By Russell Hirsch
Kenneth Oppel is one of Canada’s leading authors for young adults. His Silverwing series about the adventures of migrating bats captivated a generation of readers and earned him the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award in both 1998 and 2000. In 2004, Ken won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature with his novel Airborn. Born in 1967 in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Ken grew up in Victoria, BC and Halifax, NS. After publishing his first novel, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, at age 17, he obtained a degree in Cinema Studies and English from the University of Toronto. He has lived in England, Ireland and Newfoundland and is now based in Toronto. I had the opportunity to hear Ken talk to the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable last October and was inspired to touch base with him.
What’s the earliest story you remember writing as a kid and what were the books or films influencing you at the time?
In grade five I launched into a sci-fi epic called Starship (later retitled Rebellion) which was a shameless rip off of Star Wars. I lived and breathed Star Wars at that time. I wrote many chapters in a Hilroy school exercise book before abandoning it.
Can you tell us a bit about how Roald Dahl helped get your first novel, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, published?
A family friend showed him my manuscript and he was kind enough to read it, or skim it, and recommend it to his agent, Gina Pollinger. They in turn sold it to Puffin Books. I never had any direct correspondence with Dahl myself though I do have a letter he wrote to our friend, referring to me as a “teenaged novelist genius” which really was very in keeping with his tendency for hyperbole!
Was there an “A-ha!” moment as an aspiring writer when you felt you would really be able to make a living by writing stories?
After getting that very first book accepted I had delusions it would be pretty straightforward. But I published ten more books, none of which were remotely remunerative. I was also writing screenplays and having reasonable success optioning them to producers in LA. For a while I thought that might be my career, but nothing was getting made, so I went back to books. I wrote Silverwing — and that was the book that ultimately enabled me to embark on a career as a full-time writer.
I’ve read that you once worked as a typist to help pay the bills — what were some of the other jobs you had early in your writing career to make ends meet?
Kelly girl (temp secretary) — that was good money, an hourly rate which seemed princely to me at the time — and later my best part-time job ever, reading books and scripts for BBC children’s television and writing coverage for the producer.
If you could give three pieces of advice to an aspiring writer, what would they be?
Read. Write. Be sure there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing.
Would this be the same advice you would give yourself if you could travel back in time to your early career and impart some wisdom?
When you’re working on an early draft of a story and find yourself getting new ideas, how do you ensure you won’t get caught up rewriting parts over and over without actually getting to the end of a draft?
I outline extensively before I start the first chapter, so I have an agenda from the outset: a beginning, middle and end, and I want to hit all these points in my first draft. Of course I incorporate any great new ideas into my itinerary, but I’m always keen to complete a proper draft.
It undoubtedly varies for each work, but when you’re editing an early draft of a manuscript, what are some of the key things you look to improve?
For me, character. Making sure the characters have space to breathe and define themselves. Making sure the story structure is not so rigid that it doesn’t let life in. My books tend to be fairly plot-driven, so it can be easy to lose track of the human relationships which are, when it comes right down to it, the lifeblood of any story.
What does your typical work/writing day involve? Do you set aside specific times to write or try and meet a word quota each day?
I’m at my desk 9-5 every day. Writing notes, researching, doing administrative stuff — and when I’m actually writing a draft, I try to write 1000 words a day.
You’ve written books as well as film scripts. When you get a story idea, how do you decide if it’s better suited as a book or a script?
Writing books is much more satisfying to me than writing scripts. Also, selling a script is difficult, and getting it made is near impossible, so it seems foolish to waste a great story idea on a script! Luckily for me, most of my books end up getting optioned by producers, so I get to have my cake and eat it too.
Is there a particular passage, chapter or event from one of your books that you most enjoyed writing, and what made it so special?
Even though my books are filled with physical peril and a lot of running and jumping, I enjoy scenes in which the characters really ricochet off each other. In Skybreaker, there are scenes around a dining table that I really liked.
When talking about one of your books at a writers’ festival, or on a book tour, what are the key things you want to communicate to your audience? How does this change if the audience is children vs. adults?
I talk to lots of school audiences, and I use PowerPoint to take them into the world of my story; I do a very brief reading (reading is boring) tell them about the research I did. And then I show them my notebooks, my outlines, my many, many drafts, my editorial letters, and marked up manuscripts. Adults are equally horrified.
In 2000, you published The Devil’s Cure, a novel for adults. What was the biggest difficulty you faced writing this book, given you generally work in YA and picture books?
I was working in a genre (medical thriller) that I never read, and honestly have no interest in. The book started as a film script that was optioned but never made. I thought it was a pretty good idea, and at that point in my career I had ambitions (or thought I ought to have ambitions) about writing for adults. So I decided to give it a try. There are many things I was pleased with in the book, but at the end of the day, I didn’t feel it was my strongest work. I felt that my imagination was curtailed.
In general, what attracts you to writing for younger audiences?
Story. Like everyone on the planet, I like being told a great story — and the kinds of stories I want to tell tend to be rather fantastical and adventurous. Also, there are no stories more potent than the ones you read before you’re fifteen.
What’s the best question a kid has ever asked you about one of your books?
I can’t remember. But I’m pretty grateful when I get questions that tell me the kid has read the book with great attention, and thought about it a lot. It’s very rewarding.
Have there been moments where you seriously considered leaving your writing career—and if so, what’s kept you going?
In the past, I might have been lured away to Hollywood if they’d been nicer to me. But it’s all for the best.
What are some tips for pitching an idea to an agent or publisher?
Keep it brief. Don’t give too much away. Make it sound like the most amazing thing ever. Practice, practice, practice saying it aloud to people. You’ll know when it works.
As a Canadian author, do you have any specific advice to fellow Canadian writers when it comes to getting published or promoting their work, in this country and internationally?
The market’s changing a lot. There are fewer independent bookstores — fewer places to sell your wares. Big retail chains have a lot more power over what gets published (or at least what will sell and what will fail.) The kids/YA market has become a lot more crowded and competitive than it was 15 years ago — a mark of its success and popularity as a genre. A writer is both powerless and powerful. All we can really do is try to write the best story we can. Who knows whether it will sink without a trace, or become the next Harry Potter. People in the industry try to guess all the time, but they don’t know either. So as a writer, just write what you love. That’s your best defense. And at the very least you’ll have created something you’re proud of, rather than trying to chase a trend. The good news is that publishers and readers will always be looking for more stories. And sometimes there’s a happy coincidence and a book with real merit becomes a big hit. Promotion has always been a huge problem in publishing. The marketing budgets tend to be tiny, so publishers have relied traditionally on reviews (which are disappearing from newspapers and being replaced by blogs of various quality), and word of mouth — and sometimes touring to literary festivals and bookstores — which can yield mixed results. So basically, as an author, you do whatever you can, as cheerfully as you can, and hope for the best.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re currently working on and when it might be hitting the shelves?
Right now I’m finishing revisions on a new children’s novel called The Boundless. There’s lots of running and jumping and peril. You’ll love it. It’ll be out next year.
To learn more about Kenneth Oppel, check out his website: www.kennethoppel.com
Russell Hirsch is a Vancouver-based writer originally from Edmonton, Alberta. He is graduating from the BFA Creative Writing Program at UBC in spring 2013 and working on co-producing his feature film script, Resonance. To learn more about Russell, visit www.resonancethefilm.com.