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Teresa Toten
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Teresa Toten Although Teresa was born on October 13, 1955, in Zagreb, then Yugoslavia, now Croatia, she left the country on the very day she was born. "It was communist Yugoslavia in those days, and my mother's family were landowners. Because no one in the family turned communist, they were constantly picked on by the government. My father was a Canadian citizen. He met my mother, and they fell in love, but he couldn't get her out of the country. They got married, but he still couldn't get her out. Over a two year period, he went back and forth between Canada and Croatia. Finally, when my mother was pregnant with me, and with, I believe, the help of the Canadian Dept. of External Affairs that put pressure the government, they gave my mother a one day exit visa which was issued the day I was born. Everyone was ready, and off we came to Canada. I was just 13 days old when I got here."
     "We first lived in Delhi, a small town in tobacco country in southern Ontario. Like in The Only House, my father died when I was about seven months old. We stayed in Delhi for another two or three years, and then Momma and I came to Toronto and began our journey of moving here, moving there, until we moved to the 'only house.' It was like one or two moves a year, and so I quickly got very good at going to schools and being the new kid. I decided that the moving is what probably made me a writer because I was always observing. Even when you move as an adult, even if it's just around the corner, your antenna's up. The door handles don't turn the way they used to. And so you're alert. You watch; you watch; you watch. It used to drive me crazy that I wasn't shy. It seemed that all the writers I knew, the really good ones, were shy. What the heck was I doing? But I figured it out. What I do is I watch, and I'm alert because it's always new for me."
     Teresa's early career aspirations were someone unusual. "Growing up, I wanted to be a mermaid. I had read Hans Christian Andersen. I think by grade 5 or so, I wanted to be an astronaut because I really did love science and science fiction. When I was a child, all those shows like the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone were still on rerun, and we had Captain Kirk. I loved all that stuff and reading 'boy' comic books, 'boy' books actually. I could relate to them somehow more than I could to the 'girl' books. My mother couldn't read English, and so, until I could go to the library myself, her forays there led me to this extremely diverse, wide-ranging group of books. She'd go to the library and bring back a shopping bag full of stuff, like three picture books, a gardening book, a cook book, an autobiography and a novel. She would just pull things off the shelf, and so I devoured them all. Maybe finally some kindhearted librarian directed her towards the boy section of shelving and out came a lot of these risk taking stories. What the boys got into just seemed to me a lot more fun than what the girls got into. My interest in fantasy and science fiction stuck with me all through graduate school, and it's just waned in the past few years."
     While Teresa says that "I think I held on to the mermaid possibility as long as humanly possible," following high school she went on to the University of Toronto but entered with no specific plans. "I think I was part of that generation where you didn't really have to make a decision. Yuppies, we could luxuriate and go and take a general degree. In first year, I probably took one of those general programs, things like economics, geography, the whole menu. The history courses that I took tended to be more political, and so by second year I was definitely deep in the thick of what was then political economy. I loved it and completed a BA (Hons.) in 1978, and then I did a M.A. in Political Science. I was an extremely ambitious little brat back then, and I did the graduate degree in a year. My thesis was on Canadian foreign economic policy. International politics, the way countries interact with each other, was something I really had a passion for with the idea of probably wanting to go into the foreign service."
     Writing had not been a career possibility that Teresa had considered while in high school. She does acknowledge that "teachers were always incredibly supportive and encouraging about the few things that I wrote through school, but I don't think I ever believed them. I thought they were just being 'nice.' As well, I'd never met a writer. It was as strange to me as being a mermaid. When I go to schools now, I really think, if nothing else, I say, 'Look, there's me. You can do this if you want to.' Although I loved doing what I did, if I'd ever come across a writer, I certainly may have gone off that track."
