Updated: Feb 14
Being a writer means sinking down deep into a made-up world inside your head, and letting strangers take over your brain, leaving little time for other things, like social media. I've been in the depths of a dark and eerie book for the last couple of years, so obviously blog posts have not been at the top of my To Do list. But I'm dropping in now to update my book status from "It's Complicated" to "Serious Relationship." Here's the skinny on my latest project:
A few Octobers ago, my partner G and I took a road trip to Sleepy Hollow, New York. Unsurprisingly, we got a late start on departure day, which meant that the latter half of our first day of driving was done in the pitch black of the Adirondack Mountains with no wifi. What better way to start a Halloweenie road trip to see the Headless Horseman than to get lost in the absolute darkness of a strange, foreign land?
That night, we arrived late to our hotel in Saratoga Springs, but not too late for dinner and smokey cocktails at Hamlet & Ghost and then a walk around town in the dark. We passed by the Batcheller Mansion Inn, which G told me is the most haunted hotel in New York State; when he asked if I wanted to stay there, I firmly screamed NO THANK YOU.
That late night walk found its way into pages of the book that was forming in my mind at the time. Before we'd left for that trip, G had told me a story about a couple he'd known when he was in high school who went missing, and how much it had affected everyone in the town he grew up in. Obviously, I found the story fascinating, and when I started reading more about it, I fell down a rabbit hole of missing person stories, true crime, and the supernatural. For my first book, BLACK CHUCK, I listened to a steady diet of punk and shoegaze songs non-stop, to stay in that world while I was writing. With this new book, my soundtrack turned out to be podcasts: Serial, True North True Crime, Astonishing Legends, Unexplained Mysteries, and so many more — plus, my very favourite by far: Let's Not Meet (Hey Y'all to the LNM Creeps!).
When we got to Sleepy Hollow, G and I were both struck by the strange meshing of real history and pure story there. The town where Washington Irving's 200 year old Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place is older than America itself, and yet Sleepy Hollow has only officially gone by that name since the 90's. I also loved that witchcraft and occult stores, horror stories and legends all sat comfortably side-by-side with family-filled pizza shops, post offices, and breakfast diners—the SH high school varsity football team is called The Horsemen, and their mascot is, you guessed it, a headless horseman.
Needless to say, I fell in love with Sleepy Hollow. But it also got me thinking about the underbellies of tourist towns everywhere, and all the darkness behind their curtains. What could happen behind the curtain of a Halloween town, where darkness is embraced with open arms? What kind of horrible stuff happens in a town made of monsters? While the town in my book isn't Sleepy Hollow—it's a composite of many places all mashed into one—the story certainly started there.
When we got home, I dove into writing this new book. Set in a fictional Halloween town, it lifts the curtain on the real horror that lies beneath the spooky spectacle. It's about the real monsters living in a place built on fake ones. And each time I added something to the story that I thought, "Oh man, no one is going to believe this could really happen" I found a podcast where that very thing did happen—lemme tell ya, real people are pretty damn scary. So, I say this book is based on real events, because it is—although not all of them happened to the same person. And I say it's based on real places, but the town of Rode's Neck River exists entirely in my head, alongside all the rest of my nightmares.
If you like Courtney Summers, Lauren Oliver, Stephanie Kuehn, and Claire Legrand, you'll probably like this book. It's also got a dash of Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman, which is loosely based on the real, 1946 disappearance of Paula Jean Welden, from a place now called The Bennington Triangle. Hangsaman really informed how I treated the truer parts of this story—I took the inspiration, then dipped it in fiction. Other ‘if you like, then you’ll loves’ for this book include Twin Peaks, witchcraft & tarot, and Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, because why not jam all those good, juicy things into one book??
More than anything, though, this new book is about liminal spaces. Those thin places where fact & fiction, festival & funeral, light & dark, real & unreal all exist side by side, stuck to each other like shadows. The book starts and ends in the midnight hours just after an infamous Halloween carnival, and everything in between is both true and false, like images in a funhouse mirror. I hope you get a chance to read it!
In the mean time, here are some snapshots from our journey into the dark...
This is about one of the main themes in almost everything I write: consent.
Why is it so important to me to write about this, for both male and female young readers? Well, for a lot of personal reasons, from a lot of personal experience.
It's hard for me to touch on this subject in plain words, in my own voice, because the memories are painful, and tied up in all kinds of other feelings. But when I sit down to write fiction, it always bubbles to the surface, simmering under every plot twist. As hard as I try to write about other stuff, consent and abuse are what want page time (insert obvious trope about writers working out their issues on the page).
One of my favourite reviews of Black Chuck is from a reader named Enid Wray (and not just because it's glowing!). She touches on "the sensitive treatment of consent" as one of the main positives of this book, and I'm so glad about that, because the consent in this book isn't necessarily obvious, though the whole book is steeped in it.
I don't harp on about why it's important—in fact, I don't think I even use the word once. Big sister though I am, I didn't want to write a finger-wagging book about right and wrong. Rather, this whole book is wrapped in issues of consent that (I hope) seep through the pages and into its readers' hearts.
