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Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
To date, Toronto's Marnelle Tokio has authored two quite different books for juveniles. Her first, More Than You Can Chew is a hardhitting YA novel about a teen girl recovering from anorexia, while the second, Room 207, is a lighthearted romp involving a group of grade 5 students. Although Marnelle was born in St, Catharines, ON, on January 1, 1966, she moved numerous times during her childhood and adolescent years. "My parents separated when I was about three, and I went back and forth between my mother and my father for years. Then my dad got full custody, and I lived with him and his second wife and her daughter. They were married when I was about eight, but when I was about 11, I knew the second marriage was falling apart. Not wanting to be around to get hit by the shrapnel, that's when I went back with my mom. I don't actually remember a whole lot before I was 13, and I think for very good reasons. I don't go into it because I think your brain protects itself in certain ways."
As to why so many of her moves involved warm climes, Marnelle explains, "The honest, shortest truth is that my mom likes the beach while my dad likes the snow, plus they need to be at least 3,200 miles apart. I lived with my mother in the Bahamas before we moved to Florida and then to California. Because I have relatives in Australia, when I was 18, I went on my own to Australia to be an apprentice jockey and to ride race horses. Actually, I went over under the guise of going to a private girls' school. When my uncle picked me up at the airport, he didn't even say hi to me. Instead, he asked, ‘What do you really want to do?' I replied, ‘I want to ride the ponies.' A betting man who went to the track, he said, ‘Let's go' and that's what we did."
"Being a jockey didn't work out. I was very sick with anorexia at the time, and you can't not eat and ride horses because riding takes too much strength. At the time, I had a lot of other problems too, and so things went down hill very quickly. I actually don't even remember coming home from Australia. I went back to Coronado, CA, for a bit, and then I moved in with my dad in Connecticut. Because he and I hadn't lived together for about eight years, that was ‘interesting.'?
"Because of writing More Than You Can Chew, I got more of the details about my childhood, details which my parents assumed that I knew. I know that I left my dad's house when I was 11 because I knew that his second marriage was falling apart. My mom, who promised me a dog if I came to live with her, had also said, ‘You can ride horses on the beach.' What 11-year-old wouldn't want to do those things? What I didn't realize at the time (and, again, Chew brought out so much stuff) was that my father had been quite upset that I chose to leave, but he didn't ask me to stay. Here's this little kid who's saying. ‘I'm leaving.' You'd think if he didn't want me to go, he'd ask me to stay, but he didn't, and so I left. If he'd asked me to stay, I would have, but it took him 25 years to let me know that, and he'd been mad about it for 25 years. So, really you should tell your kids what you're thinking."
As occurs to Marty Black, the central character in Chew, Marnelle can recall the catalyst day, that day of deciding she would stop eating. "I grew up on an island in California where you were under a microscope. Everybody's ‘beautiful' in Coronado. I started eighth grade there, but I actually left high school in the eleventh grade and didn't graduate. The day that my mom decided to quit drinking, I quit eating as I was fed up and so pissed off. I wanted my childhood back, and I was mad that I didn't get it back. And, of course, that's when my mother decided to ‘show up' as a parent. ‘Well, you can't walk me across the street holding my hand now. I'm used to coming in at whatever time I want, and all of a sudden you want me to have a curfew of 9:30!' You can imagine the explosions. Because she'd been drinking herself into oblivion for however long, I didn't think my mother had a leg to stand on."
"Anorexia is about control. It is not about food. I couldn't control my environment; I couldn't control what my mother was doing, and I couldn't control that my father didn't want me to come live with him. I also had a boyfriend who was incredibly controlling. About five years older than me and a drug dealer, he was out of high school. (Talk about looking for a father figure.) I lived a block and a half away from school, and he'd pick me up in the morning, drive me to school, pick me up at lunch, take me out to lunch, drive me back to school, and then pick me up after school. I'm now considered the ‘snob' in school because I won't date the high school boys, and meanwhile I won't talk to anybody because I know my boyfriend will hurt them if I do. So, here's the third control of the adults in my life. The only thing that I can control is the number on the scale."
