Jean Mills is an author I stumbled upon that I shouldn’t have had to search for. Her novel, The Toymaker’s Son was sent to me in a trade for my own novel, Arm Farm, to share reviews and I’m so very thankful I chose to contact Jean to purpose the trade.
I quickly learned that Jean Mills resides in Ontario and passes through Moncton, New Brunswick every summer on her way to a cottage in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. I can only hope we’ll have time for coffee when she comes through so I can meet her in person.
For now, her answers to my author interview questions and reading her blog and book will have to do. Enjoy:
Responses to questions from Sarah Butland
1. One of your blogs starts off with “And the same old bad habits? Still there. You’re still telling yourself “I’ll sit down and write something when I have more time” or “I just need to get a few things off the To Do List” or “I’m just too busy right now.” I’ve heard them all and, probably, voiced them all at some point, too.” How true this is for all writers. Any tips on getting past these self proclaimed obstacles?
Every writer’s “obstacles” are different: lack of time, family commitments, employment responsibilities, health and wellness issues, and even the fear of failure. So there isn’t one tip that applies to everyone. Better time management, clearing a private workspace, or joining a writing group are all ways that writers cope with obstacles, but every situation is unique. Just telling yourself “I will write today!” is often not enough.
Here is one tip that worked really well for me. A group of six (including me) like-minded writing friends started a “Done” campaign. Every day for one month, once we had written something – anything – we fired off an email to the group with the subject line “Done”. The message didn’t matter. The goal was to ensure that each of us received five “Done” emails from the other members of the group, and that we sent our own as well. Seeing those “Done” messages piling up in the Inbox was like magic: we all wrote. Not only that, but we all found that once we started writing, we got into the habit of doing it every day. The knowledge that our colleagues were working away on something pushed us to get writing as well. And we did!
2. How did writing start for you? Was it an article in a newspaper, a short story that touched someone, or simply (term used loosely) your need to express yourself and your fondness to do it on paper?
I started writing stories and poems as soon as I could read (about age six), and I haven’t stopped. Ever since I was a child, I have been a voracious reader, and I think that was the catalyst. As far as being published, I’ve done a bit of journalism (book reviews, feature articles) ever since I was in university, and it was always a thrill to see my name in print. It also showed me that I had the skills that editors are looking for and readers could actually read without pain!
My first published book (Wild Dog Summer) was not my first completed book, actually. My first manuscript was called “Who Would Ever Dance With Becky The Goalie” and it was picked up by Scholastic – then they changed their minds when the ability of girls to play on boys’ hockey teams got the green light from the Supreme Court of Canada. So “Becky” was never published, but the enthusiasm of the publisher did convince me that I might have what it takes to write fiction for young readers.
3. Another blogpost you mention your 14 year old son challenging you to participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Will you revisit this challenge this year? Is your son still writing?
NaNoWriMo is a bit of a problem for me because I’m also a college teacher and I do a lot of freelance writing and editing. November is a very, very busy month in my teaching calendar, so I’m not sure adding the pressure of churning out 1000 words a day (or whatever it is) is something I’m very keen on! My son is still writing, and we have agreed to make our own novel-writing month this summer. If you’re in Guelph, expect to see us at the café in The Bookshelf, scribbling and typing away.
4. What do you do to encourage your son to write and read in a country where literacy levels are too low, especially with boys?
My son has always been read to (which is the most important first step in literacy) and he’s always seen me beavering away at various writing projects. So he’s seen writing in action. I also think he has inherited the writing gene from me, so that’s just lucky.
But he was definitely a reluctant reader, especially when he was little. I don’t think he had read an actual novel until his grade three teacher encouraged him to read “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (Roald Dahl). As a pre-schooler in the library, he completely by-passed the storybook section and headed for dinosaurs, the solar system and tornadoes! I despaired that he would never learn to love fiction the way I do. But he did, very gradually, at his own pace, start to find books that appealed to him. Were they good books? Well, they sure weren’t classic literature. Lots of series, talking animals, lightweight stuff. But he was reading, and that’s all I cared about. Now he’s reading challenging adult fiction – but it’s on his own terms, and isn’t that what we all want, as readers?
I worry that parents – and sometimes the school system – turn kids off reading and away from developing their literacy skills. Forcing someone to read something is the best way of sending them screaming in the other direction. Listen to kids, determine the kinds of things they’re interested in (sports? Sci-fi? Pets? Mystery? Hockey stats?) and make material available. Be a role model and read. Talk about what you read – the newspaper, magazines, current best-sellers, fan fiction based on favourite TV shows or movies.
I knew a boy who was seriously delayed in his reading. The parents were concerned because his school work was faltering as well. They worried about getting him tested, putting him in special classes, getting a tutor. I gave him my back issues of The Hockey News, and he was reading, comfortably and happily, within a week. Reluctant readers wouldn’t be labeled so if they were able to read material that resonates with them. And please don’t get me started on school reading lists, especially “Lord of the Flies”…!
5. I had to pass along my review copy of The Toymaker’s Son to my nephew who loves playing hockey. Is there something in particular you hope this age (11-15) group takes from it?
I remember being a young teenager and being worried all the time – about relationships, about my family who annoyed me (and I should add, I had the best family in the world), about my looks, about my future. In Linden, I wanted to show a character who has lots of things to worry about, and who has to make choices, but who ultimately relies on his own sense of self to make his decisions. Supporting Ardith’s Save Leiter’s Woods campaign is right, so he does it. Defending and befriending Cassie is right (he thinks, till he learns more about her), so he does it. Playing hockey is right for him, so he fights for it. I hope young readers will see that it’s okay to follow the path you choose if you know it’s the right one for you – even if your choices aren’t always accepted. You’ll make some wrong choices, but that’s how we learn about right and wrong. That’s how we grow.
