Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
"Nature is very important to me," says Sharon Stewart, who was born July 22, 1944, in Kamloops, BC. "It has been my good luck to grow up in places that are very beautiful. When Dad went off to World War II, my mother and I went to Victoria to live with his sister. Our house was right on the ocean, and as a tot I dabbled in the tide pools and played along the shore. After Dad returned in '46, we moved to Vancouver. Dad was with the Bank of Nova Scotia, and, thereafter, because bank managers, like ministers, get transferred, we kept moving from one tiny little town to another. One of the places where we lived was Lytton, BC, in the Fraser Canyon. It's haunted by echoes of the Gold Rush and the Caribou Road - terribly romantic stuff. It is a gorgeous place with beautiful, incredibly rugged scenery. The community is located in a deep canyon where the sun is only overhead for a brief time each day. It was very, very hot in the summer. It used to be 112 F. in the shade. We lived over a bakery, and so we baked in more ways than one. From there, we moved to Lumby in the north Okanagan Valley, just north of Vernon, BC. It was a lumbering town surrounded by mountains.
"We returned to Vancouver when I was in grade 8, and I stayed there through university before leaving to do graduate work abroad. I adore Vancouver, but I think I still see its glamour through the outsider's eye. I consider myself an exile in Toronto. I've married twice, both times to men with the surname Stewart and both Torontonian. Neither would consider living anywhere else. Is that fate, or karma or numon?"
Sharon's writing career began at age eight with poetry. "I was deeply influenced by the Thornton W. Burgess books. I was an only child, and my mother devotedly read to me probably from the time I was a month old. She would always tell the story about my sitting up in my baby buggy holding a book because I had seen her do it. I didn't know what I was doing, but people would go, 'Oh my. That baby's reading!' As a child, I wanted the stories to go on and on and never to end. I'd say to my mother, 'One more story! One more story!' And she'd reply, 'No. You have to go bed now. Tomorrow there'll be another story.' I think I had so many stories crammed in my head that they had to come out and become my own stories. It began with poetry. I still remember my very first poem, written when I was eight.
Mother reads a story each night when I'm in bed.
I close my eyes and listen and make pictures in my head.
The smiling pool, the laughing brook seem real as they can be.
The little birds and furry folk I see in every tree.
My mother, of course, lovingly saved this crumpled piece of paper. I still have it"
"I find it interesting how many writers admit to being interested in the 'Emily' books as children. I read everything that L.M. Montgomery ever wrote, but it was the 'Emily' books that particularly spoke to me because Emily was going to be a writer and she was just a kid like me. I always thought that writing was the most wonderful thing that you could possibly do. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, but I don't think I really believed it could be possible. In the book, Emily's poetry wasn't very good, but then she found a responsive teacher who helped her and she got published. After reading that, I thought, 'People can actually do this. It doesn't have to spring from your forehead perfect. You can learn.' That realization opened up the whole process for me."
"When I was in grade 7, I won a short story writing contest for the whole high school. It was a heart-wrenching tale called 'The Exile,' about a dog that was wrongly accused of killing sheep, when, of course, it was really a coyote all the time. Winning was utter validation, and so I thought, 'I'm really going to be a writer.' It was probably the grandest day of my life to that point. After that, I got confidence and contributed stuff to things like school annuals and journals. That was my most active period as a young writer."
"We moved from Lumby to Vancouver, and I went into grade nine there. But because I came from an unaccredited school, the new school I was attending did not want to give me credit for the work I had done. In those days, that particular school was really pushing putting kids into the accelerated program in which you did four years in three. However, the principal didn't believe the high marks I had from Lumby and placed me in what basically amounted to the general level. Well, that created enormous social problems. For one thing, I was an outsider. For another thing, the kids considered me a 'smarty pants,' and, being an only child, I was not too good at socializing. There was some bullying by a bunch of boys who were particularly nasty. The year was a total disaster, and I had what amounted to a nervous breakdown."
"Had I been a better-balanced person, I could have handled it, but I couldn't. I sort of came undone and was out of school for a couple of years. When I returned to high school, I went into the grade 10 accelerated stream and didn't even finish my grade nine year which is why today, to my sorrow, I know absolutely nothing about ancient history because that was the year they did ancient history."
