Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
Caroline Pignat (pronounced Caro-line Pin-yat) was born on December 7, 1970, in Dublin, Ireland, the elder of two girls. "My dad's band was touring in Canada. He liked Canada so much that, when he went back to Ireland, he decided the four of us would emigrate to Ottawa. We moved back to Ireland when I was eight and back to Canada when I was eleven. Both places have always been home to me."
Following high school, Caroline went to the University of Ottawa graduating with a BA in English and Religious Studies and a Bachelor of Education. Before becoming an author, she worked as a Chapters book seller, a grocery store cashier, a medical transcriptionist, and Santa's elf (for, yes, the real Santa). She also worked as a bank teller for six years and was "only" robbed at gunpoint three times.
"Sometimes, groups of Cub Scouts would come to the bank on a field trip and because I wanted to be a teacher, I'd always volunteer to give the tour. I'd show them the vault, the bill counter, and the safe deposit boxes, but all they wanted to know was, ‘Have you ever been robbed?' When I'd say, ‘Yes,' they'd freak out. ‘Wow! Did you ever get shot?' I guess every kid loves a great story. But my two minutes of fame ended when they realized I had no wicked gunshot wounds for show and tell."
Despite the bank teller thrills, Caroline found teaching to be the biggest adventure. "No matter how much training you get, you never feel ready. I remember standing in front of 32 grade four kids on that first day of school and I all could think was¼ ‘come out with your hands up, we've got you surrounded!' Thankfully, I had fabulous co-workers who were team teachers, and they shared what they had. I learned so much from working with them."
When her second child Marion was born, and her son Liam was just entering senior kindergarten, Caroline decided to stay home full-time. "If a robbery or a room full of 32 kids doesn't scare you, try being a full-time at-home mom. It was the toughest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I have the greatest respect for all at-home moms (or dads). Being home those seven years not only gave me time with my kids, it also gave me the chance to really focus on my writing."
Caroline always had a passion for writing. An avid diary-keeper, she found writing helped her to explore and express who she was. "Growing up, I wrote monthly letters to my grandparents in Ireland. It helped me learn how to show myself through words. Nana always said getting my letter was like having a visit. My parents always encouraged me to write stories and poems, and my teachers affirmed my talent. I remember my grade two teacher, Miss Boisvert praising my poem about Snoozy my hamster, or Mr. Dinardo encouraging me in high school, or Professor Bowen in the Ottawa U Creative Writing course who asked me to read out my work to the class. Even though my voice shook as I read, red-faced, I started to think that maybe writing was something I could actually do. And maybe even do well."
"The children's literature course at Ottawa U was really good because it included reading the fairy tales in the original versions. I definitely had a Disney-fied childhood with all the happy endings, and that quality does come across in some of my writing. In the last two books I have worked on with Peter Carver, my editor at Red Deer Press, he has said that my antagonists tend to have no redeeming qualities. That probably comes from my childhood watching of Disney movies where the bad character is just the bad character and the why is not really explained."
For Caroline, reading is a huge part of the writing journey. "I love reading great writing. As I read, I ask myself, ‘How did they do that?' or ‘How can I use something similar with the scene that I have or with the characters I have?' I'm get so inspired by the other peoples' good writing. The most recent one that blew me away was Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief. I got lost in the novel and not in the craft. I know the writing's really good when I'm so engrossed in the story that I've forgotten to look at how the author did it. Then I have to go back and read it again. That's the kind of writing I'd love to create. The kind of writing that makes you forget yourself, it just takes over."
"My teachers were great, they got me started. After graduating, the rest was up to me." Caroline describes herself as essentially a self-taught author. "As well as reading great fiction, I read a lot of those how-to-write books. I bet I own one of everything in Chapters' writing section. I also go to a lot of workshops put on by SCBWI or CANSCAIP and I found some great writing communities online like www.write4kids.com and www.verlakay.com which has a fabulous chat board. Connecting with Verla's online community means I'm not writing in isolation, which is huge. I've also taken Rachna Gilmore's courses in Ottawa. About five years ago, she did a six week workshop, and five of the women that were in that group have kept meeting since then."
"I would have probably given up if it weren't for those people. You can get really discouraged when you go the mailbox every day and it's nothing, nothing, nothing and then rejection, rejection, rejection. The connections are not just about developing the craft or knowledge of the business. It's about having travelling buddies who affirm whatever stage I'm at, who share the highs and lows, who were midwives as I laboured through a manuscript and give birth to myself as a ‘writer.' Other's have said it of me, but it was a big day when I called myself one for the first time."
