Category Archives: Interviews

Bullets, Blood and Stones: The Journey of a Child Soldier

The new year has already brought me a much-needed change in residence, and with it, a steady improvement in my health and a renewed desire to get back to work on my editing and writing projects, including blogging. In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about editing and self-publishing, as well as featuring author interviews.

Profile portrait of Samburu boy wearing genuine tribal ornaments and ivory earplugs, Kenya

I introduce you now to author Donna White, whose novel Bullets, Blood and Stones: The Journey of a Child Soldiervividly calls attention to the plight of child soldiers. To give you a little background, starting in 1987, rebel leader Joseph Kony displaced well over two million Ugandans from their villages and kidnapped, mutilated, and murdered tens of thousands of people. Among the victims were some sixty thousand children, who were recruited by Kony for his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to fight against the Ugandan government. Some of these children were as young as seven, and they were given no choice but to fight–it was kill or be killed. Kony’s reign of terror continued for about two decades. He was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005, but has managed to evade capture.

Recently, I spoke to Donna about Bullets, Blood and Stones.

CK: I know that you visited Uganda a few years ago. Can you tell me what took you there in the first place? Was the idea for a book about child soldiers already forming in your mind at the time, or was there some other reason for going?

DW: Yes, the idea for the novel was already brewing in my mind before I headed to Uganda in 2008. I had a general feel for the storyline, but I knew I had to go to Uganda and see these children and take in everything, the culture, the food, the land, and the people, for my book to have any substance. But it wasn’t until I met Charlie and heard his story that I knew what the true essence of the book would be.

After I wrote book one, I knew the story couldn’t end there so I travelled to Uganda again in 2015, this time focusing on the rehabilitation process of former child soldiers and taking in a safari so I could incorporate more of Uganda’s natural habitat into the book.

CK: As part of your research for Bullets, Blood and Stones, you actually spoke to former child soldiers. What was hearing their stories like for you? 

DW: Before I went to Uganda I tried to mentally prepare myself for these interviews. I knew the stories would be difficult to hear so I read and watched interviews online just to get an idea of what I was going to come upon. It was still difficult. There were times I had to stop and just sob in the middle of an interview. I couldn’t fathom the horror that occurred in these people’s lives. I didn’t want to. I have some stories written in my journal that are too awful to repeat. I haven’t shared them with anyone. I don’t know if I ever will.

CK: Would you say that Uganda is truly recovering from two decades of devastation wreaked by Kony? What signs of recovery have you seen?

DW: Oh, yes. Northern Uganda has been recovering since Kony left. The people are back to their land and have rebuilt their schools and houses. During my first visit I witnessed World Vision providing people with seedlings and livestock to help them get back on their feet again. It was lovely to see. On a whole, I think the former child soldiers are doing better. But it is a day-by-day sort of thing. It takes time. They suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and  must deal with the stigma that is attached to them. Some people still don’t trust them, and some families and communities have banned them from returning to their villages. So yes, there is change, but it will take time.

CK: The novel is intended for young adult readers, and I feel you’ve succeeded in making a difficult topic appealing to that age group–not an easy task. Can you tell me what qualities your book has that will entice young people to read it? 

DW: I’ve had young adult readers tell me that the book is really fast paced and is a real page-turner. So much that they’ve stayed up late into the night wanting to finish it. Even teachers have told me their classes groan when they’re told they have to stop at a certain chapter before they can continue on the next day. But I’ve also heard kids tell me that they love the “emotional roller coaster” it takes them on. One moment they’re sad, the next they’re laughing, and the next they’re shaking their fists. I like to hear that. Others have said they feel like they’re right in Uganda during the story because the imagery is so intense. And others have said they like it because “it’s real”. The violence is real. It really happened and they appreciate a story that tells it as it is and doesn’t sugar-coat it.

CK: What do you hope readers will ultimately take away from this book?

DW: I hope they’ll take away a number of things. One, of course, is a stronger social conscience. To challenge the way they view themselves and their place in society. To look beyond their borders and see what is going on in the world. But I hope it doesn’t end there. An understanding of world events doesn’t bring about change. Only a desire and a passion to make the world a better place does. I hope that after readers close the book they set out to instill peace in their own lives and to help others who because of war, prejudice, or other circumstances desperately need it.

CK: What can Canadians do to help child soldiers around the world? 

DW: Tough question, because in cases like this we can feel quite helpless. But we can make a difference by supporting programs with humanitarian organizations that are successful in bringing children, families, and communities out of poverty. When people are poor they will do desperate things, like selling their children to rebel groups, just to put much needed food into their bellies.

Another thing we can do is support an organization that helps with the restoration and reintegration of child soldiers. During my stay in Uganda, I saw many wonderful things happening with these young boys and girls who had escaped from the LRA. Through the rehabilitation programs thousands of children were given medical attention and counselling, and reunited with their families and reintegrated into their communities. This was all done through the hard work of World Vision workers and volunteers, whose commitment to helping these children was phenomenal. World Vision also works in countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan to help these exploited children.

CK: I understand that Bullets, Blood and Stones is the first in a trilogy. What can you tell us at this stage about book two? 