"At that point, I wasn't writing because I was deeply upset. I had lost my sense of myself. I had lost that lovely, almost effortless feeling that I really could write. When I graduated from high school, Simon Fraser University was just opening up, and, because of my two year lag, I was admitted as an adult student. I really wanted to be in the University of British Columbia's creative writing program, but, because I was missing a couple of math credits, UBC wouldn't admit me. So I thought, 'I'll go to Simon Fraser, complete a couple of years and then switch to UBC.' But that didn't happen because I fell in love with history."
"I had never before studied history as it should be taught, not as memorizing facts, but as an investigative discipline. In those days, Simon Fraser was a marvelous place to be. I was a charter student. It was the first year SFU opened, and it was only half built, a mud wallow. However, what they had done was hire all the heads of departments, and so we were taught by them. Of course, we got a non-pareil education, one that years later we would never have received. I've done graduate work at other places, and nothing was ever as tough as what we did at SFU because they were really treating us undergrads as graduate students."
"Because I fell in love with European history, I did honors history. I also loved languages, and so for a couple of years I was doing honours French and Spanish at the same time. I took a few English courses, but what I really fell in love with was linguistics. Again, it was linking to language. Although I still wrote poetry for myself, I never tried to be published. During this time, I decided I wanted to be a professor of history, and so that's what I set out to be."
"Because I got scholarships and because my family wasn't really well off, I went where the scholarships took me. In the first instance, since I was a Commonwealth Scholar, that was to England and the University of London to study French History under Douglas Johnson. When I look back, my studying history makes a certain amount of sense because history is profoundly a literary discipline. You can't be an historian if you can't write, and very early on I learned how to do that. Unfortunately for me, the scholarship was set up so that I had to do a Ph.D, and consequently I had to go directly from a bachelor's degree to the Ph.D. which is very difficult to do, especially because the whole British system was different from Canada and all my SFU professors had been American-trained. I also made the mistake of getting married in the middle of the process, and, as a result, I didn't finish my Ph.D. in England and was left with nothing."
"When I came back to Canada, the University of Toronto said, 'We won't give you any credit whatsoever for anything you did in London. You can start over.' And so I started over. I was still married to the same guy. The marriage was getting into some trouble, and I could see rocks ahead, but I decided to run back to the only thing at which I excelled at that point - being a student. I did an MA in French Colonial History at the U. of T. and most of the Ph.D., all but the thesis, and then the marriage began to fall apart. I was panic-stricken because my Ph.D supervisor had warned me that university teaching positions were almost impossible to get then - how could I support myself?"
"The family I had married into had a lot of connections, and one of them was to publishing. At that point, I turned back to my other love, books, and thought, 'Maybe I should try getting a job in publishing. At least it would give me something to keep body and soul together if the marriage breaks up.' I went for a courtesy interview at McGraw-Hill Ryerson, and, while they didn't have an opening, they said, 'Gage does,' and sent me over to Gage where I did all the little tests. Gage hired me, and I began a career as an educational editor in social science. I had the history experience but also the writing experience, and the two of them meshed very well. That was 1981, and, when the marriage did indeed fall apart, I went on working at that job."
"Gage was where I met the man who is now my second husband, and things have worked 'happily ever after.' Rod was a history teacher who had taught for many years in the public school system, and he had written several major high school textbooks. He was also writing his Norman Bethune biographies and had taken time off from teaching to do that. Each time, it was harder for him to go back to teaching, and eventually a friend of his (who turned out to be my boss at Gage) offered him a job. I was on Rod's staff, and once we met, the incandescent flame burst forth, this being one of the great romances of the century, or so we thought then. Actually, we still do!"
"After being on the job at Gage for about three months, Rod said, 'I absolutely hate doing this.' Not knowing Rod, I didn't know what this statement could lead to, but it resulted in his saying, 'Why don't we go to China?' At this point, madly in love, I said, 'Let's go.' Because of Rod's having written the Bethune books, he had connections, and, beginning in 1972, he'd been to China about four times, even during the Cultural Revolution. He sent a telegram to the foreign office in China and asked, 'Have you got teaching posts starting in the middle of the year?' 'Yes,' they replied, 'but only in Harbin.' So, in January of 1983 off we went to probably one of the only places in China that's colder than many places in Canada, and one that did not have much central heating. It did give me a chance to write, though. Rod and I took turns writing articles about our often bizarre experiences. They were picked up by newspapers across Canada."
