Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
Playwright, radio writer, television story editor and children's author are all terms used to describe Marty Chan's creative career, a career that has been, in part, shaped by Marty's having grown up as the only Chinese child in the small Alberta community of Morinville.
Marty, however, was actually born in Edmonton on May 11, 1965. "My dad was working at a restaurant in the city. When he had saved enough money, he decided to open a business. He wanted to buy a grocery store, but the stores in the city were too expensive. He scouted outside city limits until he found something in his price range. He had a choice between a grocery store in Millet or one in Morinville. The fact that Morinville was a little closer to Edmonton was the deciding factor. We moved to Morinville when I was about six-years-old, and I started grade 2 there."
"The joke that I always tell is that, when I became a teenager, my parents realized they had ‘failed with me' and so they decided to start over with a brand new son. My brother came along when I was 15-years-old." Marty facetiously adds, "He turned out to be exactly what my parents wanted whereas I'm the black sheep of the family. I'm very creative and artistic while he's much more into numbers and is a financier with the TD Bank."
"My parents were immigrants. While my mom came from mainland China, my father was from Hong Kong. My dad was the third child of four and didn't get the same attention that his oldest brother--the first born son—received. My dad set out on his own to find business prospects outside of Hong Kong. He scouted out London, England, for about a year and found it too expensive. Hearing rumours that Canada was a great place to start, he came out to Canada and worked in Vancouver for a while before some friends told him, ‘You have to come to Edmonton because that's where it's all happening.' He came out here and started setting roots down."
"My dad met my mom in Hong Kong where he was a manager of a toy factory and she got a job as one of the assembly line workers. He had a crush on her, but his big problem was that my mom's dad didn't approve of him and so they had to sneak around. My mom and her father lived in a 10 story apartment building where the elevator was broken. My father would have to run up those stairs and knock on the door, and then he would run all the way back down. When my grandfather answered the door, of course, he wouldn't find anyone there and would say things like, ‘Who are the punks who are doing this?' My mom, however, knew it was my dad's secret signal. If she could get out to meet him, she'd write a little note on a slip of paper and throw it out her bedroom window. Out of breath, my dad would be down on the ground floor waiting for a note to come down so that he would know where to meet her."
"When I was a child, I was very creative and very expressive with my ideas, but I never really thought that I could go anywhere with it. Consequently, I worked in my parents' grocery store, thinking this was going to be what I did with the rest of my life. I didn't have any aspirations to be a writer. However, when I was in grade 10, my English teacher, Frank Nigro, asked our class to write a homework assignment about our dream bedroom. The assignment was, ‘If you won a million dollars (a lot of money back then), what would you do to redecorate your bedroom?'"
"I decided that my idea of a dream bedroom was a bed that I'd never have to get out of to do all the things that I wanted to do, and so I put my bed on an elevator that had a level where I slept, a level where I could watch TV, another level where I could play video games, and then there was a kitchen and a bathroom at the bottom level. When I handed in that homework assignment, Mr. Nigro said that I had a great imagination and I should write my ideas down. It was at that point that I went, ‘Oh! Maybe I can be a writer. I then joined the school newspaper, and I walked around with an idea book. I started jotting down all my crazy ideas and trying to turn them into stories. That experience with the English assignment started me on the road to thinking that I could become a writer."
After high school, Marty's path to becoming an author ran into a detour, a parental road block actually. "I had to come face-to-face with my parents' ideas of their dreams for me. They wanted me to be an engineer. I gave into my parents for a year and went to the University of Alberta where I studied engineering. I was miserable there, failed, and had the lowest grade point average in Engineering history - three on a nine point scale. After I got kicked out, I spent a year trying to find myself, and in that year that I was trying to find myself, I remembered Mr. Nigro and what he had said about my writing."
"I thought, ‘You know what? I'm going to do something that I actually like.' I went back to university, got an English degree, and became a writer. Another detour hit me in the fact that I discovered drama and theatre. I was well on my way towards getting an Honours English degree when I realized that, if I stayed on that track, I wouldn't be able to take all the drama courses that I wanted. I dropped out of Honours English and spent an extra year at university getting a BA Special degree with a major in English and a minor in Drama."
