Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Is it autumn yet?

It's still August, I know. But with the recent rain and fog, I can already smell autumn. When asked, I usually say that I like all seasons equally, but every year when autumn approaches, I realize I like it a little bit more than the rest of the year. Particularly spring and summer are too bright for me. My book-adapted eyes get blinded by their shine. Winter, well, winter can be cosy and dreamy, even magical. But autumn has a special charm.

Perhaps it has to do with my foodie side. I love to cook and eat and autumn is so rich with produce, fruits, mushrooms ... Its smells, too, are enchanting. The tinge of wet foliage in the air, the smell of overturned dirt in the garden, the moss. Or think of the autumn smells in the kitchen: cinnamon, cardamom, pumpkin soup, roasted beets. I'm salivating just writing this.

So inevitably, a post about autumn is going to be a post about food and cookbooks, too. Two of my favourite cookbooks are The French Market Cookbook by Clotilde Dusoulier and Small Plates & Sweet Treats by Aran Goyoaga. One of the facts that I like about these two cookbooks is that the recipes are divided into sections according to the four seasons. I'm already deep into the autumn chapters at the moment.

Just yesterday, Clotilde's book inspired me to put together a delicious salad. Her recipe called for grated carrot and beet root. I added grated cheese (I used a local cheese but next time I'll use goat cheese because it would fit better), fresh figs, and honey-mustard dressing. The combination of flavors was delicious. I served it with Aran's Focaccia with heirloom cherry tomatoes.

Aran's book is great if you're gluten intolerant. None of us are so I mostly use more common flours instead of the ones she suggests (because those are incredibly difficult to find here), but the recipes never disappoint even so. There's a certain freshness and simplicity in her food and I love that.

We have a few warm, even hot days ahead of us still this weekend. Despite that, we're well on our way into autumn. I'm already planning to go hunting for mushrooms. Every weekend, we go on bike rides and on the way we pick blackberries and eat them until our teeth and tongues are black with their juices. In a month, we'll pick grapes in our vineyard, and a month after that there'll be persimmon. 

I believe time flows more slowly in autumn. Or perhaps it just seems so because we stop more often to enjoy the smells and sights in nature. It's a period of reflection, and despite nature slowly shutting down for winter, I think autumn is also a time of creation. Vacation is over, school starts again, we return to work and start on new projects. The third draft of my PhD awaits me in the coming months. Another round of edits of my YA novel, too. New inspiration, new projects. Food always features heavily in everything I write. Autumn, too.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Interview with Helene Boudreau

Interview with Hélène Boudreau

Hélène Boudreau is a Canadian author of young adult and middle grade fiction and non-fiction books. Her best known work is the middle grade novel Acadian star, a time-traveling adventure about the Acadian Deportation in the 1700s. Apart from having four more fiction books for children coming out in the next two years, she’s also a painter known for beautiful maritime motifs.

How did you start writing? Was it a conscious decision or did it just happen?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer but ‘wanting’ is far different from ‘doing’. I always seemed to have an excuse for not writing. First there was university then jobs, kids, etc. When would I ever find time to write? Writing just never seemed to fit in with the plan.

About five years ago, though, I had a toddler and a one year-old at home and was trying to decide whether to return to my old job or to find work I could do from home when a friend asked ‘What about your writing?’

Totally busted.

Someone was finally taking me to task and making me responsible for ‘doing’ instead of just ‘wanting’. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a matter of finding time but rather making time to write. So now, I try to live by the wise words of the great Yoda ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’

You write young adult and middle grade books. Have you always wanted to write books for children? Would you ever consider writing a novel in any other genre? 

Whenever I imagined myself writing, it was always as a children’s writer. The great thing about children’s writing is that I get to write in all sorts of genres already, so I never feel stifled, creativity-wise.

My first novel, ACADIAN STAR, is a middle grade time-travel adventure. I also have five non-fiction books for kids which are mostly science related. My upcoming early chapter book is a mystery. Next fall, I have a contemporary fantasy novel coming out and a humorous picture book the year after that.

I feel pretty spoiled that I get flex my writing muscles in so many different ways. I don’t rule out ever writing an adult book but for now I love the challenge and diversity of children’s writing.