"After our stint in China, Rod went back to teaching in 1984. He was very lucky and got a job at Cardinal Newman, a big high school down on the lakeshore where he stayed for a number of years. Meanwhile, I was working for one publishing house or another. I went from Gage to Ginn, and from Ginn to Prentice Hall and from Prentice Hall to Pearson and so on as the companies were gobbled up by one conglomerate after another. You never knew quite who you were working for. In 1998, Rod's actual last year of teaching, he decided to do exchange teaching in Spain. So at that point I gave up what had become my 'regular' freelance job."
"The years I was first married and still going to graduate school, I did try to write. I wrote a Harlequin-type romance, which was a total bust, but I had a great time doing it out at the cottage one summer. One of my poems was published in a literary journal, but that was it. I used to write stories, but I never had any luck with them. I remember giving the stories to an editor whom you could hire to read your stuff, and she said, 'I have never read anything quite like this. I don't know what this is.' In later years, I realized the voice that was probably coming through was not an adult voice. It was a voice for young adults, but I was trying to write about husbands and wives and marital situations, which was what I knew."
It was while Sharon was working as an editor that she began writing for juveniles. "Because I was working in educational publishing, I was initially editing texts, at first in the social sciences, but, when I moved to Ginn, I went into a language arts program and was editing articles and stories that were being written for the program. I very soon realized I could do better than most of the things that I was getting, and so at a certain point Ginn said, 'Would you write something for us?' That's how I began writing for children, and I began with poetry again. I also began writing nonfiction for them, but didn't have the confidence to do stories."
"The first book I wrote was The Dark Tower even though Minstrel Boy was actually published first. Almost all of my writing comes through serendipity; something happens, or I see or read something. In this case, I was doing research for my editorial job. I was looking for journals written by young people in different historical periods, and I came across an American translation of the journal of Madame Royale, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I read it, and although the language was too elaborate and it wasn't told in story fashion, I was impressed with it as a survival tale. This girl was clapped into jail when she was only 11 years old, and she didn't get out until she was 17. They executed her whole family, but she emerged from prison not only sane but perfectly healthy. How did she do it? My first thought was, 'You know, somebody should write a novel about this girl because children would be interested in her.' Then I had a really scary thought. 'Maybe I should write a novel about her!' So I began to do research, something I knew how to do from all my background in history."
"One day I went down to the Robarts Library on the University of Toronto campus. They were in the process of putting the catalogue into the computer. Some things they simply hadn't done, and so you still had to delve through the card catalog. I came across a card for the journal of Madame Royale in French, the complete journal, not the edited American version. I went looking for it, and in the darkest, most dusty corner I finally found this old book. It was the second edition, published in 1823, and the pages were uncut which meant that nobody had ever read it. I thought, 'It's a sign. I have to do this.' I trotted down to the front desk, thinking for sure they wouldn't let me take the book out as there was no computer number on it, but bless the librarian's heart, he entered it into the catalog. I carried it home, and, yes, I cut the pages. I thought it was time. How else was her story going to be known? I think she would have wanted me to."
"That was the start. It took me a year to do the research, and then, along with working full time, another year to do the writing. I began sending the manuscript to publishers, but it kept zooming back like a boomerang. I was distraught because I thought it was so good. Then I began to realize that maybe my wonderful book wasn't so wonderful, and so I sat down and rewrote it from beginning to end. I changed it from third person to first person, and I made a number of other changes, tightening it and so on, which you can always do once you've let a piece of writing 'cool off' a bit. I sent it out again, to various publishers, including Scholastic Canada, and it was rejected again. At that point, I gave up and put it in my bottom drawer."
"Meanwhile, I had the idea for another story, Minstrel Boy. I did research for a year and spent another year writing it before I started sending it out. I sent it to Scholastic Canada, among others, but I didn't hear anything back. I began to feel hopeful, thinking, 'If I don't hear back, maybe they're thinking about it.' After several months, I got my courage up and phoned to ask what was happening. Scholastic's response was, 'Oh, we don't have it. We must have lost it.' I asked, 'Should I send another copy?' to which they replied, 'Oh, we're rather backed up with unread manuscripts right now. Don't bother.'"
"Just when I was really in the pit of despair, I got a phone call from Sylvia McConnell at Napoleon Publishing to whom I'd also sent the manuscript. She said, 'We've read your story and want to publish it.' But no sooner had I signed the contract with them than the phone rang. It was Scholastic Canada. They had found the missing manuscript and wanted to publish it. The caller was Sandra, then the new senior editor at Scholastic. When I told her what had happened, she asked, 'You don't happen to have anything else in your bottom drawer, do you?' I replied, 'Well, yes, but Scholastic has already rejected it.' Sandy said, 'Never mind that. Send it along.' I did, and that's the serendipity of how The Dark Tower, after more revisions and work, came to be published."