"The drama courses were focussed more on directing and performing, but towards the tail-end of my degree, there was a playwriting course in which I was able to register. It was a 300 level course, and there was a 400 level course as well. After I got my degree, I actually went back and took the 400 level course because I thought, ‘I just want to be able to learn a little more about creative writing, especially plays.' Luckily for me, one of the instructors for the 400 level course was a working screenwriter who had just moved to Canada from Los Angeles, and I thought, ‘I can't miss that opportunity.'"
"Because my parents had applied a lot of pressure on me and didn't really believe that I could be a writer, I made it a personal mission that any job I took after I graduated had to involve writing in some way, shape or form, and so I started working in various government departments as a communications officer. Consequently, sometimes, I would write media releases; sometimes I wrote brochures. My dream job was writing speeches for the Minister of Agriculture."
"Doing these jobs made me ‘feel' like a writer even though I wasn't a ‘creative ‘ writer. At least I was learning the discipline of writing. In university, you learn how a story gets put together, but you don't actually learn the discipline to write. When I was in university, I'd wait until two nights before an essay deadline and then think about doing it. When the deadline came and went, I'd ask the professor for an extension, and I got very creative about why I needed the extension. Then, I wrote my essay overnight in a mad dash and handed it in the next day. Definitely not what a writer was supposed to do."
"When you're a writer, you're supposed to revise and expand on your ideas. Working in the government is where I learned the discipline of writing. You were given an idea and you had to expand on it. You wrote the first draft, and then you revised it, refined it, and then you got feedback. The Minister didn't want to say certain things in speeches, and I quickly built a tough hide about criticism. I established a strong work ethic when it came to writing and revising, and even now I try to write every single day, not just Monday to Friday. I extend writing to the weekend as well, even if it's just two pages or revisions on a stage play or just going over the outline of a novel. I always try and involve writing in some way in my daily routine."
As Marty said, he was "writing" but not doing the kind of creative writing that he wanted to do. He recalls his big break. "I was continuing to work for the government and trying on the side to develop my theatre and television writing career. I met a producer at a TV festival in Banff, and he told me that there was a TV series, Jake and the Kid, an adaptation of W.O. Mitchell's Jake and the Kid, being filmed in Edmonton. He informed me that the producers were desperately looking for a Chinese actor to play the role of Henry Wong, one of the characters. I thought, ‘I have very little acting experience, but this would be a great chance for me to meet the producers, be charming, be funny, be memorable, and come back later as a writer and pitch story ideas, and the producers would say, ‘Oh yah, we remember you. You auditioned for us. Terrible actor, but you were really funny.'"
"Well, my plan backfired because the producers actually gave me the part, and so I was desperately trying to convince the producers that ‘No! No! No! I wanted to be a writer, not an actor." The producers figured that out by themselves. My character had 10 lines of dialogue in the first episode, and the number of lines got whittled down episode to episode. In the last episode, I think I was basically standing in the background with a pot of coffee, and my only line was, ‘Is anybody thirsty?'"
"Well, I made it through that first season, which was 1995-96, and I took every opportunity to impress the story department, which I must have done since they rewarded me in the second season by firing me as an actor and hiring me as a story intern for Jake and the Kid. At that point, I didn't have to work for the government any longer as I had gotten my foot in the door with TV writing. From there, I expanded my work in television, continued working in theatre, and I've never looked back."
"It was only in 2002-3 that I switched over to kids' fiction, and that was after I had worked on a television series called Mentors. I had reached that point where, as much as I enjoyed writing for television, I didn't enjoy the fact that I would write these stories which would then go into this big ‘machine' and be churned out, but what came out weren't exactly the stories that I wanted to tell. I found myself thinking, ‘I've got a knack for writing for kids, but I just wish that the stories that the stories didn't have to be changed because of budget or locations or actors' egos.' I decided that I would try to write a kids book."
"I sat down and spent about eight months working on the manuscript that ultimately became The Mystery of the Frozen Brains, revising it, throwing it out, starting over, but, at the end of eight months, I had something that resembled a manuscript. It had the right number of pages; it felt heavy enough; everything was spaced out properly, and then I put it away. I had done it. I was happy. I put it away."
