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Richard Scrimger.
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Richard Scrimger "As a child of nine, I wanted to be a paleontologist because it was a big long word and people were very impressed when you said it," says award-winning author Richard Scrimger. "When I began university, I wanted to be a lawyer which is a shorter word, and people were not quite as impressed, but Mom and Dad were pleased. Older friends of mine who'd become law students said, 'I haven't read a book that has nothing to do with law in two years.' I thought, 'Gee, these guys aren't having any fun.' So I had some fun for about 10 years. I decided to be a writer in my mid-twenties. It was a decision that I took haphazardly, and 10 years later I was an overnight success."
     Born in Montreal, on April 5, 1957, Richard's connection with the city ended when he was just two. "We moved to Toronto, Scarborough actually, and then my parents moved 'downtown' when I was about nine. Until about four years ago, I still lived in downtown Toronto. Then my wife, Bridget, and I decided that our four children were getting bigger and the house was staying the same size, and so we decided to switch homes. Because Bridget, a moral theologian and professor at St. Mike's and St. Augustine's, was commuting across town and it would be easier to commute 'to town,' we moved east to the small town of Cobourg. As I can work out of my home, that was fine for me."
     Although Richard graduated from the University of Toronto in 1979 with a B.A., his time there was a mixed experience. "I didn't work very hard. I played a lot of cards and hung around. I never handed a single essay in on time, but I finished with a double major in English and history. Because I was going to be a lawyer, I started out in history, but, about second year, when I realized that 'law's no fun,' I switched over to English because those were the courses I was enjoying. I did a lot of serious reading, but university reading is more the 'correct' reading you need to do to get the A on the paper. For instance, I didn't read 'all' of Dickens, just the important chapters of the Dickens' novels that I was writing essays on. It was only after university that I sat down and read Dickens and had a great time. Perhaps the picture I paint of myself is a little false. I was pushed a lot through public school and was a scholarship kid. I 'made' money at university and didn't have student loans."
     "I didn't develop work habits as a writer until my children were born. I'd have four hours in front of me for writing, but somehow the coffee wouldn't be hot enough or the pencil wouldn't be sharp enough. I'd sit down, write a sentence and then stroke it out and write another sentence and maybe change the punctuation. I'd get up, walk and scratch my head and write another sentence, and I'd look up and the four hours would be gone. Then I'd go and play tennis or something. When the twins, the first of our four children, were born, suddenly my life had serious focus. The idea of having 40 uninterrupted minutes for writing when the two of them were napping was tremendous. I realized that, if I was going to write, I'd have to write during every spare minute, and that's what I've done from the time the children were born until now. If only I'd had these work habits when I was 12. My mom would never have had to yell,'Richard! Go upstairs and do your homework!'"
     After university, I went to Europe for a year, I waited tables, and I started to write. Over a long period of time, I wrote a long novel which one day might see the light of day. I made all the mistakes that beginning writers make. I rewrote and rewrote it. Now I know: the first novel is going to stink. Write it and throw it away, or put it in a drawer and start the second novel. The other big mistake I made was to write something I knew nothing about. I wrote an alternate universe novel with rock stars, people from Greek mythology and people with two heads. It took me forever, was very long and so damn 'clever.' I was being Noel Coward with every single sentence. Then I finally wrote Crosstown which was my first, I won't say success, my first book that was published. The first draft of that happened in the early '90's. I was married in 1985, a banner year for me because I got married, learned to drive and got a computer. Actually my wife got the computer, but I could play on it." Mr Christie Book prize
     Despite Richard's seemingly omnipresent sense of humour, he claims he wasn't the class clown. "In school, I was too busy working for the marks. I was the guy who knew all the answers but was not quite seen as the teacher's pet because I did manage to have a peer group and have some fun. I envied the class clowns because they seemed to have a much easier time of it. Whenever I'm giving a talk to a big bunch of kids and some are a little too old for the book and I can't pull them in with the book by itself, then I use my personality to pull them in. I just pick the guy who's going to make the fuss, the class clown, and bring him on side. This is fun for everybody. Those are the talks that really work."
