Author Interview: Vikki Vansickle

Vikki Vansickle

Vikki VanSickle is a devoted and well-respected member of the Canadian children’s book industry. She is the author of the acclaimed Clarissa books, including WORDS THAT START WITH B, LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD, and DAYS THAT END IN Y (Scholastic Canada). Frequently referred to as “Canada’s Judy Blume,” Vikki’s most recent middle grade novel, SUMMER DAYS, STARRY NIGHTS, has been called “Summer reading at its best.” After obtaining an MA in Children’s Literature from UBC, Vikki’s career began in bookselling at The Flying Dragon Bookshop, which earned her the 2011 CBA Young Bookseller of the Year award. She is a popular children’s lit blogger and is frequently called upon to speak about kids’ books for radio panels, conferences, and as Lainey Gossip’s YA mentor! Currently she balances writing with her duties as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Young Readers at Penguin Canada. (source)

What do you think is the biggest differentiating factor between books intended for adults and books written for children? How would you explain the appeal that children’s literature has for adults? How significant is it, in your opinion, that nearly all of children’s literature is created bay adults?

That is a big question but I think it comes down mostly to tone and economical storytelling. Tone is hard to describe but colours an entire book. Children are especially attuned to tone; they have a preternatural instinct for it, like how animals can judge character. As a bookseller I never worried about giving a child a book they weren’t ready for, because they instinctually know if a book is going to be too much for them and will put it down before delving in too deep. Tone is also hard to create, which may be one of the reasons that most children’s book creators are adults who have had experience reading and writing and therefore are more apt at crafting tone.

Children are open-minded readers but they are ruthless—they are less willing to follow an author on tangents, delve into lots of back story or wade through superfluous description. Everything must matter in a children’s story in a way that I don’t think is true of all adult fiction.

I think adults love children’s books because regardless of age everyone wants to read good stories, well told. Great books of any genre or intended audience speak to us on a deeply personal level, but the specifics of stories resonate with us in different ways depending on where we are in life. When I read The Giver as a child I was fascinated with how different the world was from my own. I was caught up in the injustices of the world and wondered how I would manage if I was in Jonah’s situation. As an adult reading The Giver I was extraordinarily moved by the character of The Giver, how lonely and isolated his life had been. I loved the book just as much at 23 as I did at 10 and I expect I will love it at 50 or 80.    

Tell us about your writing process. How do you ensure that your characters sound authentic? Do you outline your stories before you write them?

I do not outline, but I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters, their world, and the story. In the beginning, I jot down bits and pieces in a journal, circling the story until the point where I will burst if I do not sit down and write it. I don’t write in order, which prevents me from getting bored and also helps me parcel the story into chunks that can be moved around and smoothed out in later drafts. It sounds like a messy, disorganized way to work, but has proven successful time and time again.

Voice is very important to me. I almost exclusively write in first person, and I spend a lot of time writing in my narrator’s voice. Sometimes this means writing speeches or monologues that don’t necessarily make the final cut of the novel, but help me to discover rhythms of speech, emphasis and diction. I also love dialogue. In early drafts, some sections are exclusively dialogue, and I’ll go back later to flesh out the scene. I have a background in playwriting, which has shaped my novel-writing in terms of placing greater emphasis on voice and dialogue.

How has your MA in Children’s literature contributed to your growth as a writer?

I’m not sure I would be a children’s author if it wasn’t for my MA! Despite years of working with children and writing for theatre, I never considered writing books for children until I came upon the MACL program and fell madly in love with all of my classes.  I was terrified of taking a real writing class, but Alison Acheson is a wonderful teacher and created a welcoming space to play and experiment in. I met so many talented, inspiring writers in the class and something just clicked. I still can’t believe how much I wrote in the two years I was completing my MA. Even the year I spent writing my thesis I completed a short play, a novella, two picture books and a verse novel. That’s not to say that they were any good, but it was such a fertile period of creativity for me. The years I spent in the MACL program were truly a renaissance period for me and I am always telling people about what a wonderful program it is.  

You have a dual perspective in two instances: first you both create children’s literature and study it and second, you write children’s books and you sell them. How does business of book selling affect the art of writing? For example, would the knowledge that a particular theme is popular at the moment spur you to write a novel with the theme?

It doesn’t affect my writing at all. For me, writing is deeply personal and takes up a lot of my free time and I couldn’t bear to write about anything that I didn’t love or enjoy.  I am constantly getting ideas for concepts, characters, or images that I think would make a great story, but nine times out of ten, I don’t connect with them enough to invest the time and energy needed to see the story through. I have written a number of pieces that I love dearly but aren’t obviously market-friendly. I don’t regret writing them and it doesn’t make me love them any less.

My marketing and sales background comes into play once the book has come out and I’m busy promoting. I spend almost as much time promoting as I do writing and this is where I am grateful to have the knowledge of the industry behind me. I feel fortunate to have a job that is so much more than a typical ‘day job.’ It’s hard to make a living as a writer in Canada, but I love everything about children’s books, so working on the publishing side of things is just as rewarding and enjoyable as my writing.   

Your latest novel Summer Days, Starry Nights has female friendship as a prominent theme. How important is it for you to write female characters who connect with each other over shared experiences and hobbies rather than the boys they like?

It was never a conscious effort, but I think in all of my books friendships that are built on something more substantial than a shared interest in boys (or girls) play a large role. Romance and the possibility of romance is an enormous part of adolescence and I think it’s an important part of YA literature. To look down upon romance in YA is to look down upon teenagers, and I’m not interested in doing that. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find YA novels that do not centre around a romantic plot. Elizabeth Wein’s latest (Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire) are the only ones that come to mind.

I think I will always write about female characters, as I am interested in the lives of girls and women (that Alice Munro reference was totally intentional!)  I know how closely I read books as a child to find characters who were like me, or if they were not like me, I wanted a glimpse into how other girls thought and lived. It’s not easy being a girl, but if I can explore this in my writing maybe readers will get some relief or encouragement from the girls in my books.

This is a question I’ve asked all authors I’m interviewing this month: do you think there is a Canadian identity that is apparent in books written by Canadians? Or do you think our diversity is such that pinpointing one uniting trait that links Canadian books is impossible?

No, I think it’s impossible to point to a single book or a certain aspect of a group of books and say, ‘this is Canadian.’ Obviously books that are set here or involve historical events feel Canadian, but what about a fantasy novel set in a completely imaginary world? Or a historical novel written by a Canadian but set in 18th century France? Identity is not the sum of place names and events. It’s impossible to define and attempts to do so can result in listing tired and sometimes offensive stereotypes.