Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
In Changing Jareth, Canadian adolescents had the opportunity in 1999 to meet a most engaging new character in YA literature. At 17, Jareth Gardner is already a seasoned break-and-enter artist, but, during his most recent robbery, he unwittingly contributes to the death of the home's octogenarian owner. Jareth's creator is 27-year-old Elizabeth Wennick.
The second of two children, Elizabeth was born September 2, 1972, in Ottawa, but her bio looks like a travelogue. "Because I'm an army brat, I moved around a lot when I was younger. My father was in the armed forces, and he retired when I was seven. Though I was born in Ottawa, I have no memories of it at all except from pictures. When I was a baby, we moved to Lahr, West Germany, where I spent my early childhood. I was six or seven when we moved to London, Ontario, where my father spent his last year or so in the service. After he retired, we settled in Burlington, where I've been since I was about eight. So that's the boring early childhood part. The late childhood and teenage stuff is pretty typical as well - boring suburban angst and all that. As a young teenager, I was a bit of a 'bad-ass' - tough kid, into lots of things I shouldn't have been. I shaped up a little when I was around 16, although I'm still kind of a rebel. I don't like rules very much."
While Elizabeth was growing up, she considered a variety of career paths. "I wanted to be everything under the sun. Like most young children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. (Bad idea. Too much blood, too many sick animals. I'm way too big a sap to do that.) Besides writing, the thing I wanted most was to be an actor. Actually, I still do in some small way. Every once in a while I'll hop up on stage for something or other, and it's so fulfilling. Those were the 'biggies' growing up. Oh, when I was about 11 or 12, I wanted to be a singer, too, but God did not choose to gift me with a voice that anyone else in the world wants to hear, so I think in the back of my mind I knew that wasn't going to happen."
"I don't know where I got the idea I wanted to work with kids. Somehow I just kept stumbling into things that involved them. When I was 15, a friend invited me to work at a camp his mother directed. I kept going back, and that experience got me a job working with intellectually challenged kids during the school year. Then came a job teaching crafts at Bolton Camp, which led to me running an after-school centre for two years. I went to school in Brampton for a year when I was 19. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a correctional worker, and so I did the first year of a program, then ran out of money for second year. I was planning to take a year and go back, but, by the time I got the money, I didn't want to do it anymore. Then I came to my senses and went back to Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, for journalism. Oh, did I mention my other jobs? Dishwasher, newspaper carrier, waitress, grocery store cashier, lumber store clerk, sales clerk at Hallmark Cards, substitute day care teacher, photo lab technician, video store supervisor. It's all a part of my never-ending quest to become a poster child for Generation X."
Graduating from Sheridan in 1995, Elizabeth "worked for newspapers in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Haldimand-Norfolk. Niagara Falls was a miserable experience. The paper folded after about a month of my being there. But the city fascinated me. It's such a bizarre mixture of elements - ultra-rich high rollers at the casino, tacky trailer-park dwellers up from New York State on their honeymoons, Japanese and German tourists everywhere you look - the city's tourist bureau must spend half its advertising budget in those two countries alone - and neon everywhere. And in among all this, people are actually living and existing and having ordinary lives."
"St. Catharines was also a short-lived experience. THAT paper folded after three months. I spent the longest winter of my life shivering in a grungy little basement apartment, wondering if my next paycheck was going to clear at the bank (sometimes it didn't) and spending 80 hours a week trying to keep a floundering weekly tabloid afloat. I was in Haldimand-Norfolk for a year before St. Catharines. It's a picturesque little chunk of Ontario, although nobody's ever heard of it. It's actually a huge rural area with a population of about 100,000 and a serious lack of profile. I was a general assignment reporter for a paper there (actually I was the ONLY reporter for this particular paper) and spent my days running from church picnics to court cases to council meetings and public school choir concerts. Not exactly high art, but it was kind of fun.<"
Elizabeth's writing actually began during high school when "I tried to get a few short stories published, although my biggest problem was that I never really FINISHED anything. I've got this one enormous story that I've been working on since I was about 15. Eventually I'll put all the bits and pieces together. It's called 'Lowell,' and it's kind of a small town murder mystery/suspense/horror story. With a sense of humour. I started out writing it deadly serious when I was in Grade 10 or 11. I kept coming back to it and re-writing bits, occasionally throwing the whole thing out and starting over again, but finally after ten years I've got some fantastic characters and what I think is a decent story for the thing. About two years ago, I sort of re-started the thing. It's not YA at all, although there's nothing 'R' rated in it. I just don't think most teenagers would understand the sense of humour. Believe it or not, I'm actually more comfortable being funny than I am being serious. A lot of my more successful theatre stuff has been pretty slapsticky. I'm also a pretty decent comic actor, and I've written stand-up for a ventriloquist friend of mine on occasion. But I'm also very keen on socio-political satire. Stuff like Stephen Buckley, etc."