"About six months later, a colleague of mine e-mailed me saying that his publisher, Thistledown Press, was putting out a call for young adult manuscripts. ‘Did I know of anyone who was interested? I said, ‘Well, I've got this "thing" sitting at the bottom of my drawer. Do you think your publisher would be interested in reading it?' ‘Yah, sure,' he said. ‘Let me send off an e-mail.' The next thing I knew, he e-mailed me back, saying, ‘They want to see the manuscript. Send it.' I did, and about two or three months later, I got an e-mail from Thistledown saying, ‘We like the manuscript. There's some work that needs to be done, but we want to publish it.'"
"So that's how I got into kids fiction, and I know I have all these ‘knives' in my back from authors who say, ‘Oh! One submission. You haven't suffered enough.' You think that, if you get one book published, then everything's fine after that. But, just because you had one book picked up doesn't mean that your next manuscript's going to be automatically accepted. I still go through rejections today. It's humbling, but it's part of the process."
"You just learn that, when you're writing, you make your manuscript the best you can, but once you've got that manuscript to a form that you're proud of, then from there it's trying to find the right publisher to match up to your story. As long as you understand that, it's easier to take rejections because then you go, ‘Oh, it wasn't the right fit,' and so you just keep going until you find that right publisher that says, ‘I love your story. I'm going to take it, and I'm going to make sure it's in every single book store and make sure that everybody gets a chance to read it.' You don't want a publisher who goes, ‘Yah, it's just OK. We'll put it out for six months, and then once we've had it on the shelves for six months, we'll sell you your copies.'"
Marty's having written humour pieces for CBC Radio in Edmonton also contributed to his novels for juveniles. "My getting into radio was just one of those flukes, and everyone's going to hate me. I had been writing these humour pieces for a Chinese-Canadian monthly magazine, and they were just humorous looks at what it was like to be Chinese and living in Edmonton. When the magazine folded, I had these little columns sitting around and thought, ‘I should do something with them.' I was a CBC Radio fan and thought, ‘Maybe I can pitch these columns and see if they would be willing to broadcast them and hire an actor to read them.'"
"I sent about three of these pieces to the producer of the CBC afternoon drive home show, asking if they would be interested. The next thing I knew, I got a call from the producer who said, ‘Yes. Come on in, and we'll record them.' ‘Who? Me?' He replied, ‘Yes, we want you to record these.' I went in and recorded three of them just as a trial. They aired them once a month, and at the end of the three month period, the producer contacted me and asked, ‘Can you do more?' I said ‘Sure. How many more?' And he replied, ‘One a week.'"
"I started writing and recording my own commentaries, The Dim Sum Diaries, once a week and did so for about six and a half years starting in 1994. They were about my experiences, either as an adult or a child, of being Chinese and living in a Prairie province and what it was like. After a certain point, if you're doing one commentary every week, you start to run out of ideas and things to talk about. One of the things that I'm a little ashamed of is that, in an effort to create more material, I ‘invented' an older sister named Wendy. For some reason, everybody loved her more than any of the other characters that I wrote about."
"But the thing that I forgot to do was to tell my parents that I had invented this sister. All these friends of my parents would be listening to my commentaries on CBC and going, ‘Wendy? Who's Wendy?' They would go up to my dad when he was working in the store or when he was walking down the street and say things like, ‘We just heard your son Marty. Where's your daughter? What happened to her?' Confused and then upset, my dad cornered me one day when I went over for a family dinner and asked, ‘What's this all about?' I had to explain, and he said, ‘OK.' Then, just like a traditional Chinese parent, he very pragmatically asked, ‘Well, at least are you making money on that?' I said ‘Yes' to which he replied, ‘OK, fine.'"
"As I said, The Dim Sum Diaries were a combo of both adult and childhood, but it was really the childhood stuff that people gravitated towards. Everyone just loved hearing about my odd childhood, and when I sat down to write The Mystery of the Frozen Brains, I pulled inspiration from some of the commentaries that I had performed on CBC Radio. I tried to work in little scenarios throughout the novel where, ‘Oh, yah. I remember talking about that on CBC. I can work that into the novel.'"
"The one that most people recognize is the first chapter in The Mystery of the Graffiti Ghoul, the horrible clothes shopping incident. That started off as a CBC Radio commentary all about my ugly corduroy pants and dealing with my mom in what was at the time the Woolco department store and how she couldn't wait for me to get into the dressing room. She just yanked my pants down in the middle of the store. As I've told this story at various schools, I'm surprised at how many students and adults recognize that story and say, ‘Oh, my mom did that.' I think clothes shopping humiliation is universal."