     As a child, Richard was an habitue of libraries. "Both my parents worked, and so, from about the age of eight, I was a latch-key kid. It's not as though I have any horrid childhood memories to think of, but it was kind of an empty spot at home, and I liked the library and all its books. My friend at the time was another sort of nerdy guy, and we hung out at the library and read books like Freddy the Pig. I also have very many happy memories of being read-to. My dad used to do Winnie the Pooh, and my brother and I would be in stitches as he read."
     According to Richard, the decision about who would be the stay-at-home parent was very easy. "When we had children, neither of us had a 'real' job right away. Bridget was a doctoral student and was giving lectures, and I was writing so we both took care of the kids. Within the year though, Bridget got offered a job as a clinical ethicist at a hospital, and suddenly there was a real salary when I was not making even a pretend salary. I don't know that we even actually discussed my being the 'home' parent. I always say that it's not the career that I planned, because I was going to be a 'literary success' a lot earlier, but I can't stress enough how happy I am now to have had the five or six years when the kids were small because those are years you only get once. The youngest is now into grade one, and I have much more time to write than I've ever had. I'm frightened that I'll relapse and fall into old habits: the mornings will be so long, but somehow the coffee won't be hot enough or the computer won't be going the right speed, and there will go the morning."
     "The watershed in my writing career happened about 1994 or '95. I went to the intensive one-week program at the Humber College School for Writers. This was at the same time as I sent Crosstown, my second novel, off to an agent who had rejected my first novel. I said, 'OK, this novel is totally different. If you don't like it, I'm not going to send you anything else because this is the ying and yang of my writing style.' Every night at the course, there were student readings, and the typical reading consisted of some person getting up, sweating bullets, and delivering a passage about some tragedy that happened in their childhood, like their dog dying. And I thought, 'Gee whiz. All these downers. I don't know what to say.' Instead of reading from another novel that I'd started, I read a humorous story that I'd written about going shopping with my kids, and it brought the house down. Joe Kertes, the person who ran the program and who has since become a good friend, asked me to see him after the program was over. He suggested a couple of places to send the shopping piece, adding, 'I know these people. Mention my name.'That same week, I got a call from the agent, saying, 'I like your novel. We have to talk.' All this happened within a three week period in September of 1995. I got the funny piece published in the Globe and Mail. I sent the editor another one, and she liked it too. The following year, I ran a series of these pieces in the Globe and Mail,, and someone from HarperCollins contacted me, asking, 'Do you have any more of these?' And I lied through my teeth and said, 'Oh, I've got about 40' when I really had two. So then I sat down to write them. HarperCollins really liked them, and they came out as a collection, Still Life With Children.
     "The Still Life stories were a mixture of fact and fiction. Most of them happened, but I don't know that any of them happened exactly word for word. Certainly, the whole year did not did not occur in the sequence found in the book. The great thing about being a writer is that you get to write down all the funny things that you think of 10 minutes after the event is over. 'If only I'd been able to come up with that devastating bon mot to use on the bank manager.' Well, when you're writing the event down, you can make it as if you did. 'Wouldn't it have been funny if your kid had actually climbed on to the toilet seat at the plumbing store and pulled his pants down and finally got potty trained?' That isn't quite the way it happened, but it practically did, and anyone who has kids and is reading the stories will recognize that these are perfectly plausible stories."
     Serendipity also played a role in Richard's transformation into a writer for juveniles. "Claire McKay, the well-known children's author, is one of my mom's best friends. When Claire was putting a collection together called Laughs, she called me up. 'Richard," she said. "I've seen you at parties. You're a funny guy. Do you have a funny story that you could submit?' And again I lied through my teeth and replied, 'Got a lot!' Claire approached Kathy Lowinger at Tundra, saying, 'The son of a friend of mine is kind of a writer." And Kathy said, 'Oh great. Just what I need. Somebody else's best-friend's kid.' But when I wrote the story which first introduced Norbert, the alien who lives in a kid's nose, Kathy really liked the concept. However, she sent back a whole list of problems that she had with the story. Claire said, 'Look, you also wrote a funny poem. We can stick it in and forget about the Norbert story.' I responded, 'No. I'll see what we can do.'