"At one of the SCBWI retreats that my crit group attended, I met Karleen Bradford, and I've stayed in touch with her. There are some really good quality people in the business with a lot of experience who are eager to share and who are happy to pay it forward. Kathy Stinson, Linda Granfield, Rachna Gilmore and Karleen Bradford have been wonderful mentors for me. I look forward to doing that for someone else at some point."
Caroline's online community told her about the Chautauqua Children's Writers Workshop which she attended in 2002. "I'd been writing for five years and got rejection after rejection. Of course, choosing the niche of ‘Christian Rhyming Picture Books' probably wasn't helping. I was on the verge of giving up but someone on the site suggested I apply for the workshop scholarship. I couldn't believe it when I won. Jerry Spinelli was the keynote speaker, and Eileen Spinelli was my mentor for the week. All the workshops were inspiring and practical. It was exactly what I needed to recommit to my passion. One afternoon, I was talking to Jerry Spinelli and he told me, ‘You should write a novel.' To which I replied, ‘I don't even know where to start. The length intimidates me.' He said, ‘Just start with an emotionally charged memory. Everyone's got some. Pick one.'"
Caroline went home and read her diaries. She reflected on her memories looking for a place to start. "For some reason, I kept thinking of being in grade eight and seeing this kid getting picked on. I didn't know what to do. I remembered wondering if I should I stand up for him? Would that make things worse to have a girl defend him? Would I be targeted next? I recalled how my grade eight boyfriend said they were just goofing around. But I saw things very differently. I started journaling about the memory. Trying different viewpoints. Next thing I knew, I was writing a novel."
Barbara Coloroso's book, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, was a great resource as Caroline developed her Egghead characters. "It really gave me insight into the bystanders' role and the degrees of bystander involvement. I wanted my characters to evolve and the bullying circle gave me a great framework for that. Devan, who starts as the henchman, moves around the circle to defender while Katie starts as a defender and moves the opposite way to save herself."
Inspired by Wendelin Van Draanan's Flipped, Egghead was first told in Katie and Devan's point of view. "It felt like it was missing something. As bystanders narrating, it was always like the reader was watching the story but never in it, and so I scrapped that and started over again. Then I read Lorie Ann Grover's Loose Threads and a few other novels in free verse, a style I had never seen before, that I thought was really interesting. I started rewriting the whole book in free verse from Will's point of view."
"Both drafts had elements that I loved, but neither of them seemed strong enough on its own. It was about that time that I went to a writing workshop at which Karleen Bradford was the guest speaker. In our one-on-one session, she read both versions and was really excited. She suggested to put Will's free verse in there as well as Devan and Katie's perspectives, and I think that really rounded the novel."
"I sent Egghead to Peter Carver at Red Deer Press. When I heard he was speaking at ‘Packaging Your Imagination' in Toronto, I knew I had to go. After I heard him speak, I was so inspired. He was entertaining, extremely knowledgeable, and so personable. But more than that, he seemed to care about his authors as well as the projects. All I could think was, ‘I want to work with him.' After travelling all the way from Ottawa, those last few steps to meet him took forever. I stammered and stuttered my way through my pathetic introduction as others lined up behind me, and during the whole train ride home I was kicking myself for what I should have said. We laugh about it now."
"There's a lot of waiting in writing. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for the right word. Waiting for the mail to bring news on a manuscript. I hate waiting. And then, all I'd waited and worked for ‘just happened' one after another: I got word I'd been given a sizable Canada Council for the Arts grant to write Greener Grass, I was offered a contract for Egghead, and I signed with my agent at TLA. My head was spinning. It took me a good ten years, but finally, it was all happening."
While Egghead is Caroline's first published book, it is by no means her first publication as she was writing and submitting short pieces while she was home with her children. "I was following the ‘write what you know' theory. Well I knew I could never find jeans that fit, I knew my husband's packrat ways were driving me crazy, I knew nothing but weeds ever grew in our damned garden – so I wrote my pain. I read Erma Bombeck to help me find that voice and then I wrote article after article. Much to my surprise they sold! My articles ran in The Ottawa Citizen, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Word Among Us and Guideposts Magazine. Who knew my every day drama was newsworthy?"
In 2006, Caroline received a second grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write Wild Geese, the sequel to Greener Grass. "The grants were such an affirmation and opportunity, not to mention a huge gift -- the freedom to write." She spent 2005 and 2006 writing full time and travelled to Ireland and Quebec to research the novel series.
