Allison van Diepen
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
Born in Ottawa on September 19, 1977, Allison van Diepen [pronounced van deepen] has an older sister and a younger brother. Allison is also a PK, a preacher's kid, her mother being a United Church minister. "My mom was ordained when I was 12, but I never felt that there were expectations that I needed to live up to in order to impress the church. I was inspired by my mom's work in the community, and from the time that I was little, I was going to protests against various injustices. We're still kind of a team in terms of social activism."
Allison is "cursed" by looking much younger than her chronological age. "I'm trying to embrace it now because I've fought against it for so many years. Even now, I'll go to staff development meetings, and people will say, 'Oh, we didn't expect a student would be here.' The people at Simon and Schuster tell me that at book signings the one question they're always getting in the lineup is, 'How old is she?'
Allison's early career goals were initially quite varied. "Before the age of 12, I wanted to be a heart surgeon, orchestra conductor, and a medical researcher who would cure cancer. However, when I was 12, I fell in love with books, and it's because my sister gave me two scary 'Goosebumps' type books for Christmas. I was totally hooked and read as many books as I could find. At the same age, I started writing stories, and I 'became' a writer right then. I finished my first book at 14, and so I knew what I was going to do, and no one could talk me out of it."
"I still have the 150 page book that I wrote back then. It wasn't bad, and I think I could go back to it one day and make it work. It was fantasy. I'd been reading David Eddings at the time, and I wanted to write a fantasy epic. It was about a 14-year-old archer, and I even drew a map at the beginning of it because you have to have a map in fantasy. When I was 15, I wrote another novel. It was from the male viewpoint whereas the first had been from a female perspective. At 17, I was reading adult romances that I got from a girl in school who was the romance novel 'dealer'. Then I started writing historical romances since, whatever I was reading, I was writing. I knew I was going to be a writer. There was no doubt about it."
Allison's romance writing found an early payoff as evidenced by an entry in her diary when she was 15: "I'm making money writing for the first time." What Allison was doing was producing on-demand adult romances that would incorporate one of her female friends and that person's favourite celebrity as characters: 'My friend Nina and Antonio Banderas,' for instance. We would share these stories at school and at parties, and then everyone was putting in orders. I kept the first $2.00 bill (this was before Toonies, of course) I received in payment." Allison's romance writing was actually too successful. "Because I only had a certain amount of time to write, I wanted to focus on my own stuff. As well, I would only charge about $8.00 for the whole story, and I'd spend so long on them. I just decided that it didn't make sense to keep doing it."
"After high school, I knew I wanted to go to university, and I figured that, since I wanted to write, I would study English. However, when I started the English program at Carleton, I was bored by the books and I found that the way English was taught was very 'scientific' with all these charts on the board. The professors always said, 'Oh the writer really means this and they really mean that.' And I was thinking, 'How do you know what the writer means?' The experience just left me not interested in studying English, and after one year I switched to history, which I loved. Every period I learned about was a possible setting for a historical novel. I was very interested in social history, especially women's history. I wanted to know how people lived, not just who was in power at the time."
Allison spent the last year of her Arts degree, 1998-99, on exchange in Edinburgh, Scotland. During her time in Scotland, Allison had a potentially fatal experience while an extra on The House of Mirth, a film based on Edith Wharton's 1905 novel of the same name.
"I was in the bathroom trailer when my dress got caught in an open flame heater. The back of my dress was on fire, and I could see the flames above my head. I picked up my skirts (because it was a period piece) and started whipping them, which didn't work. Then I remembered 'stop, drop and roll' from when I was five-years-old. Doing the sequence saved me, and I only had a couple of minor burns on my back. The other thing that saved me was that my hair had been really high. I had asked them to put it down, but they forgot and put it up. It was so full of hair spray and fake hair that it's incredible that it didn't catch fire. I got very, very lucky that day."
"I spent the summer of 1999 in Scotland working at the Institute of Applied Language Studies before coming back to Canada and graduating in the fall. I didn't have a plan for after convocation because I was always going to be a writer. I started writing and soon realized that I couldn't live with my parents forever. I got a job at the Canadian Pharmacists Association and looked into my options. I'd always played teacher when I was young so I definitely had a connection with teaching. I applied to teachers' college and got into the one-year program at Nipissing University in North Bay. That was going to be my career -- teaching and writing."
