabled children, Minimata disease and terrorism, Wilson's suspenseful, easy-to-read books and his popular appearances in schools have attracted ten thousand readers to the Eric Wilson Mystery Club. Translated internationally, his fourteen books over a twelve-year period include The Lost Treasure of Casa Loma (1980), Vampires of Ottawa (1984), The Unmasking of 'Ksan (1986), The Green Gables Detectives (1987) and Code Red at the Supermall (1988). Eric Wilson lives in Victoria. He was interviewed in 1980.
T: They're now calling you "Canada's best-selling writer of fiction for young adults." When did that title emerge?
WILSON: I don't know. I'm not going around advertising myself as such. But the books are doing really well. That phrase is Collins', my publishers', decision.
T: Is Collins responsible for the Eric Wilson Fan Club?
WILSON: Well, they sponsored it but it was really my idea. I found that when I was visiting schools, kids asked, well, when's your next book going to be? Kids don't generally browse in bookstores. There was no way for these kids to find out what specifically my next book would be. So I suggested to Collins that we have some kind of club. I also suggested that we unite the kids by having them write reviews of other mysteries by other authors. Then it slowly expanded. Now the kids are creating the contests. The newsletter comes out a couple of times a year. Essentially it's a way for kids to know what happening with my books.
T: With the success you've had both in Canada and internationally, do you still see yourself writing for the reluctant reader?WILSON: I do, yes. But what has happened is that my books have become very popular with what you call bookworms as well. The nice thing about that is that kids in a gifted class will have copies of my books and also kids who have a lot of trouble in school have them too. So not only is there no stigma attached to my books, the great bonus is that the gifted kids are also reading them. The kid who is having trouble with his reading can feel good about himself.
T: And that social usefulness aspect seems to inspire you as much as any artistic resolve. You get to see it working. You could just sit at home and write but you don't do that.
WILSON: Right. Last school year I think I talked to fifteen thousand kids in school groups from BC to Ontario and Quebec. That certainly creates the adrenalin. I'm also finding by going into schools that teachers and librarians are using my books not only with reluctant readers but also with social studies classes. A lot of teachers are telling me that because my books are specifically about an area and they have historical information, they're good ways to teach a unit, say, on northern British Columbia.
T: I can certainly see that with The Unmasking of Ksan.
WILSON: Yes. That's got lots of research in it.
T: How long did you spend in Hazelton for it?
WILSON: I spent about two months up there in the summer of 1985. I usually spend about two months in each location. I went to a death feast. That was the first thing I went to…
T: I was going to ask you about that. The detail in that story about attending a death feast where there was an electronic basketball clock on the wall struck me as something that wouldn't have been invented.
WILSON: No, none of that was invented. What happened was there was a teacher in the Kispiox school who used my books with his students. He had written to join the mystery club. I kept his name aside and when I got up there I phoned him. He said, well, I'd love to meet you but this evening I can't because I've been invited to a death feast of the wolf clan. As you can imagine, my ears perked up and I asked to be taken along. He set it up with the chief of the tribe. That was the very first thing that I attended. We were there from about seven p.m. till about two or three in the morning. The things I said in the story about the fact that it's considered disrespectful to leave your place are true. And about the food, where they keep filling your bowl.
T: When you go into these research periods, do you have half a story in your mind? Or no story at all?
WILSON: Each one is a little bit different. When I went up to Ksan, I'd been there about ten years before. So I went specifically because I knew about Ksan and I knew about the museum.
It was a logical thing to do a story about a mask being stolen from the museum.
But each book is different. Spirit in the Rainforest is set around Ucluelet. The starting point for that was the controversy around the logging of Meares Island. I feel really strongly about the destruction that's been done in British Columbia by the logging companies. Obviously logging is a very important industry, but I think the government has allowed these companies to get away with terrible stuff. There was all this arguing about whether or not they'd log Meares Island. People were talking about occupying the island in protest. That really was the starting point for that book.
One of the characters is a woman who's involved in Greenpeace. She says, "You kids can help." Tom says, well, children don't have any influence. She says, "But it's your country, too." I'm trying to say that to kids. Become involved. Some of these kids who are reading my books are going to be voting pretty soon.
T: I did a biography on Hubert Evans, who wrote a great deal of juvenile fiction. His wife was a Quaker who kept reminding him that you can still change a person's mind about things in their teens.
WILSON: I really think that's very true. I feel very fortunate that my career has evolved in such a way that I am writing for kids who are willing to listen. They're old enough and mature enough to listen. I don't expect them to accept it all, by any means, but it's nice to know that I can speak through my books to them and perhaps affect their lives.
T: Another important aspect of your stories is that the central characters all have self-doubt. Perhaps reluctant. readers can particularly relate to characters who sometimes have low self-esteem.
WILSON: I think that's true of all kids. It may be true of all people. Even a lot of kids who are gifted can be kids who feel like wimps or nerds. I think this goes right across the board. This is a good example of how I feel very fortunate that I'm in a position to be able to write. When I was a teenager I felt like the world's worst nerd. I had trouble dating and all that sort of stuff. I know kids are always going to go through that. Feeling unattractive. That's why I had the guy in the Ksan story tell the boy not to worry. Join the high school band or go skiing. It's standard advice. You and I know that. But when I was fifteen I didn't know that. It never occurred to me. I really feel that if I can put that into a book, it's going to affect some kids. That's the power of the printed word.
T: Like yourself, I grew up on the Hardy Boys. It was probably my main book-reading experience.