And yes, I know that sounds very heavy! The bottom line is that Linden is a bit of a misfit, but he does what he thinks is right. That is especially hard when you’re a teenager, and that’s what I was trying to explore in “The Toymaker’s Son.”
6. What I found remarkable in this story is the locations and how easily it took me back to my hometown. Did you draw from personal experience to describe the location or was it your imagination?
Thanks! I find my imagination triggered by real locations I’ve known. “The Toymaker’s Son” is set in the small town of St. Clements, in Waterloo Region, Ontario. I broke it into two towns: Rosehill (where most of the houses, stores and school are) and Marsh Lake (Paradise Lake in the “real” world) which is just south of the town. I lived in St. Clements for about six years and used my recollections of the town, complete with its layout, in both “Wild Dog Summer” and “The Toymaker’s Son.” I confess I like to base stories on places I know well. Three other novels – “The Legacy”, “Abby and the Curling Chicks”, and a (soon-to-be-released e-book) “Isabel Now and Then” are set in Vankleek Hill, a small town in Eastern Ontario where my family comes from and where I lived for a time. I do have other novels set in imaginary settings (two coming e-books) and I had no problem using my imagination or those, so I guess you could say I’m flexible when it comes to settings.
7. With ereaders making a strong presence in the publishing world, do you find this avenue helps or hinders your efforts as an author? And would you personally rather a book in your hand or an electronic device?
Since I’m releasing some of my books as e-books, my answer is simple: e-readers are fine. I like anything that makes it easy for people to access stories. I have a Kobo, and I use it a lot. I also buy books and read them the regular way. I think there’s room for both. As my 92-year-old uncle told me: E-readers have their place, but they don’t replace [books].
I also think that the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest” applies to e-books. Anyone can write a story and publish it as an e-book. That means there are a lot of, um, not-so-great works of “literature” out there. But readers are discerning: the good stories will be the ones that people read and recommend to others. The not-so-good stories won’t stick around for long.
8. If you were offered any well-paid career you wanted, would you still write fiction?
Yes, if I were offered a well-paid career as a (fill in the blank), I would still write fiction. And I think most writers would agree. It’s not a choice; it’s a calling.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m also a college teacher. I do that part-time to help pay the bills, and it gives me some flexibility so I can fit my writing into my schedule (often with great difficulty! See Question 1, above). It’s very difficult to make a career – a living – out of writing fiction. Most authors I know wear various hats: teachers, journalists, doctors even. Terry Fallis, whose novel “The Best Laid Plans” won CBC’s Canada Reads this year, is a public relations professional. Louise Penny, the wonderful mystery writer, was a CBC broadcaster before she “retired” and started writing. Is it possible to make a career from writing fiction? Maybe – if you’re really, really big. But most writers in this country have a back-up and lots of grants from the Canada Council.
9. Was your first novel, Abby and the Curling Chicks, the novel you always wanted to write or did you just happen to stumble on her story?
Abby wasn’t my first novel, actually. My first published novel was called “Wild Dog Summer,” and it was sparked by a newspaper article about wild dogs – coydogs – in my neighbourhood around St. Clements. The character of Betty Jane just appeared one day in my imagination and I let the two things (the dogs, the girl) percolate for a long time before I started writing. I definitely stumbled on her story.
As for Abby, she was the product of a suggestion from some young curlers I was coaching in Vankleek Hill. They knew I had written some books, and one day they asked me to write something about our curling club and the kids there. So I did!
10. And, lastly, any advice for young authors trying to get into the newspaper or novel writing business?
Young authors should read, read, read and write, write, write. It’s really quite simple. Once you’ve mastered that, start sending your stuff out. Start with the local newspaper or writing contests. Ask your teachers or librarian to help you find writing competitions or anthologies. Don’t be discouraged if your writing goes nowhere at first; it takes years to develop your own voice and the skills necessary to impress an editor or publisher. Educate yourself: check out publishing websites for tips on who is accepting manuscripts and what they’re looking for. Join a writing group (at your local library or school, maybe?). Attend writing workshops. Network. But overall, read, read, read and write, write, write.
Oh yes, and develop a thick skin – because a lot of people are going to say “no” to you, and often they’re not very nice about it. That’s just part of the process! It will all be worth it when you see your name in print.
11. Are you working on anything new currently?
Yes, I’m writing an adult “whodunit” about a small curling club (“Bringing Down the House”). I’m serializing it on my curling blog, Grassroots Curling, as a summer project. I’ve never written a mystery before, and I hate blood and gore and all that nasty stuff, so this is a whodunit with no dead bodies.
I’ve also written four books in a YA fantasy series which I’m about to release as e-books (the series is called “Eden Messenger”) and have a fifth and sixth book hovering in the fringes of my imagination, just waiting to be towed in and written. I’m really looking forward to writing this because Book 4 was a bit of a cliffhanger and I’m eager to get back and see what’s going to happen to Eden next!
12. Anything else you want to add?
Thanks for this opportunity to think about and share such varied thoughts about the writing life. I love to hear from readers and writers, so feel free to connect with me. Let’s meet at my blog, Writer’s Life (http://jeanmills.blogspot.com)
Great tips and inspiration, Jean. Thank you very much.
And thank YOU for reading,