C.K. Kelly Martin
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
The name that appears on the covers of I Know It’s Over and One Lonely Degree is actually a nom de plume, and Kelly Martin is really Carolyn Kathleen, with the Kelly being Carolyn’s mother’s maiden name. “I had to get it all in there on the cover.”
Carolyn was born in the late sixties in Mississauga, ON, the big sister to a brother, Casey, who would be born some four years later. Carolyn says she “knew” she wanted to be a writer at age seven. “That’s when I started writing for myself. I’d been reading a lot of books and thought, ‘Hey, I could do this. I know how to write now.’ I’d draw little pictures to go with it.”
“Initially my mother kept these stories, but, when I was 18, my parents got divorced, and so we lost track of them. My mother’s given me some of my stuff from high school, but I don’t have anything from further back. I remember there was one story about time travel and another with space travel that used the same character, a little boy. There was a third one, but I can’t remember what it was about. I would love to see that stuff now.”
Carolyn’s first stab at writing a book occurred while she was still in her teens. “When I was growing up, I loved the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. I had a whole collection of them, and I had the entire collection of Tintin books, too, at one point. I went through tons of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure‘ books when I was a kid. When I was a little older, I would take them with me babysitting and read them to the kids, and they loved them too because they were interactive. I just thought they were so much fun and so, when I was 18, I wrote my own. Being unaware of how publishing worked and that the publisher already had a team of people writing the series, I sent my ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book to the publisher in New York. They sent me a rejection letter back saying, ‘Thank-you, but we have people doing this.’ That was my first rejection, 22 years ago.”
Asked to describe herself a teen, Carolyn says, “I was pretty much exactly like I am now. Seriously, I was actually a lot like the character Finn in One Lonely Degree, and I’m still a lot like that. What does that mean? I think that maybe a lot of things other people thought were fun in high school I didn’t understand, things like the high school parties. I was really obsessed with music, and I didn’t understand the fun of going clothes shopping. If I went shopping with my friends, I’d be dragging them into the record store, and they’d be standing around looking bored while I could stay there forever, going through the racks. If my best friend and I knew that some musicians we’d be going to see later that night were going to be around doing promotional stuff somewhere, like at Much Music, we’d skip class and show up early and meet them and get their autographs. Later, we’d go to their shows at the Gardens or Massey Theatre to watch them perform.”
“Like the Finn character, I thought that going to London, England, would be awesome, and I just totally wanted to get to there. I actually did go after grade 12. Back then, Ontario had grade 13, and so I still had another year of high school to do after that, but my best friend and I got these awful factory jobs that summer to fund our August trip to England. Mine was in a rubber factory. One of the guys there would cut the rubber gaskets with some kind of slicing machine, and I was responsible for stacking them and putting them in boxes. At the end of the day, I’d come home smelling like rubber and would be smudged with black stuff. I did that for most of my summer before the two of us went to London and hung out there for two weeks. My friend’s cousins lived there, and so we got to stay at their house. I’ve never gotten over my thing for London and still have it now. In fact, I was in London last December for my fortieth birthday.”
“I do remember thinking near the end of high school, ‘What am I going to do?’ I really didn’t want to go to university then. I vaguely thought of taking journalism at Carleton, but I don’t think I really wanted to do that. I remember wanting to take a year off, but I didn’t know ‘to do what?’ Going to Toronto’s York University was the path of least resistance as my mom didn’t want me to take a year off. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t go back (I think I would have), but she really put on the pressure. Now that I think about it, she never really pressured me about anything else. Because I didn’t really have a good idea of what to do anyway, it was a case of, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it.’”
“As it turned out, I liked York a lot, and I probably could have kept going to university forever. It’s so different from high school where you have to take all the math and science courses and where you feel kind of trapped. In university, you have so much choice. I did a lot of English courses but ultimately switched to a major in film studies.”
“What actually happened is that I liked the film courses so much that I ended up filling my course schedule with so many of them that it would have taken me longer to graduate with a degree in English. And so I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this English degree anyway? I might as well just go with the film route. That way, I can keep taking all these cool film courses.’ I loved sitting in the theatre and watching all these great movies. I switched over, but the funny thing is that I never actually thought that I wanted to be a film critic either. I don’t know what I thought I would do with the film studies degree, but it was fun.”