Changing Jareth, Elizabeth acknowledges, was, in part, written out of her frustration with the characters normally encountered in teen fiction. "As a young teen, I read a lot of YA fiction that I really hated: I wasn't allowed in the adult section of the local library until Grade 9 even though I was well ahead of my grade in reading level, so I was forced to make do with whatever was in the 'Young adults section. Lots of stupid, work-it-all-out teenage romances, predictable parent/child conflicts. One author I read a lot was Lois Duncan, who has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity lately with her book I Know What You Did Last Summer being made into a (bad) Hollywood movie. But I really enjoyed a lot of her books, although they haven't aged particularly well with me. There's a lot of supernatural stuff in her books - ghosts and ESP and that kind of thing, which has ceased to appeal to me. It works for younger readers, but it seems like kind of a literary cop-out now that I'm an adult. I've already been compared to S.E. Hinton in terms of tone and content, and I consider that quite a compliment. Again, reading her stuff now, it's a little dated, but she really pioneered the genre - and inspired a couple of terrific movies, Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. Other movies made from her books haven't been very good at all."
Changing Jareth was dedicated to a trio of people, and Elizabeth explains why she singled them out. "Like I said in the dedication, Mark Wickens was my teacher in Grade 4 and again in Grade 8. We did a lot of creative writing in his class - he taught Language Arts, or whatever they're calling English these days. And, in my spare time, I was writing constantly: short stories, lame poems, whatever. Mr. Wickens was a real encouragement to me. He was always reading my stories aloud in front of the class and asking to see stuff I'd written in my spare time. When I was in Grade 8, there was a really obnoxious kid in my class named Billy Finnegan. I'm sure he turned out to be a wonderful adult, but, in Grade 8, he was a real jerk. One day I was working on a story or something, and Billy started bugging me. Kid stuff, no big deal. But I said something like, 'Shut up, I'm writing a book.' So Billy thinks this is the funniest thing he's ever heard, and he says really loud to the whole class, 'Hey, (Elizabeth) says she's gonna write a book.' Mr. Wickens, who is up at the front of the room at this point, looks up like he's not surprised at all. 'Oh, yeah. At least,' he says. That's when I first started seriously thinking about writing. Not that I didn't already do a lot of it, but I'd never really considered it a career option before that."
"As far as Kevin and Annalise go, they're both very good friends of mine. I've known Kevin since high school, and Annalise since the year I graduated. I've worked with them both on dramatic presentations and other creative stuff. When I started working on Jareth, I asked both of them to take a look and tell me what they thought. I was about 19 at the time and I'd never written anything nearly as long and complicated as Jareth, and so they gave me some very practical advice as readers. Kevin provided me with some marvelously tactful and philosophical advice: 'I don't understand why he says this,' or 'Would somebody really do that?' Anna was a little more to-the-point: 'That's a stupid thing to say. Cut that part out, I don't like it.' Or 'You use that phrase a lot. It's kind of annoying.' And so on. The pair of them were absolutely priceless in the early stages of the work, helping to hammer out the story into something readable."
In describing how Changing Jareth came to be, Elizabeth says, "The central character was always male though he did not always have that name. To be honest, I didn't really give any thought to the central character's gender. I think, though, that to have made my protagonist for this story female would have rung very false. It would have taken a lot of explaining to give a female Jareth the kind of rage and aggression that seem perfectly natural from him, given his situation. I'm not saying girls don't ever feel like that. In fact, I'm saying quite the opposite is true. But I think in this instance, it would have been distracting. That kind of emotion tends to manifest itself much differently in girls than in boys, and, when it doesn't, I think more of an explanation would be necessary. As for Jareth's humble beginnings, he started out as Gary, the main character in a short story I wrote. I was walking around a particularly nice part of Brampton one cold winter day when I just had a great mental picture of a guy jumping out the second-floor window of one of these houses and landing in a snowdrift. So Gary's tremendous leap became a short story called 'Blizzard..' After he robs the house (in nearly the same manner as happens at the beginning of Jareth), he takes his friend Matthew's car for a spin, except that, instead of just driving around for a few hours, he picks up a hitchhiker, and they have a long, profound conversation and have all sorts of other adventures. The hitchhiker has since found her way into another story which I'll be sure to put to paper one of these days."