"After Australia, I lived with my father for about five years, until I was about 23. He had said he would never move back to Canada, but ‘never say never.' I moved to live with him in Connecticut, and what does he do but move back to Canada, and there I am babysitting this big house in Connecticut all by myself. I got engaged while I was in Connecticut, but I decided to call it off, and I moved back to California where I was actually running a daycare from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. before going to school every day at the University of San Diego aka USD, the University of Spoiled Daughters, so-called because of all the BMWs in the student parking lots. By that point, I'd also been to Mira Mesa, a community college in San Diego, and at Sacred Heart University, a private university in Connecticut. I had credits from over the place."
"Because truth is stranger than fiction, I came to Canada and spent some time at my father's cottage. One of the people I met there was my stepsister's husband's brother, Jim. Lo and behold, as things happen, a couple of weeks after I'm back in California, I figured out I was pregnant. I said I would never live in Canada, and not just because of the cold. I didn't have any connections to Canada as I had left when I was 11. When I called Jim and told him the ‘news,' he asked, ‘Am I coming there, or are you coming here?' That wasn't an answer I was expecting or prepared for so I hung up the phone on him, collected myself, and called back. Due to immigration, it was much easier for me to come to Canada because I have dual citizenship. It's worked out incredibly well, After our knowing each other for only three weeks, it's 15 years later, and I'm very happy to be living in Canada. So that's how I ended up back in Canada because I really never expected to do so."
"If all this hadn't happened, I would never have gotten to spend the time with my dad. He and I are very, very close now, and neither one of us ever imagined having the relationship that we have. He was a great help in writing Chew because he remembered stuff that I didn't. When you're anorexic, typically you're killing yourself slowly, but sometimes it's not fast enough, and so you get more aggressive with overdoses or with sharp instruments. My dad and I would go out to lunch and discuss the manuscript, which I actually thought he would disown me for. It turned out to be the opposite. We'd be having lunch somewhere, and he would say something like, "Remember that time I said I'd pay for your funeral, but I wouldn't come to it.' And we'd be killing ourselves laughing, and I'd be thinking, ‘I've got to write that line down.' Chew just wouldn't exist if I hadn't moved back to Canada."
While Marnelle's father embraced More Than You Can Chew, her mother's reaction was initially quite the opposite. "We weren't talking for a couple of years because this book was very hard for her. I had said, ‘I won't publish this if it's going to hurt you. This is not about hurting.' It would have meant canceling the contract with Tundra and canceling what looked like, for the first time, to be a real bonafide career. Because my mother's into everything looking perfect, how would it look if she said, ‘No, you can't publish this,' and so she said, ‘Oh, no. It's a great story.' But what she did do was sort of withdraw and not be able to cope. She's aware that I sugar-coated her character, and we took out a lot of stuff in the book, the hardest truths, because we thought, "Nobody's going to believe this. This is too much.'"
"Hopefully you don't write things to hurt people, but, once they're out there, you can't control someone's feelings. While my mother has read the book, my father orders cases of this book, and I fileted him in there. His attitude is, ‘As long as it's making money, honey, I don't care.' His theory is, ‘People who know us, people who love us, know who we are and know what we've been through. I don't really care what anybody else thinks.' And I get that attitude from my father. Maybe it sounds bad that I don't care what people think, but, if I lived my life that way, I wouldn't have done anything I did. I think we live our lives too much around what people think, and what people think can change, Then what are you going to do? You've missed an opportunity you didn't take because of what someone thought, and now they've changed their mind and it's too late. I'd rather do something and make a mistake."
Someone who hasn't read Chew is Marnelle's 15-year-old daughter, Beau, whom Marnelle describes as "the most mature one in the family. She's always pinching my cheeks and going, ‘You're cute.' What's weird for her is that she'll be in a group and they'll be talking about More Than You Can Chew and Beau goes, ‘Oh, by the way. My mom wrote that.' Beau's never read the book, and I wouldn't blame her if she never read it. I would actually be quite happy if she didn't because that book contains very personal details in my life, and I think I'd lose hero status in her eyes. I know she's smarter than that, but I think it would kill her to know what I went through. She ‘knows,' but she just doesn't want to really know."
