I was born in Toronto, Canada, but moved with my parents to Argentina, South America when I was nine. I came back to Canada for University and met my husband, Jim. After graduation, he took a position as a Foreign Service Officer with the Canadian Government. As a result, we spent the next 34 years travelling and living in different parts of the world including Colombia, the United States, England, the Philippines, Brazil, Germany and Puerto Rico. Our family is a real United Nations: my oldest son was born in Canada, my daughter in Colombia and my youngest son in England. We also acquired an American dog and a Brazilian cat along the way, as well as an assortment of other pets. Moving time was always exciting.
I’ve always loved to write. I can’t even remember when I started, but it must have been as soon as I could hold a pencil. I’ve always loved to read, too, and I firmly believe that all writers are readers. I haven’t met one who wasn’t, anyway. When people ask me for advice on how to become a writer I say first of all, just write, write and write some more. And the next thing I tell them is to read, read and read some more. I did not start writing for children until I was married and had children of my own, however. I began by writing short stories for them when they were very young and, as they grew up, so did my stories. I write mostly for young adults now—historical, fantasy and contemporary novels. Becoming a grandmother has led me into new waters. I have just written my first picture book.
My husband has retired now and we have settled back in Canada. I’m putting down roots for the first time in my life and thoroughly enjoying it.
I have taught creative writing and writing for children for many years and done workshops and readings in schools and libraries across Canada and in the United States. I have also had the opportunity of working with children in American schools in Germany while I lived there and, more recently, at the American School in Taipei, Taiwan. The Internet has introduced me to new opportunities. I have worked as a writer in residence for the WIER (Writers in Electronic Residence) program and taken part in The Read In, a day-long international meeting on the Net of writers and students from all over the world.
Writing continues to be a joy for me and I cannot imagine ever giving it up.
“How many books are you going to write before you die?” a young boy once asked me.
“As many as possible,” I replied.
When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I never really “decided”, it just happened. When I was young I was always scribbling: stories, poems, plays. I never dreamed that I would grow up to be a “real” writer, though. Didn’t think that ordinary people like myself could do that. When my own children were young I realized that I loved reading stories to them and thought that maybe I should try writing some and seeing if I could get them published. Lots and lots of rejection slips, of course, but that was the beginning, and somehow or other I’ve never stopped since.
Are you grounded when you write?
I’m often not at all grounded when I sit down to write. Many, many mornings I have to force myself to the computer, bribing myself with the promise: ‘Just a half hour. Give it just half an hour and then if it’s not working you can go.’ Inevitably, I sink into the work and suddenly realize that an hour, or two, or three, has gone by. It is then, when I am truly into the writing, that I am grounded—focussed is another way of putting it.
What should I do to become a writer?
Write, write, write. The more you write, the better you will become. If you can take courses, go ahead. Reading books about writing and joining writing groups and workshops are also helpful, but the main thing is to write as much as you can. If you are doing the best work you can, revising and rewriting, you will improve and you will become a writer.
The next best thing: read! I don’t know a writer who isn’t an avid reader. A good book will inspire you, not to copy it but to try to write as well. A bad or boring book will teach you what not to do. Besides, reading’s fun and much easier than writing.
Where do you get your ideas?
People often come up to me and say, “Oh, I’d love to be a writer but I don’t have any ideas.” It’s as if they think that ideas rain down out of the skies, bonk you on the head and flow straight through your body and fingers onto the paper. (Or computer screen) Those of us who work at this craft know this is just not so. Writers are always on the alert for new ideas, new inspirations for stories. I like to think of a writer as a big, walking sponge, absorbing everything that is going on around him or her. That couple over there in the corner look worried—what’s happened to them? Do you suppose they’ve spent too much money on lottery tickets lately? Do you suppose they’re just about to win? Then what will happen to them? There’s a strange noise coming out of your neighbour’s garage—what could it be? That kid walking down the road toward you looks mad—wonder why? You hear of a young girl who had a tragic life many, many years ago. You begin to think that you’d like to find out more about her, that you’d like to write a story about her. You pick up a book about some historical incident that intrigues you—your brain starts to weave a story around it.