     Following her MA, Teresa married Ken and moved to Montreal. "We lived in down town Montreal, and 1979-80 was the time of the first referendum. It was a really interesting period to be in Montreal, perhaps not the best time to be an anglais in Montreal and one just coming off a degree from the University of Toronto. For a political junkie, however, it was not bad to watch this high drama first hand. While I loved it, I couldn't find a full time job anywhere and then literally tripped into doing a few freelance broadcasts for Radio Canada International. At the time, the President of Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito, was dying. Back in those days, everyone thought that once Tito died, it would be Czechoslovakia all over again with the Soviet Union entering Yugoslavia with tanks. At some luncheon, and with the incredible arrogance of youth, I turned to someone and said, 'That's just complete crap,' and reamed off all these reasons why I thought so. What I didn't know was that the person sitting across from me was Carol Chitman, the Head of the Eastern European Division of Radio Canada, who said, 'Would you like to write that down in a script and show it to me?' And so that's how that started, and it was really great. However, recently I looked though those pieces again and discovered that I'd ended up doing every one on areas that I did not take in five years of university. I probably spent a good deal more money phoning long distance to professors back at U. of T. than I ever got paid at Radio Canada."
     "Then Ken and I moved to Ottawa. At the time, my husband was with the Royal Bank International, and we had this great idea that we'd both have these international careers. I sat for the Foreign Service exam and passed it, and then I had to go through these boards. I don't know how they do it now, but External Affairs used to have three departments. You're quizzed by these foreign policy Pooh Bahs who asked me which stream I would be interested in. I replied, 'Anything but immigration,' and so, sure enough, that was the only position they offered me. By that point, I was working in my first full-time job, which was the Royal Commission on Conditions of Foreign Service. From my new found knowledge in working on the Commission, I also realized what our international career would have been like. Ken would be in Paris, and I'd be in Kuala Lumpur. The early years of a foreign service officer were not going to match the Royal Bank's stations across the world, and so I didn't pursue that line of work and stayed working at these bizarre little corporations, sort of last gasp Trudeau efforts."
     After some seven years in Ottawa, Teresa and Ken moved to Toronto, then to New York, and back again to Toronto. "The two daughters came along when we moved to Toronto for the first time. I was going to be one of those women who had the daughter or son over coffee and then went right back to work. Then I had one of these extremely boring chemical reactions to the birth of my child and thought, 'No one is going to look after this child but me.' I don't know if this idea came to me because my mother had worked, but it was just primal, and I knew I would not go back to full time work. I think I have a difficulty with 9 to 5 issues. Pretty well all those jobs I'd had were often seven days a week, very long hours, and I didn't want to turn into one of 'those' mommies. I wouldn't do that well."
     It was about the time of the birth of her second daughter in the late 1980's that Teresa ventured into writing. "I took Peter Carver's writing workshop through the Learning Annex. I think I wrote a chapter of The Only House for him. Actually, I thought then that it was going to be a picture book. I'm still waiting to write a picture book. Anyway, I sent it off somewhere and got a lovely long rejection letter from a press that was breaking up. And then I thought, 'Clearly I can't write,' and so I stopped completely for years before going back to Peter's class. By that point, it was in the basement of Mabel's Fables, a children's bookstore in Toronto. Everyone read their stuff, and that's the way I wrote the entire draft of The Only House. Every week, you would bring something, and maybe you'd read it or maybe not. Everyone would argue, and, because The Only House tended to have some controversial bits, it would all be flayed out there in class. It was so marvelous." The Only House
    Teresa readily acknowledges the highly autobiographical nature of The Only House, which is set in 1968-9 and tells the story of Lucy Vakovik, 11, who, with her Croatian mother, has just moved into their own home in a new neighborhood. "Everything I write comes out of an exercise. I think this exercise was, 'Write something when you were ten.' When I was 10, we moved to a house, a single detached family unit. For someone who had been moving from spot to spot at least every few months, it was a big deal, moving into what was then a completely white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, middle class area. Well, Mom and I were such fish out of water. I don't think I had my mouth closed for a year and a half. I didn't understand these people because of growing up to this point in this ethnic mix, Indian, Italian, Portugese, and Jewish. I'd been the Seder kid who would run down on the Sabbath and turn things on or off for a Jewish landlady. The only culture I wasn't familiar with was the one I was now thrown into."
     "You never think of your own life as being worth 'mining,' but, as it turns out, I think that's pretty well the kind of writer I am. I steal from myself and the people I come across. I'd love to do fantasy or science fiction, but my writing just keeps coming out from voices from the past or even the fairly recent past. It strikes me as so amazing, so awful or so wonderful, that they end up in the writing. So starting with The Only House, I think I am one of those writers that just 'steals' and keeps stealing."