What was your path to publication like? 

Like many writers, my path to publication was paved with lots and lots of rejections.
For the first few years of writing, I tried writing a lot of different things—picture books, chapter books, non-fiction and my first novel. I started querying in 2006 about six months after I joined my writers’ critique group. Then, the rejections started piling in as I submitted book after book to as many open publishing houses as I could find. Being part of a writers’ group really helped because I quickly learned that rejections were normal and expected. That definitely helped cushion the blow.
Finally, in February of 2008, the children’s editor at Nimbus contacted me. She was going through old submissions and wondered if Acadian Star was still available. The only problem was—the ending needed a lot of work. Lucky for me, I had revised that manuscript quite a bit since I’d originally submitted it in 2006 so I sent the new version along. Shortly after that, Acadian Star was accepted and published six months later.

Your first middle grade novel, Acadian Star, is told from the perspective of a young girl, Meg Gallant. In the spring of 2010, the first volume of Red Dune Adventures: Keep Out! will be released. In that book the protagonists are boys. What would you say is the difference between a girl’s and boy’s voice? Which was easier for you to write? 

I think being a writer is a lot like being an actor in many ways. Whether I’m writing from a girl or boy perspective, I need to understand my character’s motivations, wants and needs before I can step into that role. It’s true that writing from a female perspective is more familiar to me but I also love exploring the maleness of a character. So, for me, male characters are more challenging but that’s also part of the fun.

What inspired you to write Acadian Star? You share Acadian ancestors with Meg Gallant. Did you have a similar experience of getting to know your family’s past in your childhood? 

Acadian Star grew from wanting to tell my daughters a story about the Acadian Deportation. The ‘Acadian Star’ talent competition in the novel is an actual competition my mom judged during my hometown’s Acadian Festival. Meg’s aunt, Tante Perle, is based on my own great aunt, Tante Marguerite. She also lived in a tiny seaside shack by the sea and was a master story teller.
All those elements came together as I imagined what it would be like for a modern Acadian girl like Meg to be placed in the time of the Acadian Deportation back in the 1700’s. I wondered what choices Meg would make and how different or similar she might be from a girl her age of that era.
My Tante Marguerite has long since passed away but I still remember visiting her in that seaside shack when I was a girl. She was eccentric, frightening and interesting all at the same time and I think she would have enjoyed starring in her own time-travel adventure.

In Acadian Star the lesson of the importance of our family history is told through an adventurous, suspenseful story. The narrative never slips into a didactic voice, yet the message comes across clearly. What’s your view of the dilemma of whether children’s and young adult literature should also educate and not only entertain? 

I think readers want great stories they can identify with, first and foremost. I know I do. In Acadian Star, the backdrop of the story happens to be the Acadian Deportation because it was a time in history I really wanted to learn about and share with my daughters.

My main goal in telling this story, though, was to entertain my reader by putting my character in an unlikely situation and giving her big choices to make.

In your blog, you write a lot about the ‘rules’ you stick to during writing, all the technicalities of writing. But how do you start a book? Where do you get your inspiration? Do you first come up with a plot or characters?

Characters always come first for me because if I’m going to spend a couple of hundred hours with someone, it better be with someone I find interesting. Then, I try to begin my stories by putting those characters in very precarious situations. That’s when the fun begins.

Initial plot ideas can come from anywhere but putting those ideas into action is a very physical task. It requires sitting down, being present and putting one word in front of another. Many times, I’ll have a sense of my beginning and a vague idea of my ending, but the process of writing is where new ideas spring up. Those surprising twists can’t be planned in advance and they’re the exciting part of writing for me.

You’re not only a writer, but also a painter. Would you say that observation skills one develops as a painter help you with your writing, for example with the descriptions of nature, imagery etc?

Painting and storytelling are very similar. You start with a sketch, layer your story or painting with different textures and colours and, hopefully, the combination of those elements work together in a compelling way. Writing encompasses a lot more senses than painting, though, and I tend to rely a bit too much on visuals as I’m writing. I often have to remind myself to explore the other senses as well. I talk a little about writing, reading and art in a podcast for Just One More Book .

What are your favorite books to read, any particular genre or author, someone who influenced your own writing? Which books are you reading at the moment? 