"Minstrel Boy, in part, came from the fact that I've always adored the King Arthur Cycle. When I was in graduate school in London, I had a friend who was studying the Old French versions of the Arthurian romances. She was always quoting them to me, and we used to make silly jokes about them. They had remained alive in me, I guess. As well, I'd always been fascinated by the idea of Arthur and who he really was. Because of my knowledge of history, I knew that he couldn't have been who the romances said he was. In 450 A.D., he would not have been a knight in shining armor. I thought, 'That's interesting. Something could be done with that. Something that might interest young people.'"
"City of the Dead was another inspiration coming from my job in educational publishing. At the time, I was doing research for a unit on world mythology. One of the consultants said, 'Look no further. I have just the story for you. You'll love it.' She sent it to me, and it was the story of Anubis and Isis. I read it through, and it was pretty exciting stuff all right - murder and rape and people thrown to the crocodiles in the Nile, or burnt to ashes. I thought, 'There's no language arts reviewer in the world who's going to let me publish this in a grade six textbook.' So that went into the wastebasket. In those days, there was always a stack of books on my desk because part of my job was to find pieces for anthologies or to write or commission them. So I started looking for another story. When I opened the top book, it fell open to a story about Anubis. 'Holy synchronicity!' I thought. I read the story, but it wasn't the right story either. So I went downstairs to dinner, and thought no more about it, or so I believed."
"But I woke up the next morning with my own Anubis story crystal clear in my mind right down to the last line. The story, 'Dog Days,' begins City of the Dead. At the time this happened, I was writing another novel, but I thought, 'Here's a story that wants to be written. Maybe I had better write it,' and so I wrote it in about a week. When that story was finished, another story idea popped into my head, more or less complete down to the last line. This process went on for 15 weeks - 15 weeks and 15 stories, one after the other. I just kept writing them, and then one day the flow of ideas stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I still have no idea what prompted that outpouring of stories. It has never happened since."
The contents of City of the Dead found a further spooky expression in an event that occurred to Sharon. "In 'Dog Days,' Anubis is described as a black dog with pointed ears and wearing a red collar with a big brass tag. One day after the stories were finished, I was out in the garden in the early spring, crouched down pulling weeds. I got the feeling that somebody was watching me. I turned around and right behind me was a big black dog with pointy ears, a narrow red collar with a big brass tag on it. We stared at each other for a long moment, and then he jumped over the hedge and vanished. I nearly died. I thought, 'Something's going to get me. This is my punishment for having "taken" this story.'"
Spider's Web was published by yet another publisher. "I knew from the beginning that Spider's Web was too young adult for Scholastic. They're more interested in the grades five to seven level. I did, however, send it to Sandy who always liked to see what I was doing, and she said, 'No, you're right. This is not for us.' I then got publisher information from the Canadian Children's Book Centre, and the length and topics of Spider's Web seemed like something that Red Deer Press might be interested in. I sent it to them, and they accepted it."
"I also went back to Red Deer with City of the Dead because it was too dark for Scholastic." That computers play a part in both Spider's Web and City of the Dead is not surprising, given Sharon's claim of not being "a techno-peasant. I'm the 'information technician' for our house, and, if there's anything that has to be done, I have to do it. I like computers, but I came to them late because of my age. When I was first an editor, the design department was beginning to get computers, but the thinking was that editors didn't need computers. We kept saying that we were wasting a lot of time in word processing by having to retype everything. Eventually, however, the computers came. But freelancers were never given any training. We had to pick it up on our own."
"Because I always read everything to do with new computer glitches and things, I read about this game room business where you have simulacra. I thought, 'This is wonderful. You can pretend to be somebody that you're not,' but I felt that that could be dangerous as well. I pulled my punch a little bit at the end of Spider's Web by making it the girl's father who tracked her down because I was seeking a younger audience level. If I'd been writing for mid teens or older, the stalker would have been a sexual predator, but I had decided that really wasn't the story I wanted to tell. I wanted the story of Sara aka Spider and her mother, their difficulties, and the stepfather problem."
"The house in Spider's Web came from two places. Friends of mine who live out in Caledon have a beautiful country house which is built on a hillside. As in Spider's house, you come in at the top and look down through levels. The other source was reading a description of Bill Gates' house that he was building on the coast. As well, I thought about other things I had read, such as the possibility of putting art on the wall that you could change with a flick of the switch and a computer controlling all the functions of a house."