     "I took a few days and rewrote the story, 'Introducing Norbert,' to Kathy's specifications and realized, 'This is a really good editor.' I'd already had some success with my adult books, Crosstown, and Still Life, and I'd had a good time with the editors I worked with on those books, but, with Kathy, I was really aware of someone with her hands on the editorial reins, taking over and saying, 'This can be a good story if you do this.' I've been in awe of her ever since. She and I have wrestled a few stories into the ground, and her ideas are almost always good and worth listening to. I'm very much aware of being in the hands of someone who takes me seriously and knows exactly what they're doing with the book."
     The impetus for the transformation of Norbert from a character in a funny short story to one in a humorous novel, which later won the Mr. Christie's Award, Richard claims as his. "During a chat, Kathy asked, 'Have you ever thought of writing one of those funny stories you write in the newspaper from a kid's point of view?' Again I lied. 'Yes, of course. In fact, I think that's a great idea. But I also have this other story. You know that Norbert story that I wrote for Claire. I think that could be a novel.' And Kathy said, 'No, it couldn't.' But she added, 'We'll give you some money, and you try them both and we'll see which one we like.' Even though I was a relatively untried author, at least in the children's field, Kathy was prepared to go out on a limb with an advance. 'I'd like you to do the "travel" story first,' she said, and I replied, 'We'll see.' I wrote the Norbert story first, and, when Kathy read it, she said, 'This is good. It works. Do you want to change this, this, and this?" The story was way better when I took her suggestions and rewrote it." Nose from Jupiter
      In the very funny and cleverly written The Nose From Jupiter, Norbert, the extraterrestrial, not only takes up residence in the nose of Alan Dingwall, 13, but he also becomes the new 'voice' in Alan's life, a voice which causes Alan to have to do things which would not normally be part of his "boring old Allan Dingwall" existence. The school bullies, Larry and Garry, and Alan's classmate, the smart, pretty and athletic Miranda, along with Alan's quarreling divorced parents, all find that they are dealing with a new Alan.
     Converting a short story character into one that must sustain an entire novel is potentially fraught with many difficulties. "I suspect that unknowingly I walked through a minefield and just did not know the mines were there because I didn't have that many problems. When you sit down at the keyboard, you can't just go and type the first words that come to your mind. You sit and 'listen' and see what comes to you. As I was typing the first scene of a story that I thought would be light and fluffy involving these happy noses from Jupiter, the parents wrote themselves in, and they were darker characters, and the book just got darker right there. I wrote the first chapter and said to myself, 'Gee, these are good characters. I should probably keep them. This is a situation that I can I work with.' Similarly, the two bullies wrote themselves in, and they were gruesome. I wanted them to be funny, and they wrote themselves just a little darker, and the things they did were just a little bit grottier than I thought they would be. I was almost surprising myself as I wrote. While you can't redeem everybody in a story, I did think one of these bullies could be saved. I wanted that, and Kathy didn't try to talk me out of it."
     "Kathy would love to bring Norbert back, and so would I because he's such a good character and he and Alan work very well. We just have to figure out a way to get him out of k.d. lang's nose and back with Alan. I chose k.d.'s nose because I wanted a Canadian symbol and somebody who's really cool, and I think of k.d. lang as the icon of cool. I love going around to schools and asking the kids what characters they would like to see come back and how they would rewrite the story. Very often another character from Jupiter is mentioned as way to go. Maybe Norbert's girlfriend, Nerissa, from the short story will come in. In the original draft of the book, Nerissa was a prominent character and so was Nerbert, Norbert's evil twin, but Kathy made me take them out. She was right. It's a better story now."