All time favourites of mine include Madeline L’Engle, Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Katherine Paterson and Tim Wynne-Jones. I’m really an equal opportunity reader and enjoy many different genres.

In the past month or so I’ve read The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and I’ve finally (!) started the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (I’m on book 4) though I’ve been listening to those on my MP3.

You’re busy writing, revising and talking to kids in schools and libraries. What is your favorite way to relax and restore your energy for new writing endeavors? What do you do outside the world of books? 

I’m an avid walker and try to get out about 4-5 times a week. I often walk while listening to talking books and find it’s a great way to get more ‘reading’ time in. I think exercise is a really important way for me to reset my inner clock.

I’m also a busy mom and think that having kids around really recharges my batteries and fuels my writing. I think kids are the neatest people. They just don’t have the filters adults have and they can see things in such an uncluttered, wise way.

My daughters constantly crack me up, make me think, and force me to reconsider how I see the world every day—much in the same way great books do!


Friday, June 5, 2015

Air by Lisa Glass

Air by Lisa Glass
published: Quercus, 4th June 2015
pages: 352

I read Air in one morning, ditching work just to be able to read it the second I received it in my Kindle account. I was super impatient to read more of Iris's and Zeke's story because I knew it would be good.

Although there's a lot less surfing this time around, if anything, the novel is even more intense. All the emotional drama, the well-rounded characters, the guessing about Zeke was what drew me in and I couldn't put it down until I finished it.

The first thing that impressed me was how the two protagonists were the perfect mixture of their old characters and a few new traits that instantly showed that a lot has happened since Blue, that they live a different sort of life, that their relationship has changed. It was like meeting old friends that are just changed enough for you to want to know what has happened since you last saw them.

 I loved how the tensions between Iris and Zeke escalated subtly as the story developed, leading to an intense finale. Zeke's secret was alluded to masterfully throughout the novel, but never too obviously so that once it was revealed it was just as much a shock to me as it was to Iris. It felt so real, the way Lisa Glass had Zeke and Iris struggle with how they went from barely knowing each other to practically living with each other. Such a thing can be really stressful for a young couple and I thought she wrote it so well. All those little things that people annoy each other with, the tiny problems that just keep piling up.

The linguist in me was again thrilled with how authentically young the language sounded, the dialects, the slang, the surfing expressions, all of it. The writing style is so effortless and perfect for a young adult novel.

 I respect authors that I can rely on to deliver because I appreciate how difficult that is. But with Air, there is no second-book syndrome. If anything, I thought it was perhaps even more accomplished, especially character-wise, than Blue.

I’m sure I’ll be skipping work some time next June again when the third book in the series, Ride, comes out.          Goodreads

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Precious picture books

Recently I've read two picture books that I thought were worthy of a mention on the blog. Both were great picture books as far as the illustrations and text goes, but they also had something extra that made them worthwhile reads.

Big Mo by Megan Padalecki 

An allegorical tale set in the present, Big Mo follows the sensational journey of a pet iguana as he grows too large for his home and threatens his natural environment. 

Young readers will be introduced to the concepts of size and scale as Mo demands more and MORE, while older readers will draw connections between consumption and consequence.  Children and adults alike will delight in the vibrant illustrations that chronicle the expanding impact of Mo's momentum run amok! 

Big Mo pays tribute to the cautionary tone of Dr. Seuss's classic, The Lorax, and The Trouble with Dragons by Debi Gliori.  Mo's story provides reassurance that it is never too late to scale back. 

Big Mo is a delightful read with  an educational value that is not preaching at all, but rather hidden in the humurous tale of Mo's greed. The story made me smile, but it also made me appreciate the message to the children how to be moderate and not selfish.

On the author's website you can also find a teaching companion on ecology for 7+ children.

All in all, a worthwhile read for children, as well as grown-ups.           Twitter         Website

Luna's Red Hat by Emmi Smid

It is a beautiful spring day, and Luna is having a picnic in the park with her family, wearing her Mum's red hat. Luna's Mum died one year ago and she still finds it difficult to understand why. She feels that it may have been her fault and worries that her Dad might leave her in the same way. Her Dad talks to her to explain what happened and together they think about all the happy memories they have of Mum. 