"Kids and adults also identify with my mother's practice of buying cheap and too big. As a kid, you don't take into account growth, and you grow fast. For parents on a bit of a budget, that growth spurt is the difference between having clothes for one year and not having clothes for the next year. So, if you, as a parent, have to make a choice, you buy the clothes that will last two years. And, if your children they have to grow into them, then they will."
"Humour is just the way I look at the world. I believe that part of it has to do with that upbringing I had in that small town. One of the survival instincts that I developed was that I learned that, if I could get people to laugh at my jokes, then they stopped laughing at me and we'd find some common ground to develop a relationship"
"The kids in my The Mystery of... books are composites of kids that I knew. Remi Boudreau was a composite of two different friends. One was my first best friend and the other one was the friend that I had in high school. Their two personalities morphed into Remi. Trina was based on a girl I had a crush on and a girl I hated. I thought, ‘The idea of that love-hate kind of thing would make for an interesting dynamic between the Marty character and the Trina character.' Marty's feeling of affection for Trina was right there from grade three, but it's only when puberty hits in The Mystery of the Mad Science Teacher that the feelings then start to form into something more concrete than ‘I feel funny.'"
In each of the three The Mystery of.... books, the characters age a year. "It was a deliberate choice. I wanted the series to end after a certain point. My plan is that I'll write one more, and then wrap up the series. Basically, I'm the first audience when I write any project, and I knew that, if I was going to write a series, I didn't want it to be the endless series where I'm well into my 70's and I'm still going, ‘And my character....' I'd rather have my characters grow up so that I can deal with different issues like their giving up their French-English war and starting to pay attention to girls. That way, I can keep things fresh for myself, and knowing that there's an end allows me to say ‘good-bye' in the series rather than my just continuing until somebody says, ‘We're not selling any more.' Then, I'd never get a chance to finish off the characters and say ‘good-bye' to them."
"The weird thing is that, because I named myself as the main character, when I go into schools and do presentations, it's ‘Mr. Chan, a visiting author, ....' Usually by the end of any session, it goes from ‘Mr. Chan' to ‘Martychan' as one word. Never Marty. I'm just Martychan, and I think it has to do with the fact that, when the students see me up there, they're seeing the grownup version of the character that they've been reading about. As well, because of the way that I tell stories and the way I behave, it's not a far jump to go, ‘That is the Martychan from the books.'"
"It's been fun, but, at the same time, it's kind of a surreal experience because I keep thinking, ‘Oh, they think I'm the character in the book,' and often times I have to answer questions about what was real in the books and what wasn't. For instance, the grocery store is real, and I did work in the store, but we didn't actually live in it. We lived in a house about three blocks away. For the sake of the story, I thought it would be more interesting to have the family live in the grocery store because there were Chinese families that did own businesses and did live in the back. I thought, ‘You know what? It allows me to ramp up the conflict if I put the home in the store because the parents are always at the store. If Marty and Remi are getting into trouble at the house, they'll never be caught by the parents. I'll put them all together and see what trouble sparks.'"
"There really was this French-English conflict, but again, in my childhood, the schools were actually separated by a street as opposed to everybody being in the same building. Again I thought, ‘Where's the conflict? The conflict is if the French and the English actually can wage war with each other every recess and every noon hour as opposed to just before school and just after school. There would be no real drama or conflict if they were in separate buildings, and so I pushed them together. For me, that's one of the fun things about drawing from my life but then making the dull parts interesting."
One of the continuing characters in The Mystery of... series is the school's principal, Mr. Henday aka the Rake. "I thought I needed to have a principal like the Rake. I know that principals aren't like that nowadays, but I needed a strong authority figure who could be a foil to the kids, especially because I knew the kids were growing up and that their teacher would change in each book that they were in. I needed somebody to be an anchor point for the novel so that once the kids read it, they would go, ‘I know the Rake.' I can't recall the number of times that kids have asked me about the principal's elbow tapping. They all want to know if that's what my principal actually did. I had to explain that what the Rake does is the dialled-down version of what my principal really did."
