Sylvia McNicoll is a mother, a wife, a writer an editor and more. She has won a number of awards. Born in Ajax and raised in Montreal. For what I have read her books are amazing so I asked her to interview for Book Reviews and More.
1. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?
Teaching would have been the next best match for my skill set. I love guiding children and adults to new insights, watching them have their "aha" moments. But honestly, I would have probably fallen into an office job, perhaps ended up as an administrative manager.
2. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?
Take charge of your own career, don't trust others (publishers, agents) entirely. Keep up your own contacts. Be open and watch for new opportunities.
3. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?
Certainly my husband Bob. He said after my first book (Blueberries and Whipped Cream) came out and he'd read it "I always knew you were a writer, but this confirms it." My three children acted as first listeners and then my writer daughter JM Filipowicz (Wardroids, Double Dragon) as a workshopping partner. My family also acted as an audience for those painful readings and signings when no one else showed. My mother used to buy multiple copies of my books and give them away, as did a neighbor. My writers' group including Lynda Simmons and Gisela Sherman. Really the city of Burlington.
The Burlington Post would publish an article each time a book came out. The library would have me in to talk about them. A Different Drummer Books would stock copies, the public would buy them all.
4. Who were some of your favorite authors or books in your youth?
As the daughter of German immigrants, there was no sophisticated English language reading material lying around. We moved around and my father would take us to the library. Whatever books the librarian recommended, I would read. I loved the mysteries "Carolyn Keene" came up for Nancy Drew with and the family life Laura Ingalls Wilder depicted in her pioneer saga, Little House on the Prairie.
5. Who are some of your favorite authors or books now?
Too many to mention. I read indiscriminately. Over the winter I read 80 Canadian crime novels in order to judges for the Arthur Ellis Award. Lynwood Barclay is a local mystery writer I follow. Like you I'm an Arthur Slade fan and I love Kenneth Opel's new Apprenticeship of Frankenstein series. All my writing friends' books: Lynda Simmons Island Girl, Jocelyn Shipley's Tending a Grave, Beverly Brenna's series Wild Orchid, Waiting for No One and The White Bicycle stand out currently.
6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
The novel is the venue by which I explain the world to myself so when I experience, read or hear about some occurrence that sticks in my brain like a piece of meat in my teeth, I worry over it awhile. There may be some unanswered questions, often over motivations or conclusions, that trouble me. That event either becomes the idea or gets stored to become some part of a larger plot as I attempt to answer those questions for myself.
I play "what if" as I walk my very demanding Jackapoo Mortie, till I have a beginning and tentative climax and end, so a three point structure. I start writing, perhaps browse the Internet for more background. I read chapters to my writing group and my various writing partners read my drafts. I find the gaps in the characters and alter them as well as research more intensely, perhaps interviewing various experts. Pieces and plot points come from that research. I write a chunk a day, early in the process 500-700 words can be painful, I play on facebook a lot, later, as I become sure of the characters and stories 1,500 to 1,700 words becomes a tumble down a playground slide.
After about six months to a year depending on the other work in my life, magazine articles, or presentations and workshops to schools and libraries, the first complete draft gets farmed out to a writing partner, rewritten according to any flagged problems, farmed out to a different trusted writer, rewritten…over and over till I'm frustrated to tears and feel the whole project is worthless. Then I usually email it to a publisher in Norway. She decides on whether she likes it within a couple of months. No editing from this publisher, just straight translating into six different languages, the story gets published and some healthy cheques follow . Then my agent searches for an English publisher. Of late, it has taken a few years to place stories in Canada. Canadian publishers insist on usually one or two major conceptual rewrites, and then some minor ones. The book gets released in the English speaking world and I tremble waiting for bloggers' reactions. And then the Forest of trees nominations.
7. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?
No, not lately but you make me want to revisit writing to music. When I wrote (as Geena Dare for Orchard Publishing in England) about a character who sang opera in a performing arts series called Hollywood High, I listened to Tosca by Puccini. For Bringing Up Beauty, I listened to (groan, I'm embarrassed to admit this one) the soundtrack of Beauty and the Beast. Other people's words can interfere with my own thoughts. Certainly the music will influence my mood and thus the characters' so I have to be careful.
8. What was your favorite book to write and why?
Each book came with its own set of challenges and enjoyments. Perhaps Bringing Up Beauty was my favourite because after a number of rejections I gave up on trying to please my agent at the time as well as my usual publisher. I wanted to give up on writing too but thought, no, I love it too much. Instead I will write whatever I like. The story did earn a grant, win the OLA Silver Birch and The Manitoba Young Reader's Award as well as act as the first sale to my Norwegian publisher. It was a great hit in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany. But it was that delicious devil-may-care writing whatever-I-want attitude that makes that book stand out to me.
9. One of the greatest strengths of your novels are the characters. What is your favorite character so far and why?
I like Zanna in Last Chance for Paris. She is a spoiled city girl thrown out on the icefields of the Rockies, in despair over a lack of Internet and a good cappuccino. I'm making fun of myself here as I toured schools in various parts of rural and northern Canada pawing baseboards for jacks for dial up (at the time) for my computer. I worked for a magazine and needed to stay connected. Also if you're a person who admits to living within a 100 kilometres of Toronto you get teased a lot. I got teased so Zanna did too. Zanna is a child of the modern family, no marriage or religion involved but with two individualist parents pursuing separate career paths on different continents. This leaves her spinning. Nature and a wolf-dog provide her with a compass point.