     "My mother really did work two jobs. Our first big vacation was when I was 16. She never took summers off. During summers, she and I would work. When I was 11, we'd go and work on the tobacco farms. She would have three or four weeks off from her 'top secret' cafeteria job and would go and work in tobacco for that time and would then go back to work in the other two jobs. It was amazing. Most of the humiliating incidents in The Only House are true. Actually, when I started writing the book, the central character, Lucy, was called Teresa, and all of 'Lucy's' friends' names were my friends' real names. When I go to classroom, I tell the kids, 'You know, I wasted a lot of time when I was writing The Only House. You can't tell the truth if you're writing about yourself. You can only tell the story, and hence real truth, if it's not you. Because the 'real' Teresa was doing these things, I would put in a paragraph of explanation or I'd soft-pedal the situation a tad or give 'Teresa' some insight I know I did not have at that time. I probably went through the manuscript one time before she became Lucy and not me and more so me - more the fumbling, grasping kid, trying to figure it out, who was fairly street smart and fast on her feet, and I think at times a tad ruthless in her wanting to be right there in the center of whatever she thought was the universe. And I couldn't do that if that person was me. Then all of my characters' names changed, but my childhood friends all recognized themselves. Many of the incidents, such as the garage roof racing and sneaking out of the house and having seances, we actually did."
     "The situation involving Carol didn't happen the way it was in the book although one of the older sisters in that family did die tragically. However, the way Carol died was absolutely an invention of mine, and it just lent itself to the story. There was a lot of stuff that happened when you were in grade five and grade six. Real things. They were dangerous times. There were a lot of things going on in and out of neighborhoods, but we kids kept that quiet. We didn't talk to our parents then. It was our code. 'Slumming' was something Lucy could not understand. This neighborhood was it, and things didn't get better than this neighborhood with these kind of people. Of course, they were middle class people, but, to Lucy, it was awesome. They had yards, and some of them even had family rooms. What could be more? But apparently there was more. Apparently there was a whole other class, and, yes, some girls were, as they are now, preyed upon. Wanting to be involved and be part of something that you feel that you are being excluded from makes you very vulnerable."
     Teresa has found a new audience for The Only House. "I'm deeply involved as a volunteer with Frontier College and teaching English as a second language. Once a week, we would read a chapter and sort of dissect it and see if it would touch any part of their lives. It was with great relief that I found that they liked the book. I can't read a book that I've written right after it's come out. I can't read it even a year later, not for a long time. The words really sound hideous, but now, six years later, I quite like The Only House. My mother still doesn't read English, but she knows the book's about her, and I've read sections to her and tried to translate it." Many of The Only House's readers have expressed to Teresa their enjoyment of the book's contents, but a number of their communications have also expressed another sentiment. Says Teresa, "Kids would write in rather peeved and annoyed wondering about the next installment of Lucy's life. I got a lot of those letters asking for a sequel, but I don't know whether I'm ready to continue with Lucy's life yet. I know I'm ready to go back to a first person, hopefully funny, voice again. It's the looser and the more natural me. When I was writing The Game, it was like I didn't exhale throughout the entire book. The Only House was not any easier to write, but it was more fun to be with that voice than The Game voice. So I will return to that sort of feeling of a book again."
     The Game When Teresa began writing what became The Game, the story of Dani Webster, a 14-year-old who is a patient in a psychiatric facility for problem teens, she had actually "started writing a fantasy, and I had the idea about the game part. When my girls were little, we'd go walking through Toronto's ravine system. We're all walkers in our family, and I loved the ravine system. It just seemed to me to be a very magical place. It's right there 'beneath' everything that's happening in the city. And then we moved to New York, and I still wanted to do this fantasy. 'Why,' the rationale part of me asked, 'Why would she be involved in a quest game? Ok, if she's not questing towards something, she and her sister are running away from something.' I knew the name of this damaged child, and I knew she has been hurt. I consciously didn't want to do 'funny' as I had in The Only House because I wanted to 'prove' that I could write serious. And I consciously wanted to do third person."