"Back in my day, the principal had a strap that was hanging right behind him on the wall so that when you were called into his office, a big strap was what you would see just over his shoulder. And, depending what you did, the strap may come off the wall and may sit on the desk. If you were really bad, he may emphasize a point by whacking the strap against his desk to illustrate what might happen to you if you were to commit the indiscretion again. After that experience in his office, nobody would ever push anyone on the snow hill or throw snowballs. Just the threat of the strap alone was enough to get everyone to behave, and so he never used it on anyone. He just used it as psychological warfare. There was part of me that wanted to work the strap into the stories, but then I recognized, ‘The books are set in modern day. No one's using a strap any more,' and so I dialled it down to a guy who taps his elbow and who is very strict and very stern."
"I picked up on the theme of prejudice with the first book, and I thought, ‘I don't want to go the same well again in the second book, The Mystery of the Graffitti Ghoul. ‘What are the other kinds of prejudices that the characters would experience and that the readers could identify with? I came up with the kids who live in the trailer park because there's always an economic breakdown in every school. I thought it would be cool to explore these other forms of prejudice so that kids wouldn't just necessarily think about skin colour as being the thing that results in discrimination. They would see that there are other ways in which people can be segregated or persecuted. Then what happens is that you start to see that everyone comes from the same place. I thought that was something important for the readers and fans of the books to understand: ‘Ok, we're not so different. We've all experienced some form of prejudice, some form of discrimination. Some may have experienced a higher degree of it, but, at the base level, everyone's gone through that experience.' Once they understand that everyone's gone through the same thing, then they have a common place on which to build relationships."
In The Mystery of the Mad Science Teacher, having an illness becomes a source of prejudice. "Again, that was drawn from a real life experience. My mother-in-law has diabetes as does my father, and there's a certain way that you start to look at people when they're diagnosed with an illness. For instance, you start thinking, ‘Are they fragile?' I realized that that disease, whatever disease it is, changes your perception of that person, and, if taken to extremes, it becomes a form of prejudice or discrimination where you're no longer seeing the person for who they are. You're defining them by their disease, and I thought that would be something that would be fun to play with again just to show how quick it is for us to form stenotype"
"A lot of my work is about skewering cultural stenotypes, whether they're racially based or culturally based. I always try to bring them up to the light and say. ‘Well, this comes from you not making the effort as a human being to learn who that other person is. What you're doing is you're just going, "I see who you are. I know who you are just by how you look. I won't make the effort to find out who you are as a person."' One of the things that I try to do in the novels is to bring that up - just take the time to know the other person."
"It comes back to my own childhood in which, if those kids in school had taken the time to learn who I was, I probably wouldn't have felt as persecuted through all those years. In some ways, I'm sort of reliving that childhood through these books, and again that's the reason why I named myself the main character. I was the only Chinese child in the school. While another Chinese kid came when I was in grade 9 or 10, by that point, all my neuroses had been established. When my brother was growing up, I think there was another Chinese kid at his school, and so my brother didn't feel that same sense of isolation, which was nice for him because he's become much more well-balanced than I am which is probably why he's in banking and I'm a writer. I always joke that writing's cheaper than therapy."
"When I went to first year university, I thought now that I was in the city I could get together with other Chinese. I went to the Chinese Association dance where I thought there would be other Chinese people just like me. However, I found out that the Association was mainly for Hong Kong students, and they referred to me as a banana (yellow on the outside but white inside) or a CBC, a Canadian born Chinese. At that point, I realized that, even though we may look alike, we still have differences. That was one of the things that I took with me, and it started feeding into the various things that I've written over the years."
"My play, Mom, Dad, I'm Living with a White Girl, addresses that cultural divide. The other thing that people seem to forget is that even visible minorities have prejudices. If you're looking at somebody who is Chinese, you realize they have their own sets of prejudices. I know that from my mom because she was prejudiced about Caucasians, and her prejudice came out of ignorance and fear. She didn't know the woman that I was dating, but she was afraid that something would go wrong between the two of us. For some reason, my mom thought that if I dated somebody who was Chinese, she would feel more comfortable because the Chinese would understand what the Chinese culture is all about."
