By Lena Coakley
Alan Cumyn is the author of many acclaimed novels for both children and adults.
Books in his Owen Skye series have won the Mr. Christies and Hackmatack awards and were nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award. His novel The Famished Lover was long-listed for the Giller prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
He lives in Ottawa and teaches in the M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
LC: You’ve written for adults and for children, but Tilt (Groundwood, 2011) is your first foray into young-adult writing. Did you approach this book differently from your others?
AC: Every book for me starts with a character in a situation. What was different with Tilt was the way those elements came to me. Three years ago I had just arrived at Vermont College of Fine Arts as new staff, and I listened to a lecture by the brilliant Louise Hawes on “the line of desire” – what your character wants and why s/he can’t get it. Louise had us all write a letter to ourselves at a much younger age, and what sprang to mind for me was an image of myself at sixteen.
No letter emerged; instead I had to play an imaginary game of one-on-one basketball with my much younger self before we could even begin to have a conversation. Once that happened, the character was with me, and the situation soon followed: Stan is stymied in his basketball aspirations, trying not to think about his tangled home life, and hopelessly in love with someone who might not even be available. In a nutshell: adolescence!
LC: Your portrait of sixteen-year-old Stan Dart is so well observed I couldn’t help wondering if Tilt was semi-autobiographical. Is there any Stan Dart in you?
AC: Like Stan, at sixteen I was obsessed with basketball – it was a near-religion for me – and I also wrote poetry and dreamed about martial arts. And, of course, like most adolescent males, I was trapped between raging hormones and no socially acceptable outlet for sexual urges.
So a lot of the prep work for Tilt involved what I think of as exploring emotional memory – being true to the feelings of the time rather than, necessarily, the actual events.
LC: Tilt deals very frankly (and often hilariously!) with sex. You cover erections, first kisses, first sexual encounters—even the title refers to the sexual orientation of one of the characters, Janine, who may or may not be a “gwog” (goes with other girls).
Did you ever feel that you needed to censor yourself because you were writing for a younger audience?
AC: First and foremost I wanted to be true to the feelings and situations Stan has to deal with; I wanted to write the kind of emotionally honest book that I wished I could have easily gotten my hands on when I was younger.
First sexual urges are amongst the strongest emotions many people experience; the agonies are terrible and the ecstasies are out of this world. Young people today are also exposed to – through films, TV, the Internet – more explicit content than most of us want to even think about.
So the challenge for me was to not pull my punches and yet stay emotionally true to the experiences Stan goes through. My own daughters, who were teenagers at the time, read the manuscript before I sent it off to my agent. If I was working with an internal censor, it was the parent in me trying not to alarm my own kids. But they were cool with it….
LC: I read that you studied writing under the great Canadian novelist and short story writer Alistair MacLeod and I know that you are also on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m wondering how your experiences as both as student and a teacher have advanced your craft.
AC: A good writer keeps learning, changing, pushing boundaries and trying new things. I had an extraordinary education in writing, especially given the opportunity to study with a brilliant writer and teacher in Alistair MacLeod, but I graduated with an M.A. in creative writing when I was only 24 – I had a lot more living and craft work to do before my stories would begin to have an impact on others.
It’s certainly also a privilege and a gift to teach; good teachers soon realize that they are learning as much, or even more, than their students.
If you’re going to explain something valuable to others you have to first figure it out for yourself. Malcolm Gladwell and others talk about the 10,000 hours of honest, hard, diligent prep work it takes to become good at anything worthwhile and difficult. Well, time studying and time teaching writing have been an essential part of my on-going education as a writer.
It’s also tremendously stimulating to be working with colleagues and students who are so dedicated and talented. Tilt is in many ways a product of my VCFA experience – I got the main idea while at a residency there, have read from early drafts to VCFA audiences, and launched the book there this summer when the first copies emerged.
LC: What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence Tilt and your other works?
AC: I was a “reluctant reader” when young. I vividly remember the pain and effort (and disappointment!) involved in decoding all those symbols and sounding out individual words. Reading only started to make sense to me when my parents began buying me sports books.
Then I caught fire when I realized that reading could be a ticket to the adult world. So I leapt from “The Babe Ruth Story” to The Godfather, and somewhere along the way stumbled into Alice Munro and others and the realization that a good novel could take you silently, without need for a lot of conversation, into fascinating other bodies, other lives.
I read because I was hungry to understand what I was in for, what might be coming my way in the years ahead, and I write now hoping to serve the same hunger in others.
If Tilt works for a young reader, for any reader, I’m hoping it’s because the characters and situations resonate in an honest way with the delights and pitfalls life serves up.
LC: Readers love to hear about an author’s process—what your writing day is like, how long a book takes, what the editing process is like, etc. Can you tell us a little about that?
AC: In recent years I have become unusually busy, not just with teaching duties but other adventures – I was Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada for a year, which monopolized a lot of my attention.
So for Tilt I had to be terrifically organized and focused: writing in the mornings, staying away from email until noon (when possible), working through the weekend if family members were away.
A book takes me at least two years, and often the re-writing involves a boiling off of everything that isn’t essential to the text. Shelley Tanaka was extremely helpful as editor for Tilt in helping me sort out some plot and character tangles – I do tend to complicate things unnecessarily sometimes.
But writing for me is a joy, it’s the best part about being an author – the hours spent quietly figuring out, through language, who these people are and what they do to themselves and each other.
LC: What are you working on now? Will you go back to writing for adults or has writing for children and young adults won you over?
AC: I like to change gears, so I am working on an adult novel now. I must say I love the flexibility, the world of possibilities, of writing for younger audiences, but I am also drawn to the elemental nature of adult concerns. Life seems to get simpler, and harder, as we go along, though we surround ourselves with complications. How’s that for a recipe for interesting stories?
Honors for Tilt include:
- Kirkus Reviews 2011 Top books for teens in U.S.
- Fall 2011 selection for Young Adults (mature) – Junior Library Guild, U.S.
- Quill & Quire 2011 Top books for young readers in Canada
- CBC Radio The Next Chapter Selection
In a starred review, the Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books says of Tilt: “Cumyn writes with an artless, resilient quirkiness, a wry plainspoken inventiveness that instantly animates scenes and characters.”
Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.
See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders and Author Lena Coakley Interviews Editor Hadley Dyer of HarperCollins Canada, both from Cynsations.