"I only graduated from high school when I was 21 because my mom talked to my tennis coach and somehow finagled my finishing high school. I actually was accepted to Yale, but at one point they said, ‘We need some sort of graduation from high school,' and so I wrote the three papers that are talked about in More Than You Can Chew. In the book, the mother really pressures her daughter and doesn't want to look at what's going on, that her daughter's in a hospital. The mother's position is, "You've got to do your homework.' Marty's response is, ‘Dead girls don't graduate.' That was a real line from a shrink. I had never seen anybody stand up to my mother and actually win. I'll never forget that line because he looked and me and said, ‘Dead girls don't graduate.' What a great line."
Marnelle's another "graduate" of Peter Carver's writing workshops, but she initially went to be company for her husband's best friend who paid her tuition. "We didn't have the money, the $150.00, for a 12-week course, Writing for Children, offered through George Brown College. At the time, I wanted to write picture books. I still want to write picture books, but I ended up writing a novel where part of it takes place in a psych ward. I wrote the first three paragraphs of More Than You Can Chew, now the Prologue, and Peter said, ‘That's the real stuff. Write that.' I took off out of the class, and I didn't come back for a year and a half. What I'd written was ‘my life.' I didn't want to do that. I wanted to write picture books, and so I took off just three weeks into the course. I think I'm one of Peter's only students to ever take the first class twice."
"The weird thing is that after I read these three paragraphs, Cathy Francis, then an employee at Mabel's Fables but now one of the owners of the Flying Dragon Book Shop in Toronto, came up to me during the tea and cookies break in Peter's class and said, ‘I can't wait to have the book launch.' At that point, I didn't know who she was, but I replied, ‘You're nuts! This is not a book.' Eight years later, Cathy opened her bookstore in time to have a book launch for More Than Can Chew. It's amazing what happens when you say something. I truly believe that, if you say it, it has a much greater chance of happening than if you never said."
Marnelle had the most unusual experience of not having to shop the manuscript of More Than You Can Chew around because "Cathy Francis actually took it to Tundra. She knew about it from Peter's class, and she finally said, ‘I'm coming over, and I'm pushing the print button on your printer.' I think Cathy had discussed it with Kathy Lowinger at Tundra two years before, but then I had just said, ‘It's not ready" because it still wasn't going to be a book as far as I was concerned. Meanwhile, everybody was saying, ‘It's never going to be ready.' People were very kind and generous with their motivation."
"Chew was actually with an agent who was going to take it to New York, but they ended up changing their mind. My thinking about the US route was that the book takes place in the States, and that's where I was still sort of from in my head. Then my thinking became, ‘Wouldn't it be good on a first experience to have the experience close to home and to be shepherded through it personally other than over the phone?' I liked the idea of the contact, and so that's what we did."
Despite More Than You Can Chew's tough subject matter, Marnelle says she is not aware of any censorship of the book. "I'm amazed that it's in any library. When we did the first draft, Kathy Lowinger said, ‘All the ‘language' has to come out.' And I said, ‘I knew that going in. I'm a bookseller.' I took all the language out, and then they brought me in to speak to the Random House sales reps. That was an interesting experience because I thought it would be about six people, but it ended up being a lot of people around a board room with sweaty pitchers of water. I had nothing prepared whereas the other author who was presenting had a power point presentation. I thought, ‘Now what do I do?'"
"I was just very honest with them and said, ‘Let me know what I can do to help you to sell this book because I don't know how you are going to do this.' Some of the reps had read the manuscript, something which doesn't always happen because they don't have the time. However, everybody has a personal connection to eating disorders. Everybody's trying to figure out what their sister, mother, cousin, girlfriend, friend, whatever, is doing. There was so much attachment, and they were the ones who said, ‘Can you please put the language back in. Let's be brave. Give us something to sell. The kids are the slickest audience out there. How long do you think they're going to hang onto that book if you have a character cut her wrist and then go, "Oh darn." It's not going to fly." So, we put the language back in, and I thought, ‘Oh, now we're toast.' But I don't think I gave librarians enough credit. They're dealing with these kids every day on the front lines, and they know their audience. They can't sell books that don't represent the kids' lives."