After completing her B.A., Carolyn went to Ireland. “I guess I just had this feeling of romanticism about the place. I had seen the movie My Left Foot, and there’s a scene on a hill at the end where they’re talking about Dublin, and I thought, ‘This is great, I have to go to Dublin.’ I’d actually already been to Dublin in 1990 after third year university. A friend and I had gone to work in England for the summer, and we spent the last week vacationing in Ireland. As I said earlier, I loved London, but it’s very hectic. We were working all the time and living in this awful flat. We just got really worn out, but when we got to Ireland, it just felt like we could instantly relax, and I felt like I just connected with the place like crazy. Everybody kind of looked almost like members of my family. It was like I had this genetic memory of the place or something because I’m about 75% Irish if you go back into my family tree. Consequently, I thought I had to get back there, and I just kept going back.”
“At York, if you do the honours degree in film studies, you have to do a thesis, and so I went back to Ireland the next year under the guise of researching materials for my honours thesis which I decided would be on Irish cinema. I spent five or six weeks there to do some research at an organization called Filmbase, a not-for-profit resource centre for filmmakers that’s located in Dublin. And that still wasn’t enough time, and I kept going back to Ireland for longer periods of time. So, initially, it had been that week after third year university, then the thesis ‘research’ period, and five months after I graduated, but that still wasn’t enough.”
“I kept going back and forth between Canada and Ireland, but I was solidly there from 1993-95 and then again between 1997, which was when I married a Dubliner, until 2000 when I got really ‘homesick.’ Actually, I’d always get homesick as soon as I arrived in Dublin. I’d have so much longing for the place yet anytime I knew I wouldn’t be back in Canada for awhile, I’d panic a little. After getting married and doing the paperwork to formally relocate to Ireland, I was like, ‘What am I doing? I have to stay here now.’ That seemed incredibly daunting. I had such a strong pull to come home, and I missed my family and friends. Even though I loved Dublin, I basically spent the next few years just wanting to come back to Canada.”
“When my husband and I did move to Canada, we had to start from scratch again and had no jobs and were staying at my mom’s house. It was complete craziness really. We had all the furniture and stuff from Dublin in my mom’s garage. I had shipped all my VHS tapes that I had been collecting during the film studies years to Ireland, and we’d purchased a VCR that would play both formats, NTSC and PAL. Now I shipped them all back to Canada.”
“When we actually moved back, there was the question, ‘Have we done the right thing?’ For a long time after we returned to Canada, I’d dream about Ireland and think, ‘Maybe we should still be there?’ I think it takes a long time for a place to get out of your system, and I wonder if I had stayed in Ireland, maybe it would have felt like the right thing. I’m not sure. The thing is that Ireland’s a very small country, and it can sort of feel claustrophobic. In Canada, you feel like there’s so much space and so many places you can go without even leaving the country.”
While living in Ireland, Carolyn had numerous jobs, most of which she characterized as “forgettable.” “I worked in a bar as lounge staff, and I was pretty awful at that as I’m a natural introvert. It takes a lot of energy to pretend to be outgoing all day. Back then, the Irish weren’t big on tipping, so I didn’t make much money at that. I also worked in a lingerie store in Stephen’s Green, one of the bigger shopping centres right downtown, and then I worked in another bar.”
“My big aim then was to work in Xtra-Vision, Ireland’s version of Blockbuster, a job I did get. I was there for about a year and a half, and I could have done that for longer because it was very laid-back, and you just sat around and talked movies with the customers. However, the store got robbed, and that kind of freaked me out. I’d be the only one there from like 9 p.m. til midnight, but somehow it had never occurred to me that something like that would happen. Afterwards, your mind kind of runs wild. ‘What could have happened here? You’re the only one in the store.’ Actually there were other people, customers, in the store at the time, and I was looking at them while the robbery was happening and thinking, ‘Should I say something?’ And then I decided, ‘Nah, just give this person the money.’ Shortly after I left, the guy I had trained also got robbed, and it was much worse because the robber had a mallet and put it through the screen. Working at Xtra-Vision was nice while it lasted.”
It was during the closing period of Carolyn’s time in Ireland that she started to write. “When we decided to come back to Canada, we had to let the lease on our apartment go because we would have had to sign it for another year. At that point, we’d filed my husband’s immigration papers six months earlier, and our thinking was that the necessary permissions would come through any day. What actually happened was that the Canadian Embassy in London lost all our paperwork, and we had to start from square one again. My husband had been required to get an x-ray and some form from the police saying he’d never been arrested for anything (the standard stuff Canadian immigration requires), and so we had to get all that together again and resubmit it.”