"The funny thing about Spider's Web is that I've never seen a review that catches the idea that this is Alice in Wonderland. The computer, aka HouseCat, is the Cheshire cat, and its icon disappears, leaving its grin behind it. How could you be more obvious? Spider goes into the house and goes down, down, and so that's her going down the rabbit hole. There were other things like her feeling that she was getting bigger and smaller at times. The scene in the internet café is the mad tea party - the characters she meets are Bunny and Topper and Dory. The game in the maze was based on a conversation with the caterpillar on the toadstool. I had a lot of fun doing that."
An impetus for My Anastasia was Sharon's husband Rod who, as The Dark Tower was just coming out, asked, "'What next? Anastasia?' And I said, 'Oh no. The last thing I need is another downer.' I was so depressed at times when I was writing The Dark Tower because it was such a sad story that I wept buckets. Not long afterward, though, Sandy Bogart Johnston phoned and also suggested I write about Anastasia."
"But after writing The Dark Tower, one thing I knew was that I'd never again write in the person of a princess because it's too limiting. Marie-Therese doesn't 'know' enough without my having her eavesdropping behind doors all the time. You could tell from her real diary that she only saw things from a very narrow perspective. Consequently, I had to find ways for her to learn what was going on. So I brought in Pauline to tell her some of the things she needed to know. Pauline was a real historical figure, but she would never have dared tell the real princess the things she did in the book. Sandy Bogart Johnston suggested creating a character from a totally different background, so I made up a friend for Pauline, named Sophie, which means 'wisdom.' She was a member of the bourgeoisie. Her letters to Pauline got 'wisdom' to Marie-Therese that she would not otherwise have had because she was locked up in jail - and in her identity as a princess."
"With My Anastasia, I needed to be able to convey to children why the Czars fell without my doing historical analysis. So I decided to invent Dunia. I wanted someone who was a peasant and who knew the hard side of life and the suffering of the poor in Russia. Once I created Dunia, I became very fond of her. I had a lot of fun with Rasputin too, but he was a tough one to deal with because, of course, Scholastic was very worried that the awful 'S" word, 'SEX,' might rear its ugly head. I thought, 'Well, we're going to have to get around this.'"
"I had all the research for My Anastasia done before I went to Spain in 1998, and I had to take it all with me packed in our suitcases. Of course, the airline lost our luggage. That was in August with a January deadline ticking away. Luckily, they found the suitcases in Barcelona a couple of days later. I'm sure I developed some grey hairs as a result of that experience. I bought my first laptop to take with me, and My Anastasia became my first e-manuscript. I never submitted a hard copy manuscript for that book."
"I was really miffed by someone who reviewed My Anastasia and said. 'There's nothing in this that you can't find on any website.' I thought, 'Oh yes there is. You just don't know what you're reading.' Via interlibrary loan, I had got books from all over North America, old memoirs, letters and journals written by people who had known the family. I wanted these little details that are all then woven into the story. For example, there are little tiny details like the Empress's always having lilacs. When the royal family was besieged in the palace, with the revolution raging around them, until a certain point her lilacs were still coming in from the Crimea every day. I got that detail from the journal of one her friends. That type of stuff is not on a website."
"From an emotional point of view, at times both The Dark Tower and My Anastasia were difficult to write. You read peoples' letters and their memoirs. You read what they wore to bed and what they liked to eat. You live with them, knowing, as you do, what happens to them, and you're trying to covey it for young readers. Scholastic was a bit concerned about what happened to the Princesse de Lamballe in The Dark Tower. They thought that was pretty brutal, and I said, 'Well, in reality it was even worse. You don't know what I left out that they did to the Princesse de Lamballe, and you better not ask.' I'm enough of an historian by training that I think that's where a lot of the interest of history lies. Something in me hates prettifying history. But in writing for young children, you do have to soften it sometimes."
After writing science fiction and historical fiction, Sharon switched to the animal fantasy genre with Raven Quest. As to her not being pigeonholed as a writer of a specific genre, Sharon says, "I don't know if that's an advantage as a writer or not. I think some people are a little bothered by it perhaps, but I do it because of my trusting my intuition and because I'm interested in different things. My interest in computers came out in Spider's Web and some of that also went into City of the Dead. When I was young, I adored anything about the supernatural, and so that came out very strongly in City of the Dead. But I am passionate about nature, and that's what comes out in Raven Quest."