Room 207 also has its roots in personal experiences connected to Marnelle. As she puts it, "I use everything in my life. I guess I should be making stuff up, but why bother? It's like a buffet, right there. Why make dinner when the buffet's open? In this instance, my daughter, Beau, stayed with the same teacher, Lynne Timney, from grades 2-6. Lynne has only had three ‘classes' in her whole teaching career of 21 years. She's an amazing teacher. The school was a melting pot with 55 languages represented. The students in Beau's class were so funny and indignant about ‘Why can't she (meaning me) write a book for us?' I'd never seen this side of them. I went on a field trip with them at least once a month, and this was the only time that they were ever mad at me."
"The actual original concept for Room 207 was to do short stories of field trips because I'd been on so many with these kids and funny things just happened. I always got the kids who were more like me in that their attention spans might be a little shorter, but, if you can explain how surgery used to be done with chisels and rocks, you can hold someone's attention, and that's what I did. I'd talk about the grossest stuff I knew, and I'd have the boys right there with me. So, the original idea was short stories, but you get a contract for a certain number of words and not a story. Kathy Lowinger and I talked about it and talked about it and talked about it, and Kathy really wanted a full story from start to finish. It took a bit longer to pull that one off than it would have to take the moments in my life with these kids and put them into a story. The kids were in fifth grade when they asked me to write a book for them, and so I still haven't written that book because now it's too young for them."
"Room 207 took a long time to write, about two and a half years. Funny is hard. I thought I could whip it off in about three months. Wrong! It's easy to make someone cry. You just drown a puppy. Think about it. How many hundreds of dramatic actors can you name? Now, how many comedians can you whip off? Robin Williams, Eddy Murphy. It's really hard to be funny, especially if people know you're supposed to be funny. They will sit there and go, ‘OK, make me laugh.' It's really hard because I'm trying to make everybody laugh here. I'm trying to make editors nine floors up laugh as well as the kids that sit at my feet during school readings."
"I've got the two experiences now. Chew I didn't mean to write, and so that was almost organically written. The last quarter of More Than You Can Chew was written in five days. I had a deadline. I was asked, ‘When can you get it to me?' and I replied, ‘Thursday.' When I hung up the phone, my husband asked, ‘It's done?' to which I replied, ‘No.' And he said, ‘Why did you say Thursday?' and I responded, ‘That's the first day that came to my head.' So a quarter of it was written in five days. With Room 207, we had the concept; we changed the concept; we changed several things. It's hard to make everybody happy in the funny sort of way, but the younger you are writing for, the easier it is. You just have to get it past an editor."
Over the years, Marnelle has had many different jobs. "I always say I've done everything from A to X. I'm still working on Y, and I almost had Z. I was seriously looking at a zookeeper job when they were talking about publishing Chew. Having tried so many things is just about not being qualified to do anything, having a very short attention span, and thinking I want to do something. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and so I went to be a veterinarian's assistant. ‘Let's test drive this because, God forbid, I actually go to school for something.' At one point, I thought I wanted to be chiropractor, and so I was an X-ray tech in Connecticut for a chiropractor. Then, you could be an X-ray technician with zero training (which is a little scary), but I was good at it. I've also been a lifeguard, waitress, and bookseller. I sold children's books for six years at Toronto's Mabel's Fables and at the Flying Dragon Bookshop."
"I worked at really nice restaurants because I'm the best cook I know. I really love food, and so I wasn't going to work in a crappy restaurant. I was a lousy waitress because of my dyslexia. They number the chairs at a table, but I would just put the food down and say, ‘You know, you'd like this better than what you ordered,' and then I'd just walk away and let them sort it out. I didn't know where the individual orders were supposed to go. The only reason I wasn't fired is that I worked in a place where you pooled the tips and I'd get great tips. I'd have four tables while everybody else would have eight or twelve, but I'd make the customers laugh and they'd have a good time. (Well, at least that was their reaction most of the time.)"
