Rachna Gilmore is the author of several children's books, from picture books to novels she has thrilled young readers for over 20 years now. She has had many best sellers and has also won the Governor General's Award. She has written for all ages and across many genre's. She has been nominated, short listed or won nearly 40 awards. Her books have been translated many languages.Rachna was born in India, spent time in London, England and now resides in Ottawa. She recently took some time to answer 20 questions for us here at Book reviews and more.
1. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?
I'd be a doctor. I'd be cutting into and investigating bodies instead of investigating my characters and their stories. (I guess if I took that metaphor further I might say I'd be a grave robber, digging up bodies instead of characters! But I wouldn't. Really.)
2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?
When I was quite young, around 12 or so, and I'd re-read LITTLE WOMEN for the umpteenth time, and I decided I wanted to be a writer like Jo. For quite a while, though, all I did was carry around a notebook and jot down ideas, which made me feel terribly smug and important but didn't really advance the dream much. It wasn't until I was around thirty -- when the fear of never trying triumphed over the fear of trying and not succeeding - that I started to write steadily, to learn my craft, take courses, and just write, write, write.
3. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?
A university professor - I was studying biology (long story, was still thinking of Medicine then) - who properly took the conceit out of me by telling me that I needed to write plainly and clearly rather than plump my papers with unnecessary flowery language, which I did to mask my lack of knowledge. And Richard Lemm, an English professor at U.P.E.I. from whom I took a creative writing course, and who told me that the writing process "is a long, slow apprenticeship" and that I should aim to perfect my writing rather than scramble for publication. And my first editor, Laurie Brinklow at Ragweed Press, for taking on my first book!
4. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?
To leap into the unknown. To embrace failure. To know and accept that horrible writing, wrong turns and dead ends are all part of the labyrinthine process of learning how to write. To stop wasting time fantasizing about outcomes. To just start and write, write, write.
5. What authors influenced your writing style and format?
Consciously, none of them, in that I don't pattern my style after any one writer. But as a child, I loved L.M. Montgomery, and so I supposed she influenced me as did other favourite writers such as Jane Austen, L.M. Alcott and others. Even Enid Blyton, influenced me; her characters were horribly flat and one-dimensional, but she knew how to plot. Robert Munsch was an early influence when I started to write. And Madeleine L'Engle, whose books I love. Isaac Asimov, as well, for his extraordinary ability to imagine the future, for his love of ideas.
6. What books most influenced your writing style and format?
Robert Munsch's books really expanded my ideas about children's stories. I love the liveliness of his language and how his books are so child-centric. My style of writing is different, and so is the range of books I write, but I learned about keeping the child front and centre from Munsch. THE PAPERBAG PRINCESS is one of those books I wish I'd written! His books didn't inform my style of writing so much as they demonstrated a way of approaching children's literature with energy and irreverence. Many women writers influenced me too, Alice Munro, Constance Beresford-Howe, Atwood - their books affirmed that women's stories were worth writing about.
7. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
It starts with an idea -- which can be a theme or a character, or an image, or even just a phrase. I worry and play with it, dance in and around it, and when it has me by the throat so that I have to write about it, I start on my first draft. Usually, I write this fast to capture the heart of the story. This tends to be true of picture book stories as well as novels. Then it's a long slow process of re-writing, putting away the story for periods of time -- a long slow spiral of re-writing to the heart of the last draft, with the plot and characters coming into better and better focus with each round. Essentially, I start by writing from the heart, and then re-work from the head. The last stages can be slow and painful as I vacillate and obsess about each word. During the last stages I can spend hours on one sentence, to get it just right, to accurately reflect my character's voice.
8. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?
I've never done that. I need quiet when I write so I can hear the music of the words. But I do associate music with my characters. Dilly, for instance, from THE TROUBLE WITH DILLY, is like Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. And Red MacRae, from THAT BOY RED, is Beethoven's Pastoral, or East-coast fiddle music.
9. What of your books was the hardest to write and why?
Each book presents its own unique challenges, so this is a difficult question to answer. I've had picture books take over 20 years. That doesn't mean I worked on it for twenty years. But sometimes, after an early draft that doesn't quite work, the story will lay fallow until I re-discover it years later, and suddenly see with complete clarity what it needs to work. With novels, I find the books are easier to write when I really know my character and have a clear sense of his/her voice. THAT BOY RED, my most recent middle-grade novel presented unique challenges as it is set in P.E.I. during the 1930s Depression. It took a huge amount of research to get the sensory details of the time right, to have a clear sense of farming life and its rhythms and chores, so I could weave it seamlessly into the background of the story. A tiny detail, such as what a turnip field might look like in September, could take hours to hunt down.