     "Ask me where my characters come from, and I'll answer that they are people I know and they are me and where the one leaves off and the other starts in the mix I couldn't say. The Nose's Alan is a representative every-boy kind of character. I borrowed the book's setting, and I even cheated there. Some of the rivers and bridges aren't named correctly. I make a little cameo appearance with my family at the end of the story. There's a reference to this funny crazy family with lots of kids that lives down the street from Allen. The dad runs out and picks them up when they fall down and carries them inside. That's my role."
     In his second humorous novel, The Way to Schenectady Richard elected to use a female narrator, Jane Peeler. "I've written six or seven books, and, in at least two or three, I've been a woman. I'm quite comfortable 'being a woman.' I suspect each of us has male and female characteristics in us, and most of us have been brought up with men and women. I'm much more comfortable having a female voice than I would be having a voice of different ethnicity or an ethnicity that I was not comfortable with. I haven't yet had a kid who's had a problem believing in Jane as writing the story." Way to Schenectady
     Attending a funeral doesn't seem to be the stuff of humour, but, in Richard's hands, it becomes so in The Way to Schenectady. A family vacation takes on an added dimension when Jane, 12, hides a tiny, smelly old derelict, Marty Oberdorf, in the back of their van. The family's trip from Toronto to Massachusetts includes a Jane-orchestrated sidetrip to Schenectady, New York, so that Bill can be present at his brother's memorial service.
     "The hardest thing to do in Schenectady was to get Dad into the background because I was giving him funny lines, and Kathy said, 'The kids don't care. Lose him.' In fact, Kathy was pushing me to a place where the comedy was kid-centered. I guess there was too much of me involved. The stories in Still Life With Children are told from the dad's point of view, and Dad gets all the good lines or gets to be the crazy, harassed person who has all the horrible things happen to him. If you think about your favourite kids' stories growing up, adults were not a large part of those stories. What I did with Dad in Schenectady would be a painting technique. He was strong in the first draft, and all I did was go over him with a 'sponge,' and, if you 'lighten' him, he goes 'into' the picture. I did it once, and Kathy said, 'He's still too present.' I took the sponge out and did it again. But Dad's the same character. I didn't change the essence of Dad. I just pushed him farther back into the picture, away from the camera. I like to work within a very consistent character framework. If the character has a strong tone, then every time I bring the character back, he's going to be working on a variation of that tone or maybe a subtle movement within that tone. So Grandma can certainly change. She can be a grouchy, crabby person, but she's never going to become a nice soft person."
      "When I was busy raising children, I used to make time to write, and I still worked at restaurants until only a few years ago. I found I was doing a lot of writing from the time the kids went to bed until the time I went to bed. I would write from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. every day, and then I'd get up at 6 a.m. because one of my children, Ed, gets up early. For a couple of years there, I truly don't know when I was sleeping. I don't have a particular ritual time for writing. I'm not that organized, but I do try to write every day. When I first started writing, for years it wasn't real unless I was writing with a pen on the paper. I might then type it in the typewriter or enter it into the word processor, but, since getting the computer and getting used to it, now it's only real when it's on the hard drive and backed up on a disk."
     "I try to get a few pages done every day. One of those novels for children is about 40,000 words which means that I could write it in 60 working sessions - unless deadline pressure comes up, and I have to do it in 40 sessions. On my own devices, it would be 60 sessions which would probably be spread over a couple of months. I will work on two books at the same time, but I'm not in the creative process on two levels at once. When Schenectady's deadline was due, I was in the middle of writing Mystical Rose. I said, 'OK, stop!' I sort of ran around the block for a day and then said, 'Ok, my head's clear, and I'm ready to go. I sat down and wrote Schenectady and put Mystical Rose on hold until I finished Schenectady and handed in my draft. Then I took a few hours off and sat down at the next session and started back into Mystical Rose."