"When the grant money ended, I went back to teaching. It was so hard to give up my full time writing. I really missed it. Teaching can be all consuming, especially jumping into a new grade after being away for seven years. Needless to say, I didn't get much writing done, but I still grew as a writer and a teacher. What better way to immerse yourself in your audience – to know their culture, their drama, their interests, to hear that young adult voice (until you plead for silence) -- than to teach them for eight hours every day?"
"Being in the classroom also gave me the opportunity to do Egghead as a novel study with my grade seven classes. The kids loved it and I loved the immediate feedback. I got to hear them laugh at parts that maybe I thought weren't funny or not laugh at parts that I thought were funny. I got to hear what they liked or didn't like, believed or didn't believe, and they got to hear the writing process from idea to publication. An author visit that lasted three terms! The conversations that we had about the book were great. I was amazed at their honesty and insightfulness. Multiple points of view are a great approach for this stage of adolescence. It really helps them reflect beyond themselves and develop empathy."
Many other schools have found Egghead to be a great resource for bullying awareness, character study, and an enjoyable read-a-loud. "Teachers kept telling me how engaged the kids were when they were reading, particularly those who didn't enjoy books. I have had letters from students who wanted to know why Shane, the bully, doesn't have a voice in the book, a question which I thought was interesting. If I revised the book again, I would probably include something of his. But it's probably good that it is left open-ended. The kids have come up with some fabulous story ideas and creative writing assignments as they speak for Shane. They make us feel for the bully. Now that's empathy."
Will, the victim's voice in the novel is told in free verse. "As part of the novel study, we did Will's Journal. The stuff these kids came up with was excellent. Kids are so drawn to novels in free verse, probably, at first, because of the shorter word count. But there's a freedom to writing in free verse. You don't have to use rhyming words or count syllables; you just write from the gut. Like I told my classes, ‘First person is living in the character's head, but free verse is living in their heart. You're right there, feeling everything they feel in that moment.' I love reading those kind of novels. Some day, I'd like to write a whole novel in free verse."
Caroline may be back teaching, but she claims she will always be a student. "I love learning new things. Which is just as well, since I have a lot to learn. There's the book in my head, and then there's the book I have written, and they are very far apart. The more that I work at the craft, I'm finding the closer they're becoming. I don't know if I'll ever reach that level of writing where those two books are one and the same. I hope I do. You should see some of the crazy stuff going on in my head."
Caroline's second novel, Greener Grass, is historical fiction, and it is set in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. "I visited Ireland when I was 16, and my uncle gave me a copy of Walter Macken's ‘Irish Trilogy' consisting of Seek the Fair Land, The Silent People and The Scorching Wind. The books cover three stages of Irish history starting with the famine in the 1700's. The stories really affected me. My relatives lived through all that. How do people survive such difficulties. Where do they find the strength? What gives them hope?"
"A few months ago, while preparing for an author presentation, I came across a short piece I'd written back in Mr. Dinardo's Writers Craft class at Notre Dame: Ireland, the famine, a young girl by her father as he dies leaving her to wonder how she will go on and what will become of her. I don't even remember writing it, but it was so obviously the seed of Greener Grass planted way back then."
Caroline found writing historical fiction that much more daunting given the detail and research involved. "It had to be historically accurate. Originally, I was going to write about the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, but when I started researching it, I realized that the years of the potato famine didn't line up with the years when the canal was built. I have all the research for the canal done, and I may still do a book on that eventually, but that's when I thought that the whole famine experience needed its own story before I was to bring the Irish over to Canada."
"I was still home full-time then, and I had gotten a Canada Council for the Arts grant that gave me the opportunity to go to Ireland and to spend three weeks of the summer there touring around and going to the famine museums. I even sailed on a replica famine ship. I read a lot of historical fiction writers, and Karleen Bradford advised me on balancing reading and research."
For someone who was never a history buff, Caroline was surprised by how much she enjoyed the research part of the writing process. "Actually, I loved doing the research so much, I was afraid I would never start the book!"
An unexpected content source for Greener Grass was Caroline's Irish grandmother. "Granny still lives in Wicklow, Ireland. We stayed with her for a few days before my research took us around the country. I spent a week meeting with historians, curators, and experts in the field. Afterwards, having tea by the fire back at Granny's, I told her what I had seen and learned. She chuckled, ‘Sure, I could have told you that!' I'd forgotten that she grew up in a small cottage in the Wicklow hills, she'd baked on an open fire, she'd lugged water from the well."
"I had gone all around the country only to find the best expert in Irish wit and wisdom back at home. With a little coaxing, she started reminiscing. For me, the whole trip was worth it for that one experience with her. It was really profound because I've visited her many, many times, and we've never talked like that before."