"And I was like, ‘But there's a whole second generation of kids out there who are being raised just like I've been raised. They probably don't know the first thing about how to pay respect to their elders because they've been westernized according to the way my parents would look at it.' So, it was one of those things that was really important when I was writing to show that you don't put a visible minority up on a pedestal and make them ‘precious' and say, ‘Oh, you've sacrificed. They're noble. They can do no wrong.' Especially in the case of Mom, Dad, I'm Living with a White Girl, I wanted to show the human side of visible minorities to show where they're coming from."
"For me, the important thing about telling stories is that you make it specific enough that you can transport the reader or the listener to a place where they've never been, but you want to make sure that what the experience is something that they can recognize in themselves. That's what allows you to build a readership because they go, ‘I can see myself in that. I may not see the same situations, but I know that feeling.' I think that once readers can identify those common feelings, they buy into the experience that the book is offering."
Racial prejudice is present in The Mystery of the Frozen Brains, and the book's bullies direct racial slurs at the Marty character. In today's climate of political correctness in speech and writing, some publishers would have shied away from including these terms, but author Marty says, "Thistledown did not balk at all. From what I remember when I was working with the editor, he caught me on other things, but he never called me on using racial language. If you're worried about alienating your audience or upsetting your potential consumers, I can see why publishers would try to flag those words. But then I think, ‘You know what? If I'm writing a book about discrimination and prejudice, I have to show what that is or otherwise the reader will go, ‘I don't believe this. I don't believe that this boy would feel this lonely. Everyone's treating him so nicely.'"
"For me, it was important to make sure, especially in the first book, that the Marty character was getting the raw exposure to that racism because it sets the foundation for exactly where he comes from, how he feels so lonely, and it's a way for the readers to go into his world. To Thistledown's credit, they said, ‘We believe in that, and we're going to let you run with it and see where it goes.' And it's paid off because students who read The Mystery of The Frozen Brain, totally understand exactly what the main character's going through."
The Mystery of..." books also contain another taboo subject but one that's a source of early adolescent humour - flatulence. Says Marty, "It's a natural bodily function. We're supposed to pass it about 20 times a day. I'm always amazed at how people turn it into a taboo, but it's as much a bodily functioning as sneezing. Because it's been turned into a taboo subject by a lot of adults, the kids find humour in it, and I'm still a kid so I find humour in it."
Flatulence of a feline variety also led
to Marty's writing his first picture book, True
Story. "The book
was inspired by the two cats. We brought them home from the pound. One cat, Max, stole my pens, and Buddy was the stress farter. A stress farter is when you, or in this case, a cat, gets too nervous or too scared, and you fart. The book's origins came from the day when I showed up at a school presentation, and I was running a little late. I told them the reason why: I hadn't had much sleep because of the cats and what they were doing. The kids started laughing when I said ‘stress farter,' and I thought, ‘There might be a story here." Over a couple of years, I started building that story bit by bit, and it became sort of a signature piece in my presentations. I finally realized, ‘I should turn that into a picture book.'"
As to whether or not there will be more picture books, Marty says, "If an idea strikes me, I might do some more, but, as you can probably tell, I have a short attention span. If there's an idea that grabs me for another picture book, I'll work on it, but right now I'm working on a new fiction series, and I've got a new play for young people, and so I go between theatre, kids fiction and television. Sometimes I'll go into radio, sometimes I'll write humour pieces for the Edmonton Journal. It all depends on what sort of mood I'm in."
"That's one of the great things about being a freelance writer. You're able to jump from one genre or one project to another, and doing so re-energizes you depending on what you're working on. I always work on something that really excites me. I don't know if kids get it, but I hope they do – writing is something you do because you love it. It's not something you do because you want to make lots of money at it. For me, I entertain myself first, and, if I can't entertain myself, how can I possibly expect to entertain my readers?"
In addition to books and TV scripts for children, Marty has also written three plays for young audiences: A Hero for All, The Sword in the Stone and The Forbidden Phoenix. "Writing plays is a little different than writing novels because other people come into the process. There's the workshop process where the script is read by professional actors, and there's a dramaturge and a director involved, and they all give you a feedback on what they think works. When you're writing a play, obviously it's not meant to be read. It's meant to be performed, and unless you're an actor who is writing a script, generally you're not 100% sure of how your script is going to actually work when actors are up there performing it."