     "When I start to write a novel, I start with the whole thing. I have to have the whole idea. That doesn't mean I finish where I start or that I know at the beginning how it's going to end. I start with a 'ball of plasticine,' and the novel is in that ball of plasticine. When I start, I want to realize, 'This is the amount of material that I'm going to use in the novel. This is the kind and colour of material,' and then I start to shape and rough it out. As I write, I'm being more precise in my shaping of the plasticine. Maybe I'll roll out a bit and reshape it as I go, and an idea will occur to me, but I want to start and always have in my hand the amount of plasticine that I'll be working with so that I'll have a sense of what the book is about. I have to start with an idea, a hook, a what-if. It just sort of pops into my head, and then I wriggle it around a bit and try it out and see, 'Where can we go?' I think of three or places to go, and then I sit down and write, but I certainly hold myself open to new ideas. As I said, I had The Nose From Jupiter set up as a light fluffy comedy, and it wrote itself dark."
     "Pace is something I'm very aware of. I have to remind myself at all times, 'How's the pace going? Is it fast enough, too fast? Do I have to throw in some description or make the dialogue take place over a longer period of time?' I'm also very aware of pace from scene to scene. Often when I'm blocked, it's because I'm taking too much time on a segue. I'm much better off using a director's terminology to 'cut.' So, if I'm blocked, I just say, 'Go to the next scene. Forget this. You're done.' Within the scene, if I'm reading it over to myself, I will continue to be concerned about pace. 'Does that read too fast? Are they getting too many funny lines in a row. Do I have a sense of the time, of the place?' That's important for me."
     Richard has a number of completed and on-the-go projects. "I've finished a grown-up novel, Mystical Rose, about an old lady talking to God. I think of it as the Virgin Mary and the Titanic which are the themes in it. A small publishing house is interested in turning that very first novel that took me so long to write into a book, but I have to lose an entire plot line. I have two more children's novels. One, with the working title 'Glittering Scales,' is a high end novel about a character who receives a couple of coloured scales in the mail. He uses them to go into literature so he disappears into the books. He goes into several books including the book he's studying, a Greek legend and the Bible. The other book is the return of Norbert. I also have a cartoon series that I'm working on, and Norbert may be turned into a TV show. We've signed an option agreement with Salter Street Studios, and I think they want to turn it into 13 episodes. I will get a chance to write those so that may take up more of my time. As well, Linda Granfield wants there to be more Schenectady. Kathy called, saying, 'I just talked to Linda, and I quite agree.' I'd love to do more. I think they're a great family. I don't know if I might tell them from a different point of view because there are various family members."
     "My favourite comedy is a triangle because you have to have the two forces competing over the source of tension. You have to have a foil, you have to have the guy that gets the funny lines, and you need to have the source of tension between them. Laurel and Hardy are a great buddy team, but it's no good if they're just standing side by side. They have to have a piano between them that they are moving or a girl that they're fighting over. It's something that happens in my writing. I look for it backwards and say, 'I wonder where I stuck that triangle?' I don't consciously try for it. I write the scene as funnily as I can, and I find that, often when the scene really works, if you go back and examine it, it works because there is a triangle."
     "I think of humour like sweat. If you run around, you're going to sweat. If I put words together, humour's going to be there. For example, Crosstown is not a comic novel for adults. It's a novel of search and redemption and spiritual growth. Fortunately, it reads fast, but there is comedy in it, and there's comedy in places you wouldn't normally expect to find comedy, including a rape scene. When I'm talking to kids, it's going to be comic. Certainly, it's going to be me, and my tone with my own kids is predominantly comic. I don't try and teach them the depth and horror and seriousness of life. I try to be with them in a way that reflects the joy of life, and, if I can bring joy into kids' lives, that's a gift I'm delighted to have."

Books by Richard Scrimger.

*This article is based on an interview held in Winnipeg on November 19, 1998.

Addendum: Since the interview, Richard says he's completed a second Norbert book with the working title, "Norbert and Gracie," which is due out in Fall, 2000. A sequel to The Way to Schenectady, presently bearing the tentative title, "One Peeler Christmas," is planned for 2001. Three picture books are also in the works. Richard's adult title, "Mystical Rose, sans the Titanic theme ("thanks to that movie," he says) should appear in 2000.

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