One of Marnelle's distinctives is that she initially writes on cards. "A 3x5 card's not scary. A page is too much for me to fill. A screen on a computer is too much too fill. The cards are portable. They fit in a pocket. Unfortunately, I don't know how much writing I've actually lost because I've lost the cards, but I find it way easier to write on a little card than I do to fill up that space on a page or a computer screen. A lot of times I'll write on one card, and that one card will become a whole chapter, but that one card is really the meat of what I want to say. Often times, I'll write the first and last lines of the chapter on the card. Then, when I sit down at the computer, I fill in the rest, but I know where I'm starting and where I want to go. Typically, I like to start chapters with dialogue, something I learned from Peter Carver, because that puts you right in the middle of the action. If I can have that one line, then I want to have the hook, that last line of the chapter, the one that makes you turn the page and look to see how many pages the next chapter is and to ask, ‘Have I got time for this?' I usually know the beginning and the hook."
"I also really dislike writing. Ask anybody who's close to me. I have tons of avoidance techniques. I am an excellent cook and will cook for eight hours a day ‘because I love my family.' Or I'll discover, ‘Oh, the guinea pig needs a new salt lick. I'd better ride my bike to Petsmart.' Anything to avoid starting. I'm sure it's fear. Rick Book, a friend and writer, said it was fear of success. I don't enjoy the process. Finishing a book is not a high for me because I'm thinking, ‘I've got to go on to the next one.' Six months after Chew was published, I was walking down the street when it hit me, ‘Oh my God! I have to do this again.' I already had a contract, and so it really wasn't a surprise, but I was shocked by the fact that I realized. ‘I have to do this again.' And I'm going, ‘Do I really want to do this again?'"
"While I say I dislike writing, once I'm in it, it's painful actually to be pulled out of that world. I am so in it that, if the doorbell rings or something else happens, I'm loath to leave it. It's just getting into it that's so hard. It's like a train. Trying to start a train is so hard, but once it's going, no problem. In fact it's then hard to stop it. That's me. I love these writers who have an hour a week to write, and they pack that hour. I have so much admiration for them. Unless I have 72 hours straight, ‘I'm not doing this' is my attitude."
Accepting the legitimacy of writing as an occupation has also been a challenge for Marnelle. "In my family, money was so key because money was status: ‘It's not a real job unless money's involved.' The things that I don't get paid for, the volunteer stuff, have been the things that I've loved most. I approached writing as ‘I can't do this because I'm actually not getting paid; therefore, it's not worth it.' I have to change my mind set. I now know that I get paid if I sit down and do it. But initially it wasn't a ‘real' job, and that's what took me so long to figure out. When I say I'm a writer, people don't know what that means. ‘Author' sounds pompous to me. I have a hard time with that word, and I suspect it's because I don't yet look at writing as a bonafide job. When I finally went to my father to tell him I was going to be a writer, I thought, ‘Oh this is it,' because when I told him I was going to be a lawyer, his response was, ‘Well, it's your life'. He wasn't happy about that career choice because he so hates lawyers. But when I told him I was going to be a writer, he said, ‘About goddamn time.' What? Apparently he and everybody else had seen it in me."
"My favourite story in that regard involves More Than You Chew. After it was published, my eighth grade English teacher from Coronado, CA, Kathy Clarke, contacted me by email and said, "I don't know if you remember me.' And I replied, ‘Of course I remember you. You were just the goddess.' She said, ‘I've saved your work from eighth grade.' She's a pretty amazing being, and I doubt that my work is the only work that she saved. I said,' I can't believe that you remember me for anything other than being a pain in the ass.' And she replied, ‘Oh, no. I always knew you were going to be a writer.' I emailed her back, saying, ‘Well, I wish you'd told me this 25 years ago. I wouldn't have jerked around for this long and done everything else I have done.' Her response was, ‘I did tell you. You weren't paying attention.' That reply was priceless. I felt like I was back in eighth grade. Why is my being a writer not a surprise to anybody but me? As I said, I actually don't like the writing part, but I like everything that goes with it, and so it's worth it to me to put the time in."