"Sometimes I have despaired in Toronto. Being mewed up in a big city is really not the best place for me, and so when my husband retired, I said, 'If you won't go to Vancouver (he loves the city but hates the rain), you've got to get me somewhere I can have nature. We bought a house in Richmond Hill, the next big suburb north of Toronto, but we live in a very unusual place. It's a ravine, and we live in a couple of acres of forest. The house looks a bit like a ski chalet. I just have to have nature and the country. It's like breathing to me. That's why I so enjoyed being a raven for a while."
"The initial incident that made me want to write Raven Quest was that I actually saw the crows' funeral that I later described, the one where Kaa's family is blown up in the tree. The real incident occurred in the middle of Toronto before we moved to the country. One Saturday morning, this wailing and screaming of hundreds and hundreds of crow voices began. I'd never heard anything like it in my life. It was so loud that people started running out into the street asking, 'What's going on?' Crowds of crows were coming in from all directions. They sat on the trees, and the trees were black, and they were wailing. You knew it wasn't good news, and so we stood out there and watched. Then one fell off and plummeted like a rock to the ground and just hit THUD! And then another one, the same thing, and then another one."
"Finally we went and gingerly poked one of these birds, and it was as dead as a stone. The crows screamed and cried and screamed and cried. We rushed in and called animal rescue, and the guy who came said, 'People don't like crows because they're loud and noisy and considered pests. In the country, they shoot them, but in the city they poison them.' A whole lot of the crows had eaten some kind of poisoned bait, and the others came for the funeral or wake or whatever it was. All of this spanned about an hour, and the crows just sat there and cried and cried and cried. Then, one by one, they began to fly away."
"I thought, 'OK, here's inspiration again. This is something I've got to deal with.' I started off thinking my hero might be a crow, but, the more research I did, the more I realized there's a lot more mythological depth to ravens, and so I thought maybe my hero should be a raven. I still wanted to get the crow funeral in there, and so that's how Kaa came in. Coming from studying a lot of mythology and reading all the tales about ravens, I began to think, 'Well, the ravens probably had a mythology of their own.' It just seemed to me that it was such a natural thing to have them have 'sayings' and 'tellers' and all of this sort of thing because they are such interesting, intelligent animals and have such a large vocabulary. According to Bernd Heinrich, a scientist who studies ravens, there are just under a hundred different calls that they've identified for them. It's not language with grammar and syntax, but it's a system of signaling. I started writing about ravens, and then I got the idea from Heinrich about this link which he postulates between ravens and wolves, that they hang out together for reasons related to hunting and food. That's where I got the idea of the Grey Lords and wove it into the mythology."
"I started Raven Quest in June of 2001, and we went on a visit to Spain in September. Prior to our leaving, I was writing maybe about a chapter a day and had written as far as Tok's meeting with Selaks, which is well into the book. We were gone for a month, and then it took a while to get back into it, but I think I finished the rest of it by February. It flowed very well, especially when compared with writing something like The Dark Tower where I was wrestling with historical facts all the time, trying not to falsify too much or have Marie-Therese know what she couldn't have known unless I could think of a way for someone to tell her. With Raven Quest, I could just create whatever I wanted. Aside from the fact that I've made the ravens sentient, thinking mythological beings, I wanted them to be natural. I wanted them to eat what ravens would eat and do what ravens would do, and so I set out to write a naturalistic fantasy, which is an oxymoron I guess."
"I ended up doing both ravens and wolves which I hadn't initially thought of, but, then when I came across that link between the two, I really liked the idea. It was back at the point where I was thinking, 'How would I do this? What should it be? Should it be a crow? Should it be a raven?' Suddenly in my mind's eye, I could see a raven riding on the back of a white wolf in a snowstorm and thought, 'OK, that's the way it's going to go.'"
Each chapter in Raven Quest is introduced by something like a proverb or saying, such as "A lie is blacker than any raven's feather -Wisdom of the Tellers." Each of these chapter introductions belongs to the traditions of the ravens, crows or wolves, and each had to be created by Sharon who explains, "Whenever I quoted poetry for ravens, I was thinking in terms of things like the Norse sagas. The wolves' intros are based on poetry of some of the Native peoples, and the riddles are just me, but the patterns seemed right for wolves. I wanted a slightly different tone of voice for the wolves' mythologies from the ravens'. The crows I always thought of as a more practical lot and more materialistic. The ravens were a little more concerned with kora and all of that."