There are two words that are magic for a writer and never fail to spark ideas. They are: what if? That school bus you just got on—what if when you get off you’re not at your own school but at a school that exists ‘way in the future? Or in the past? What if the elevator you ride every morning of your life takes you to the 13th floor one day, but you know there isn’t a 13th floor in the building? What if a girl wants desperately to make a sports team but fails? What if she suffers a serious accident? What if...? What if...?
Ideas are all around us. They might not fall down and bonk us on the head all by themselves, but they certainly are right there for you to reach out and grab them.
But you know, sometimes, not often, mind you, they do fall down and bonk us on the head. I call those stories, the ones that just pop up out of nowhere and write themselves as fast as I can type, “givens”. I appreciate them enormously, but in over thirty years of writing and publishing I’ve only had three of them. I wouldn’t have much published work written if I’d just sat around waiting for them, would I?
What is your favourite book of all the books you have written?
That’s a question that I am asked all the time and I’ve never been able to answer it yet. It’s like asking a mother which is her favourite child. Every book that I write is special to me in its own way, and the characters in it become as familiar and as dear to me as my own children. Every time I read from one of my books I remember where I was when I was writing it, what was going on in my life, what the research for it taught me...all sorts of related memories.
Who does your illustrations?
It’s the publishers job to find the right illustrator for my books. I can’t draw, unfortunately. The way it works is that I send a manuscript into the publisher then, if they accept it, I work with an editor to make it as good as I possibly can. Then it’s the publisher’s responsibility to get it printed, get whatever artwork is needed done, get it printed, and sell it to bookstores and libraries. This leads on to the next question that I am often asked—nearly always by a nine or ten-year old boy:
How much money do you make?
I get an advance when we sign the contract. Then, when the book is sold, I get royalties. Royalties are a percentage of the cost of what the book sells for. Usually this is around 10%. That means that for each book that sells for $10.00, say, I will get $1.00. So how much money I make depends on how many of my books are sold.
Oh, and by the way: they take back however much they gave me for an advance out of the royalties before they start paying me my share of the royalties.
How old are you?
Another question that’s usually asked by a nine or ten year old boy. I was born on December 16, 1936, I tell them. Figure it out yourself!
How do you get published?
By writing and writing and writing until your work is good enough to be published. Then you find out what publishers publish the kind of book you have written. You can look at newly published books in bookstores and ask librarians. There are also magazines and books that give lists of publishers and what kind of stories they are looking for.
The main thing, however, is to keep on trying and not get discouraged by rejections. All writers get rejected. Lots of times. I think that a writer’s greatest talent is sheer, pig-headed stubbornness. If you really want to be a writer, and are willing to work really hard at it, you will succeed. Trust me.
Who is your favourite author?
I have so many favourite authors that it would take pages and pages to list them. I love to read and I read all kinds of different stuff--for adults and for kids.
Some of the authors who influenced and inspired me when I was a beginning writer were Jean Little, Monica Hughes, Janet Lunn and Madeleine L’Engle. I also love every book ever written by Katherine Paterson. There are so many good books out there. You can start exploring now and you won’t have finished reading them by the time you’re old and grey!
Do you ever put your own kids or any of your own family in your books?
I wouldn’t dare! My kids are all grown-up now but when they were younger their friends all read my books. If I had put in anything that would have identified one of my kids they would have been embarrassed and they would have killed me. The closest I came was with Rachel in I WISH THERE WERE UNICORNS. She desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer and when her mother moved the family to a small town where there wasn’t a good ballet school, Rachel was angry and rebellious. When the book was reviewed, Rachel was described as “obnoxious”. My daughter Kathy was quite annoyed.
“You based that girl on me, Mom,” she said.
“Well, sort of,” I had to admit. “But she got nice at the end, didn’t she?”
Kathy reluctantly agreed, but I had come a little too close and I didn’t do it again.
Mind you, I based five-year old Benjie, in THE OTHER ELIZABETH, on my son Chris, who was five at the time. But he couldn’t read, neither could his friends, so I was safe.
Are you writing another book now?
I’m always writing another book. I finish one and there is another one waiting in my mind. Usually I’ve been making notes for it and I’m just waiting for the chance to get to it.
