Craft, Career & Cheer: Alan Cumyn

Learn about Alan Cumyn.

So far, what’s the most fun you’ve ever had working on a book? Why?

I have to say that working on this latest book, Dear Sylvia (Groundwood, 2008)(excerpt), was the most fun.

I often struggle to find the right voice for a particular project, and when I do a sequel (or, in this case, the third of a trilogy) I’m highly conscious of having to be as or more original than the original(s).

The Secret Life of Owen Skye (Groundwood, 2002) I wrote for my girls when they were young, and the natural voice for those linked stories was a hybrid adult/kid third-person narration–they are told in the spirit of a father exaggerating slightly about a loved but distant past.

After Sylvia (Groundwood, 2004) uses the same voice, but it is more of a classic novel in form and story arc.

In Dear Sylvia, Owen is writing letters to his true love, Sylvia Tull, who has moved way, and it felt awkward to be describing the letters in the old narrative voice.

Once I let Owen’s direct voice take over, in the letters, the book began to write itself.

Like me at that age, Owen is no boy-genius writer. His spelling is especially idiosyncratic–trooley atroshus–so much so that my agent balked when she tried to read the first draft.

Oh, how I remember the pain and sweat of early boyhood attempts to read and write! Owen’s letters get more elaborate as he progresses as a writer, but throughout it’s the same fierce, funny, achingly honest heart that was so joyful to tap into.

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

It comes back to first principles for me, which revolve around love of story. I grew up immersed in stories, I’ve always turned to stories when trying to figure out this bewildering life, and I expect I will always write or make stories no matter whether I get paid to do it or not.

I’ve been an athlete longer than I’ve been a writer–though never a professional–and I know about competition in sports. The rules are defined and agreed upon, score is often scrupulously kept, there is usually a winner and a loser, but afterward you go out for a beer and talk about other things.

In this sense art is not competitive–it carries the same or greater call to excellence, but it’s much freer. Any attempt to make it competitive–by giving awards, by counting and comparing sales or advance dollars–is artificial and probably hurts the art.

Who’s the better artist, Shakespeare or Mozart? Who cares? Enjoy, ponder, grapple with their works. The question is absurd.

So I “thrive” by not defeating myself. I don’t rely on sales entirely for my income. I apply for grants, I teach, I live simply. My kids’ education is not wagered on me getting a big advance.

I don’t pre-sell a book–I write it for the love of writing it, because it’s the book I really want to read that hasn’t been created yet. I try to be true to the characters and the problems they’re faced with.

When and if the book gets published I do my best to share it with the world, but with the understanding that a large part of reviews, awards, sales, fame will be beyond my control.

Usually soon enough some other story is pulling me back to my desk. I need to write it down so I’ll know what happens…

In the video below, Alan reads from Deer/Dear Sylvia. Note: “Featuring Kimba Gifford as Owen Skye. Directed by Jasmine Murray-Bergquist.”

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.