Author Interview: Erin Bow

Erin BowI’m a city girl from farm country who studied particle physics, before ditching science for a lucrative (ha!) career writing books. These days I write SFF novels for young adults, and poetry. (source) Find her at her website.

Sorrow’s Knot, which I loved, concerns the lives and traditions of people who are reminiscent of First Nations people. Though the Shadowed People are fictional and only come alive in the minds of the readers, were you concerned that their similarity to the First Nations people would lead to questions of cultural appropriation?

 I’m not concerned about questions of cultural appropriation — I’m concerned about actual cultural appropriation.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I fell sideways into this setting when I visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. Now, the Black Hills are holy ground, and one does not lightly set a book on someone else’s holy ground. It was in my mind to resist the setting. But I already had a hero named Otter, and the overwhelming feeling that I’d found her home was not something I felt I could ignore.

I did a few things to try to avoid appropriation. The first was to do a lot of research and talk to a lot of people. For instance, I talked to sacred storytellers, not to learn their stories (many of which are secret) but to learn how storytelling works in a culture where it is somewhere between history and religion. What one really doesn’t want to do is tell a same-old-same-old fantasy tale and glue some feathers to it and call it Native.

The second was to steer clear of the usual words and tropes that signpost “Indians” — words like “teepee” or “moccasin” (actually I had “moccasin” in the draft, because I grew up wearing them and don’t think of it as a racially charged word, but my editor flagged it, and he was quite right). I got rid of the word “village” for this reason. Skin colour is described only glancingly, and not in the usual terms. Basically I tried to avoid this:

photo (6)

(From my kids’ “Who Am I” game. I yanked it.)

Finally, after all this research, I tried to imagine Otter’s people rather than borrowing them. Obviously it’s a fuzzy line — I borrowed the houses and the gardens, but made up the stories; I borrowed the flora and fauna but made up the gender roles; I borrowed cooking and medicine but made up the ghosts.

In the end I think I will leave it to readers to decide whether this is appropriation or not. I hope it’s not, but I don’t think that’s ultimately mine to judge.

Death is a theme prominent in both your novels, more so in Sorrow’s Knot perhaps than in Plain Kate. Sorrow’s Knot deals with the aftermath of death; the grief, the mourning and the letting go. Do you think death in fiction aimed for adolescents, that is, the textualizing of death, is cathartic for teenagers who are bereaved in real life? There are a lot of YA novel that romanticize death in the form of vampires and zombies (I will never be able to fathom the appeal of zombies) but you chose to focus more on the dying and the dead than Death the Grim Reaper figure. Were you ever tempted to personify or create Death as a supernatural creature in Sorrow’s Knot?

I really don’t know why I write about death — I honestly don’t mean to. I like funny books and would like to write a comedy, but so far no comedy has appeared to me.

As for whether it’s useful to readers — maybe. Teenagers deal with big stuff, even if they don’t have contact with actual deaths. The emotional journey of adolescence seems to me a series of weddings and funerals, highs and lows, beginnings and endings, firsts and lasts. I think it’s good to have stories where heroes deal with big stuff and come out the other side. Someone once said that it’s okay to take young readers to dark places, so long as you don’t leave them there. I agree with that.

Or even better, G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. […] these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

That said, I write to tell stories, not to be useful.

As for the personification: My natural themes as a writer seem to be memory, regret and second chances, and the intersection of those themes is ghosts. (Well, ghosts and time travel. I’d like to do a ripping good time travel story eventually. I’ve tried, and will try again.) I’m not much interested in the Grim Reaper, because I think the real terror of death as an impersonal force is exactly that it’s impersonal — personification can only weaken that.

How has your career as a scientist who studies particle physics influenced your writing? Did you set out to write children’s literature or was it a happy accident?

Perhaps, but not in an obvious way. It might be better to say they both channel the same impulses — to look at the world carefully, without preconceptions, to discover things and communicate them in the simplest, most powerful terms one can find. They also both satisfy my urges toward deep-digging geeky research and toward big hard think-y bits, too.

I actually set out to write poetry — I still write poetry; it is published under my maiden name, Erin Noteboom. But I’ve always liked children’s books, and read lots of them. When I started to write Plain Kate, it sort of tumbled naturally into that form. I didn’t give its audience much thought.