DW: Ah, book two! After I wrote Bullets and I returned to Uganda, I realized that Charlie’s story hadn’t ended yet. Although his body was free from Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, his mind was not. All of the children who escape from the horrors of being a child soldier suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In Uganda the Acholi people call it ajiji. And that’s what book two is about –Charlie’s ajiji and his attempts to free his mind from the flashbacks that come to him during the day and the nightmares that shake him awake at night. I also introduce the reader to another facet of child soldiers: the use of girls as soldiers and sex slaves in the LRA. It’s another intense read.

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Donna’s stories may be intense, but they’re laced with hope as well. Her novel, Blood, Bullets and Stones: The Journey of a Child Soldier, is available on Amazon.ca.

New Book Release: Eaten by Susan J. Crockford

EATEN

Polar bears may look adorable and cuddly on greeting cards, but as I learned from reading Susan J. Crockford’s debut novel Eaten, you really don’t want to encounter one of these fearsome predators in the wild. In the book, Crockford, who is a polar bear scientist, explores a frightening scenario: an invasion of the bears in the remote outports of northern Newfoundland. Recently, I spoke to Susan about her book.

CK: Eaten is a unique thriller liberally laced with polar bear science. What sort of reader did you write the book for?

SC: I wrote the book for people who love a good story first and foremost but who don’t mind learning a thing or two in the process. I was aiming for a thriller that would give people nightmares–and I believe I succeeded.  The prospect of a bear attack fascinates people because it’s one of those primal fears. Animal predators (like bears, big cats, and wolves) still kill unarmed people every year, as they have done for hundreds of thousands of years.  Eaten taps into that primal fear and shows that even in the 21st century, we will not necessarily be safe from carnivorous predators.

CK: Your novel takes place in 2025 in Newfoundland, where ravenous bears are killing and eating humans. How likely do you think it is that this dire scenario could come true, and what would cause it?

SC: Based on my knowledge of seals, bears, and sea ice, I imagined where, when, and why polar bears might be forced ashore by hunger to prey effectively on humans. That dictated the location, the year, and the season of the story. Could it happen? Absolutely. Will it happen? Not unless all of the variables fall into place as I’ve described: if only some do but not others, there would be another outcome. Two of the variables are very high population numbers of harp seals (already achieved) and of polar bears (in progress).

CK: You’re a professional zoologist who’s studied polar bear ecology and evolution for more than twenty years. You also blog about polar bears.  You know these beasts inside out, in a way few of us ever can. As your book pointed out, many people have misconceptions about them. What would you most like people to know about polar bears?

SC: That late winter through spring (March to June) is the most critical to polar bear survival because this is when the bears feed intensively on young Arctic seals. Polar bears eat eight months’ worth of food during this time. After months without food over the winter, bears are at their leanest and hungriest in early spring and this makes them especially dangerous predators at that time because they are highly motivated to find the food they need. See this recent blog post, Hungry polar bear attacks: Why my novel “Eaten” is set in early March.

CK: Turning from science writing to fiction seems like quite a leap. What was your impetus for writing Eaten, and what was the process like for you?

SC: I come from a family of storytellers and I think that helped considerably. When I found myself in a position where I could do nothing but write for several months, my original thought was to turn my polar bear blog posts into a science book. But then it occurred to me that a more valuable contribution would be to write something for people who would never read a science book. I realized that a good fictional story based on science might be far more popular and inform a wider audience than another dry science tome (however well written it might be).

I enjoyed writing this story more than I expected and found it was not as hard to switch genres as I’d feared.  It was comforting to know that a good fiction editor could help me over the transition, especially in writing dialogue and getting point of view consistent. I knew I’d need that help and budgeted for it, which gave me the confidence to just write. My sister, who’s an avid fiction reader, gave me some useful feedback on the first few drafts but after that, I was off. In the end, the professional editorial help made a huge difference and was worth every penny.

CK: Will you be writing more fiction, and if so, what do have planned?

SC: Oh yes, I’m hooked on fiction! I don’t think I’m done with Newfoundland polar bears quite yet. As well, other ideas just keep bubbling away in my brain, so I write them down as they come to me, hoping one of them might play out into a future story.

CK: You’ve just been through the self-publishing process with Eaten. Do you have any advice for writers who are contemplating self-publishing?

SC: I’ve actually done it twice now–once for a science book about evolution, Rhythms of Life: Thyroid Hormone and the Origin of Species, that got quiet rave reviews but didn’t sell particularly well (although probably better than other self-published books in that genre). I may have just covered the cost of publishing that book but certainly not enough to reimburse myself for the time it took me to write it. That was disappointing but probably predictable.

I’m hoping a fiction book might be more popular and a better seller. As a virgin fiction author, I had virtually no hope of finding an agent to represent me to a conventional publisher, so I didn’t waste my time looking. Self-publishing takes more author-generated marketing effort, but I knew that going into this project. Having the blog already established has given me a bit of a leg up, not just because of the people who read the blog but the people I’ve met over the last three years who will help get sales going. Time will tell but early sales are encouraging. So I guess if I had one piece of advice, that might be it: have a solid, on-line presence before you start, so that you can use it to help get early sales going.