To keep track of all the historical details, Caroline used a binder. "Again, that was something Karleen Bradford had suggested on her website as something she did. I had sections like main characters, the illnesses, the potatoes, the townspeople and fairy magic. People think you are expert on something because you've written a book on it. I'm no expert, I don't remember two-thirds of the information I read, but I do know where to find it."
"A lot of the time, I researched using children's nonfiction books because I find they are so concise. I did read adult books like E. Estyn Evans's Irish Folk Ways and other books that my contact at the Museum of Ireland recommended."
Caroline compares researching to a treasure hunt. "You start with a tiny scrap of fascinating info and go from there. History buffs love to find someone willing to listen. They answer questions and give a few clues on where to find more information. One Irish museum contact suggested I go to Wicklow jail. It's in Granny's village. I'd always known it was there, but I didn't really know what it was or what it had to do with the famine. During the jail tour, I found another treasure – a list of child inmates between 1846 and 1850. I knew then Kit was going to be a criminal. She starts out with stealing a dog's dinner, then steals from someone's garden, and eventually attempts a murder. It opens a whole other discussion about the ends justifying the means and the degrees of right and wrong. It also gave me a cast of characters for the jail scenes that are historically accurate. None of that would have happened if it weren't for someone recommending I visit the jail."
One of the more bizarre characters in Greener Grass is Old Lizzie. Caroline says Lizzie's origins are "partly from memories that my mom had growing up in the country. She described this woman who lived up the hill and had white hair and ears pierced with bits of straw. Her body was twisted and bent from arthritis. Mom said she looked like a witch, and, if that didn't scare the neighbourhood kids, the bees in the thatch sure did. No one went near her. I wanted Lizzie to scare the kids and slowly develop, as Kit gets to know her, into a very generous woman, a real character like a lot of them are in the countryside – the salt of the earth who would do anything for you."
The villain in Greener Grass is Mr. Lynch. Asked if he's based on a real historical person, Caroline replies, "I can't name anyone specific, but a lot of the reading that I had done showed that there were absent landlords who were in England who didn't perhaps realize what was going on, or maybe didn't want to know how bad it was, and the middle men were often gentry Irish who had worked their way up, and, aspiring to be like the British, had to turn against their own so to speak. Not all of them were like Lynch, but a lot of the ones that I read about were doing what Lynch does in the book. Peter Carver had said Lynch needed some redeeming qualities so that he's not all bad. In the revised version, I've tried to explain how Lynch's ambition is for his own sons. He saw his father work himself to death, and he wants a better life for his sons. He's a widower as well. I don't think I ever explain what happened to his wife. There is no feminine touch or softness in the family. It's just the three boys and the father, with the father doing everything he can to get ahead."
The sequel to Greener Grass is called Wild Geese. "I picked the title because the term also means the Irish who were fighting as mercenaries outside out of Ireland. I liked the idea of fighting for something so far from home. There's also a lot of Irish lore and myth around geese and, of course, the Canada geese."
"In Wild Geese, they're on the boat heading to Canada. Kit is travelling as a boy in the ship's hold, and Mick is working on the ship, but he's totally inept. By the time they arrive, Kit has made a close friendship with another boy, a situation which makes Mick very jealous. Mick has also lost any scrap of self-esteem he did have because he can't do any of the jobs that he's supposed to be doing and he's getting totally picked on by the crew and the captain. When they arrive at Grosse Isle, Kit is sick, and she and Mick end up separating. That's as far as my writing has gone, but Mick will end up going to a lumber camp up the Ottawa River and Kit will go to Bytown, today's Ottawa. Sister Elizabeth Bruyere had an orphanage there where she took in the Irish children. "To write this book, I've been researching at Grosse Isle in Quebec, Elizabeth Bruyere's Motherhouse and the Archives in Ottawa. It's another fascinating hunt."
The characters have fascinated the author just as much. "A lot of the stuff that's in Greener Grass came from my questions or experiences. Kit's questions about ‘Where is God when this stuff is happening?' were also questions that I had. But I'm a rule follower, and so to see Kit go off on a whole other direction than what I would do was very interesting and, for that reason, fun to write too."
"I remember writing one day and feeling like I'd written us into a corner. Kit's questions were my own, so how was I supposed to answer them? I had miscarried between my two children and had a really big crisis of faith. As I was writing that scene where Kit's mother delivered early and Kit's holding the dying baby wondering ‘why', I started crying as typed. Really crying. ‘What am I doing? I can't write this. I don't have the answers.' It was exhausting and fascinating to see my subconscious, I guess, putting those things into my characters and watch my characters figure it out for themselves."
