Pajama Press

Interview with Jill MacLean

Posted on August 2nd, 2013 by pajamapress

J.MacLeanThe emotionally hard-hitting YA novel Nix Minus One will hit Canadian bookstore shelves on February 15, 2013 and US shelves in July. Today the book’s author, multi-award-winning Jill MacLean, sits down to share with us about Nix, writing, and life.

Nix Minus One is your first novel written in free verse. What did you enjoy about this style of writing? What did you find challenging?

Big question.

Both the content of the book and Nix’s taciturnity led me to free verse. But when I’d finished writing it, I realized there were only 32,000 words, while my other three books were 40,000 and up—so what exactly was I leaving out?

There were times I threw up my hands in despair, times when I wondered if I’d made a big mistake by choosing (or being chosen by) free verse. At the same time, I was hugely resistant to rewriting the book in prose.

In one sense, it’s no different writing in free verse than in prose—you always need to strive for the one vivid detail, the essence of the setting, dialogue that reveals character—and always in “the least number of best words.” Free verse, however, carries these strictures to the extreme.

Flow from “section” to “section” (I’m not comfortable calling each section a poem) was challenging, as was fleshing out the characters in a minimum of words, and settling on the “right” linebreak (I nearly drove my editor—and myself—insane when it came to the linebreaks). Revisions seemed to last forever, and when I read the advance reading copy, I still wanted to revise. I’ll probably be revising this book from the grave!

Why did you choose to set the novel in Newfoundland?

I’ve had a prolonged love affair with Newfoundland. My family lived there for nearly nineteen years; my daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were born there; and I made a point of exploring the five localities—two of them very isolated—where they lived. I’ve taken coastal boats along the southern cliffs; stayed in outports and in a lighthouse; hiked, snowmobiled, canoed, eaten mussels around a driftwood fire; visited schools who’ve never had a real live author walk in the door; come face to face with a moose on the boardwalk at Gros Morne—you get the message? But having said all this, I can’t really tell you why I placed Nix in the (fictional) community of Bullbirds Cove on the west coast of the northern peninsula—I just know that’s where he belonged.

In this book, Nix develops a relationship with his neighbour’s neglected dog. What draws you to write about issues of animal welfare?

My first stray cat came to live with us when I was ten, and ever since then, cats have had a tendency to turn up on the front step and walk in the door. The cat I named Hal arrived at Hallowe’en, a short-haired black cat who was horribly skinny. Within six months, he’d grown a luxuriantly long coat, and the vet told me that starving animals can’t afford to waste protein on growing long hair.

For a few years I was a dog walker and volunteer at the local SPCA, and did the same at the Winnipeg Humane Society—a remarkably well-run shelter. I remember Bella, who was depressed, who liked to walk across the grass to the shade of a tree and fall asleep where it was quiet, away from the incessant, stressed barking of dogs kept in cages.

Animals don’t have voices to tell us what’s happened to them, and the stories of some of the dogs and cats that end up in shelters are, no doubt, horrific. So perhaps that’s what I’m doing—filling in a few of the gaps.

Some writers love writing; others love having written, but find the process arduous. How do you feel about it?

For me, writing is hard work, no way around it. But it’s work I love and feel pulled to do—telling stories, being drawn into the hearts and minds of the characters, realizing with a jolt what they’re about to do next, visualizing what’s in their kitchen cupboards and what they hide under the bed, hearing them argue and lie.

I love revising, and spend a long time on it. Cutting unnecessary words, finding strong verbs, fleshing out an all-important scene—it’s all part of getting to know what I’ve written.

Then, of course, when the book is published, I have to let go. And move on to the next one….

In your novels you have been consistently skilled in writing with a young person’s voice—something many writers struggle with. Is there a secret to your success?

I’m not sure how you analyse a “skill”, or even if it’s desirable to do so. So here are a few random thoughts.

I’ve had children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren (I take my 8-year-old great-grandson swimming at the Canada Games Pool once a week—the theory is, it keeps me young).

Empathy is right up there on my list of virtues.

I have clear memories of schooldays. I have no desire ever to go back to those days—and if anything I write can smooth the path for a child or a teen, that’s a real bonus.

I never want to “write down” to young people simply because they’re young.

What is your favourite part of being an author? Your least favourite part?

It’s a real privilege to meet kids who have read one of my books and to hear what they think of it—for and against. On occasion, it’s been very obvious that something I’ve written has affected a girl or boy deeply. This is both gratifying and humbling.

Least favourite? The business end of things.

There’s something else I struggle with. I feel you have to have a thin skin to be a writer, because you’re constantly taking in impressions, scraps of overheard conversation, stories, stories, stories…but once the book is published, you need a much thicker skin to cope with reviews, with signings where four people show up and only one buys the book, with readings where someone in the second row starts snoring. If anyone has the secret of how to switch between thin skin and thick, please let me know!

When you aren’t writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Paddling solo in my Mad River canoe.

Gardening is another passion, and I’m fortunate to have two gardens at the apartment where I live; I grow drought-resistant perennials, and spring bulbs. I call the larger of the two gardens the Dumpster Garden, so you can guess its location. A great way to meet people because everyone has to take out the garbage.

Spending time with friends and with family (they’re nearby, after living in Newfoundland for nearly nineteen years).

Travel—locally or internationally. I’ve been to the Netherlands, England, Banff and the west coast, and various locations in Ontario in the last two years, and hope to return to Europe this summer. Iceland is also on my wish list. As is Greenland. Dream on!

Reading. Non-fiction, essays, plays, poetry, novels. I belong to a YA reading group whose members are so well read and so knowledgeable—an inspiration.

I’ve just started piano lessons after a very long gap. I’m trying not to murder simplified Mozart and Brahms—I love classical music, always have, and venerate musicians. 

Walking in the neighbourhood or by the sea or a lake, and taking photographs that I make into cards.

I cook because I like to eat. Vacuuming—as the magnet on my fridge says—sucks. 

Is there a subject or character you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to write about?

Definitely, in terms of both subject and characters. However, I’ve learned over the years never to talk about future books, or characters that are beginning to emerge in my head. For one thing, it takes enormous energy to write a book—all those blank screens!—and talking about the manuscript-in-progress dissipates that energy. 

For another, the book as it takes form is very fluid, very open—and to describe out loud something so mutable runs the real risk of restricting it or even closing it down (most plots, for instance, stripped of narrative, sound absolutely ridiculous). I don’t know if this makes sense to you, or if other writers feel the same way—it would be interesting to know.