     "Again, people I knew came into the story. When I was in about grade five or six, I did know a girl who was a cutter, and she burned herself with cigarettes. She also plucked out all her eyebrows and the eyelashes off her eyes. Years later, we found out that she had been sexually abused by her father. In those days, there were no words for that. Kevin was also a boy with whom I went through high school. His is one of the rare cases where I've actually used a real name because his character is very true to what I think he would be like in that situation. Again, these people that I knew came in and started moving the story around. Dani's mother is like those ladies (or men) who are all trying not to notice the 'elephant' in the living room. Something's going on that's taking a lot of effort when you're trying to be more and more perfect, more academically successful, more financially successful, and have perfect children. All of this, it's hiding something, and I certainly met a lot of that sort of person in New York."
     The Game required a lot of research before Teresa could begin writing. "Even before we went to New York, I had the glimmerings of Dani having to want to be questing for a reason. I did well over a year of research just reading everything I could on children of alcoholics and alcoholic parents. I didn't know who was going to be what. At the time, there wasn't a lot available on cutters. On gay kids, there was stuff on gender disorders. In the mid to late Nineties, while we were in New York, there were pretty steady campaigns by these Christian coalition movements which involved bodies of psychiatry curing homosexuality and 'embracing you with God's love' so that you would come out of it straight. That stunned, horrified, perplexed and fascinated me. And then I've always been the repository for other people's stories, and so I knew a lot of wonderful people who were walking around with really damaged souls and psyches, and those stories ended up in the book."
     "I visited a couple of institutions in New York and sat in on some interesting group sessions with teens, one group with social anxiety disorders and the other, kids with aggressive issues. If nothing else, I needed to see things like the physical placement of the chairs. Everything we do is so touched on by a movie or television show you've seen that I wanted to wash as much as I could of that out. And you know what? The movies and TV pretty well had them right. There usually is some rumpled haired guy with a clipboard or a small notebook. Sometimes there's a tape recorder, and the kids are seated on reasonably uncomfortable chairs. Such institutions are far more prevalent in the United States than they are in Canada. When I came back to Toronto, I thought long and hard about transposing the whole thing back to Canadian issues since there was the ravine, but that one aspect of the institution wouldn't have worked. I would have needed many such institutions because Scratch and Kevin have already been in a number of them."
     Stylistically, The Game is more demanding fare than the average YA novel. Says Teresa, "If I'd known that by doing it the way I did it was going to be that tough, I would have never done it that way. Dani is a child who is not integrated. She's not whole, and, because she doesn't know all the pieces of herself, how could I make the reader see? I had a lot of trouble with this approach. How do you make someone that's not integrated, doesn't even know why she is there, likeable and interesting enough? I remembered I Am the Cheese ( I'm a huge Cormier fan), and thought, 'Ok, if he can get away with that, I can get away it.' It would have to come in sideways: a little newspaper article, a letter home to her sister, Scratch would know some things, Kevin not really. It was just a way of fleshing out from different angles the disparate pieces of my protagonist."
     "Even at the book's end, arguably Dani's not entirely whole, but the reader just needed more pieces of her to continue on, and The Game ended up being sort of a mystery that all unfolded quite by accident on its own. I really wish I could plot these things out. If I could plot, I would. I think with the next book I will try to sit down as people like Kit Pearson keep lecturing me to do. She says, 'Just sit down and write it. If you don't know what chapter 12 is, just go, "Something happens," and then begin Chapter 13.' I'm one of those terribly slow, slow writers who agonizes about a chapter, say chapter 2, for months and months, and it ends up being chapter 13, if it stays at all. Clearly, it's not the best way to write. Those characters in The Game really became very real to me, and I lived with them for a long time, and so it was a tough book. I do see The Game as a psychological mystery. Most people don't believe the younger sister is not around any more. I'm stunned, but most people think she is there right to the end. I've had people go, 'No way,' and then went back, and there were the clues. The hard editing part was making sure that all the time lines connected."