Eaten is available at Amazon.com. Also see the book trailer, Susan’s blog, Polar Bear Science, and her website.

 

New Books by Chantelle Saumier: Vinnie! Star of the Show and Vinnie! The Hurricane

Author Chantelle Saumier has just released two books about her husky-shepherd rescue dog, Vinnie. Because I’m the owner of a mixed-breed rescue dog myself and a huge sucker for a good dog story, I was keen to interview Chantelle about the adorable Vinnie and her writing adventures so far.

Author Chantelle Saumier with her rescue dog Vinnie
Chantelle with Vinnie

CK: I know that by day you teach primary school in Langley, B.C., and have done for over sixteen years, but now you’ve also written two children’s books, Vinnie! Star of the Show and Vinnie! The Hurricane based on the antics of your real-life dog (also named Vinnie). How long have you been writing and what got you started as a writer?

CS: For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed writing. By nature I am a creative person, and writing has been one of the outlets I have used to express my creativity. However, after university I took a hiatus. It wasn’t until a few years into my teaching career that I got the creative writing bug again. What sparked it was seeing the pure joy in the eyes of my students as I read them a story. The timelessness of that moment, the smiles on their faces and their total engagement, made me want to be a part of creating that experience for them. When I had my own children, this feeling only multiplied and I knew I just had to do it.

CK: You told me once that your dog Vinnie sleeps with his legs straight up in the air, as does the fictional Vinnie. How alike are the real-life Vinnie and his fictional counterpart? Which one is naughtier? What’s the worst thing your dog’s ever done?

CS: My dog, Vinnie, and his “fictional” counterpart, are really one and the same. This is why I knew I had to make some children’s stories about his antics. The things he does seem so unbelievable and silly, yet at the same time are very relatable to those who have dogs of their own. Vinnie has two sides to his personality. On one hand, he is super loving, very sweet, and always craving attention. On the other hand, he makes poor, impulsive choices that end up causing destruction of some kind. Not only has he wiped out the entire living room, but he’s also destroyed about eight pairs of my favourite shoes! Let’s just say that Vinnie, like all of us, is evolving and slowly learning from his mistakes.

Cover of Vinnie! Star of the Show

CK: Your family figures in the books, but Vinnie is, as the title of the first book indicates, the real star. How does the real-life Vinnie feel about now being in the limelight? Is he at all embarrassed by any of his bad behaviour?

CS: Vinnie, as the first book relays, loves attention! It’s a fact! So he is soaking it up.  He is pretty oblivious as to why he’s getting it, but that’s okay, he’ll take it! As for being embarrassed about his bad behaviour, he is. Vinnie knows exactly what he’s done when he’s done it because he gives us three distinct signs. He lowers his head, twitches his tail, and stares up at us with a certain look in his eyes. It’s the look that leads to the question, “Vinnie!  What did you do?”

CK: Have any of your students read the books yet, and if so, how have they reacted to them?

CS: My 2012/2013 Grade 1 students from R.C.Garnett Elementary have read the books. I decided to use my journey throughout this process as a learning opportunity for them as well. I wanted my students to learn about the different stages of publication, and I also wanted them to really see that writing is life-long and can go wherever we want it to go. Therefore, they saw all the stages of development from first draft manuscript, to basic illustrations, to revision stages, and finally, publication. My students were my biggest cheerleaders! They were so excited about the books and laughed throughout the reading of the stories no matter what stage they were in. They were able to make connections between Vinnie and their own dogs, which is so important in the development of early childhood literacy. In fact, it was their enthusiasm towards the stories that kept me on track and helped me to really believe in myself. Thank you Division 14!!

Cover image of Vinnie! The Hurricane

CK: Without giving too many juicy details away, what do you expect might happen to Vinnie in subsequent books?

CS: Vinnie will continue to be naughty and will continue to destroy things, but he also learns a few new tricks along the way. Stay tuned to find out what those are.

CK: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to publish a children’s book?

CS: Whether your dream is to publish a children’s book, or something else completely unrelated, my advice to you would be just make it happen. Push all your worries and fears aside and make it happen. Push away negative chatter from yourself and others and follow your heart. I strongly believe that we were born to live our dreams, and when we do, unexpected things, unimaginable things, fall into place before our very eyes.

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Please go to Chantelle’s website to read more about her or to order her books. Her dog Vinnie was adopted from A Dog’s Life in Kenora.

New Book Release: Under the Skin by Nick Hahn

Under the Skin book cover

 

Nick Hahn is the author of the recently released novel Under the Skin, a political thriller set in Uganda. As this interview demonstrates, he is passionate about both the issues confronting third-world countries today and the craft of writing. Check out Nick’s blog, Nickspeak, as well as this link to Under the Skin, now available on amazon.com.

CK: I know that you spent some time in Uganda. What took you there, and what experiences did you have that prompted you to write the book?

NH: I lived and worked in Uganda for several months in 2008. I was there on a consulting engagement, retained by a nonprofit consortium of three organizations evaluating the organic cotton supply chain from small farmers in the North near the Sudanese border to commercial yarn spinning factories in the South near Kampala, the capital of the country.

The consortium partners, Invisible Children, Inc., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Edun Apparel LTD. were interested in sourcing a women’s apparel line in Uganda produced from 100 percent organic cotton. Edun, owned by Bono and Ali Hewson, collaborated with their consortium partners, both prominent NGOs, in an effort to support economic development for Uganda and add a measure of relief to poverty-stricken cotton farmers.

In my work I observed abuses of human rights, especially those of women, perpetrated by local authorities and self-centred politicians. Their refusal to acknowledge the disparity between the traditional role of women in tribal societies and advancements made by women in contemporary Western societies kept Ugandan women in a subservient role within the family. In Uganda, and much of Africa, women are forced to accept genital mutilation, prepubescent marriage to men many times their age, and abject slavery in their spousal roles.

My objective in writing this book is to build awareness of these abuses and do so within the context of fictional storytelling. I want my readers to be entertained, educated, and motivated. My hope is that some will be moved to action and make a difference within their own sphere of influence, whatever or wherever that may be.

Under The Skin is my first novel. The message is there but so is the emotion, tension, and entertainment.

CK: In the book, a young woman of very humble origins, Nabulunghi Kibugu (Nabby), becomes educated in a Western university and returns to her country to seize political power. We tend to think of East Africa as dominated by corrupt politicians and vicious warlords like Joseph Kony. In the Africa of today, how common are female leaders like Nabby? Would you say that African women are now emerging from the shadows of oppression? What are some examples of women in this part of the world who are making a difference?

NH: My lead character, Nabby Kibugu, is fictional but her story could easily be true. Today women of all races, religions, and ethnicities are making their presence known in the world. Educated and motivated, women in all fields including politics, education, arts, science, and business are making a difference. In Africa this is particularly prescient. The role of women there has changed dramatically with the emergence of Nobel Prize winners like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to receive a Nobel Prize. This advancement is still in the incubation stage. When we see progress growing from a base of zero, we tend to overcelebrate it. Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim countries around the world are still generations out of step.  I’ve lived and worked in most of these regions and have seen up close the devastating effect on women, whose lives are controlled by cultural and religious traditions created and enforced by men.  My hope is that through the medium of fictional storytelling I might add a small voice in opposition to these abuses and lend some weight to a movement toward equality with men, if not full parity. The real tragedy here is the loss of intelligence and intuition that women bring to problem solving; life for men would improve exponentially with educated and trained women in their midst.  My dream is that real-life Nabby Kibugus and Maggie Kincaids [Maggie is another character in the book] will emerge as thought leaders and role models, inspiring a new generation of women from the developing world.

CK: Nabby forms a powerful alliance with a wealthy American, Maggie Kincaid. The unlikely friendship that blossoms between the two young women is really at the heart of the novel, and the way they forge ahead in single-minded pursuit of their goal against overwhelming odds is quite incredible.  Who or what inspired these two fearless females?

NH: Maggie was inspired by Nabby’s true grit and determination to change her world. Nabby’s youth was destroyed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was raped at age eleven. This experience exposed her strength in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise. Her acceptance of the scholarship to St Andrews University and her successful career there made a lasting impression on Maggie and her wealthy parents in New York. When Maggie arrived in Uganda and became involved in Nabby’s political campaign, it changed her world from one of luxury and excess to one of purpose and resolve. Together these two young women changed more than a country’s leadership; they changed the course of each other’s lives.

My book is written primarily from a woman’s point of view. I can’t explain this except to say that I’ve been blessed in having strong women in my life, women who have inspired me with their strength and discipline. I believe that if women held positions of authority in all fields, but especially government, there would be less conflict in the world and the rights of women and men—human rights—would be recognized. Women understand the power of moral authority in society and know how to exercise it. They appreciate that passive resistance can be stronger than armed resistance, and that we should not be defined by race, religion, or territory.  One looks at political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Camilla Vallejo of the University of Chile Student Federation, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, the late Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England, or Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and likely candidate for US president in 2016.  These women and others like them are changing their worlds in positive ways, both large and small. The title of my book, Under The Skin, drove much of my thinking. The notion that skin colour should make a difference in our perception of people and their worth to society strikes me as absurd. As shown in my novel, our hearts beat the same under the skin, regardless of our colour.

CK: The book really opened my eyes to the desperate struggles the Ugandan people face, and I’m sure it will for other readers as well. What do you hope people will take away from reading your book? Is there any particular message you want people to understand?

NH: The message is simple; we’re all members of the same race, the human race. For some unfathomable reason, men have insisted on defining themselves by race, religion, and ethnicity rather than the common spark of humanity that separates us from the beasts. That spark should be joining us, not dividing us. If we can put men on the moon, put the entire world’s knowledge base on a smartphone in the palm of our hand, and discover cures for “incurable” diseases, wouldn’t you think we could find better solutions to world problems than armed combat? Social, economic, and territorial conflict is real and requires thoughtful solutions, but not those found in the barrel of a gun or rooted in a dictator’s nepotism. I’m not suggesting that women have all the answers; I am suggesting they have more of the answers than history gives them credit for. My hope is that women like my character Nabby Kibugu, languishing in the backwater of some third-world country, will find their voice and aspire to education and training. We have no idea how many Nabbys are out there, waiting for another Maggie Kincaid to discover their genius.

CK: How long have you been writing? Who are the writers who inspire you and why?

NH: I started writing in high school. I had a disciplined English teacher at a strict Jesuit prep school in Cleveland, Ohio, who thought my writing showed promise and that I should pursue a career as an author. That was the age of the great American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. They all inspired me, but I must confess that Hemingway was my hero. I loved his work and, truth be known, loved his macho lifestyle as a war correspondent, bullfight enthusiast, and deep-sea fisherman. Hemingway lived as he wrote. His stories were more than figments of his imagination; they were fictionalized memories of a man who lived his dream. It was his love affair with life that drove him to end his own. Once his health failed and he was no longer able to live as he wrote, he could no longer bear the alternative.

I carried this romanticized view of becoming an author into my college years at the University of Notre Dame. It was there that I skipped a beat, maybe more than one, if truth be known, and succumbed to the real world of earning a living and raising a family. My writing dreams went on the back burner as I pursued a business career for forty-eight years. Time and circumstance reignited my love of writing. I started by recording and publishing commercial audiobooks for Audible and soon realized what I had been missing. With a career behind me and a family on their own, I went back to where it all began. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At heart I’m a writer, have always been a writer, and will continue to write as long as my physical and mental health allow me.

CK: Now that Under the Skin has been completed, what do you hope to write about next? Are there any particular issues you want to explore?  

NH: The issues that concern me are many, but there’s one in particular, and next on my writing agenda is human trafficking. This is one of the most deplorable evils in human society and one most of us know little about.  Many people aid and abet traffickers by hiring illegal aliens at substandard wages, procuring the services of underage prostitutes, and paying access fees to pornography websites. Human trafficking has an estimated annual turnover of $32 billion, with far more unaccounted for. My next book, Drone, addresses this issue through the eyes of a female undercover agent working for Interpol, the secretive international police organization. Again, the story is fiction, but the subject matter and circumstances our lead character confronts are true, and the message is clear. Drone, like Under The Skin, will entertain and frighten you and stimulate your emotions, but you won’t finish the book without gaining a new perspective on human trafficking and sexual slavery in the US and around the world. Like my first book, this one is being written from a woman’s point of view. The lead character, Cosita, will stimulate your conscience and move you to a heightened awareness of one of the world’s most misunderstood crimes and its degrading effect on women.  Drone is a story about another courageous woman and a friendship formed in a tempest of mutual need and respect.

CK: What has the process of completing your first novel been like, and what sort of advice do you have for writers? 

NH: I’ve never had a baby, Caroline, but the fourteen-month gestation period for this novel and the labour during the days preceding its release to the public gives me some idea of what that’s like. For me, as with mothers, it was a labour of love. I never wanted to let it go; every time I reviewed it, I saw areas needing improvement. It was like, “How could you have said it that way, dummy? You can write better than that.” And so it would go, day after day, until my editor convinced me I had a book and to let her smooth out the rough edges.

I have so much advice for new writers, I hardly know where to begin, so I guess I’ll just restate the obvious: begin. Put words on paper, i.e., your word processor, every day. Find your creative sweet spot, that time when ideas seem to flow effortlessly. Mine is early morning, but for others it’s evening or the middle of the night—whatever works for you. But do it. I might also suggest that you not read too many books on writing. At the end of the day, your storyline will carry your book, not your sentence structure or preoccupation with the beginning, the middle, and the end. I find that the words come to me scene after scene, but I must confess—and my editor reminds me—that I have problems with chronology and time sequence. I tend to worry less about that and let my editor fix it. I concentrate on the creative process of developing a story that first entertains, but for me, always with a message. As a first-time author with one published book to my credit, I don’t presume that my advice to writers will be all that impressive. Find your own style, your own story, and make sure you fall in love, deeply in love, with all your characters. They will become the most important people in your life for the duration of the book.

For me it’s all about narrative and dialogue. I want my readers to feel the emotion, the tension, the anxiety, all the demands of life wrapped up in the character’s role. I’m a storyteller first and a writer second, if that makes sense. There are passages and whole scenes in this book that bring tears to my eyes each time I read them. I welled up when I wrote those words, but they weren’t my words—they were Nabby’s and Maggie’s and those of other characters in the book. Maybe that’s the litmus test for a writer; maybe it’s about human emotion and finding the right words to express it. In Under the Skin, I found the right words.

 

Warrior Girl by Matt Lazar and Amanda Thomas

Authors Matt Lazar and Amanda Thomas released their young adult novel, Warrior Girl, last October. I chatted briefly with the authors to uncover the story behind their intriguing and unusual tale of a young woman’s coming of age under difficult circumstances.

CK: Warrior Girl is about a young Korean woman, Sun Hi, who attends Oxford and faces not only culture shock, but also a number of obstacles to her success and happiness, including a fiercely competitive academic rival and a hostile flatmate. She finds refuge in an online game called World of Warcraft (WOW). Is there something in your experience that inspired you to write the book? What gave birth to Sun Hi’s story?

ML: When I was in college (Dartmouth), I had a Korean roommate who was really into World of Warcraft. He introduced me to the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) genre. I learned that WOW wasn’t really a game in that it was absorbing enough that it could become as real to someone as their “real life.”

Part of what makes Sun Hi unique is that she’s the only protagonist I can think of who plays WOW–it was important to me to write a story that shows how playing a game like WOW impacts a person’s real life.

CK: I was a little surprised by the book’s title, as Sun Hi is actually rather timid and sensitive throughout much of the book, not bold and aggressive. What is it about her that makes her a warrior in your eyes?

AT: Yes, I think that despite her timid nature she shows great strength in overcoming the problems that she has. When everything is against her she keeps going and of course she is a formidable warrior on WOW. She is a multi-layered and resilient person who looks fragile on the outside and has a steely determination inside.

CK: Playing WOW is much more than passing time for the characters—I was really struck by how the game impacts Sun Hi’s vision of herself. It seemed to be an important factor in her growing self-confidence. There’s a lot of criticism of such games in the media—a lot of discussion about how they can trigger violence. Your book seems to suggest otherwise. Do you believe that these games can have a positive impact on young people?

AT: I think they can and I would hasten to say that our portrayal of the game and those who play it is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of such games. They exist and people play them. Our interest was in exploring how this kind of gaming can affect the confidence of a person, in this case Sun Hi, who is otherwise virtually friendless and lacking in any other resource.

CK: Obviously, not everyone has the experience of attending university in a culture that is foreign to them. Yet some experiences the book depicts would seem to be universal. What aspects of your novel do you think young readers will identify with?

AT: I suppose that even if a student goes to university in their own country it can be a daunting time at first, and for the shy or those lacking in confidence a difficult time. I suppose it would be good if young people saw Sun Hi’s struggle and thought that they, with less of a mountain to climb, had the possibility to shine.

ML: Warrior Girl is really a love story with twists and bumps–none of the characters escape unscathed. I think young readers will identify with this.

CK: What sorts of messages do you hope readers will take away from your book?

AT: I suppose that perseverance and goodness will always triumph over evil.

ML: I hope readers come away with a feeling that getting to know someone from a different background can be fun and exciting. We wanted Warrior Girl to be a fun read that’s accessible to all kinds of people. Many of Warrior Girl’s fans have never played WOW.

CK: Studious Sun Hi finds herself in the unlikely position of being the cox for the Oxford rowing team. Your descriptions of rowing culture seemed very realistic to me, as if it were very familiar to you, and I have to ask if you have related personal experience or it’s just a case of excellent research.

AT: The research was exhaustive although it was research that was a pleasure to do!

CK: Tell me about your history as writers and what has influenced you. Is Warrior Girl your first book?

AT: No, I have ghostwritten many books for clients on subjects as diverse as kidnapping to a romantic novel set around Islamic finance! I love to write and in particular enjoy an element of intrigue.

ML: Warrior Girl is my first novel. My first book was my master’s thesis, An Oral History of the Cleveland Browns.

CK: Now that the book is finished, do you have other books in the works? Are they in the same vein as Warrior Girl? Can you tell me anything about them?

ML: I am developing a sequel to Warrior Girl.

AT: I am continuing with my ghostwriting work and looking forward to the day that I have the time to write something else for myself! I am working on a series of books on heavy horses for a client at the moment as well as an account of a British woman who opened a chain of massage parlours in Australia.

To read reviews of Warrior Girl or to purchase the book, click here.

 

 

New Book Release: Liberation by Robert Jennings

Liberation Cover Art

I’m delighted to announce that just in time for the end of the world, author Robert Jennings has released his post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, Liberation. I caught up with the amiable and talented Mr. Jennings to ask him all about his novel and the writing life. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I did interviewing him.

CK: As we all know, the world’s coming to an end on December 21st, so we may as well not bother to buy Christmas presents. In view of this, your science fiction novel, Liberation, is very timely–an apocalypse occurs on 12/21/12 in which the world is overrun by green-skinned creatures called orcs, and only small groups of people manage to survive. Apart from the impending end of the world, can you tell me what else inspired you to write this particular story?

RJ: I first heard about the Mayan end-of-the-world “prediction” shortly after Y2K disappointed us. I think that was what first got me thinking about the story, and the reason for the date of the invasion in the book. I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic stories. It’s fascinating to see how different storytellers portray the aftermath. Plus, I’ve always been a small-town boy. I like the atmosphere and the camaraderie, and I really wanted to portray that as much as I could. And I played a ridiculous amount of Dungeons & Dragons in my youth. I always liked the orcs.

CK: One thing I really love about Liberation is the protagonist. I found it refreshing that John Potter is an Everyman with whom we can all identify, not a superhero. In battling the orcs, he demonstrates courage and devotion to his people, as well as a sense of humour. Are there particular people in your life—or characters in literature—who inspired your protagonist?

RJ: That’s very kind of you to say. What I was looking for out of John was exactly that Everyman feel. I like to imagine that the choices John makes in the book are what most of us would choose, given the circumstances. Of course, after getting feedback from readers in the early stages, I realized that I put a lot more of myself into John than I had intended. People kept telling me, “That’s a ridiculous decision. Nobody would ever do that!” As for his inspirations, I drew a lot from Richard Cypher in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. I loved the down-to-earth feel of the character, even after he learns that he is, for all intents and purposes, a superhero.

CK: The book’s about an invasion that very nearly wipes out the human race, but it’s about much more. What do you see as some of the core ideas of the book?

RJ: The main one, I think, is family–and the lengths to which we would go to make sure they’re safe. In that regard, I really identified with John. I can’t imagine anything that I wouldn’t do for my kids. That’s one of the things that made the book really fun to write.

CK: The citizens of New Lamar, which the book centres on, have adapted to their devastated world by developing skills, such as blacksmithing, that are largely obsolete in Western society. They are also a remarkably cohesive group of people. How do you think present-day humans would cope in such a post-apocalyptic society? Would we do as well as the people of New Lamar?

RJ: That is a question that I’ve given way more thought to than is probably healthy. In fact, I may have started calling myself a writer in order to justify the inordinate amount of time I spend thinking up end-of-the-world scenarios. I think, of course, that it would go pretty badly for a good while, but eventually the people who survived would pick up and rebuild. I think that’s part of human nature. We’re always looking to make things better for ourselves and those around us. That, or we’ll all end up killing each other over canned beans.

CK: What would you like readers of your book to take away from it?

RJ: Honestly, just entertainment. When I sat down to write the book, I didn’t have any lofty goal in mind, aside from “Let’s see how this plays out.” If someone finds a message there that resonates with them, awesome, but it wasn’t intentional. If the book entertains you for a couple of days (or hours, if you’re my daughter), then I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to do.

CK: You work with another writer, Thomas Clark. Most people think of writing as quite a solitary pursuit. What’s it like to collaborate with Thomas, and what are the two of you working on right now?

RJ: It’s interesting, to say the least. Tommy has been my best friend since before he could even read, so working with him is great. He’s an incredible storyteller, and he has a shrewd eye for plot holes. I think that putting the words themselves to paper is something that is best done alone, but I couldn’t imagine having put this book together without Tommy’s help. Incidentally, he did the cover, which I think is fantastic.

Right now, we’re working on his first book. The working title is Rogue’s Phoenix, and it’s the beginning of an epic fantasy series in a world of his creation. The world is populated by people who fall through rifts from other worlds and are forced to try to make the best of it. It’s been incredibly fun to collaborate on, and it should be ready for release first quarter of next year.

CK: Can you tell me a little about your history as a writer? How did you get started? What keeps you going?

Well, here comes the clichéd “I’ve been a writer since all the way forever ago.” Which is true, to an extent. I’ve always loved writing, but I had never really considered it as a career choice. I liked robots and spaceships too much. The story for Liberation has been bouncing around in my head for about ten years. I even tried getting it down on paper once, but it was horrible. So, I shelved it until about five years ago, when I was deployed to Baghdad with the US Air Force. It was also about this time that I started working with Tommy on Rogue’s Phoenix. I had a little free time on my hands, and the story poured out in about two months. Then came the incredibly fun process of submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers, only to get rejected time and time again. So, again I shelved it. I was glad that it was written, but didn’t really have any plans to do anything with it, since it obviously wasn’t good enough to publish. Earlier this year, I got laid off from my job and my wife was like, “Why don’t I go to work while you focus on your writing.” That was when it first really clicked for me that I might be able to actually be an author. And that’s also what keeps me going. If my wife believed in me enough to risk financial ruin, I must have something going for me.

CK: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

RJ: Don’t give up. If you aren’t accepted by an agent or a publisher, don’t be discouraged. Publishing is changing, and you don’t need them anymore. You can do it all yourself if you feel inclined. Except editing. For that, you need Caroline. A caveat, though, is that you’d better have a strong manuscript. Editors can help, but it’s ultimately up to you to write a good story.

CK: Now that Liberation is finished, what’s next for you?

RJ: That’s a good question, only because there are so many things on my plate that it’s hard to keep them separated. Priority zero is Rogue’s Phoenix. We’ve got to get that one ready for publication before the end of March. I would like to have the sequel to Liberation done (yes, there’s a sequel–isn’t there always?) by the end of June, and the book that I wrote last month for NaNoWriMo is tentatively scheduled for September, but it’ll be a side project while we’re working on the second Rogue’s Phoenix book. And then I’m going to Disneyland.

Liberation is now available as an e-book on Amazon. And if you’re so inclined, you can chat with Robert Jennings and Thomas Clark on their Facebook page.

 

New Book Release: The Infinite Knowledge of J.T. Badgley by Tiana Warner

Tiana Warner has just released her first novel, The Infinite Knowledge of J.T. Badgley. The 23-year-old author hails from Abbotsford, BC, and works as a software developer. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of working with the gracious Tiana on her book, a young adult science fiction novel. But The Infinite Knowledge is really so much more than this genre label suggests. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Tiana about her book, and hope you will enjoy our interview.

CK: What was it that prompted you to start writing The Infinite Knowledge of J.T. Badgley in the first place, and how long did it take you to write the book?

TW: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. When I was 5 I would write stories and staple the pages together and sell them to relatives. I started writing The Infinite Knowledge near the end of high school, when we studied classics like Gulliver’s Travels and 1984. I knew then that I wanted to write a book with a purpose—so I started with the topics I feel passionate about, and everything else followed. It took me six years because of university, but in the end I’m glad I was patient.

CK: In the book, the unsuspecting protagonist Jake (J.T.) plummets via a portal through space and lands on the planet Zielaarde, a planet very like our own in some ways. Through your portrayal of Zielaarde, what kinds of things were you trying to say about Earth and its inhabitants?

TW: I want the reader to interpret much of it for themselves, but I will say that I had a fun time exploring certain contemporary issues. Some of these issues are more light-hearted, while others I take more seriously and feel strongly about. The inhabitants of Zielaarde often reflect the way we humans regard the environment, technology, and each other.

CK: The book is an excellent read—it’s dramatic and suspenseful, and I wasn’t sure how it would end until it actually did end. As well, it’s often funny—the reactions the Ziels (inhabitants of Zielaarde) and Jake have to each other were quite amusing. But the book is also very thought-provoking and serious. Ultimately, what thoughts or impressions did you hope to leave readers with?

TW: I hope readers come away thinking about said contemporary issues, but I also hope they think about their own roles and abilities in this world. The book is primarily written for teens, so when I was writing it I wanted make sure I avoided telling the reader what to think, and focused on simply provoking them into thinking. Jake faces the same identity-crisis problems that so many teens face around the time of their high school graduations, and he’s at an age where he starts to gain awareness and scepticism of philosophy and religion. He is forced to gain a stronger sense of self in the book, and I hope Jake’s self-exploration also encourages such thinking in the reader.

CK: One thing I enjoyed about the book was your ability to really get inside Jake’s  experience. He suffers immensely, and the reader is keenly aware of his every thought, sensation, and emotion. Was it difficult to write in this intense sort of way?

TW: It certainly took more than one draft before I was able to fully portray Jake’s thoughts and emotions. It takes a lot of focus and imagination to pretend you’re an entirely different person in an entirely different place, and then to describe exactly how you feel and what you’re thinking at that moment. I find that it helps to imagine a situation using all of the senses.

It’s interesting when you’ve been pouring out the deep thoughts and emotions of a character for years, and then it comes time to actually let other people read it. It feels too personal, like they’re about to read into part of your soul. I guess that’s how you know you’ve really put everything into a character.

CK: Tell me about your fascination with astronomy and how you’ve brought this into the book.

TW: It’s funny, because when I was a kid I hated learning about space. I was afraid of it and tried to avoid thinking about it, because I couldn’t understand how space and time were even possible. I still can’t understand it. I guess writing this book was a way to overcome that. I pushed my own fear and uncertainty onto Jake. When you pick a topic that you feel very strongly about—whether that feeling is of love or hate or obsession or fear—you write about it more passionately. What strengthened the passion was when I decided to take an introductory astronomy class in my last year of university. It was without a doubt one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken, and also a very sobering one because it makes you realize how small we are in such a vast universe. By the time that class was done I had already written most of The Infinite Knowledge, but I was still able to apply some of the science I learned to the story. It’s fun inventing concepts when you write science fiction, but what’s more fun is when you can relate your made-up concepts to real science.

CK: Your love of animals was really obvious to me in the way you portrayed certain creatures in the book. Can you tell me a bit about this love, and how it informs the book?

TW: There’s never been a time in my life where I’ve been without a pet, and I think a dog will always be my perfect companion. It takes owning a dog or a horse to really understand the bond you can have with one. As Betty White once said, “Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize. If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do.” I tried to portray such human-animal friendships in a couple of ways in the book. An important, loyal character doesn’t always need to be a person.

CK: Which writers do you like to read, and which have been most influential on your work?

TW: My favourite author of all time has to be J. K. Rowling. I’m a Harry Potter superfan. In general, I tend to enjoy a wide variety of books and authors, although I mostly find myself reading YA. I wouldn’t say any one writer has influenced my work, though. Everyone has a writing style and I tried to distinguish my own, as well.

CK: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

TW: I think a person has to have a certain level of obsessive passion in order to write a full novel, so my advice is “Don’t hold back.” The best part of writing—and especially sci-fi—is that you get the freedom to create whatever you want to create. It’s your book and you control everything inside of it, so do what you want with it! Immerse yourself in your book’s world. Tape outlines and photos and maps to your walls, write down ideas in your cell phone as they come to you, make a playlist that inspires your characters, get those Crayola window crayons and write inspiration on your mirror—whatever it takes for your book to materialize. Then, when you write your first draft, don’t even pause to think about the format or spelling errors. Just let those creative juices fly, and do your editing later.

CK: Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

TW: I’ve been harbouring an idea for about a year, but haven’t had the chance to give it a good go. I’m very excited about it. It’s different from The Infinite Knowledge, however, and has a more mature theme. That’s all I’m going to say, since I’m still outlining the plot at this point! I’m also trying to convince a friend of a friend to let me write a story based on his very interesting life.

For more information about Tiana Warner and The Infinite Knowledge of J.T. Badgley, please see the author’s website: http://www.tianawarner.com.