Originally from New Westminster, BC and a graduate of UBC, Moira Young moved to the UK to attend The Drama Studio, becoming a tap-dancing chorus girl in London’s West End before returning to Canada and retraining as an opera singer. She spent several years performing in Europe until 2003 when she fell off a bus on her way to her debut as a sketch comedienne, broke both her wrists and suffered a concussion. She decided it was a “sign from the universe” and took a course in writing for children.
Eight years later her debut novel, the YA fantasy Blood Red Road, won the Costa Children’s Book Award, the British Columbia Book Prize for Children’s Literature and France’s Le Prix des Incorruptibles. It is now being developed for film by Ridley Scott. Her second book, Rebel Heart, was a finalist for the Sunburst Prize, BC Stellar Award and Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. The final book of the trilogy, Raging Star, was published in 2014. Moira’s writing has been described by the New York Times as having “an elemental power, unfolding across achingly barren landscapes, full of blistering hot winds and swirling clouds of orange dust.”
Moira kindly took time out of finishing her latest novel to answer a few questions.
You have said that the landscape of your trilogy is influenced by your childhood in BC, by descriptions of the dust bowl and the landscape of westerns. Living in BC and reading your novels I often felt like I was in familiar country, the descriptions were so tangible. Do you find yourself being drawn to the British landscape in the same way?
That large, visual landscape is in my DNA, it seems. I put that down to our summer driving holidays during my first nine years, exploring British Columbia. Those landscapes have been altered, filtered through memory and movies, to become something mythic; I mean, in a deeply personal sense. And it’s nothing to do with being an outdoorsy person. Generally, I find most Canadian landscapes too large for comfort, too immense to even comprehend. Yet if I’m away from them for too long, I feel an urgent need to return.
Much of the UK is on a much more human scale. You feel that you’re walking where people have walked for thousands of years and worn the land to their lives. The right to roam makes it easy to get off the beaten track. I love to explore the British countryside and I read a lot of UK landscape writers, Robert Macfarlane, for one. I’m more drawn to the fringes – Cornwall and Scotland, where my family come from – so perhaps I’ll write something set there one day. But it can only ever be from the viewpoint of an outsider. It’s not my land. I’m connected to Canadian landscape in a visceral way.
It’s clear that your writing is very cinematic – not just in your use of landscape, epic vistas and nod to the western – but also in the way your stories are structured. Is this a conscious choice or do you ride the story as it unfolds?
Maybe it’s having so many movie touchstones from my early years, perhaps I’ve internalised their structures. I certainly visualise strongly as I write, mainly without being aware of it. I write in scenes, usually in three acts.
I’m pleased to be called a cinematic writer. There was not much in the way of kids’ TV or movies when I was young. What I read was down to me and I watched whatever movies I liked down in our basement on rainy weekend afternoons. I enjoyed pretty much anything, movie-wise. And I much preferred the world of stories to real life. Whenever my mother tried to eject me to go play with neighbouring kids, I’d fight mightily for my right to remain pasty and bug-eyed.
Now that I know this is what I do, I’ve set about learning more about my craft, so I have some strategies. Stories can easily stall or go awry. John Yorke’s book, Into the Woods, is particularly good.
I was very impressed by your ability to get your characters into impossible situations and then have them find a way out. Do you plan in advance, or do you throw your characters into situations and then figure it out when they’re in the thick of it?
No planning, no, that would be sensible. I just forge ahead blindly and then find we’re stuck in some terrible situation together, me and my characters: swept away by a flash flood, having to cross a parched lakebed in the dark with creatures lurking beneath, that kind of thing. We stand around looking at each other for a while and they all point at me and say, ‘You sort it out, you got us into this’.
When I was writing Blood Red Road, I left Saba trapped in the jaws of death for an entire week because my mind was a blank, I had no idea how to get her out. The problem was, I’d stopped thinking visually. In the end, the solution was perfectly obvious.
But this was before I discovered that I had big guns close at hand. My husband, it turns out, is great at this. He should have been a stunt director instead of an architect. His explanatory diagrams with tiny figures and directional arrows are excellent. I ran my characters into an impossible situation in Rebel Heart – all to do with a canyon and a rope bridge and headhunters – and he got them out of it, most excitingly, without breaking a bead of sweat. I just hope he doesn’t start to charge me.
It’s true, you are very hard on Saba, the protagonist of the Dustlands trilogy. Was this difficult to do?
Whatever serves the story best must be done. You have to put your protagonist under huge pressure and make their choices ever more difficult. Only then, under duress, do they reveal their true character. And if that turns out to be something they never knew or suspected about themselves, all the better. Perhaps you’ve touched something in their unconscious self.
I knew that Saba was resilient, but the way the story rolled out did push her to the very limits of what she could bear. A story has its own energy, its own momentum. The main thing is, what does your protagonist want? What will she do to get it? If you’re clear about that and let her make her choices accordingly, you get those moments when you see, oh so clearly, that a few pages ahead something dreadful will happen. It’s both exciting and unnerving. I sometimes cry when I have to write a character’s death. I never kill anyone without regret. A death must be justified within the terms of the story. The reader should be able to accept it as a pretty much inevitable consequence of choices that the protagonist has made.