10. 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. I'm working on a historical fiction called Revenge on the Fly now and when I taught as a writer in residence in the very school my character 12 year old William attended back in 1912, Central Public in Hamilton, ON, I felt his presence, like a ghost around every corner. He called to me before I finished insisting I make him come alive. I met a girl named Samantha who became a foster owner of guide dogs because of reading the Bringing Up Beauty Series and she worked at Canine Vision Canada. I could see my character Elizabeth growing up through Samantha. Then Sam named a chocolate Lab, in one of the litters, Beauty and I really felt like the characters were taking over and living and breathing on their own without me. Beauty sent me a Christmas Card. In my mind I know how my characters continue after I step away from them and I miss them sometimes.
11. If you could only recommend 10 books to a reader looking to be a well-rounded and whole person what books would you suggest?
I couldn't possibly make such a list. You need to read a book a month, at least, in different genres.
12. Your book candy. crush. corpse. Was an amazing read how did you come up with the concept?
Because my mom suffered from Alzheimer's and I visited her in the longterm care residence (which at times seemed more like an insane asylum), I knew I had to write about it. When I snuck her foods she liked and I was chastised, I wondered what would happen if she choked too much…she always coughed a little…would I walk away? She had no quality of life after all. And then I wondered…would I be charged?
13. For the book candy. crush. corpse. How did you decided to tell the story in two parts the trial and the memories?
As I sat in the longterm care residence, often trying to get my mother to eat just one mouthful, I thought about a teen going through this and being charged for a choking granny. I love trials on television shows so I decided to use one as a vehicle to propel the narrative about this teen.
14. Some of your earlier books and books published abroad are currently out of print or not available in Canada, have you thought of rereleasing them as ebooks?
Yes, it's absolutely something I should pursue when I get a moment.
15. Some 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?
Ebooks have their charm but the general public should respect art enough to be willing to pay for content not just the gadgets they need to display the content. I mean this for television and music too.
16. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?
Life is too short. Like most authors when bored, I may do a vanity search on a title and when I discover such a site, report it to my publisher who does indeed insist on a take down.
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?
University should grow your appetite for learning as well as show you and increase your competence in using some of the current tools to acquire knowledge. This should be the goal of kindergarten, elementary and high school too by the way. We want to develop an openness to different ways of thinking and a capacity for the ambiguity brought about my rapid technological change.
18. Completely off topic but what TV shows or movies do you enjoy?
It's not really that much off topic because television and movies deliver stories too, just in an image based medium. I loved Madmen because it reminded me of the society that I grew up in. Recently I enjoy the IT Crowd, a hilarious British sitcom about two dysfunctional males and one female manager working in a computer department.
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?
Again with the lists! I would go to my favourite bookstore and bring the fattest longest 10 books or I would buy a solar powered ereader and load it up to the hilt of its memory with tons of fiction plus, of course, one manual on how to survive on a dessert island.
20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
Keep your focus on your passion. Of course you need to do some work on publicity but when things go wrong, bury yourself in your creation not in the fickle judgments of others. Don't give up!
Thank you Sylvia for answering some question. I look forward to reading more of your books soon.
Books by Sylvia McNicoll:
Blueberries and Whipped Cream - 1988
Jump Start - 1989
The Tiger Catcher's Kid - 1989
Project Disaster - 1990
More than Money - 1990
Facing the Enemy - 1992
Bringing Up Beauty - 1994
The Big Race - 1996
Walking a Thin Line - 1997
Double Dribble - 1999
Smoky and the Gorilla - 1999
Grave Secrets - 1999
Caught in a Lie - 2000
A Different Kind of Beauty - 2004
Beauty Returns - 2006
Last Chance For Paris - 2008
Slam Dunk Robot 2007
crush. candy. corpse. - 2012
Dying to Go Viral - 2013
The Great Mistake Mysteries:
The Best Mistake Mystery - 2017
The Artsy Mistake Mystery - 2017
The Snake Mistake Mystery - ???
Books Written as Geena Dare:
Stage School Series:
Dan Clowning Around #5 - 1998
Matt Heartbreak Hero #6 - 1998
Lauren Dating Dreams #7 - 1999
Abbi Secret Stranger #9 - 1999
Jenna Standing Tall #10 - 1999
Dan Double Drama #11 -1999
Book Ghostwritten as Sharon Siamon:
The Spellbound Sleepover 1999
Mom and Dad's Guide to Martial Arts 1999
Foreign Editions unavailable in English to date:
Zannas vanskelige valg 2007 (Alpha Wolf)
Zanna - mellom barken og veden 2007 (River of Ice)
Snøras 2008 (Avalanche)
Zanna i fare 2008 (Victim's Impact)
Redningsaksjonen 2009 (The Nine Minute Disaster Zone)
Author Profile and Interview with Sylvia McNicoll.