Serendipity definitely played a role in Allison's first teaching position. "In February of that year, my uncle had told my grandmother that he saw something in the Toronto Star about recruiters coming to Toronto to recruit teachers for New York City. My grandmother mentioned this fact to my dad, and, in passing, he told me about it. Nobody thought I would do anything about it, but, I thought, 'Oh, a chance to teach in New York City. That will give me the adventure that I'm looking for.'"
Asked if she knew what she was getting herself into, Allison responds, "Well, yes and no. I was looking for a challenge. I wasn't looking for an easy time. I had thought, 'I could probably go back to Ottawa and get a job at my old high school.' But I knew I had to do something different, something compelling. I knew they were picking us for hard-to-staff schools, but I thought, 'Why not? Let's see if I can rise to the occasion.' When I got there, I found it was one of the most troubled schools in Brooklyn. At the time, it had the second highest number of violent incidents of all the New York City high schools."
"My students would ask me, 'Why did you come here?' and I would always say, 'Why not? Because I love you guys.' They'd find that weird, but I really did love my students. They challenged me a lot in the first semester, but, by the second semester, I knew what I had to do which was to be really tough and to stop being so fun because, while we had a good time, that meant that I would lose control of the class, and so I needed to be serious."
"The school was huge, about 3,800 students, and it's size was one of the reasons it was difficult. For instance, you could have a problem with some random student in the hall mouthing off at you, but there was nothing you could do. What are you going to do? Go to the Dean's office and look at 3,800 pictures and try to figure out who it is? The student would only get a slap on the wrist anyway. It was a difficult school to 'police.' We had about 11 security guards, but if one called in sick, that person was not replaced. On any given day, we might only have seven or eight on duty, and, often, if you called them for assistance, they wouldn't show up."
"If you were 'trusted' by the administrators, they often put you in the most dark part of the building: the basement. Some of the classrooms down there didn't even have windows. It was stifling, and the classes had weird, mouldy smells. Yet, if you opened the door to try and get any air, not that there was any fresh air in the hallway, then there would be something going on outside that you'd have to become involved in. You'd almost prefer to close the door and let everyone suffer rather than worry that somebody's going to come in and cause trouble."
"My classes averaged 34 students; however, in the afternoon, a lot of them didn't show up. Many students fell through the cracks, and that's why I love the alternative school here in Ottawa where I now teach English. If things aren't working out for someone at a 'regular' high school, they can go to go to an alternative school and can keep shorter hours and work on one course at a time. I know that there were some alternative schools in Brooklyn, but I'm sure that a lot of students who should have gone there just ended up dropping out. They probably didn't know the options."
"When I first got to Brooklyn, I was submitting queries for a romance novel that I had written, but soon after that I began writing for my students. They complained about some of the books they were reading in English classes. I thought, 'Why don't I write something that would be appropriate for a classroom and that these teens would love?"
"I had little knowledge of the young adult literature market. I researched agents that represented YA and picked five. I got responses from two, with one saying, 'Only send it to me if you're only sending it to me exclusively' while the other just said, 'Send it to me.' I did send it to him. Street Pharm got picked up quickly. Two editors saw it, and one of them, at Simon and Schuster, bought it. Sadly, what I didn't know was that my agent was very sick, and he has since passed away."
To the observation that it is the female characters in the two novels who are the carriers of morality, Allison responds, "I hadn't thought of it that way, but I certainly thought that Street Pharm's Ty Johnson was like some of my male students, and I wanted him to fall for a morally upright person, someone with goals and dreams. I thought it would be appropriate for his character growth to meet someone like Alyse. With Snitch, I wanted Julia to fall for someone who was going to make her question her own morality and what she was willing to do to get what she wanted or to protect herself."
"More than half of my students were in gangs. I remember one of my best students didn't show up one day. He was a Crip at a mainly Blood school. He had gotten beaten severely and ended up in hospital and had to have a 'safety transfer' out. Several of my students had to have these 'safety' transfers."