Another distinctive of Marnelle is her habit of writing on her kitchen walls with a Sharpie marker. "I'm actually not allowed to do it anymore because my husband painted the kitchen. The habit started with Beau's birthday. Jim was away on a trip, and Beau, who was then about six or seven, was feeling pretty down because her dad wouldn't be there for her birthday. After midnight when all the stores, even Shopper's Drugmart, were closed, I realized I didn't have a birthday card for Beau. Now, I'm not really a card girl anyways as I think about recycling. What I did was to go downstairs and get some paint. Across the top of the kitchen wall in huge letters that were about a foot and a half big, I painted ‘Happy Birthday Beau.' In the morning, this sleepy little kid in her pyjama feet comes down. Not a morning kid, she's sitting there having juice and cereal when she sort of looks up. Meanwhile, I'm so excited. Imagine being a little kid, and your mom has painted ‘Happy Birthday Beau' on the walls. She looks up and says, "Dad's going to be mad.' Just at that moment, he phoned, and Beau answers and says, ‘You wouldn't believe what Mom did,'and I grabbed the phone."
"That's how it started, and from then on I wrote down interesting things that people said. Rick Book's famous line was, ‘I have friends, and some of them are even still talking to me.' I would write ‘Happy Birthday' in different languages, and one year I even did them in hieroglyphics. I should have been writing up in my office, but I would write on the walls things that would strike me, such as ‘Always choose chaos over order.' I always look at life as if it's a carnival, and so my thinking is, if I get one day at the carnival, I'm riding all the rides. I'm not going to just go on my favourite one. There's some people who would just keep riding the merry-go-round, and so I wrote in huge letters, ‘One day at the carnival. Ride ‘em all.' I've got a surfboard on the wall covered in blue and white Christmas lights that look like waves. I wrote on it, ‘Ride your own wave.' People would come into the house, and those things would make them think. Now, everybody who comes in goes. ‘We miss the writing.' But then as I said, my husband spent hours painting the kitchen, and Sharpie marker is not easy to cover. I did look at the repainted kitchen as a new canvas, but Jim doesn't see it that way."
Marnelle is presently writing an adult novel. "‘Monkey' is another one of those projects that got resurrected by accident, this time because of Helen Humpreys who was the writer-in-residence at the Toronto Public Library. I wanted her job, not literally, but I did want to be a writer-in-residence, and I thought, ‘Well, they should see that I can write.' I just dug ‘Monkey' out of the files. I hadn't looked at it in a couple of years, and I gave Helen the first 10 pages of this manuscript. She called me and said, ‘When can you get here?' She didn't want to talk about the story. It was, ‘This is where it should go, and we've got to get an agent.' I'm going, ‘Whoa, whoa! I just wanted your job.' Helen got me really re-excited about it."
"I don't actually know where ‘Monkey' came from, but it was ‘born' at Rick Book's house. We had just finished watching the women's hockey gold medal game in the Winter Olympics and then the movie To Kill a Mockingbird came on. Fully formed, this character and this environment in the Deep South (and I've never lived in the Deep South) just went boom! I said to Rick, ‘Can I borrow your office?' I wrote the first 10 pages in about half an hour. Then, I just sort of put it away."
"The story's about a 10-year-old blind boy who's albino. Everybody thinks he can't hear because albinos are sometimes deaf as well, but he can hear and he can speak. He just doesn't because he's viewed as invisible, plus the animals where he lives get treated better than he does. His father is walking evil. He's not affluent. He's a sharecropper. I don't know what year the story takes place in, but I know that there's some places in the South today where it could still be a hundred years ago. At this point, there's no need to have a year on it because it's his story from his perspective and a year is not on his agenda at the moment."
"It's very different to write from the perspective of a character who doesn't talk and who doesn't see. In the first 10 pages, you actually don't know that going on, and it's not until the tenth page that you learn that he's blind, and then you go, ‘Wait a second. He saw this. He saw that.' What you don't realize is that you bring assumptions to a book. It's fun to watch adults go back through these pages and realize, ‘No he didn't see the rocking chairs. He heard them sawing their way through the porch.' You, the reader, saw the rocking chairs, not him. It's really challenging to write that way, but I'm having a great time. In a volunteer program called Pegasus which involves horseback riding, I've worked with kids who are blind, autistic, paraplegic, quadriplegic, the whole bit. They're amazing kids, and I've learned so much from them, just hanging out with them and watching them, how they deal with the horses. It's just being observant. To write, I just have to close my eyes and live a different way to be able to get this character from point A to point B although the world only exists in my head."
