Wednesday 29 February 2012

Allan Stratton - Author Profile

Allan Stratton is an award winning author and playwright. He published his first play while still in high school. He has lived in Stratford, New York, Montreal, and now resides in Toronto. His work both fiction and plays often have an edge or unique twist. Recently he took some time to answer some questions for the readers here at Book Reviews and More. So in his own words here's Allan.

1. You have worn many different creative hats, actor, playwright, author and more. What is your preferred medium and why?

I work on what excites me most; at the moment that's fiction. I love the ability to write large-scale fantasies and quest narratives as well as character-driven dramas. In fiction the sky is the limit, but a play's cast size is limited by the cost of feeding the actors. Ditto for settings. In The Grave Robber's Apprentice, there's a scene where Hans and Angela sled down a mountain in a coffin in advance of a thundering avalanche. That's a little tricky to do in the theatre.

But all storytelling media are related. I learned how to construct tight story structures and natural dialogue from my work as a playwright. Similarly, my actor's training has given me a keen understanding of the need for characters to have high stakes; it's trained me to think inside my characters' heads.

2. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?

I love public speaking and education and argument, so I might have been a lawyer or a teacher. Being a tour guide to exotic travel destinations would also have been fun.

3. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?

Hard work and talent aren't enough; you also need some luck. I've seen the arts ruin so many lives it gives me chills. I always urge young people who want to go into the arts to make sure they have something to fall back on - also to only go into the arts if it's the only only only thing they want to do. The arts can be so cruel; you have to have the passion to withstand hard times.

4. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?

James Reaney. I was in the original production of his play Listen to the Wind when I was in grade nine. He published my first play, The Rusting Heart, when I was in grade twelve - the first work I ever had professionally produced. (On CBC radio.) Also Chris Newton. He produced my first stage play at the Vancouver Playhouse and hired me to adapt a Labiche farce for the Shaw Festival. Also Graham Harley who produced my first two big stage hits - Nurse Jane Goes To Hawaii and Rexy!, which brought me critical visibility and the ability to live solely from my writing.

But mainly my Mom - the most courageous and inspiring person I've ever known. Her unconditional love and encouragement has sustained me though my darkest days.

5. What authors influenced your writing style and format?

None consciously. When I was a teenager I wrote some theatre-of-the-absurd knock-offs. But as you grow up you develop your own voice - which is the sum of who you are and how you see the world.

6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

Yikes. Ideas come from dreams, characters, situations, suggestions - from everywhere. I mull them for months figuring out problems in the material and possible ways to solve them. Then I write a preliminary outline - which is always subject to change as the story and characters grow. Then I start and work consecutively through the story. Each morning I'll start by revising what went before to get me into the flow of the piece. When I hit a logjam I take a break and mull and mull and mull. I need to see and feel a scene before I write it. And etceteras. All the while I'm reading my new material to a handful of key friends who are quite ruthless with me; if they don't get something, I know there's a problem. Then there's lots of back and forth with my editors. From idea to this point is about a year-and-a-half. But finally it's done. Whew! And then the wait for the next idea. (I keep a folder of ideas as they come to me, but I hardly ever use them.)

7. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?

I'm working on another 'tween fantasy, The Curse of the Dream Witch which will be coming out here and elsewhere in 2013. And I'm about to begin revisions for a comic adult novel, The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish.

8. What of your books is your favorite and why?

That's like asking a parent to name their favourite child.

9. What of your books was the hardest to write and why?

Every book, like every child, has its own challenges. Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii was the hardest from the point of view of farce structure. Chanda's Secrets from the point of view of making sure it was accurate to the subSaharan experience. Chanda's Wars for the bush-tracking sections. The Grave Robber's Apprentice for its total change from my previous work. None have burst like Athena from the head of Zeus, although each have had sections that wrote themselves.

10. In your book The Grave Robber's Apprentice two people both on the run end up working together. What was the original inspiration behind this story?

Shakespearian motifs: a family separated by the sea; an evil usurping uncle; plays-within-plays; tales of prophecies and witches, of innocence and experience, of identity as characters discover their true selves.

11. In the description for The Grave Robber's Apprentice it states "Together, Hans and Angela gallop through dark forests, treacherous lands and secret passageways on their quest to uncover the truth about Hans' shadowy past and save Angela's parents from the archduke's monstrous asylum. In this world of highwaymen, hermits and dancing bears, anything is possible-even for a grave robber's apprentice." How did you decide to combine such elements into a story that looks like an incredible adventure?

It built up piece by piece, one discovery leading to the next. But as mentioned, Shakespeare was my model, also in terms of the various types and range of characters from high to low.

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. Chanda's Wars came to me in a nightmare. In the weeks before the inspiration, I'd been wondering what happened to Chanda after Chanda's Secrets. One night, I woke up in a panic from a dream filled with soldiers and fire, and I said out loud, "Soly and Iris have been kidnapped. I have to save them." By the way, I also talk out loud a lot. I'm so glad for Bluetooth. People used to think I was crazy; now they just think I'm on the phone.

13. 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?

Well, I think that professor said it perfectly. Because we don't just learn a set of facts; we learn processes to put those facts together in new and creative ways.

14. 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?

Theft is theft. Some people steal products from bricks and mortar stores. Other people steal electronically. When stores are trashed during riots, some people steal because everyone else is doing it. Well, it's still stealing.

15. 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?

If I discovered I was losing a fortune, I would. But I don't want my life to turn into sentry duty. With the ever-expanding number of sites, chasing thieves is like playing Whack-A-Mole.

16. What was your favorite role you play on stage and why?

I loved originating the lead role, M.C., in Sharon Pollack's The Komagata Maru Incident and the leading role of Mackenzie King in James Reaney's The dismissal. I also loved playing Matt in the Fantasticks because it gave me the chance to sing a terrific score and got me my Actors Equity card.

17. What were some of your favorite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?

Henry Fielding, James Reaney, Edward Albee, Ionesco, Mordecai Richler, Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Tom Stoppard.

18. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?

To the above add Carl Hiaassen, Barbara Gowdy, Jonathon Franzen, Tony Kushner, David Hare, Carol Churchill, Michael Frayn and David Sedaris.

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?

The Donnelley's Trilogy, Tom Jones, Angels in America, King Lear, The Invention of Love, Wuthering Heights, The Brothers Karamazov, Benefactors, Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Bible. Okay, the last one is a cheat because it's a collection of books - but the stories are great, and besides, it's long and I only get to have ten.

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

1) Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
2) When in doubt, cut it out.
3) What does each character want? What will they do to get it?

Thank you Allan for spending the time answering questions for us. I look forward to reading more of your books.

Writings by Allan Stratton:
Phoenix Lottery (2000)
Leslie's Journal (2000)
Chanda's Secrets (2004)
Chanda's Wars (2008)
Borderline (2010)
The Grave Robber's Apprentice (2012)

Bingo! (aka 72 Under The O) (1977)
Nurse Jane Goes To Hawaii (1980)
Rexy! (1981)
Joggers (1982)
Friends Of A Feather (1984)
Papers (1985)
The Hundred and One Miracles of Hope Chance (1987)
Bag Babies (1990)
A Flush of Tories (1991)
Dracula (1995)

Author Profile and Interview with Allan Stratton.

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