"I talked to my students about issues related to gangs and asked a lot of questions. One student in particular had family connections to the Crips, like Black Chuck, and he told me a lot. He wanted to set the record straight about what the gangs were actually doing, what they were involved in and how they functioned. I was grateful to him because I could only write Snitch with real information. The person who told me about gang 'sleepers' didn't want me to keep asking so many questions. I still look back and wonder if she was a sleeper. She was a very smart kid who never showed up to class."
Asked if the street language of Street Pharm and Snitch has created any censorship problems, Allison replies, "I'm aware of the books not being placed in certain schools and libraries because of the language in them and because they address gangs and drug dealing. Because I'm a teacher as well as an author, I understand that, if you bring a book with this kind of language into the classroom, you could hear from the parents. And I understand that a lot of teachers don't want to deal with that. I don't blame them. I know what it's like to deal with parents who get upset over one word in a book."
"I get asked a lot if I'm trying to send out a moral message with my books. My answer is: 'I want young people to think about the consequences of their actions, and I try to write about realistic consequences." So Julia, being in a gang, probably isn't going to have the greatest, brightest future, and Ty, as a drug dealer, probably isn't going to live a happy, wonderful life. By portraying different scenarios realistically, I feel that I'm accomplishing what I set out to do. I want the students reading these books to think about the consequences of every decision they make."
Despite their length, both Street Pharm and Snitch have been selected as "Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers" by the American Library Association. "I get emails all the time from teens saying, 'It's the first book I ever finished.' Now I'm starting to hear more from teachers who say, 'My students, who say they hate reading, are burning through Street Pharm or Snitch. When I wrote the books, I wasn't thinking, 'This is good for reluctant readers.' I just wrote them the way I wanted to write them, and I realize now that that happens to be a way that appeals to those reluctant readers."
"When it comes to writing books, I'm not sure where I start. With Street Pharm, I was on the subway and just 'saw' this scene with this young guy talking to the dean who was telling him that he was going to scrub toilets for a living, and this guy not caring because he had his drug dealing business. I saw that in my head, and so the book started out with Ty Johnson and his voice."
"I think the latest book, Raven, came from a setting. I pictured a dance club in what was once a church and all kinds of mysterious people being there, including a darkly handsome Italian boss and a group of teen break dancers. I also knew that the main character was going to have family problems because her brother would be a drug addict. I didn't know it was going to be paranormal until after I'd written a good chunk of it. Then, of course, I rewrote it."
Being a full-time teacher, in order to write, Allison must "make" the time. "I work seven days a week. I set my alarm five days a week for my teaching job and set it on Saturday and Sunday (which can be excruciating) so that I can get up and write. I can actually count on one hand the number of weekend days that I had off between February and last June."
"Writing is absolutely an addiction. It's a passion, a vocation, a hobby; it's everything. I have people who come to me and ask if they should be a writer. If they really want to be a writer, they shouldn't have to ask. Everyone asks me how I find the time, and I say, 'It's the weekends. It's the evenings. It's a choice. 'What are you going to do on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Are you able to sit down and write, or do you have to go and have a picnic?'"
Allison's moving to a new genre following two gritty inner city novels might surprise, and possibly alienate, her readers. "I'm not in Brooklyn any more, so I can't keep writing books that are exactly like the two previous ones. However Raven has an urban feel, and my writing style is still fast paced, so I hope I'll keep my readers."
As to what comes after Raven, Allison says, "I'm really enjoying urban fantasy, and so I could see writing more in that genre. At the same time, there's a manuscript that I've had in my head for more than ten years about a girl who goes back in time to ancient Rome. Whether the market is interested in it, I have no idea, but it has to be written. I'll write it next year; I'll write it ten years from now, but that book's going to be written."
Books by Allison van Diepen:
This article is based on an interview conducted in Ottawa, ON, on April 17, 2008, and revised September, 2008.
- Street Pharm. Simon & Schuster, 2006. Grades 9 and up.
- Snitch. Simon & Schuster, 2007. Grades 9 and up.
- Raven. Simon & Schuster, 2009. Grades 9 and up.
Visit Allison's website at at www.allisonvandiepen.com/