Mick is a major character in both books, but he wasn't originally part of the plan. "Jack, Kit's brother, was supposed to be the main male character. Mick was just Jack's friend at first, but he became so important to Kit and the story I decided that he had to stay on. As I started writing, Mick's character just came more and more clear, and I really liked him. He seemed like a really strong personality that I wanted to carry forward. I don't know what I'll do with Jack. I don't know if I'll have to kill him off or send him to somewhere else, but the brother doesn't really have as much a role to play."
"I had the opportunity to attend two summers at Peter Carver and Kathy Stinson's summer writing workshop in Port Joli, NS. When I went the first year, I was working on Greener Grass, and Kathy did my one-on-one. We spent about an hour going over what I had done so far, and I had concerns then, too, about whether I should write in first person or second. My plan was to do one chapter in Kit's voice and one in Jack's because I liked how it worked with Egghead. Kathy helped me figure out which was the stronger voice. The siblings had an older sister at the time who was the one who was in love with Tom, and Kathy asked, ‘Why do you even have this sister? All the things should be happening to Kit.' As a result of Kathy's comments, I made Kit a little bit older and got rid of the sister. I also got rid of the grandfather and had Kit's father tell the stories and play the music. Kathy really helped pare down the cast and cause me to remember that the best ones to be telling the story are the people that are living it."
Although Caroline focuses on accuracy in her writing, she has used some artistic licence. "Given the audience, I toned down some of the horrors of that period, much like you would do if you're writing about the concentration camps. You want to put in enough that it's truthful and the kids get what's happening, but not so much that you overwhelm their senses. It's like watching a video game or a movie that's too violent. They're numb to it. You've lost them after that. It's like a spice. Less is more."
As to what's next, Caroline says, "I've had a lot of people ask me if there's going to be a sequel to Egghead. I don't think I'm going to do the same characters and continue their story because I think that's done, but I might do another story set in the same high school."
"The second year's workshop in Port Joli, NS, I brought a new novel I'd been playing around with. I had two versions – one in first person, which was too teen angsty, and one in free verse that leaves him sounding too young. I got some good feedback, but I think it needs to percolate a bit more. Maybe after Wild Geese I'll take another look. That's if someone else doesn't write it first. Every time I come up with a story idea, I go to Chapters and then I see somebody else has done it. It's almost becoming a joke with my husband whose advice is, ‘Don't go to Chapters anymore.'"
One of Caroline's long-time practices has been to keep a diary. "I still write a diary. A family friend gave me my first one, a little red diary, in grade four. My junior high diaries really helped me get the voices of Egghead. This year, when I went back to teaching, initially I didn't have time to write in my diary. After the first shock of being back to work and feeling overwhelmed and not knowing if I still had it as a teacher, coupled with the challenge of the older grades and not knowing if they're going to sit down and be quiet like the grade 4's would, I started journaling about my day. I think that's helped me find balance and ultimately be a better teacher. It helps me remember why I started writing in the first place – to find myself and to figure stuff out."
Finding time to write Caroline calls ‘the million dollar question.' "When I was home, I put the kids on the school bus and parked myself at the computer, but I've found it a lot more difficult to make time to write now that I'm back teaching. After being away from the classroom for seven years, I'm like a first year teacher again. My husband, Tony, works from home, which is great because he's there for the kids. He has been a great support throughout all my writing ups and downs, giving me time to write when I need it and dragging me off the computer when I need that. He convinces me I can do it on those days where I am defeated. And I've almost forgiven him for re-sorting my hundreds of research books according to ‘height.'"
"When Marion was a baby, I squeezed my writing in during nap times and swimming lessons. I wrote around running a daycare and working retail jobs, I wrote after hours of medical transcription when my fingers were cramped and my brain was mush. All the while, I hoped for that day when I could "leisurely write." I'm realizing that day doesn't exist. Come to think of it, neither does "leisurely writing." For me, writing is impulsive, passionate, and driven. It's wonderful and frustrating as hell. Life will always be busy – but then again, without the business of life, what would there be worth writing about?"
"Besides, when you're busy, you just do it. It's now or never. I used to waste time organizing my books, sorting my filing cabinet, or cleaning off my desk. I even called it ‘writing.' But now I don't. I jump right into the writing. It's messy and frazzled and so much more productive. I don't have the luxury of procrastinating any more. And that's probably a good thing."
Books by Caroline Pignat:
This article is based on an interview conducted in Ottawa, ON, on April 18, 2008, and revised July, 2008.
- Egghead. Red Deer Press, 2008. Grades 4-8
- Greener Grass. Red Deer Press, 2008. Grades 4-8.
Visit Caroline's website at www.carolinepignat.com