“In the meantime, having given up our lease, we stayed with my in-laws. They had a little sort of renovated shed/studio apartment thing at the end of their backyard. It had a stove in it, furniture and everything, and so we were just living in this one room. At that point, I didn’t have a job because I thought we were going to be leaving very soon. Actually, earlier, thinking that our move was imminent, I had gone back to Canada and had started to make preparations for our arrival there. While I was in Canada, I saw the movie A Party of Five, and it made me think, ‘This stuff is amazing. I should be writing something like this.’ When I went back to Ireland and was ‘unemployed,’ I started writing my first book which isn’t either of the books that are now published.”
“I think I got maybe three-quarters of the way through the first book of what eventually became a trilogy when the immigration paperwork came through and we relocated back to Canada. As I said, we moved into my mom’s place, and then I got a job, but I kept writing. I finished the first book, wrote the second book, and then the third book. The first and third books were set in Ireland, and the second book is set in Toronto. It’s basically a love story between these two kids, a long-distance romance thing. The girl is Canadian but of Egyptian and Irish descent, and the guy is Irish. I think the trilogy was finished when I landed my first agent in New York. He tried to sell that first book for a while and sent it to about five editors, but nobody picked it up.”
“Then I finished I Know It’s Over and sent it to him, but he didn’t connect with it. I thought ‘Oh, either you’re crazy, or I am because I think this is the best thing I’ve ever done. At this point, I can’t do better than this.’ Basically, he just didn’t like it at all. He felt it was too contemplative, he didn’t understand what the two main characters, Nick and Sasha, saw in each other, and he wanted me to make major changes, including taking 40-50 pages out. I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that. I wouldn’t begin to know how to rewrite it because that’s not what I believe to be true about the story.’ When I told him that, he said, ‘Well, you feel strongly about it, and so do I,’ and so we just arranged to split up. As a consequence, I had to start the whole agent search thing over again, and, oddly enough, I ended up with one in the U.K for I Know It’s Over.“
“I Know It’s Over actually began as a short story, but ultimately I couldn’t sell it as a short story. I sent it to the few places that you could send YA fiction to, and when I’d exhausted those places, I thought, ‘Why don’t I just keep going with this?’ What became essentially the first chapter of I Know It’s Over was the short story, which ended on a sort of cliffhanger, and so I just asked myself, ‘What happened after this?’”
Given that I Know It’s Over deals with premarital pregnancy and the need for a teen girl to make a decision about continuing with or terminating that pregnancy, Carolyn says, “I was kind of expecting people to be more upset with me, especially anti-choice people who, I anticipated, would come out of the woodwork and attack the book. That hasn’t happened, but I have had a few responses, mostly from people who are writers and parents, who were quite positive. Maybe the book’s just not high profile enough for the anti-choice people to worry about it.”
“Somebody I worked with said that I should have explored the adoption angle. I didn’t because I don’t think that’s an option that most people explore anymore. Nowadays, it seems the majority of women faced with an unplanned pregnancy either keep the child or don’t have it, and I think that these are the options that Sasha would have gravitated to. I just wanted to reflect how these specific characters would’ve reacted to their circumstances, not write some kind of guide book about unplanned pregnancy.”
Since it initially appeared in hardcover, I Know It’s Over has been reissued as a paperback with a new cover illustration. “I was talking to another writer about the two covers of I Know It’s Over, and she said she really liked the paperback cover because she thought that the illustration of them holding hands represented the whole sweetness and love of their relationship whereas the bed cover makes it look sort of cold and harsh. I like both covers, but I can see what she means.”
Carolyn’s second novel, One Lonely Degree, revolves around the friendship between two girls, Finn and Audrey, and how an unexpected romantic triangle impacts their friendship. The book’s title, Carolyn explains, comes from her being “in the car with my mom, and the DJ on the radio said that it was one lonely degree out there. I can’t clearly remember if that event happened before I’d started the book or not. It all kind of jumbles together in my head, but I can’t really start a book without a title. It’s rather weird I know, but I stumble on a title and then I think, ‘What is that story about?’ I think the character and the situation kind of go together. I don’t know if I can really extricate them. They’re just both there at the same time.”
“I had planned to write a sequel for One Lonely Degree, and the original ending was a lot more abrupt. I thought there would be two other books, but I’ve had so much trouble trying to get my original trilogy published that I don’t know if I’m going to write three connected books again. It’s time consuming.”
“With I Know It’s Over, I had pregnancy, and with One Lonely Degree there was sexual assault. After those two books, I was like, ‘I’m worn out. I have to do something that’s just fun,’ and so I then thought of this guy having his best day ever, and that’s how the third book came to be. I don’t know where the title, The Lighter Side of Life and Death, came from, but whenever I think of a potentially appealing title or come across something that could turn into a book, I write it down so I then have a list.”