This beautifully-illustrated storybook is designed as a tool to be read with children aged 6+ who have experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide. Suicide always causes shock, not just for the family members but for everyone around them, and children also have to deal with these feelings. The book approaches the subject sensitively and includes a guide for parents and professionals by bereavement expert, Dr Riet Fiddelaers-Jaspers. It will be of interest to anyone working with, or caring for, children bereaved by suicide, including bereavement counsellors, social workers and school staff, as well as parents, carers and other family members.

The story tells of a girl who feels that she can’t be happy because she lost her mother a year ago. Despite the short format, the girl’s conflicting feelings and the father’s attempts to explain to her what happened and that it is okay to miss her mother and feel sad were wonderfully honest. With this, the story emphasizes how honesty is essential in such cases.

Explaining such tragic loss to a child, particularly when a person takes their own life, is difficult, but the story and the guide for parents at the end both suggest that the approach should be gentle but frank. Children have difficulty understanding the concept of death and its permanence, but the role of the grown-ups is to reassure them, to give them the feeling of safety and maintain their trust by being honest.

The wonderful illustrations balance out the dark topic and give the book a special charm.

Luna’s Red Hat is a storybook for children, as well as for their parents. It’s a guide that helps children understand what’s happening, and parents to find a gentle way to explain a difficult situation to their children.           Website          Blog

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Interview with Amber Benson

As promised, I'll be reposting some of the old interviews I did with writers and poets, because the magazine that initially published them had lost their archives due to a server breakdown or some such thing.

I think these authors are so inpiring and down right cool that it would be a shame not to re-publish the interviews.

Although this interview was conducted back in 2009 when Amber Benson published her first Calliope Reaper-Jones book, I think it's still just as relevant as then. So here are her thoughts on the writing process, acting, directing and more. Enjoy.

Interview with Amber Benson
Amber Benson seems to be successful at every project she undertakes. A native of Alabama, Benson is an accomplished actress, screen writer, director, and a novelist. She is perhaps best known for her role of Tara in the cult series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She also wrote several stage plays and scripts for independent movies. Her first novel, Death’s Daughter, was published in February 2009.
As a youngster you studied singing and acting. Has writing been only a more recent development or have you always known you would write too?
I have always written. Even when I was a little kid I would write little plays and short stories. It was only as an adult that I was confident enough to try my hand at long form prose.

In 2002, you wrote, directed and stared in your independent movie Chance. Which of the aspects was the hardest (writing, directing or acting)? If you only had to choose one career direction, which of the three would you choose and why?
I think doing all three at once was what was so difficult about doing CHANCE. In the future, I am definitely gonna stick to two out of three - trying to be everything and wear every hat is overwhelming. I guess if I had to choose between the three, I would probably pick directing. It's so intoxicating to run a set.

Writing and acting are quite different. Do you think either of the disciplines can help you with the other? For example, does your acting experience help you write more well-rounded characters or help you with the pace of the plot? Or is it more the writing that helps you with the acting?

I think the acting has definitely helped the writing. I find that my ability to write characters and dialogue have been enhanced by all the years of reading and acting out other people's words. It showed me what works and what doesn't work - I would recommend that any writer and/or director take an acting class. It will open up a whole new world for them.

You also wrote comic books as part of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book series. Was that very different from writing a novel? Which different skills did you have to use, if any?

Writing for comic books is much more like writing a screenplay and then story-boarding it. You're directing the action of the comic book by deciding panel size and placement and you and the illustrator are working hand in hand to create the imagery of the world together - which again is much more like working in the film/tv world. Writing prose is a very solitary endeavor and I guess that's the biggest difference - creating a comic book is not. It's a collaborative medium.

Death's Daughter is an urban fantasy. Is this your genre or would you consider writing novels with a different subject matter?

I like writing genre based stories, but I am definitely open to writing straight literature. For me, it's all about what the story demands.

If I'm not mistaken, you have a contract for three novels. Will they be sequels to Death's Daughter or are they separate stories? What are your other plans for the future?

Death's Daughter is actually part of a trilogy. All of the books will deal with the same protagonist, Calliope Reaper-Jones. I am also working on a children's book called, The New Newbridge Academy - which is in the vein of The Lemony Snicket Books.