Is writing fun for you?
It is fun, most of the time. But, like anything else that’s worthwhile doing, it takes a lot of work and by the sixth of seventh draft of a book it’s not fun anymore. It’s just plain work!
Do you ever get discouraged?
Definitely. But I plow on. That’s how books get written.
Do you ever get stuck?
See the answer above. All writers get stuck. The secret is to work away until you get unstuck—not give up. Some tricks I use to get over writers’ block are:
Wash the kitchen floor. (Ugh!)
Walk the dog. (He loves it when I get stuck)
Sit and stare out the window and think.
Go to bed and tell my mind to work on it while I’m asleep.
Just sit down and write whatever comes into my head. After all, it’s not written in stone. If it doesn’t work I can toss it out.
Rewrite what I wrote the day before. It’s going to have to be rewritten anyway, so it’s not time wasted. Nearly always, by the time I’ve rewritten up to the point where I got stuck, my brain is working again and I just sail on through.
Have you ever started a book that you didn’t finish?
Not yet. This is probably because I’ve been thinking about it for so long, making notes, and doing research, that by the time I finally start the book I know that I’m excited and enthusiastic enough about it that I will stick with it until it’s done.
What books did you like when you were a child?
I loved THE SECRET GARDEN. I think a lot of children’s writers grew up reading and rereading that book. I also remember reading every single one of the Dr. Doolittle books and trying to talk to my dog. My dog must have spoken a different language, though, because I never could do it.
There weren’t nearly as many books around for children when I was young. I think that’s one of the wonderful things that has happened in the last thirty years or so. There are so many good books being published now!
What are your hobbies and what do you do when you’re not writing?
I swim in the summer and waterski, and I’ve just taken up golf again. In the winter I cross-country ski. I love to hike and we’ve got lots of great trails around where I live. My very favourite thing to do when I’m not writing is read, however. I don’t care at all what the weather is like, if I can curl up somewhere comfortable and get lost in a really good book.
Do you have a special place to write?
I used to write on the kitchen table, in the dining room, wherever I could find space. Now, however, I have a room in my house which is my own office. It has big windows looking out over Georgian Bay and there are always ducks, herons, geese and all kinds of other birds out there, as well as muskrats, beavers, bunnies and chipmunks. The bay itself is beautiful and is always changing colour. Sometimes deep greeny blue, sometimes slate grey and angry. Sometimes it thinks it’s an ocean and sends huge waves crashing against our shoreline. It’s always changing and there’s always something to see outside my window. Sometimes I have to close the blinds in order to get any work done. Often I have to close the blinds!
Inside, my office walls are lined with pictures of cats and there are statues of cats all over, some funny, some scary. I have two pictures of my old cats who used to lie all over my desk and typewriter when I had one, but those cats are gone now. My present cat doesn’t come in too often--she has better things to do—but my dog, a young German Shepherd, usually lies at my feet.
How much time do you spend writing?
I try to write every day. Sometimes I only have a small amount of time, but usually I keep office hours: from around nine in the morning after I’ve walked my dog until about three or four in the afternoon, with a break for lunch.
How many kids do you have?
I have three grown-up kids and one seven-year old granddaughter. The kids’ names are Donald, Kathy and Chris. My granddaughter is Jessica, and she is Donald’s daughter. (She loves to read and write stories but she’s really lucky—she can draw, too.)
Do you have any pets?
I guess I’ve answered that question, but I’ll repeat it. I have a crabby old tabby-cat that we inherited with this house from my husband’s father. She is getting friendlier, however, and condescends to sit on my lap and allow me to scratch her behind the ears. I also have a young German Shepherd dog named Casey. His picture is on my Biography page. The cat doesn’t think much of him and he, I’m sorry to say, is pretty much afraid of her. She has him firmly under her paw. Sometimes she won’t even let him in the kitchen to eat his dinner.
How many more books are you going to write before you die?
(Actually, I’m cheating here, this question was only asked once. Again by a—you guessed it—nine or ten year old boy.)
As many as I can. Writers don’t have to retire. As long as my fingers and my brain work I don’t intend to stop. And I hope kids never stop reading them.