"When I'm writing fiction, I know that when I'm working one-on-one with the editor, when we're done with our discussions about what works and what doesn't, once I address those concerns, there's not another level that I have to go through to revisit any issues. With theatre, I'm constantly revisiting creative decisions that I've settled on with the dramaturge. A different way of describing playwriting is that it's a very collaborative movement. I shudder to think of all those fiction writers who say, ‘I could write a play' or ‘I could I could write a film script.' They go into that process, and suddenly they go from being ‘top of the ladder' to ‘bottom of the ladder' as everybody can give their two cents and the powers-that-be will listen to those people before they listen to the writer. You have to have a tough hide to cope with those notes, and you have to have a really clear sense of what your story is. You need to know that you may change sections of the story in order to enhance it for the sake of the production, but you still have to have that sort of central through line - this is the story that you want to tell. How you arrive there may change slightly as different people are involved, but ultimately that's the story you need to tell."
Where Marty begins in a project he says "depends, often times, on the kind of story that I tell. A lot of times it's an idea. Sometimes it's a character. The ones that I find that are most successful are the ones that begin with character. For some reason, by having a character, I can put them into any circumstance and I'll know how they'll react. When I start with an idea, what happens is that sometimes the character becomes a bit mechanical because it's so important for me to play out the idea. Usually when I start with an idea, I'll have to revise the manuscript more than if I start with a character simply because I need to strip away the idea and come down to the story which is really essential to what the character does."
As to his writing regimen, Marty explains, "I'll go the gym first and get my run in. Then I'll come home, and I'll work on my latest project which right now is a novel. It's not a Marty Chan book. It's a new series, one called the ‘Barnabas Bigfoot" series. It's about Sasquatches, and in this case, there's a character, Barnabas Bigfoot, who is part of a Sasquatch tribe. Unfortunately, of all the Sasquatches, Barnabas has the smallest feet in the tribe, and he doesn't feel like he fits in. Barnabas runs across some humans who the Sasquatches call ‘Bald faces' because they have no hair. Barnabas gets captured by this evil scientist who is trying to cure male pattern baldness and who sees the Sasquatches as the key to this cure. The book's about Barnabas's escape from the scientist and his attempts to survive in 'our' world as he tries to find his way back to his mountain tribe. I'm still hunting around for a publisher. My idea was to get three novels in the series finished and then to try to land a publisher so that they could see what the series was about."
"But back to my work day. The afternoon is a free-for-all. That's when I try to answer emails, and I try to book my speaking engagements for the afternoon. If I don't have a lot of emails or any speaking engagements, then I'll use the afternoon to do some research or try to revisit or work on the revisions to a project. For some reason, I like to be creative in the morning when I'm just developing first drafts and pulling stuff out of the air and creating. In the afternoon, I switch to the other side of my brain. It's all more about, ‘Ok, logically what follow next? What doesn't make sense?'"
Marty spends time in schools working with students engaged in their writing process. He traces his comfort level at doing so to a post-university experience. "Right after university, I got involved in Theatresports, and I think that's where I developed most of my survival skills for school presentations. Improv is a great way of introducing students to writing because improv is all about accepting ideas. There's a concept in improv where there is no blocking - always say yes to a suggestion and see where it takes you. When I go into schools and do my presentation, I'll often have improvs there just to show kids how an idea starts from this little kernel and that all you have to do is accept the idea and run with it and see where it takes you. Once the kids see that, I say, ‘That's all there is to writing. You start with an idea; you accept it and you embrace it, and you see what you can add to it. You have to come up with a first draft, and then from there it's revision. Once you find the idea, it's a matter of playing with it.'"
"I think a lot of my work in Theatresports has also really helped me when I write because I always remind myself, ‘OK, just accept whatever idea comes in.' On projects, I often work from an outline, but once I have an outline and I'm sitting and working on a draft, if some stray idea comes floating in that has nothing to do with the outline, I'll just go, ‘Let's see where it goes.' If it takes me too far away and I get lost in the story, I always have that ‘map' that I started out with and I can just go back to it, but I always find that, when I follow that stray thought, it surprises me as a writer. And if it surprises me as a writer, I think it surprises the reader who is following the story."
Books by Marty Chan.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Edmonton, AB, March 4, 2009.
Visit Marty Chan's website at www.martychan.com.