10. What was your favorite book to write and why?
Ah, but that's like asking which of my kids is my favourite. Each book, while I work on it, is my favourite. It has to be, because I have to spend so much time with those characters.
11. What current projects are you working on or are in the back burner in some stage of development?
I have a time travel novel that I'm plarking with. (I call the process of what I do "plark". A combination of play, work, and lark!) I also have a story about a cat I want to write soon, and a fantasy novel, but I can't talk about them, because if I do, I won't want to write them. Then there are a few picture books, one about the Blues, and a middle-grade novel, about a girl who fancies herself a detective.
12. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
Oh yes, they are real to me. Many a time my poor family has endured a meal with me present in body, but not in spirit, because I'm listening to another conversation - that of my characters. And yes, I wonder about them after I've written their stories. I like to keep my endings open-ended so the reader has a sense of the character's lives continuing beyond the pages of the book - and perhaps because of that, I too have a sense of them living on beyond the story, and I get glimpses of it.
13. What were your favorite books and authors to read as a youth?
When I was a kid growing up in India and England, I loved L.M. Montogomery's ANNE books. They were a constant favourite. In a way, my most recent novel, THAT BOY RED, feels like coming full circle, as it is set in P.E.I. I was inspired, in part, by Montgomery's books to go to P.E.I., where I lived for fourteen years and where I met my husband. THAT BOY RED was inspired by my father-in-law's stories about growing up on a farm in P.E.I. during the Depression. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction!
14. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?
Jane Austen remains a constant favourite. I learn something each time I read her books. I love Madeleine L'Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, David Almond, Julie Johnston. Books I've enjoyed recently include COME THOU TORTOISE by Jessica Grant, the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, GOOD TO A FAULT by Marina Endicott, and many, many others.
15. A few of your books are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?
I have to sheepishly confess that I'm not up on torrents or illegal ebooks. But hey, anything that robs me of my work without payment is not something I'm crazy about.
16. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you have do so are have someone do so for you?
I haven't yet, but thanks for the heads up. I will.
17. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?
Exactly that. To learn how to think. To be creative in whatever you do. Creative, so you can find solutions that are outside the usual tired boxes. So that our lives can be full of possibilities and help create a vibrant and thoughtful society. Dictatorships, whether fascist or communist, thrive on ignorance. There is usually a clear link between funding cuts to education and the arts and a subsequent deterioration in the conscience and creativity of a society.
18. Completely off topic but what TV shows or movies do you enjoy?
I'm a sucker for cooking shows like TOP CHEF, and I love HOUSE, that curmudgeonly doctor, and also DOC MARTIN. I also like CHOPPED on the Food Network, and IRON CHEF AMERICA. And I love Masterpiece Theatre, especially the classics. Movies I've loved hmmm! I have a lamentable memory for this, but I'd say recently I saw and loved INCEPTION (what a great story!) AMREEKA, ONCE, and others.
19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
No, no, say it ain't so, not just ten. Ahem. Okay. I'd have:
Jane Austen's Complete Works (See how I did that? Clever or what?)
L.M.Montgomery's ANNE books (They're old friends, but there are many of them, so I'd want a collected edition, although I don't know if it exists.)
L.M. Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME series
A complete collection of Basho's Haiku
An anthology of the Romantic Poets
The Unabridged Oxford Dictionary
P.G.Woodhouse's WOOSTER AND JEEVES books. All of them.
20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
Read, read, read and write, write, write. Embrace the uncertainty and go on a rollicking ride with your characters leading the way. There' s nothing like it when you get into that white heat of flow. That's when time stands still.
Rachna thank you for taking the time to answer the questions. If you have not read any of her books give them a try. I only discovered her works recently and will have to make the effort to read more of them over the next year or so. Her latest book That Boy Red was just published by Harper Collins Canada, you can browse inside the book here. Her blog Writerly Plarks is worth adding to your feed reader.
Books by Rachna Gilmore:
My Mother is Weird (1988)
When I Was A Little Girl (1989)
Jane's Loud Mouth (1990)
Aunt Fred is a Witch (1991)
Lights for Gita (1994)
Roses for Gita (1996)
Wild Rilla (1997)
A Gift for Gita (1998)
A Screaming Kind of Day (1999)
Grandpa's Clock (2006)
Making Grizzle Grow (2007)
Catching Time (2010)
The Flute (2011)
A Friend Like Zilla (1995)
Mina's Spring of Colors (2000)
A Group of One (2001)
The Sower of Tales (2005)
The Trouble With Dilly (2009)
That Boy Red (2011)
Ellen's Terrible TV Trouble (1999)
Fangs and Me (1999)
Snapshots From The Fringes in anthology PIECE BY PIECE edited by Teresa Toten (2010)
Of Customs and Excise (1991 under pseudonym Rachna Mara)