February 02nd, 2012
John Wilson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1951, of parents who had recently returned from a life in India. He grew up on the Isle of Skye and in Paisley, near Glasgow, and earned an Honours B.Sc. in geology from St. Andrews University. In 1975, he went to work for the Geological Survey of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but, unwilling to consider military service there, he eventually resettled in Calgary, working in gas and oil exploration.
In 1986, as a geologist in Edmonton, he decided he wasn’t travelling enough, so he sold his sports car, took a leave of absence and set off west. His grand tour took him to Japan, Thailand, the India of his parents, Nepal, Egypt, Zimbabwe and much of Europe. Returning home, he had difficulty adjusting back into a regular work schedule. A feature article, sold to the Globe and Mail, pointed him in a new direction, so he quit his job and became a full-time freelancer before moving on to novels and non-fiction books.
“As a teen growing up in the west of Scotland in the 1960s,” Wilson says, “my primary concerns were staying out of trouble at school (not always successfully) and avoiding the gangs that hung around downtown on Saturday nights. I was a good sprinter!
“I had no intention of trying to emulate the boring dead people we were forced to read in English class.”
Wilson has now been a full-time writer for twenty years and boasts a bibliography that includes hundreds of articles, essays, photo essays, poetry, reviews, 22 novels and eight non-fiction books for teens and adults. His most recent book is Shot at Dawn (Scholastic Canada $14.99).
BC BOOKWORLD: How did the metamorphosis from troubled teen to writer come about?
JOHN WILSON: History. I had a history teacher in grade 11 who told stories about the past. My favourite lesson was about the day Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914. I lay awake half that night imagining I was one of the characters in Sarajevo that day. What would I have done? How would I have felt, either pointing the gun at Franz or seeing the assassin point the gun at me?
I never wrote anything down but I was already a writer. That’s all I do now. Instead of lying in the dark making up stories, I sit at my computer, but I’m still a small boy trying to travel in time.
BCBW: Do you do a lot of research for your novels?
WILSON: Occasionally, I’ve been lucky enough to receive a grant from the Canada Council to go to archives and read old letters and documents, but mostly I use my holidays. For the trilogy I’m working on, called The Heretic’s Secret, I went to France to see the castles and medieval towns where I set the story.
Also, the internet can be a great resource for details. For example, in Written in Blood, I needed to know about hand guns in the American southwest in 1877. There are websites that specialize in exactly that.
For my most recent book, Shot at Dawn, set in the First World War, I realize I’ve been reading books on WWI ever since my history teacher told me about Franz Ferdinand. I’ve spent the last forty years researching that book.
BCBW: There’s violence in your books, I’m thinking of the prisoner having his toes cut off with rusty shears in Death on the River. Is it necessary?
WILSON: There is violence in some of my books, but none of it is made up or gratuitous. The guy in Death on the River is based on a man who really did have his toes cut off that way. The history of our species is violent and we have to acknowledge that. To paint the past as a pleasant, peaceful progression towards the present, hardly prepares a kid for living in the real world.
BCBW: What about the argument that gross or violent books simply pander to the baser side of the reader’s nature and that boys should be encouraged to read better literature? Would you say boys need different kinds of books from girls?
WILSON: Absolutely. There are countless definitions of what makes a good kids’ book. The only definition that really matters where boys are concerned is: a good book for a boy is any book he will read.
When people question me about violence in my books, I say: If a boy gets bored with one of my books, he’s not going to put it down and read Anne of Green Gables. Odds are he’s going to go and play a video game where he can make people’s heads explode. Call of Duty’s my competition. I have to hold my reader’s interest before I can even think about doing anything else, such as putting the violence in a moral context.
BCBW: Shot at Dawn is part of Scholastic’s new series for boys, I Am Canada. Do you think enough is being done in Canada to interest boys in reading?
WILSON: The situation’s improving. There are a lot of authors writing books for boys, such as Eric Walters, Art Slade and Iain Lawrence, but go into any Chapters store and stand a metre or two away from the Teen Fiction shelves. The predominant colour is pink. I have a seventeen-year-old son who would have his fingernails pulled before he took a pink book off a shelf, regardless of how good that book might be.
BCBW: So there’s a marketing problem for boys?
WILSON: Partly. After all, it makes sense from a marketing perspective to target the easiest demographic, but not if it’s at the expense of the readers who are a tougher sell. Anyone involved in children’s literature—authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, marketers—has a responsibility to all readers, even the ones who would rather be playing video games.
BCBW: Did you read violent books when you were a teen, and if so, what?
WILSON: As a kid I read horror stories, H.P. Lovecraft, science fiction, Asimov, Bradbury, Wyndham, and a lot of historical non-fiction. At that time, the stories from the Second World War—fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, prisoners escaping from Colditz—were coming out and I devoured them.
I didn’t actually need a graphic description of mayhem. A suggestion was often enough to feed the part of me that lay awake at night making up stories. And the stories I made up were way more violent that anything I write now.
I would read any book that took me to a different place, anywhere that was more exciting than the real world I was stuck in. Essentially, now I’m writing the stories that I wanted to read as a teen, and hoping that they will help today’s teens to escape.
Essay Date: 2011