     In describing her approach to writing, Teresa says, "I do try to write every day. It is very hard, but I am blessed and delighted by being in a position where I'm at home, have got two teenaged kids, and do a lot of volunteer work. We moved back to Toronto because my mother is older now and has had some health issues. She lives with us, and so there's a lot of hospital visits and clinics. I also work with a writing group, and that keeps me honest. I have been trying to get over this paralyzing fear of writing, which I've always had, and I think I'm working on it a little better for the book I'm working on now by just writing out the scenes as they happen. I've got a whole stack of scenes, and this voice is coming out. I will try and sit down and do that burst of a whole book at once over the course of weeks or months as opposed to rewriting and rewriting and rewriting chapter one and then chapter two, all of which has to be rewritten when the whole thing's done anyway. Because I don't think I'm well served by that amount of self-criticism of my own writing, I'm going to try to put that a little more firmly to the side. It's a retraining. I wonder if one gets addicted to being that critical of yourself?"
     "I do love the oral voice. Actually, another reason why I'm so slow in writing books is that, when I do write, I spend most of the time walking around the house speaking. I think I mean everything I write to be read out loud. I think it's good on the page, but I write with a certain rhythm. I know Brian Doyle, another of my absolute heroes, does this. It's got to have a ring. 'The sentence before was OK, and so this one's got to be like this.' I'm preoccupied with that sort of stuff and wander around the house. It's very aerobic."
     However, returning from the world of words to that of a wife and mother can be somewhat challenging for Teresa who says that, while writing, "I laugh, cry, kick, hurt, feel the characters' vulnerability, and I'm left really vulnerable. When you get into something, there's no protection, and that transition into your regular world is occasionally a tough one, especially if you've gone into something intensely for eight hours. It's a rough transition from an institutional ward with all these 'crazy' people to your family life. One thing I've learned is that it's best to stop writing at least a couple of hours before everyone comes home. The feeling after writing is like being drunk or high. There's something not quite real for a while in that transition from this parallel universe where you're been living for many, many hours and then the real world and having to do the regular ordinary things. It's sometimes bumpy coming back. I'm hoping that if I go back to an easier, for me, an easier more accessible voice, that transition won't be as tough. But then I just like doing things that are so different from whatever I just did."
     "I would love to do a lot of things. A male voice absolutely. You would think that would be a pretty easy transition for me. And I'd love to do more intimate, romantic scenes, but until I can write something that's fresh and bring something new that hasn't been done before, I won't. I'm desperate to do a picture book. I've been working on one picture book for seven years, and it's maybe going to be 400 words or so. Unfortunately I've written it in rhythm and rhyme, and that's really tough. It's about the red lipstick tattoos that are left on a child's face when Mom gets ready to go out. There's a lot of magic and wonderful things that happen as Mom is getting ready, but then Mom is going, leaving you covered with all those lipstick tattoos, perfect little lips all over your face that will keep you warm and safe until she gets back. Well, I can't nail that to save my soul. Short stories are another form that I can't master either. They are things that I really love and admire and respect, but I can't do them. I have tried. They end up novels. The short story's actually where I keep experimenting with the male voice."
     As for what's next, Teresa says, "I know the title. It will be called 'Me and the Blondes,' and it'll be set in the Seventies. It'll be a high school kind of book, grade 10 characters and a single mother, but a sort of gypsy-like character. Every writing conference I've ever gone to in my life, the wise person at the front always says, 'Never write with a theme in mind. It'll kill your book.' I start with the theme. Maybe it's because I take so damn long to write a book that it's got to be a question I'm going to be interested in living with for a few years. In The Only House, I wanted to explore belonging. 'How much will a kid go through to belong? What will they do to belong, and what does belonging mean?' The Game was forgiveness, and 'how much will a child forgive?' That idea came from one of Paula Fox's books, Monkey Island. I read it and thought, 'Wow!' and I didn't know the answer. In all cases, I really don't know until I write it what the answer is. If I plotted, I couldn't bear going on writing if I knew how it was all going to end. It's so much fun when you think, 'Oh, of course. That's the way it's got to be.' I don't want to know ahead of time. For me, the honest process is where all the pieces have been put together, and the characters and the environment have conspired on their own to bring you to that point. For the next book, all I know is that I really want to do 'secrets and lies.' Are all secrets bad or all lies bad? Not necessarily. There are a lot of secrets and lies in a teen's life."

Books by Teresa Toten.

  • The Game. Red Deer Press, 2001. Grades 7 and up.
  • The Only House. Red Deer Press, 1995. Grades 4-7.

This article is based on an interview conducted in Toronto, ON, on March 23, 2002.

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