Is there a book by a Canadian children’s writer that you would like to recommend to our readers?

The best YA/MG I read last year happens to be by a Canadian writer — Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina.

I love the emotional intensity of your books. You don’t lighten the content for children, but instead you seem to respect your readers enough to write heartbreakingly beautiful novels. In particular, I was fascinated by Taggle and his ability to be both cat and human, to be an aloof creature, and yet in some ways the emotional heart of the novel. Can you tell us about your decision to write heartbreak in your books, and your decision to use a talking cat to represent and draw out some of the most “human” emotions in the novel?

I feel strongly that stories shouldn’t be dumbed down or prettied up for kids. Kids have emotionally complicated and important things going on in their lives. Stories for children should reflect that. I talked above about why I decide to include heartbreak in novels: I don’t decide to include it, it just shows up. But I do firmly believe it belongs there.

But, anyway, Taggle. Taggle was part of the “original equipment” for the tale. (All my stories start with “the original equipment,” which is normally a few characters and something a bit more than a premise and a bit less than a plot. For Plain Kate, I knew it was a Russian-flavoured fairy tale about a woodcarver’s daughter, who would sell her shadow and gain a talking cat.) I don’t know
where he came from — I don’t know where any of the original equipment comes from. I didn’t as much decide to include him as find myself handed him in all his cattish glory.

He did make an interesting journey through the novel. I intended him as a sidekick character: really not much more than a foil for Kate. It was a treat to write for him. As a writer (and as a reader) I am drawn to these Spock-like lead characters, whose emotions show mostly at the cracks. Kate’s certainly one of them — the more she feels, the more she shuts down. She will almost never directly express an emotion. And the antagonist in Plain Kate, Linay, will almost never directly express an emotion. Taggle, in contrast, says what he’s thinking and shows what he’s feeling. He doesn’t worry about what you think of him — or rather, he assumes you worship and appreciate his glory, as indeed we all do. His straightforward nature is probably why many (but not all) readers tag him as their favourite.

So I didn’t have great plans for Taggle. But then came this scene about halfway through where he cries over Kate. “I can’t cry, I’m a cat,” he says, and then cries. When I wrote that, I cried. I suddenly realized that my sidekick didn’t want to be a sidekick — he wanted to be a hero. He was explicitly making a journey away from being “just a cat.” The most uncattish thing I could imagine was self-sacrifice. So. I cried there. No one else does, I don’t think. But I always do.

You write such beautiful descriptions of woodworking in Plain Kate. Had you done woodworking before, or was this something you began researching for the novel? If so, how did woodworking as a central part of the story come about? Did you do any carving during the writing process?

Woodcarving was part of the original equipment, so I can’t be certain where it comes from. That said, my father dabbles in woodworking — more cabinet making than carving — which is probably why I made Kate’s father a woodworker. The smell of sawdust feels like home to me. But it isn’t as if I grew up with a carving knife. Every bit of “expertise” in Plain Kate is the result of research. (Protip for other writers: the Society for Creative Anachronism is a font of hands-on period expertise for many things, and they LOVE to share.) I learned to carve a little bit, just enough to understand how a knife feels in the hands.

Your novels have been based on Russian folklore and the Black Hills in South Dakota. You grew up in the United States, but have been living in Canada for some time. Do you feel that Canada has influenced you as a writer? Are there any reflections of Canadian-ness in your novels?

I don’t think I know what Canadian-ness is, beyond a certain apologetic self-doubt and self-conscious marginalism, both of which I personally have nailed. Culturally speaking, the American Midwest (where I’m from) and Southwest Ontario (where I’ve lived for many years), are kissing cousins. You could call me a Midwestern writer or a Canadian writer, and the labels would be equally true, and mean about the same thing.

As for Canada itself: there is more of Canada in my poetry than my published novels, simply because they more intimately and identifiably reflect my life. The landscape of Ontario is deeply inside them. the novel I’m working on has a Canadian setting — evacuated Saskatchewan — which brings with it a chance to be more explicitly Canadian. There is, for instance, some commentary on “peace, order, and good government” and the urge toward monarchy. Plus, it’s got the prairie landscape, which is dear to my heart.

(Megan and I collaborated on the questions! Thanks Megan!)