"Kora is the ravens' sense of honour, but it's more. It's a way to live; it's everything you are, everything you believe in; how to be. It's uprightness. It's intrinsic. You can't learn it; you can't acquire it through patient discipline. You are either are kora, or you're not kora. It was something I felt very strongly as I was writing."
"The 'scare' I had with Raven Quest was that, just after I submitted it to Scholastic and it was sitting on my editor's desk, another raven book, Ben Gadd's Raven's End, came out. I saw the review, and my heart just went right down to my toes. I thought, 'Now Scholastic will reject it right away.'"
Looking ahead, a future novel may be "Angel Fire" which Sharon says came out of something she read "partly about religious cults, partly about angels and this fervent belief that people have in angels. I thought that to be something interesting, and I began to do research on it. That's what I was writing when City of the Dead started coming out of the netherworld. I did complete a draft of 'Angel Fire' and sent it to Peter Carver at Red Deer Press. He liked certain things about it, but he didn't like a lot of other things and said, "I would want it a complete rewrite. If you've got a problem with that, we've got a problem.' I replied, 'Well, I don't have a problem because I see flaws in it myself. I know I need to rethink and recast it.' But what's happened over the last few years is that I've gone back to work full time again after several years of working part time. It's just the way the projects have run, and there's been one project after another. I wrote a grade two textbook for Pearson Canada last year. Then they were having trouble with the grade three textbook, and so I had to try to help fix it. Now, all this is lucrative, but my own writing gets sidetracked."
"Creative projects come up too, though. For instance, just when I thought I was ready to go back to 'Angel Fire,' Sandra phoned me up again. For years, she'd been suggesting that I write something for the 'Dear Canada' series. I'm Acadian by descent on my mother's side, and Sandra said, 'Why don't you write something about the deportation of the Acadians for "Dear Canada?"' Actually, she had first asked me about it before I went to Spain, but then I had to finish My Anastasia. And then City of the Dead started coming and then Raven Quest, and so I kept putting her off. Finally she said, 'Look, you have to make up your mind.' 'OK, I'll do it.' I said, and so willy-nilly I began to think about it."
"Of course, once I began, I very much liked doing it. Writing a diary of that kind is an interesting exercise because there are certain things you have to say in a certain way. Angelique's writing her diary, and so she doesn't explain who her brothers and sisters are or how old they are. She knows that, and so she wouldn't put it into her diary. You have to think of this all the time you're writing. I finished Banished From Our Home just in time for the World Acadian Congress in 2004."
"Another creative project that popped up was writing a biography. Years ago I had promised to do something for XYZ's 'Quest Library' series. When they asked, I was then in the midst of My Anastasia. I promised and promised, and now I've finally done something about it. They suggested various titles about worthy people, but I didn't want to write about a role model. I wanted to write about a hero or a devil, somebody who did something dramatic. So who did I come up with? Louis Riel."
"Well, once the editor got over the shock, she thought that was a pretty good idea, but then I went into a tailspin over voice appropriation. After all, Riel is a Métis and despite my French Canadian background, I'm not. But then I thought, 'As an historian, I really don't believe in voice appropriation. History is history. I'm a Canadian, and Louis Riel is an important part of Canadian history. As a Canadian, I have a right to write about him.' Of course I wouldn't have a right to attempt to explain his deep significance to the Métis people. That's a different matter. But I've been a language arts editor for so long, and no editor in educational publishing would touch a story written about Native people if it weren't written by a Native person. So it took me a while to get on with it. Fortunately, the editor was very understanding."
"XYZ wanted me to do this book because I write for young readers, and 'The Quest Library' is theoretically focused on senior high readers. The other reason they wanted me is because I'm a novelist rather than because I'm an historian. They want these dramatized scenes built in, and I helped Rod do that with Wilfrid Laurier: A Pledge for Canada. You don't make it up out of whole cloth, but you take a situation in which you know certain people were present. You know what they talked about, but the words don't exist exactly, or, if some words do, you weave a few words more around them to create a little dialogue."
"I usually have two or three book ideas lurking in the far distance. One is a possible sequel to Raven Quest. And writing the diary novel for Scholastic made me realize that I could do another book in the same format, one based on some of my mother's memories of growing up on the Prairies between 1912 and 1920. As well as reading to me when I was little, my mother was always telling me these marvelous stories about her life on the prairies, with wolves all around and sleighs with buffalo robes and all this stuff. It's all so romantic, and she also had so many funny little vignettes."