Evie stumbles through a world she's not sure she has agency over, and she doesn't know that she can stop the things that don't feel right to her. Réal, though he never explicitly asks for her consent, is, in his every action and word towards Evie, asking for it.
"You okay?" he asks her, countless times. Not just with physical touch, but with everything. He is always checking in to make sure she's okay with him and his actions. And to me, this is what consent is about. Not just asking for "permission" to be physical with another person, but making sure that, at all times, they are comfortable with the choices they're making in regards to their own body.
But I also wanted to make that a sexy thing. A swoony thing. And not just some vibe-killing formality that we all must adhere to in the age of #MeToo
I wanted Réal's asking, in itself, to be what's so appealing about him as a boy. He's tough as heck, not afraid of getting into scraps, fiercely loyal to friends, drives a shitty car, swears his face off, AND asks for consent. He's cool, brooding, and aloof, AND asks for consent.
This is a major thing I wanted readers to take away from his character: that it's possible to be all the things a male hero usually is in YA books, and still ask for consent.
And I wanted to write a character that male readers would love, and want to emulate, or at least see themselves in a little bit. Someone who screws up, and gets duped, and feels horny, and confused, and mature, and responsible, and terrified of growing up, all at once.
Another review I love, which was given to me in person by a student at the Forest of Reading celebration in 2019, was that he—a tall, athletic, self-professed teen boy who "hates reading"—loved my book, and couldn't put it down. I don't remember his name, but it was honestly the highlight of my day to know that Réal had reached him.
And Réal is by no means perfect. None of us are. He makes some pretty huge mistakes, as we probably all have. But he learns from them. Eventually, he sees that some of his choices are bad, even if they feel good. I wanted to give him—and the readers—permission to fuck up, and still be the "good guy."
In the words of Enid Wray: "this is a messy book - as in life is messy. Don’t read this looking for simple answers. You won’t find them. Instead, be ready for complexity and nuance."
I couldn't have said it better myself!
Updated: Mar 18
For my debut novel, I chose to write outside of my own race for at least two characters. And with everything that has happened in children’s literature, and in the world at large, since this book came out, I have wanted to discuss that for a long time, but haven't felt ready or brave enough.
But I also don't want readers to feel that I'm not keenly aware of my decisions.
So, I’d like to discuss the research I did, the steps my publisher and I took during the editorial process, and the breaking news at the time of editing that made me question whether my book should even make it to the shelves.
In 2017, my editor, Sarah, and I were knee-deep in this book—this long and sometimes tearful labour of love—when the news broke that a prominent Canadian editor had just proclaimed he didn't believe in cultural appropriation, and thinks that all writers should steal from other cultures. In fact, he said, there should even be a prize for the writer who did it best. He even said this as the editor of a magazine whose current issue at the time featured all-Indigenous contributors, whose cultures have been appropriated since first contact.
There is a lot wrong with that editor's statement—namely that it denies Own Voices authors the chance to represent themselves, and there were a lot of people understandably angry about it at the time (2017). To quote Vice magazine’s Sarah Hagi: “Essentially, [the editor’s] argument was that Canadian literature isn't as diverse as it should be because white authors aren't stepping outside of their own experiences.”
So, what does any of this have to do with Black Chuck? Well, if you’ve read Black Chuck, or a synopsis of it, you’ll know that the main male character, Réal, is Ojibwe. And if you’ve read my bio, you'll notice that I haven’t mentioned being Ojibwe myself—because I’m not.
So, I wanted to talk about how (and why) I wrote his character, because while on the one hand, I don’t think writers should censor themselves from writing about other peoples' experiences, I also agree wholeheartedly with the anger at this editor's statements.
While it is an author's job to step into the souls of other people, writing characters outside of your own culture should always be done with a lot of sensitivity, a lot of research, and many, many different eyes on your work. It also requires a great amount of caution, and the humility to step back and let Own Voices authors be heard instead—ultimately, you may have to accept that this isn't your story to tell.
As for the HOW of writing Réal, here are the steps I took to get his character right:
Research, and The Facts About It
Whether you realise it or not, some of what you think you know just isn’t true. Sometimes the "facts" are written by people who had a lot more power to express their opinions than the people those facts are written about.
One example is that, while researching for Black Chuck, I discovered something called “Windigo Psychosis”—a mental illness in which a person believes they have been possessed by a Windigo Spirit. There have even been several documented cases of this illness over the last two centuries.
But delving deeper, I also discovered that this illness may not have Indigenous roots. It may, in fact, be a white misinterpretation of Algonquian legends and stories, but because white people made most of the records we’ve kept, theirs are the "facts" we’ve heard. And that doesn’t make it truth!
So, do loads of research, while also being very mindful of whose opinions you’re repeating, because many "facts" may not be as you think they are.