“When The Lighter Side of Life and Death opens, this 16-year-old guy, Mason, is having the best day of his life. He’s just starred in his school play, and everybody loved him in it. He’s out celebrating with all his friends, and he falls into bed with his best ‘girl friend,’ someone on whom he’s had a crush for three years while she’s been interested in a slew of other guys, and so this is all awesome to him. He’s like, ‘I’m golden.’ They have sex, and then she takes off in a hurry because she’s in violation of her curfew and knows her family will be trying to locate her. The next day, Mason tries to talk to her but can’t get a hold of her. Then he sees her at school, and she tells him that what happened between them was a big mistake, and everything goes downhill from there. They were both virgins, and it’s the complete opposite of the I Know It’s Over’s first time in that it’s awesome for both of them, but she just thinks, ‘OK, this was not what I had in mind’ because it’s something that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been drinking. While it was a positive experience physically, it was one she wasn’t emotionally prepared for.”
“During the course of the book, Mason also ends up having a sexual affair with a 23-year-old woman. She’s with someone else, and Mason knows that and still gets involved emotionally more than he probably should. And Mason still has feelings for his best friend as well. The Lighter Side of Life and Death’s my ‘fun’ book where there are no real serious issues. It’s just matters-of-the-heart, so there are lots of emotional issues.”
Like Carolyn’s first two books, The Lighter Side of Life and Death contains fractured families, but, in this case, “they are becoming a blended family. The mother in the other family has two kids, and the girl, who doesn’t like Mason, is 13. I think she doesn’t like him because everyone likes him, and so it seems like he has it really easy and she’s moving into his house, his arena. He seems like Mr. Popularity, and one of the few things in her life that she can control is that she can actively not like him. It’s nothing that he does to her or anything like that, but, after a while, he does get annoyed with her consistently not liking him and making it known. Then they start to have bigger issues between the two of them that turn into a bit of an issue.”
“In The Lighter Side of Life and Death, Mason’s parents have been separated or divorced for about five years, and I think of Mason as being a happy-go-lucky character so he’s totally cool with it. Because his mom’s in Vancouver, he doesn’t really see her that much. She seems more like a cousin to him. I think there’s a line in the book about her being more interested in what he’s doing when it jells with her idea of what’s cool. The relationship between Mason and his stepmother is amiable. It’s just her daughter that’s the problem. And Mason gets along really well with the little brother.”
“The fourth book that will be coming out (which hasn’t been announced yet) is called Delicate. It has two main characters and follows each of their points of view alternately. It’s a boy and a girl who are second cousins, and the girl’s parents are still together, but the guy’s parents aren’t. I think part of the reason I include fractured families so often is because there are just so many of them out there now that they seem natural to me. And I guess my own parents divorcing while I was growing up might make that fact more obvious to me.”
“Delicate still has to be edited, but it’s scheduled to come out in May, 2011. It’s going to be published jointly by Random House in Canada and Random House in the US. It’ll have two editors attached to it, but I hear there will just be one revision letter, combining their ideas. The two main characters are Ivy who is 17, and Lucan who is 16. They’re second cousins, but, as the result of a family feud, they haven’t seen each other in years until they’re at a family gathering together. When they meet, Ivy has chlamydia, but she doesn’t know it yet. She’s having burning urination problems, and Lucan’s in the middle of a peanut allergy attack so they’re both at a very delicate point. Ivy’s boyfriend, who she was really in love with, screwed her over so she’s pretty broken up about that. Meanwhile her second cousin has major issues with the guy his mom’s dating. There’s also a physical abuse situation that he’s forced to confront. So again, it’s a book with lots of problems in it.”
“I have written another book which right now is called ‘The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing.’ I’m not sure what’s going to happen with it yet because my editor wants to send me a revision letter to see if we’re on the same page. And I’ve started yet another novel which again is told from two different points of view but has some very different elements from the books I’ve written so far. I’m only 17,000 words into, and so I don’t know what’s going to happen with that yet either.”
Despite all the manuscripts she has produced, Carolyn describes herself as being a slow writer. “I can sit in front of the computer all day and come out with 1,200 words. I hear other authors saying, ‘I wrote 10,000 words’ or ‘I wrote 15 pages.’ And I’m like, ‘How did this occur?’ It just takes me a long time to get the words on the page. I think my best day ever was 3,500 words, and that would have probably been something like 15 hours solid of writing. ‘Wow, look what I’ve done!’ Seriously, that’s pretty much all I would have been doing all day.”