"I've often thought of writing a novel for young people about her life, but I wondered how I would weave all that in. Of course, now I realize a diary would be a good way because, with a diary entry, while you're carrying a bigger story, you can also drop in little bits the way somebody would in their diary. For example, if something really funny happened like 'the bishop came for dinner but the dog chewed the roast, and Mother said, "Put it back in the pan. He'll never know."' I think that all of this could make a really good story, and it would so have delighted my mother who always wanted me to write a story about Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, she is dead now, but I did dedicate Banished From Our Home to her memory because of her Acadian descent."
In talking about herself as a writer, Sharon declares, "I'm not an awfully good subject for an interview on how writers do things because I'm not metacognitive. I'm not sure how I do things or why I do things. I just know that I'm very strongly impelled to do certain things. An idea comes, and, when it's really good, it's like having electricity in your blood. You can feel it, and you almost begin to burn. When it's bad and you get into it and then it doesn't work, you feel terrible and think you've maybe made a horrible mistake, but I've learned to trust that voice that tells me what to do next and to follow it. I often feel that other writers may approach things in a more intellectual way, but, with me, it's totally instinctive."
"How I develop the stories is instinctive too because, unlike many authors, I've never been in a writing class. I've published with Red Deer Press, and Peter Carver, who works for them, has been my editor. He runs a very successful writing class. I know Rick Book and some of the other writers who've been in his class, and they describe what a great experience it is, but that wasn't my route into writing. Maybe I would have saved myself a lot of time and agony with the first book and the ten years it took me to get it published if I had been in a writing group."
"I think being an editor has helped a lot because it gives me a more economical style of writing. You know when a cut is a cut and when you need to step back from your writing to let it cool. When I do workshops with kids, I say the main thing is to put your writing away and let it chill. Don't stop writing, but go on to something else. Come back in a week (although two weeks is better), and you'll be embarrassed at how bad that wonderful story suddenly looks. That's the editorial eye, and I was using it constantly because of my having to edit what other people were writing."
Asked if her editor side can stand aside while the creative part of her is working, Sharon replies, 'I think so, but the editor side is there in the planning stage. I journal my books. While I'm doing my research for a book, I start keeping a journal, and I talk to myself all the time about what my problems are and how I feel that day. Some days you don't think you're getting anywhere, or you think you're lost. I write all that down, and that's how I start my writing day. I find what happens is that, as I do the research, I write notes to myself about what research I need to do or I start thinking about characters, what kinds of characters, and developing sketches of their personalities."
"All that goes into my journals, and then, when I get to the final stages, I begin the planning in the journal and say things like, 'I think this might have 20 chapters' or 'It'll be in parts' as in Raven Quest. When I've got a sense of how many chapters, then I begin to write little summaries of what would be in each one. What happens at that point is suddenly what I'm writing becomes longer and longer and longer, and that's when I know it's the take-off point. Then I stop planning, and start writing. It doesn't mean that I don't have to go back and revisit my plan. I almost always find that what I thought was a chapter is not. It's usually too much material, and I need to shape it differently."
"I think all that analytical side is at work in that planning and journaling stage, but then, when I begin to write, I let the story flow onto the page. Usually, I revisit it the next day as my way to get into my writing day. I'm a binge writer, not a write-every-day-no-matter-what type of writer. But when I'm in the midst of a project, I write seven days a week. I start with reading through and revising a bit. It's not the final copy editing kind of revising. It's simply to get back into the characters and what's happening to them. I try to write a chapter a day. That's my 'assignment' if it's going wonderfully well and I feel excited and don't have an editing project going at the same time."
"It's hard for me to write a novel and write for educational publishing at the same time. For instance, I've just written a book of folk stories for Pearson which is to go with a social studies project for Alberta. It involved researching folk tales from four different countries and choosing a story and then retelling it to the grade level. Doing that's using all the same skills I use to write my own stuff. It's easier if I'm just editing what somebody else has written, but, if my assignment is to write something from scratch, it draws me away from my own writing. And so I try to compartmentalize and say, 'OK, I'll write for so many hours, and then I'll work on what earns me my bread and butter.' But the problem is creative energy. The work I do for educational publishers is profitable, but there is only so much water in the creative well. After too many dips of the bucket, you come up empty."
Books by Sharon Stewart.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Toronto, ON, on September 20, 2004.
Photo credit: Ken Chow