Get a LOT of people to read your work
I know when you’re starting out, it’s easy to feel shy about sharing your work. But if you never share it, you may never know if you’re getting things wrong—or worse, that you’re repeating offensive stereotypes.
Beta Readers help you see the things you can’t see in your story. They'll give you feedback on believability, pace, or if you’ve accidentally written your own version of a book that already exists.
Sensitivity Readers are people from the demographic you are writing about—whatever is in your story that’s outside of your own personal experience. Sensitivity Readers are the ones who will catch your mistakes about their culture, and correct you along the way.
One of my sensitivity readers, for example, pointed out that I should mention why Réal is not as familiar with his own culture as he should be. Indigenous history and culture are not taught in most of Canada’s schools, but it took the eyes of a sensitivity reader to tell me “the root of that is Canada’s residential school system, and you should acknowledge that”.
I had several Sensitivity Readers for Black Chuck, some for cultural issues, some for language, some for characterization. Each of them offered me a different perspective on what I had written, and all of them helped me get the details right.
But ultimately, the content of this book rests on me, so if there are still mistakes in it, that’s entirely my fault. And though I'm so grateful that Réal has touched so many readers' hearts, I’ll freely admit that even now, I wonder if I was the right person to tell his story.
Write what you know vs. Know what you write
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “write what you know”. It means that, if you know your subject really well, your stories about it will feel authentic to your readers, and that is super important. But just because you “know” a thing, doesn’t mean it’s true.
So instead of “write what you know”, think "know what you write." Become an expert in as much as you can about what you’re writing about. Read lots. Get deep into your subject, and ask a LOT of questions.
In writing this book, I learned about the Windigo, Clan Animals, Anishinaabemowin, and the role of visions and dreams in coming-of-age rites and Windigo mythology. I also learned how to swear in Quebecois French and Korean, and which old Buicks had both airbags and bench seats (because you can’t make out in a front seat with a cup holder in your way!).
And, as I mentioned before, especially when it comes to culture and race, be very mindful of your sources. If you only look for the opinions & writing of people who look like you, or who affirm your own unconscious bias, you’re going to get things very wrong.
To answer the WHY of writing Réal:
I asked motorcycle experts about motorbikes. I asked my sister about being pregnant. I learned a lot of new things while I was writing this book. But I also wrote about one thing I do know really, really well, and it’s the thing that holds all my characters together: growing up poor.
Whether the characters I’ve written are authentic to their own cultures is debatable—and I accept all critique of that. But I am an expert in being the kid who had less than other kids around me, and I know the anxiety and uncertainty this creates. I’ve been told that the characters in Black Chuck feel like real people, and that’s because the things they live through are all very personal to me, and to the kids I knew while I was growing up. Their experience of being outsiders is something I know really, really well.
And while Réal does struggle with poverty in this book, his family is full of love in ways that the more well-off families in this book are not. He and Evie recognise each other in their experience of poverty, albeit unconsciously, and it is part of what draws them to each other. This book, however, is by no means meant to tell a universal story about any of these characters, their cultures, or their socio-economic status. These characters are individuals entirely of my own making.
So, how does all of this circle back to that debate about cultural appropriation?
Well, as soon as that news broke, I emailed my publisher to ask if we’d have to cancel the book. We talked a lot about the issue, and my concerns, and in the end, we decided that adding an “Author’s Note” would help address my intent. We also shared my book with a few Indigenous authors Orca publishes, and I spoke to my Sensitivity Readers to ask if they personally felt offended by my book. I won’t tell you what each of them said, but my book did get published on schedule.
As well, Black Chuck has been included in the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia's catalogue of Canadian Indigenous Books for Schools. This means that it was selected by Indigenous teachers and librarians for its “authentic voice” that “demonstrates that I have engaged in meaningful consultation with the community I am writing about.”
It was really important to me to write an Indigenous kid who was modern and real, living in the world we all recognize, and not relegated to a white fantasy of Indigenous history. I do believe I achieved my goal. And I’m glad so many people have connected with Réal, and let him into their hearts.
I’m not sure I would have the audacity to write a character like Réal again. In my new-author naiviteé, I felt like I could because he was just like all the other kids I grew up with—fumbling towards adulthood with very little adult guidance, and no support. But I am proud of him, and the depth of his character. And I’m so glad that, with a lot of people’s help, I was able to create a character that so many readers have loved.
And on that note, I just want to say one last thing about writing outside of your culture, and whose voices we get to hear. One of the major reasons I chose to work with Orca Book Publishers is because they are committed to publishing BIPOC authors, so I knew that my book would be sharing the shelf with these great authors, not stealing their place on it.
Because it’s not just about getting your characters right, and having the right sensitivity readers, and doing the right research. It’s about who you choose to work with, and what they stand for, too.
As I’ve mentioned already, characters of all backgrounds are important, especially in kids' literature—but more important is that we publish more authors from those backgrounds in the first place, and champion those who are doing so by buying & reading the books they publish.
We need diverse books… and diverse authors, stories, culture and art. More than ever.