Interviewed by Caitlin Fisher
Shelley Hrdlitschka is the author of nine young adult novels, most recently Allegra. She has received a number of awards for her emotionally charged novels that explore complex and often sensitive subjects. Kat’s Fall was chosen as a White Pine Honour Book for 2005 and Dancing Naked won the 2002 White Pine Award. Her novels have been on the CCBC Our Choice list and the International Reading Association Young Adult’s Choices list; as well, Kat’s Fall was included on the 2005 New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list. Sister Wife was a Governor General’s Award Nominee for 2009. She lives in North Vancouver
I was fortunate enough to get to speak to Shelley over email, and serendipitously in the baking aisle of our local supermarket, about her career, her advice for emerging writers, and her greatest influences.
What was the process for you of publishing your first novel Beans on Toast?
I had been writing for many years before Beans on Toast was offered a publishing contract. I had tried writing picture books, with no success. Then I wrote a couple middle grade novels, and although there was some interest in them, they were never published either. I collected dozens of rejection letters.
Shortly after I submitted Beans on Toast to Orca Books I met the publisher at Word on the Street, a literary festival held in downtown Vancouver. He was there to speak about the publishing business. I introduced myself and told him he had a submission of mine. He said he recognized my name and shortly after that I received a contract. I’ve often wondered if it helped that he could put a face to the name in deciding whether to offer a contract for that book.
You have published nine novels with Orca Books. What has kept you with them?
I have stayed with Orca for a couple of reasons. First of all my contract states that they have the “first right of refusal” to my next Y/A manuscript, which means I have to show new stories to them first. As it turns out, they have always offered me another contract. But even if that wasn’t the case I would submit my work to Orca first. They are a wonderful company to work with. They hire thoughtful people who treat their authors with respect. I understand this is not true of all publishers.
J.K. Rowling recently announced that she feels she made a mistake in having the Harry Potter series end with two of her main characters, Hermione and Ron, together; have you ever wanted to revise a story after it was published?
With Allegra, I was asked to make some fairly major changes to the story, and there were a couple sections that I took out that I wish had stayed in. I know it is a stronger book because it had a good editor, yet I do regret the deletion of a few key (in my mind) scenes.
When you choose to start writing a story, what comes to mind first? Is it a character, an ending, a moment you want to explore through a narrative? Where do you begin?
I usually begin with a dilemma or problem and then create characters to work through that dilemma, exploring the grey areas. Nothing is ever black or white. For example, in Allegra I wanted to explore how and why a strong relationship could develop between a student and her teacher and then how, even though it was not necessarily an inappropriate relationship, it could be misinterpreted as such and things could go sideways.
In Sister Wife I wanted to explore what it is like for a teenaged girl to grow up in a polygamous community. Was it all bad?
I wanted to explore peer pressure and mob mentality in Gotcha and teen pregnancy in Dancing Naked. In Kat’s Fall I wondered how it would feel to be a teenager who had a mother serving time in prison for a (supposedly) heinous crime. That idea came from a couple of notorious women who were in the news at the time.
I try to begin with a crisis, and fill in the back story later.
Do you show your work-in-progress to many people? What do you find most helpful during the re-write and editing process?
I have a writing critique group (there are 3 of us) and I do share my work with them as I write. Their feedback is extremely important to me. We’ve been together a long time so we’ve learned to be very honest, yet gentle. It’s also important to put a project aside for a few weeks (or more) and return to it with fresh eyes.
In an interview you mentioned that exploring the grey area of the teacher/student relationship in your latest novel, Allegra, was a tough topic. What inspired you to tackle that subject and what did you find most difficult in writing about it?
As I mentioned in the BC Bookworld article, I’m as disgusted as the next person when a teacher preys on a vulnerable student. The media often sensationalizes stories of these teachers and, unfortunately, they do exist. However, I also know there are thousands of teachers and coaches who make deep connections with their students – in an appropriate way – but are not permitted to make any kind of physical contact, an arm squeeze, even a celebratory hug for fear of their intentions being misconstrued. I think it’s sad that we’ve come to this place where teachers have to be so careful.
What is your ideal setting to write in?
More and more I need to take myself away on writing retreats to get the work done. At home there are too many distractions, people/animals that need caring for, yoga classes to tempt me, appointments to attend, telephone calls to return. I am most productive when I can totally immerse myself in a project, leaving my own world behind and staying firmly in my fictional world for a few days at a time.
Have you felt your writing style change since your first novel?
I hope my writing has improved since my early days, but I feel my style is much the same. I still gravitate towards “issue” books, trying to find the emotional depths. I still explore those grey areas and I hope that my readers grow in empathy when they spend time with my troubled characters.
What has been the greatest influence on your writing?
Real life. The ideas for my stories come from articles I read in the news, or situations that people I know have found themselves in. I try to imagine the emotional highs and lows that these kinds of events would have on people.
What do you find most rewarding about writing young adult literature?
I have a binder filled with letters that I’ve received from teen readers. These letters are often heartfelt, describing how important one of my books was to them, how it moved them or why they identified so closely with it. These letters are precious to me and I feel honoured that young readers have given serious thought to something I wrote, and have then taken the time to write to me.
You have an impressive list of awards and recognitions for your novels; what do you feel is your greatest achievement so far in your writing career?
Five of my books have been nominated for the Ontario White Pine Award, which is a reader-choice award. Dancing Naked won it, and 3 other titles have received honourable mentions. These awards are especially significant to me as they are voted on by the teen readers themselves, not just adult readers, and, of course, it’s the teen reader that I’m writing for.
Do you have any goals that you have yet to accomplish in your writing career? If so, when did you decide on those goals?
There was a time I had hoped to publish one novel a year. I was on track for a short time, but have seriously fallen off track in recent years. Now my goal is to keep writing, every day, and as well as writing Y/A fiction, try to write in other genres too. As a result I have a Y/A novel-in-progress, and I’m also working with an illustrator on a picture book, I have just ghost-written a memoir for a friend, and I have written a children’s information book about the grizzly bears that live in the Grouse Mountain Wildlife Refuge Centre.
What advice would you offer to emerging writers? Did you have a mentor or someone who offered you a piece of advice that you have kept with you since you started?
My very first creative writing teacher told my class that to be successful writers we had to do two things: throw out the TV and marry someone rich. I recently blogged about it here. [ http://shelleyhrdlitschka.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/successful-writers-avoid-crazymakers/ ]
Although this advice was tongue-in-cheek I’ve always remembered his words, especially the TV part, and would add that you also have to schedule writing into your week and stick to the schedule. To become successful you have to spend hours, years, mastering the craft. You have to send out submissions and accept rejection letters. Above all else, you have to persevere. You have to write. And write.
Caitlin Fisher is a writer from Deep Cove, British Columbia. She is currently an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia.