Interview with Jeff Ross

This October, Orca Books released three books in its Limelights Series. My title, Shimmy, was released with Jeff Ross’s book At Ease, and Trudee Romanek’s Raising the Stakes.

The three of us thought it would be fun to interview each other, and here is the first of the two interviews I did, this one with Jeff Ross.

Jeff’s novel At Ease, is about Will, a young classical violinist who dreams of life as a performer. But when he gets a chance to play for more than just his teacher, self-doubt and fear of failure turn performing into an utterly terrifying experience. I asked Jeff a few questions about his novel and his connection to the characters and events he describes.

1) What do you, Jeff Ross, have in common with your protagonist?
Like Will, I prefer to create for the sake of creating. I have a number of unpublished novels which could potentially be re-write and published, but the act of writing them and learning from the process is enough for me. I don’t think I’d be happy writing away for my own sake now, because books need to be read to truly exist, but I understand that publication is just the beginning of a new process and not the end goal of writing.
2) Finish this sentence – “One time when I was performing, __________________.”
I decided not to.
It was an open stage night in a tiny pub. When my turn was coming up, I decided I didn’t want to do it. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know the music or was frightened by being in front of people, but rather that this particular crowd was filled with musicians and there was a deep sense of competition in the room. Instead of being encouraging, there was a feeling that every performer was being judged. I have never liked this in music so I simply said I wasn’t going on that night.

3) Do you follow any rituals when you write, like using the same pen?
I clean the kitchen to within an inch of its life then go to my office where an old computer sits humming away. This computer is magical in ways that few computers are these days as it has no internet connection. There are no distractions available and I find that once I get a couple of hundred words down, everything just flows.

blog tour

california poppy

Yay for blog tours. I love how they connect us together in a virtual stroll around today’s writing scene. My friend Julie Paul, whose new collection The Pull of the Moon comes out this fall, asked me to join her. Thank you for taking time out of this lovely spring day to read my entry.

What am I working on?
This is a strangely difficult question to answer, because I tend to work on more than one thing at a time, and because sometimes working on a story means watching Youtube videos for hours or going on a field trip or talking to people, so to call it “work” seems, hmmm, wrong. For example, yesterday I spent a couple of hours watching videos of belly dancers. So much fun. And yet, it’s actually work, because I am writing a book about a girl who wants more than anything to be a professional belly dancer, but when an opportunity is offered to her, it’s not quite what she expects. I’m also working on a story about a boy struggling to decide whether or not to stay with his neglectful and sometimes even abusive father. That story sent me to learn how to surf. Notice I choose stories that get to me to learn fun things. All part of the plan.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
Every writer brings their own past and present to their writing, and I am no exception. I traveled a lot as a kid, and my stories reflect that. So far I’ve published three kid’s books, two of which are set on the West Coast of Canada, and one which is set in West Africa. I love writing about places, and I think setting might just be the strongest aspect of my stories.

Why do I write what I do?
I write stories because I want to learn about something, and I’m passionate about that thing enough to want to share it. I also write because I love to read, and I write for kids, because I know how much reading as a kid changed my world and helped me make it through the tough moments. I want to give that to other kids.

How does my writing process work?
If you saw me writing, you might wonder why I called it writing. I spend a lot of time in the garden, or washing dishes, or going for bike rides. It’s all part of the process, though, because all of those things I just mentioned use my body and leave my mind free to roam. I compare writing to building a homunculus. First, I start with the skeleton: the plot, the setting, those kinds of things. Then I add the flesh: round out characters, deepen the conflict, add to scenes. Then I add the sparkle. That’s where I go into a scene and try to make it shine by adding details. Lastly, I add the creature that gives it life. Here’s where I go in one more time and make sure that in every scene we know how the characters are feeling and responding to each other, where they are and what they’re doing, where the story is heading. At least that’s what I hope I’m doing.

I hope you have enjoyed my entry on this tour. Next up is poet and novelist, Jodi Lundgren.

Metaphors of Spring

I’ve been thinking about metaphors. What can I say? It’s spring, and I’m a writer. The connection seems obvious.
Here’s how it started. I was walking one morning with my friend Joanne, and as we turned down a path in Beacon Hill park, Joanne pointed to a fallen tree and said, “I had a tour of Finnerty Garden’s stumpery yesterday.”
“Stumpery.” I said. “As in a place you cut down trees and grow stumps?” (notice the sardonic tone of my voice).
Sort of.

stumpery 1

Turns out stumperies are a recognized garden form. According to the experts, the first known stumpery started in 1856. (Those ever inventive Victorians!) And the idea of the stumpery is to cultivate the things that grow on the stumps: ferns, lichens and fungi. Neat idea. Growth from decay.
See the metaphor!

Joanne and I continued walking for a few minutes until we emerged back to the road alongside a, shall we say, untended, garden. Joanne, with her usual wit, said, “I’d call that a neglectery.”
Haha. Good one. We all have neglecteries in places. I recently spent some time in mine, refocussing it back into a garden. Growth from neglect. Enter metaphor #2.

Here’s the third. Entropy. The measure of disorder within a system. If we think of arts, writing in particular, as a way of applying order to disorder, story from idea, then entropy becomes an essential element of the process.

So what exactly are the metaphors, you ask? Well, writing, like gardening and art, depends on decay, neglect and other forms of chaos to create. Sometimes we have to tear a piece of writing apart, cut it down to its stumps, to create something new. Sometimes we need to leave our writing alone, neglect it for a while, to let the seeds set and take hold. Sometimes we simply need to accept chaos before we can try to impose order.

I always think gardens and writing are great metaphors for each other. Hemmingway said “The first draft of anything is shit.” Well, that’s what fertilizer is made of, isn’t it?

Found Art

According to MoMA (and who would know better than them when it comes to art?) the term found art applies to “existing objects, manufactured or of natural origin, used in, or as, works of art.” The point, as I understand it, is to question the boundaries of what art is by using objects that we don’t usually consider art and manipulating or changing them either by placing them in a space usually reserved for art—such as a museum—or by creating an instillation.
I am going to use the term found art in a different way. Well, maybe it’s different. I walk every morning with my friend Joanne and our dogs. Now Joanne is an artist. A real one. A fine one. Her work is evocative and emotionally alluring. I, on the other hand, am not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an artistic soul, or eye, or sensibility, whatever way you want to put it. I lack training and skill, yes, but interest no. So on our walks, Joanne and I frequently stop to admire the things we see around us and comment on them. We might see, for example, this path, and comment on the way the shadow lies across the grass suddenly plunging us from a spring day in Victoria to a winter’s day in France. (We actually refer to this path as France, as in, Hi Joanne, where do you want to walk today, shall we go to France?)


Or we find installations like this, lying in our neighbour’s garden, making us laugh. These people change their garden designs according to the season; right now we have just passed Valentine’s Day—hence the hearts.

Hearts in Garden

And sometimes we find things like this intricate, delicate and oh so beautiful wasp’s nest with its paper thin layers almost collapsing on themselves.

wasps's nest

(Wasp’s nest Photo by James Paul)

Joanne tells me about entropy, and the tension between order and disorder as we examine our find, and I think of my garden, currently in a state of disarray, and then I think that entropy is what the natural world is always doing.

So this is how I’m using the word found art. To express the tension between the world around us and the order and meaning we put on it. I see my garden as found art because it makes me think about the cycles of life. I see the wasps’ nest as art because its intricacy makes me re-examine my understanding of wasps’s minds, the pigs in hearts because they are a satire on a cheesy Hallmark day, and the path because it transports us out of our lives.

Visiting classes

Once again I had the privilege of listening to students read their own writing. This time I was at a small elementary school in Mechosin with students in grades six and seven. Gosh those kids had some great adventures to write about. One girl wrote about watching a pod of Orcas swimming in a bay, another wrote about exploring a cave in her own back yard, and a boy in the class wrote about the coloured lights he saw when he went with his family to Las Vegas. It reminded me that adventures come in all kinds of guises. door edinburgh

Each adventure is a bit like looking through a doorway into something unknown.

My Happy Heart

Cover Democracy

Two things to make a children’s writer happy–seeing a new book for the first time and spending time with children who write. I got to do both of those things recently. A few days ago my editor handed me the advance reading copy of So Much for Democracy, my juvenile novel set in Ghana in 1979, which is coming out in the spring, and today, I spent the morning listening to grade 6 and 7 students at Central Middle School read their stories. These kids have been working on their stories all term, and now have a whole series of great characters, settings and plots they’re working with. I was so impressed and inspired to hear their words and see their hard work and dedication. Way to go Central kids!

Norwegian Books!

The Norwegian version of Out of Season has arrived. Strange and exciting to see it with a different cover and title. In Norwegian it’s called Maia in Trouble (I think that’s how you translate it!).
Maia in trouble smallest version

My friends Michelle Mulder, and Alex Van Tol, both authors of amazing books for kids, have tagged me in The Next Big Thing Blog Tour. You can check out their blog posts and find out what they’re working on, and here’s some info about what I have been working on.

What is the working title of your book?
Hmmm… the working title is So Much For Democracy, but I don’t like that. Too many words. I’m searching for something punchier.

What genre does the book fall under?

Juvenile Fiction, though I hope it will appeal to older audiences too, since it’s a story about family and culture and life.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve wanted to write this book for many years, but it’s taken me this long to figure out how. When I was 11, my family moved to Ghana and lived there for a couple of years, so I spent my early teens in Accra. In many ways my life was just like it was for my friends back home. We went to school, quarreled with our siblings, did homework, and hung out. But there were also many things that were different. Some of the differences were simple things, like having pythons for class pets, but other things were bigger, more important, like learning how to deal with the poverty we saw around us and how to cope with the strong military presence in the country. There were illnesses we’d never heard of, and sometimes limited access to clean drinking water and electricity, and in 1979, there was a coup. These are the things I wanted to explore in my story.

How long did it take to write the first draft of the story.

The first draft took only a few weeks, but it was terrible. Terrible. The next draft took longer and was much better. Yes, I learned my lesson.

What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?

Other than a teacher who carries a python in her pocket? Well, the story’s really about a Canadian girl’s struggle to find her way living in a new land as her mother takes away more and more of her freedoms and the world around her becomes more and more dangerous.

That’s it from me. Now I’m tagging writer Laurie Elmquist. Check out what’s she’s working on.

Beginnings and Endings

I’ve been thinking about beginnings and endings, how hard they work. I mean, think of all the things beginnings do. A good beginning hints at truths to come, tells us about the characters we’re about to meet, sets the mood of the story, and gives information, at least a little bit. Phew, how tiring. And then there’s endings. What makes a good one? An element of surprise? A sigh of relief? A good cry? Jack Hodgins says good endings are found not created. Maybe that’s true. And maybe that’s true of beginnings too. So that’s what I’m aiming for. You?

Liking my own writing

How great it is to enjoy your own writing. Reading a passage and saying to yourself, hey that captures the idea well, I can feel the movement of the water under the surf board, the sting of salt water in their eyes. I can’t say this happens too often to me, so I’m delighted that it’s happening now.
I’m preparing a newly completed manuscript to send to an editor. I say completed, but you writers out there know that completed is a relative term when it comes to writing, but I’ve promised myself this is the last time I’m reading this manuscript. Like many writers I know, I could tinker forever. It’s not perfect, but it’s never going to be, and hey, I’m enjoying it, so it must be okay. Mustn’t it?