On the other hand, Carolyn says she does a lot of advance planning, “but I don’t feel like I’m doing it. I just feel like it’s there. I just think, ‘What would happen to these characters?’ I don’t feel like I’m planning it. It’s like the story is already there, and I try to think it through in my head, but it’s in very vague terms, Then I write down, but it’s subject to change once I get to know the characters better.”
“Mostly the thinking happens during moments of quiet, like when I’m walking on my own or when I’m in bed. Sometimes it’s just good to get that character’s voice in your head, and maybe you don’t need to necessarily write down everything they say. You’re just finding out how they think. The thinking keeps me awake sometimes, and then I’ll have to get up and write a few notes before going back to bed and trying to stop thinking about it. I’ve had it happen where I haven’t gotten up to write the scene or whatever down and it’s just not there the next day. If I get to a certain point where I’m like, ‘This is good or important,’ then I try and write it down. And sometimes I just fall asleep if it’s not interesting enough and I’m tired.”
“Right now I’m a full-time writer, but I used to work at a job across the street from where I live. Periodically, I’ve gone back when they needed help, but I haven’t been back since Christmas and even that was only briefly. I actually would like to have some kind of part-time job, but I haven’t been able to work out what that job should be. Because I’m so slow at the writing, would I be able to do it all? I do think that having a second job would be better than just concentrating on the writing all the time though. I think it would help me be more well-rounded.”
“I haven’t done any school visits, and I don’t really like the thought of what doing them means. I don’t like to talk about the writing. It’s funny, but it seems to me that I need to keep this, the writing, for myself otherwise I don’t think I would really want to do it. It would seem like, ‘Ugh, this is an energy drain’ and feel very claustrophobic. I know that might seem bizarre, but I don’t have that much to say about writing. I don’t have any advice on how to write. I don’t know how I do it. I’ve never taken any creative writing courses. I think that the best thing for wannabe writers would be - just read and try to internalize what you see being done. To me, that’s pretty much all you have to do. Read, and figure out what you like about what these people are doing and what you think works.”
“Maybe another reason I don’t like to talk about writing is that I feel like I’m doing it all the time in some way or another. There’s all this stuff I feel I should try to keep up with, like reading various writers’ blogs or dropping into my favourite writers’ message boards, and then I’m trying to write as well and do my blog entry and check MySpace. Basically I do this for a good part of the day and then stop for dinner and hang out with my husband at the end of the night. The isolating aspect of writing doesn’t really worry me because I’m a natural introvert. I could be alone for a long time before it would really start to bother me.”
Most of the reviews of Carolyn’s books have commented on her “authenticity” and “honesty,” and when asked how she taps into how adolescents feel, Carolyn replies, “I seriously don’t know. I read lots of nonfiction books and articles on young adults, check out lots of stuff on the Internet and pay attention to the teenagers I’m around in person. This is what I mean when I say I have no idea about process. I just write what I think to be true. I don’t know where it comes from or how it happens. I feel like outwardly really not that much happens in my books. I feel like they’re very contemplative but not a lot of action.”
Carolyn has a website, one that she has created and maintains. “In 1998, I took some desktop publishing courses in Dublin. These were not web design courses because this was before web design really got popular. I just really have fun with the design stuff, and I obsess about it. I’ve made the website over and over again and continually make minuscule changes. I also created the book trailers. All this stuff takes a long time, too, because I can be a real perfectionist about these things. My husband, who plays the keyboard, has written some great original music for the trailer for the third book, The Lighter Side of Life and Death.”
The future may see Carolyn in a two author family. “My husband’s working on a middle grade book of his own. He has a day job now, but he was a comedian in Dublin. That’s how I met him. I used to go to these comedy shows all the time and knew all the Irish comedians. He’s also into cartooning but lately has been concentrating more on the writing. He’s the only other person who gets to read my books as they are being written. He tells me what he thinks if things aren’t clear or if he has any concerns He also has an agent in London, and so when we were over there in December, we both got to meet our agents for the first time.”
Books by C.K. Kelly Martin.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Toronto, June 6, 2009.
- I Know It’s Over. Random House, 2008. Grades 8 and up.
- One Lonely Degree. Random House, 2009. Grades 8 and up.
- The Lighter Side of Life and Death. Random House, 2010. Grades 8 and up.
Visit C. K. Kelly Martin’s website at www.ckkellymartin.com.