"After I finished the story, I had my friend, Annalise, read it. She really liked it, but, after that, I kind of filed it away in favour of other things for a while. It wasn't until nearly a year later that I decided I'd like to revisit that character. My goal at the time was to create a character who seemed beyond redemption - doomed to repeat endless patterns - who somehow comes to realize the importance of taking responsibility for his actions and begins to make his life worth something. Gary seemed like he was in an appropriate place to start this process. The first thing that changed was the name. I scoured baby name books looking for a suitable replacement, but I couldn't find one. Finally I found Jareth's name in an absolutely brilliant Jim Henson movie called Labyrinth. (Jareth is the goblin king who kidnaps a baby and holds him hostage while the baby's sister tries to retrieve him.) Somehow it just seemed to work. The next thing to change was the voice. Originally the story was written in the third person. I really liked the original story, but I thought that if ANYONE was ever going to have any sympathy for this horrible little thug, I should probably let him tell his own story."
About seven years elapsed between the short story and Elizabeth's holding the published book in her hands. "When I had a first 'finished' version of the book in about 1995, I sent it to a few places and didn't hear much in response. Lots of form letters, a few terse 'no thank-you's. So I gave up for a while and put Jareth in a drawer for a couple of years. Then, in late 1997, I got a letter from one publisher who said they really liked the book but didn't have a place in their catalogue for it. However, they suggested I try Polestar. I made a couple of revisions to the manuscript before sending it off there, and then promptly forgot about it again. It wasn't until early in 1999, coincidentally about three weeks after the last paper I worked for went under, that I heard anything back from Polestar. They'd had the book for over a year by this point and had held onto it until they felt they could use it."
"As far as changes to the manuscript go since then, there have been many. The entire second half of the book is virtually unrecognizable from the original book, which is fine by me. Between writing the original draft and revisiting it, I'd spent two years at Sheridan College's school for journalism and two more working in the field, and there were a huge number of passages in the original version that just made me cringe. The ending, itself, changed many times between February and October of 1999. To start with, Jareth ended much more melodramatically. There was a big finish, knives and guns a-blazing. It was really, really bad. Also, Zoe was a much more significant character. She and Jareth had a much more intense relationship in the original. Which was also really awkward, because she came across more as a prop than an actual character. The epilogue was the final addition."
Changing Jareth departs from the typical YA novel in a number of ways, one being the aforementioned 'Epilogue.' "That was very much a compromise with the publisher. I was quite happy with the most recent 'original' ending, with Jareth on the train going back to Toronto. (The ORIGINAL original version also has an epilogue, but, to reiterate, it's really, really bad. I was reading a lot of John Irving at the time. He's very fond of epilogues and likes to wrap up every character's life, major or minor, at the end of a book.) Anyway, I don't have any major problems with the new epilogue, except that it was re-written so many times that it does feel a little like an afterthought now. But the publisher felt the reader would want to 'know what happened to Jareth next.'" Another difference was the book's length. It is 278 pages long. "Yeah, I'm a little long-winded. But Polestar was fine with it. I had a news writing teacher in college who, when asked how long an assignment should be, invariably replied, 'When you're finished, stop writing.' Which is what I did. I don't think it could have been any shorter and still accomplished what I wanted."
"The store in Jareth is an exact replica of a tiny video store where my best friend in high school worked. I'm a huge movie nut, and I spent lots of time there as a teenager. But up until well after Jareth was finished, I never had thoughts of working in a video store myself. Then, after the St. Catherines paper folded, I worked in a photo lab for a few months while I worked on revising the book. But then my favourite local video store closed down in July, and a big corporate one went in in its place. Well, I thought, if I'm working in a video store around the corner from my house, I'll have lots of time to write another book, do assorted freelance jobs, etc. So I've been working there part time since August of 1999. It's relatively stress-free, and I get free movie rentals."
"Most of my stories begin with a good, solid character. I like to exhaustively develop characters in my own mind long before I start doing anything with them. A character idea can start with a name, a face, an interesting quirk I notice in someone else - really, it can come from anywhere. But sometimes it works the other way, too. I come up with an interesting situation - it can be a kid telling me a huge whopper and me thinking, "Hey, what if that REALLY happened?" or reading a newspaper report about a petty crime or a big charity event or whatever and getting the urge to invent a back-story to it."