WILSON: I think it still is for a lot of kids. I've gone into schools and asked, "Has anyone here read books about the Hardy Boys?" I would say ninety-eight percent or better put their hands up. It's fascinating. Because those things were started in the twenties or something like that. And they're popular with girls and boys.
T: Have you looked at the Hardy Boys analytically? To see what makes them popular?
WILSON: No. But when I started writing my own series I remembered what it was about the Hardy Boys that appealed to me when I was a kid.
T: And what were they?
WILSON: Well, the technical things like getting off to a quick start. The fact that each chapter ends with a hook. That's very important when you're writing for reluctant readers. "Look out!" Frank cried. Also the fact that the story is contemporary. I get a lot of response from kids indicating they appreciate the fact that my stories are about kids of today, urban kids. At the time, the Hardy Boys were supposed to be taking place in a modern, urban setting. Also I think the series concept is important.
T: I notice you've toned down the violence since your first book, Murder on the Canadian.
WILSON: That was conscious. Murder on the Canadian had some bad feedback because of that. Because the woman had actually been murdered. When I wrote it, I thought the fact that she was murdered offstage made it palatable. But people objected.
WILSON: Reviewers who were librarians. It wasn't widespread but there were some influential ones. A person doesn't have to die to make a good story, but as Murder on the Canadian was based upon a classic, sort of Agatha Christie-style convention, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be any adverse response to that.
T: But ultimately it's the reaction of the kids that matters in the long run.
WILSON: Yes. The very first book I wrote, Fat Boy Speeding, I read it to the kids in the class I had in White Rock. They were grade eight reluctant readers. I said a friend of mine had written this book. Their response was really strong. Since then I have done that with new books. I test them and I also get other teachers to try them out.
T: What do you learn from that?
WILSON: They tend to criticize small details. For instance, I learned early on not to use too much slang. Because slang dates very quickly. Also you can make mistakes with slang. I'd read a story and get kids to write down who they thought the villain was, three-quarters of the way through. If eighty percent of the class had figured out the villain from the same clue, then I could take out or modify that clue.
T: That's invaluable.
WILSON: Yes. I try to start with vague clues and make them stronger and stronger. That's something the kids like. They get more excited as they go. The kids also say that it's really exciting that these stories are Canadian. Even at the age of ten or eleven or twelve, the kids are dismayed by the fact that they're reading primarily American stories.
I was doing an autograph session in Victoria once. A woman came in who was a librarian. She said when my first book came out, they couldn't get the kids to read anything Canadian. But she said now it's the other way round.
T: Well a sense of place is hugely important. Dennis Lee says that's one of the main reasons why Alligator Pie is so successful.
WILSON: It's important to me, too. I remember reading the Hardy Boys at age ten, and they went to Vancouver. It was described as a "sleepy little fishing village." The fact that that author hadn't bothered to find out anything about Vancouver really annoyed me. That's one thing I'm doing with these books, very definitely. I'm investing the time and the money to go to a locale and researching it properly. When I went to Toronto, for instance, I tried to see it through a twelve-year-old's eyes.
T: How do you see through twelve-year-old eyes? Is there a switch back there?
WILSON: No, I think it's because I teach and maintain contact with young people. I don't consciously change my way of thinking. I'm aware of what kids like because I'm constantly in touch with them. Also, they say that a lot of people who write for children can remember their own childhoods vividly and I can remember my childhood very vividly. When I wrote the first Tom Austen book, I more or less modeled Tom on myself. In fact, I remember when I was twelve and living in Winnipeg I used to go downtown on Saturday afternoons and pick out suspicious looking strangers and follow them around, in the hopes that a crime would be committed and I could solve the crime and be a hero.
T: The fact that your father worked for the RCMP must also be significant.
WILSON: Definitely. He'd sometimes talk about cases but he was involved in a lot of secret work that he couldn't talk about. He worked in an undercover capacity in Vancouver, combating the opium traffic.
T: Did you wonder about what he was up to?
WILSON: I thought about it a lot. And I questioned him about it.
T: Did you want to write when you were a kid?
WILSON: I guess I must have. My mother kept a story I wrote when I was nine. It was about a boy who goes around solving crimes. That story ends, "And so jack was a great hero!" with a great big exclamation mark. The first time I got a chance to write in public was at age fourteen when I was writing reports for the local paper in Kitimat and getting paid for it. I don't know if I ever thought to myself, "I want to be a writer," but writing was always an interest.
T: Did you ever want to be a policeman?
WILSON: Yes. But I don't fit into that sort of institution. I was twice rejected from the school patrol. I was also rejected from Cubs. I can't remember why. I'm not a good person at taking orders, I suppose. But it appealed to me, the idea of being in the police like my father. For Vancouver Nightmare I was taken around to the police cells by a friend of mine who was in the police. It really fascinates me.
T: You've done eleven books now. Do the books get easier to write?
WILSON: I think so. You don't repeat your mistakes. For example, before I went to Toronto for The Lost Treasure of Casa Loma, I did an elaborate outline. The starting point was the Toronto Library, room 221-B, where they have all kinds of books about Sherlock Holmes. I thought it might be interesting to use Sherlock Holmes. I read the entire canon of Sherlock Holmes. It took months. I worked up this whole plot. It was far too elaborate. My editor said I had forgotten my audience. For someone to appreciate my story, they would have to know the stories of Sherlock Holmes extremely well. I junked the whole thing. Now I'll do preliminary reading, but I've learned not to do elaborate plotting.
Also I now know the type of things that will work in print. The Kensington Market in Toronto, for example. A boy carries red snappers by. You can't go into paragraphs of description but you can suggest what is happening with a few images. You learn to mentally sift rather than take lots of notes.
Essay Date: 1980