Saba stands out because she is not perfect. Her dislike of and impatience with her little sister and her transformation in book three are what leads to her ultimate strength and ability to bring down DeMalo’s New Eden. Did you know from the start that the ties that bind family together would be a theme throughout the book, or did it develop as you wrote? And do you think it is a theme you will continue to explore?
Ah yes, the ties that bind. I didn’t realise that would become such a backbone for the Dustlands. Once I finished Blood Red Road and saw how strong that theme was, I was able to work with those relationships much more consciously in the next two books. The thing is, I’ve lived far away from my family for a long time, although I love them and miss them a great deal, ever more so as the years pass.
I’ve just finished writing my fourth book, a stand alone unrelated to the trilogy. That, too, is about the ties that bind, family ties in a very different way.
I think I’ve staked my claim and will be working this particular seam for quite some time. Family, conflicting loyalties, separation, dislocation, identity, landscape, voice. These all come from my personal history and circumstances.
Similar to you, I’m a transplant, but in the opposite direction – from the UK to Canada. I’ve noticed that in Canada there is a constant discussion about what it means to be Canadian but I don’t remember a similar discussion going on in the UK. Apart from a strong sense of physical and geographical place, do you consider yourself to have a Canadian identity, or something that is specifically Canadian about you? And if you do, do you think that your Canadian identity informs your writing in any way?
Writing the Dustlands has given me a much stronger Canadian identity than I’ve ever had. When I first moved to London to go to drama school, I adopted an English accent and managed to keep it up for a good couple of years before I realised I was fooling no one, particularly not myself.
I’ve always struggled with my identity. Where do I belong? Who am I? And yet, after writing these books, I feel so Canadian. What does that mean? I couldn’t say. Then, just the other day, I heard someone say – okay, it was Justin Trudeau, I went to hear him speak at Canada House in London – and he was talking about the current refugee crisis and mentioned that a huge proportion of Toronto’s population is now made up of people from other countries. His point was, that diversity is what makes Canada what it is, it’s what makes us Canadian. And that makes sense to me. The blend of my parents – one an immigrant, the other a first-generation Canadian – rises from Scotland, Cornwall, England, Oklahoma, across the prairies and the mountains and over the oceans. And all of those places, all of those hopeful immigrants, that’s what makes me feel Canadian.
Not in any coherent, beautifully balanced way, though. I’m slightly fractured, permanently dislocated and obsessed with identity. Perhaps that’s how I’m particularly Canadian. There’s every chance that it will always inform what I write.
As an adult, do you find it hard to take yourself back inside the emotions, turmoil and self-doubt of the late teenage years?
Oh, no, I’m right there, the moment I start writing. It’s like it all happened this morning. Luckily, I’ve picked at my wounds my entire life, so they’ve never healed. A quick prod and they start bleeding. And I’m really pretty useless at adult life, just ask my husband. I look like a grown up and I’m kind of worn around the edges but that’s just window dressing.
Lots of people get killed in the Dustlands trilogy, but it’s not graphic. The sex is implied rather than described and the one incidence of sexual violence is only referred to indirectly. How delicate do you have to be when writing about sex and violence in YA fiction?
Graphic is not my style, so I don’t really have to think about it with my own writing. How far you can or should go depends on the story you’re wanting to tell, the subject matter, the age of the protagonist and what kind of writer you are. I wouldn’t say you have to be delicate, just mindful. There are a few rare writers who just go there and have made that kind of territory their own, like Melvin Burgess. But the sex, drug use or whatever in his books is always grounded in situation and character, it’s never gratuitous or sensational.
Generally speaking, editors are a writer’s guide on these matters. They can be conservative and you might have to fight your corner from time to time. If you feel confined and really need to let rip, you might have to write for the adult market.
You have a background as a performing artist both in acting and singing. Do you think you have finally found your medium or will you continue to explore other ways to express your stories? (Screenwriting comes to mind.)
I’m interested in all ways of telling stories. I love performing, I’ll always be a performer, my books are all performances in a way. One of the particular joys for me is to be able to do readings from my books. Yes, I’d love to write a screenplay. And a play. And an opera. I’d love to be an oral storyteller. Is it too late for me to be a dancer? Still, writing a book means I can do all of those things. Amongst the many descriptions there have been of the Dustlands – Mad Max meets Indiana Jones meets The Road? – I think you could call the trilogy an opera, maybe a western opera. After all, they used to call westerns horse operas, didn’t they? I’ve heard Star Wars called a space opera. That’s how I thought of it while I was writing.
Who knows what lies ahead? I’m always open.
Jessica Bradford is an award-winning writer and director based in Vancouver, Canada. She is a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab and an alumna of the Women In the Director’s Chair program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. She grew up in Cambridge, UK, which resulted in a love for choral music, riding bicycles and drinking beer (but not necessarily in that order, though possibly all at the same time.) Jessica is currently studying for her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC.