April 07th, 2008
In his old age, Tolstoy dismissed War & Peace and Anna Karenina as bourgeois entertainment and decided it was better to write fables for children. Some authors,on the other hand, such as Ann Walsh of Williams Lake, chose to write for young readers from the outset.
After completing a 10-day summer course with Robin Skelton in 1981 in Wells, B.C., she first wrote a time-travelling tale set in Barkerville, Your Time, My Time, and returned to the gold rush era for Moses, Me and Murder, The Doctor’s Apprentice and By the Skin of His Teeth.
Ann Walsh has recently edited a collection of short stories about young people coping with loss and grief, Dark Times (Ronsdale, 2005), and written two kids’ novels about social issues, Flower Power (Orca, 2005) and Horse Power (Orca, 2007).
BC BOOKWORLD: Why did you start writing books for children?
I had a manual typewriter with sticky keys. Children’s books are shorter.
No, the real reason.
I had been a teacher for many years and I wanted to share B.C. history with young readers. I fell in love with Barkerville and I found out that a murder had been committed there in 1866, way back in the gold rush days, and the clue to the murderer’s identity was an oddly shaped gold nugget stickpin. You can hardly invent a story with a plot like that, but it’s a true story. So that became the basis for Moses, Me and Murder.
BC BOOKWORLD: What did you read growing up?
Growing up in different countries, I read what was available. The ‘Just William’ series in South Africa; my mother’s old nurse-in-love series in Kansas, and anything else I could get my hands on. As a teenager in Vancouver I discovered science fiction and read nothing but SF until I had my first baby. Then I switched to murder mysteries. I’m sure there’s no connection.
BC BOOKWORLD: Several of your books concern racism. Do you ever struggle with how overt the messages in your books should be?
All the time. It’s hard to find that fine line between plot and pulpit. As a child, I saw racism in all its ugliness, both in the American South and in South Africa. I remember ‘whites only’ signs on drinking fountains and in restaurant windows. In my writing I want to shout, “Look how ugly this is!” But shouting at readers doesn’t encourage them to finish the book. So I try to write the ugliness well, so that the readers see it for themselves.
BC BOOKWORLD: Do you think most people who write for kids lie awake nights and secretly feel hard done by because they don’t get the attention they deserve?
Well, you probably say that about almost any writer! [laughter] But, yes, Kidlit writers can and do whine. For most of us the money doesn’t pour in, the reviews are scanty and we get little respect from the rest of the literary world. We are ‘just’ children’s writers. Nearly everyone is going to write a children’s book someday, when they have a free weekend. After all, kids’ books are short, how hard can they be to write?
BC BOOKWORLD: Do you talk about this sort of thing with other Kidlit authors?
These days, most of my “talking” is done on-line. The closest children’s writer is Kathleen Cook Waldron. She’s an hour-and-a-half drive from my house. We have co-authored a book, Forestry A-Z, forthcoming in 2008, and we did this by driving 63 km to meet at a restaurant halfway between our homes. We also had a few revision sleep-overs.
BC BOOKWORLD: Our children’s book columnist Louise Donnelly gets weary of all the teenage angst novels and the onslaught of political correctness. Do you have any general perceptions of the teenage novel genre?
The PC problem is hard. I wrestled with the word ‘Chinaman’ in one of my Barkerville novels. But “Chinese gentleman” didn’t fit the language of the day, so I used the words of the era even though they made me uncomfortable. I know exactly how Louise feels. Angst well-done is great, but it’s hard to take in large doses. Most teens, however, are one huge blob of angst. I know. I raised two daughters.
BC BOOKWORLD: Why have you done nearly all your books with B.C. publishers?
My subjects have been deemed too local by many national publishers who still reject me regularly. When I started, YA [Young Adult] novels were just beginning to interest publishers. My first publisher had never done a YA novel until Robin Skelton recommended mine for its “strong sense of place.” Small, local publishers are great for keeping an active backlist and for reprinting titles. However their small size can cause financial problems. One publisher still owes me my 2005 royalties–for six titles—and is no longer answering my queries about when I can expect payment.
BC BOOKWORLD: Should we name that publisher?
We should not.
BC BOOKWORLD: We mustn’t end on that note.
BC BOOKWORLD: In Flower Power there’s a local crusade to save a neighbourhood tree. Was that based on a real incident? Like that Barkerville murder?
No, that was a case of life imitating art. Shortly after I finished writing it, I heard a news report about a woman who had chained herself to a neighbour’s tree, just like in the story.
BC BOOKWORLD: But clearly you have a personal agenda in some of your books.
Well, it’s a composite of things. My mother was a dedicated environmentalist. She belonged to SPEC which was the first recycling project in the Lower Mainland. However, Mom was too much a Southern lady to sit in a tree for days. I, on the other hand, have many, many times embarrassed my own children. I can never forget how accomplished they were at the eye-roll, the sigh, and the “Do you have to, Mum?”
So I guess Flower Power came from a blending of mothers—with my father’s sense of humour thrown in for good measure. As well, I stole the idea of having all the women in the story named after flowers from a British mystery writer. Except I didn’t use any of the same flowers she did.
BC BOOKWORLD: In the new book, Horse Power, your heroine Carrie gets herself reluctantly involved in her mother’s crusade to save a neighbourhood school. Where does that story come from?
All across North America and even in rural Scotland and Ireland, small schools are being closed. A few years ago there was a sit-it at a school at Forest Grove, near 100 Mile House. Many other schools in the Cariboo have been closed. These things don’t always percolate into the newspaper in Vancouver or Victoria, but they’re important to those of us “out here.”
BC BOOKWORLD: Does it bother you that sometimes people assume “easy-to-read” books are easy to write?
Often. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” The fact that a book has an adjusted reading level to interest reluctant readers should not be taken, as it often is, as a negative. Not that I’m sensitive about this. [laughter]
Essay Date: 2008