You're multitalented and you seem to constantly be working on one project or another. What do you do in your free time, to relax?

I like to read. I am a book whore. I also like to eat and to cook. I get a lot of enjoyment out of good food.

Which writers or books influenced you as a writer? What are you reading at the moment?

Definitely Neil Gaiman and Charlaine Harris were big influences for Death's Daughter. I also love Russian literature - specifically, Dostoevsky is a favorite. At the moment, I am reading a Lee Child book called, The Enemy.

Amber has published a number of novels since and you can check them out on her Amazon page. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Travel bug

Have you heard of the wanderlust gene? This gene supposedly explains someone's 'curiosity and restlessness' and it manifests itself in the form of a 'passion for travel'. It is more common with people who have migrated further from where we first originated in Africa. Judging from my family's surname, we belonged to a segment of the Balkan peoples that migrated north due to the Turkish incursions in the 14th century and on.

Despite that, I'm not sure I believe in the existence of such a gene. But it sure does explain nicely my own curiosity and restlessness and the passion for travel. Whether it is a particular gene or a combination of genetics and upbringing or something else entirely, it's been driving me crazy for the past four years when I didn't travel anywhere further than a few hours drive by car.

I'm now in the process of organizing this year's vacation and hopefully, if everything goes according to plan, we'll actually fly to a European capital. The past week, while I was surfing the internet for hotels and plane tickets, I caught myself thinking: "I just need to see this city and then I'll die happy. I won't need to go anywhere else, ever again. I'll be content staying at home and going on vacation to nearby places. Just this one last trip. I swear."

I'm reluctant to believe this sensation because, guess what? I'd had it in 2009 when I visited Australia, too. I thought I'd seen everything I wanted to see. My travel days are over now that I saw Australia, I thought. That lasted for about a year. Then I started getting restless to the point of slowly slipping into a very morose, hopeless state that I've been in for the past few months. And now, just the thought of planning a trip has gotten me into a better mood.

Three months ago I had to fly to the UK for a short business trip - there and back in three days. So I didn't get to enjoy much of UK, but just the smell of the airport air (admittedly, artificial and dry) caused my blood to pump more vigorously through my veins. It was like a sugar rush that lasted for the three days I spent away. Now you'll think that the return home was disappointing and sad, but no. I loved coming home and I 'saw' home with far friendlier eyes afterwards.

I've lived in the countryside for most of my life. But in my heart, I'm a city girl. One would think this an odd combination, but it's not. I live in a gorgeous spot, with the most amazing nature and landscapes. From my hometown, you can reach the Alps, the flatlands of the eastern part of the country or the seaside with a two-hour drive maximum. It's the best place to live. Almost all my food is homegrown, organic, eco, what have you. That is why my rational side knows to appreciate the place where I live. I'm not sure I'd want to move somewhere else. But there's a part of my heart that needs a regular fix of the city life. The anonymity of it, the smell of airports, the abundance of cafes and having everything at the tip of one's fingers.

Returning home after a trip like that is nice. Not melancholic at all, because I want to return home. But I also want to travel because I want to see and feel places, and incidentally that also makes me appreciate home that much more.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March is coming to a close

Quite by chance, I brought Alice in Wonderland from the library last week to read to my son. But  it wasn't until today that I saw Alice is celebrating its 150th anniversary. How marvelous that a book is still popular, entertaining and topical 150 years after its publication!

You can see just how popular it is in this wonderful project where artists and illustrators from around the world have each created a different illustration of the iconic character. The different interpretations are inspiring.

Australian photographer Tom Blachford undertook a different project when he decided to photograph Palm Springs. The series of photos is called Midnight Modern and they have a decidedly retro feel; they could easily have been taken decades ago. The photos were taken in the dark, using a long exposure.

Mikko Lagerstedt, however, has been revealing the beauty of Finnland and its nature through his photographs for a long time. Huffington Post featured some of his work, and you can follow him on Instagram.

March has been a busy month, with plenty of birthdays, appointments, a lot of work, a manuscript revision and some notes from my supervisor on another manuscript. I feel tired, but the slow emergence of spring has given me fresh energy to invest into my projects and even plan some new ones.