"I've set myself the goal of finishing ‘Monkey' by January, 2007. I was told that I was very silly thinking I could finish it by January, but I need that push. I need to go into that world and not come out. During the finishing of Chew, I would send my husband and daughter to the movies, and Jim would call and say, ‘Can we come home?' And I'd reply, "No, you have to see another movie,' and hang up the phone. He and Beau would see three movies in day. They couldn't come home and got tired of eating out. We spent so much money finishing that book."
When asked about what she going to be writing after "Monkey" is finished, Marnelle replies, "That would involve planning. Call me 15 minutes before if you want to do something. I'd love to write screen plays because they're short, 90-120 pages, and I like dialogue although you still have to do description of an event or atmosphere. I'd love to write for television. I think I'd be actually really good with television because you've got to do it intensely. Writing is really lonely, and I'm not good at that. I spent so much time alone as a kid. I spent every summer on an island in the French River up in North Bay. There was no TV, and I had a little Panasonic tape-recorder on which I listened to all the Beetle songs. I just occupied myself. I built fires, I toasted fish for the cat, My grandmother said, ‘You just disappeared in the morning, and you came back at night.'"
"To write picture books, that is my Holy Grail. To tell a story under 500 words is pretty tough. I'm not sure if I'm that talented. I write for the movie in my head. One of the reasons it was hard to write Room 207 is that it took me a long time to make the movie in my head. I didn't have it, but with these other things, I do have the movie, and so it's hard to stay focused on ‘Monkey' because I'm competing with these images of this other book. There's another YA book, and there's actually another adult book, but I just have to forget about those for a while and do ‘Monkey.' I don't think I'd be very good at writing too many books at once."
Books, horses and writing are connected in Marnelle's life. "I've had this love of horses from the minute I first saw one. That's one of the few things that I remember about my childhood. I went to horseback riding camp every summer for two weeks, and I lived for those two weeks. I adored the "Black Stallion" series. They're why I became a jockey. That's how influential the books were. I read those books and read them and read them. Sometimes I would copy them out from memory. I wanted that black horse, and when Francis Ford Coppola did the black stallion movie, that's exactly how I saw it. I was that kid on the beach riding the horse with no adults around. Then, I went to the Bahamas and actually did that. Here was this opportunity, and I grabbed it because I had already lived it in these books. These were retired race horses, and I don't remember ever talking to an adult and asking permission. I just went and took the horses. I rode bareback with a halter and a lead rope because I wasn't tall enough to put a bridle on. I'd figured out very quickly that the best way for nobody to ask me any questions was to always walk into places like I owned them."
"Friends of ours have moved up to the top of Blue Mountain, which is near Collingwood, ON, and their daughter got involved in riding. I could live in a barn, and so I've gone there and fallen in love with this horse called Turtle. He's the naughty boy in the barn which is why we get along really well. If you don't close his stall door, he's out cruising the barn visiting the other horses. He's a social butterfly and gets everybody upset. But he's a wonderful motivation for my whole life. We make ourselves promises. When I was little, like age six, my promise to myself was, ‘By the time I'm 10, I'm going to have my own horse.' Then I'm 10, and it's, ‘By the time I'm 15, I'm going to have my own horse.' By 15, I'm starting to get a little more realistic. ‘If I make it to 25, I'm going to have my own horse.' At 25, definitely 30; 30 was 40. I'm at 40, and I haven't got a horse yet."
"I wish I could say, "I write every day because I have to.' I write because I want time with my family. That's what writing buys me. I write because I want to buy a horse, Turtle. I'd love to be able to say that I'm that writer who, if I don't write, I'm not going to survive. I think I'd survive quite well if I didn't write another word, but this is what I'm supposed to do (if there's such a thing as what we're supposed to do). I'm supposed to do lots of other things, too, but this, the writing, is a good thing to concentrate on. I think by 40 you should have some sort of career."
Books by Marnelle Tokio:
This article is based on an interview conducted in Winnipeg, MB, on November 21, 2006, and revised April, 2007.