"I tend to be a night-owl when I'm making my own schedule, writing until two and three in the morning. I usually write in dribs and drabs - a paragraph or two, get up and wander around, read the paper, whatever, then come back and do another sentence." Asked if she's a 'disciplined' writer, Elizabeth replies, (A pause here for an extended bout of hysterical laughter.) "Oh, my word, discipline? What exactly is that? No, I'm not disciplined at all. I love deadlines, and I need them to be externally imposed. I can NOT force myself to finish a project unless there are consequences to it not being finished on time." Elizabeth also acknowledges an 'addiction' to computer games, especially SimCity 3000. "Computer games are evil. But, because I literally have a two-or-three minute attention span when I'm writing, it's often good to be able to alt-tab over to an extended game of Civilization or something, play for five minutes, then alt-tab back and stare at the page again. Now, there are exceptions to this, of course. Once in a while, I'll go into a kind of frenzy and spontaneously spew out five thousand words in a single sitting. I'd love to know exactly how to spark that kind of marathon without someone sitting over me and breathing down my neck, but I don't know if there's any single element that causes that to happen."
Royalties from one book plus the salary from part-time work at a video store require supplementing, and so Elizabeth freelances. When asked what kind of freelancing she does, Elizabeth replies, "Does 'will work for food' sum it up? I've done a bit of everything; press releases, resumes (that's my page design skills, not my writing ability), freelance photography (weddings - ugh - youth events, music stuff) and of course, the occasional short or long script for whoever asks. I've done a bit of work lately for a ventriloquist friend of mine and his dummy Rodney. (It's getting harder and harder for me to think of them as the same person. He does split his personality fairly well.)"
Elizabeth's creativity extends to other parts of her life."I'm also really involved with a church program called alt.church (all lower-case letters), which is sort of a postmodern church-within-a-church type weekly service programmed by and for 'twentysomethings' here in Burlington. That's quite a mouthful . . . it's also a lot of (unpaid) work. I'm on the programming team, I'm the drama director, I make up the weekly program (a one-or-two page newsletter, usually with pictures) and serve as kind of the 'producer' for the service, making sure everybody knows what they're supposed to be doing and when. (we also have a stage manager, professional musicians etc. It's very high-maintenance."
"As far as church stuff goes, I've done anything and everything through the years. I worked as part of a team of seven or eight actors who did little comedic sketches every couple of weeks at youth events, and eventually I was writing or co-writing many of the sketches. (There is so much BAD church drama out there. One of my many goals is to help raise the standards in some small way) All told, I've been involved in drama at my church for about 11 years. When I was 18, I wrote an hour-long comedic play entitled 'Olive Us (In February).' It was appalling, but, because the standards were so low, it went over really well. I've written a few other full-length plays since then, most of which are still sitting in a drawer somewhere waiting to be rewritten before they're remotely do-able. But then Christmas of 1998, my friend, Mike Janzen, who is a composer and musician from Toronto, suggested we write a musical together. Thus was born 'Power-Bunny And The Giant Egg Hunt,' an Easter play about a guy named Jay who gets a job as the Easter Bunny in a big department store. It was sort of a take-off on the whole 'Find the real meaning of Christmas' theme that's done to death every year. So this guy spends the entire play trying to figure out the real meaning of Easter, and all these crazy characters keep coming in and giving him misinformation. Then a crazed shoplifter bonks him on the head with a giant plastic lobster, and he has a hallucination about a big egg hunt that's kind of an allegory for a consumer-driven society. Believe it or not, it was a big success. We only had about 400 people there, but the word of mouth was great."
"For Christmas of 1999, Mike and I collaborated again. Every year our church does a big dinner theatre, and every year the music is fantastic and the drama stinks. So this year I wrote and directed the dramatic portion, and we had a great response. We had over 2,000 people come to see the thing. It was a musical about the life of King Herod - slightly different in tone than "Power-Bunny"! Lots of historical research, a cast of more than 20 characters, a 70-voice choir doing all-original music and dialogue. It was immense."
Part of the appeal of acting Elizabeth explains is that "I love the feeling of stepping in and out of other skins. Changing the way you walk, talk, move, whatever. Writing gives you a certain sense of power, in that you get to be several people at the same time, but acting is even more intense because people are WATCHING you do it. Now, the ultimate buzz, of course, is writing something that people are actually going to read, and writing drama is that much more exciting because you get to watch the characters come to life. And sometimes they're not exactly the way you imagined them. Every actor brings a little something of themselves to the part, and it's really wild to hear your words being spoken by someone else."
Conducting an interview by email also uncovered some aspects of Elizabeth's life that might not have emerged via the more traditional face-to-face approach. One set of questions got a late night/early morning response which also included the information that Elizabeth had been up the previous night until 3 a.m. working on a pirate doll, a fact which, of course, demanded an explanation. "I like to sculpt in polymer clay, and lately I've gotten into making dolls or figurines. The pirate is kind of cool - the idea came to me about four in the morning one day. He's not quite done yet, but, when he is, he'll be sitting on the edge of a little wooden trunk reading a miniature copy of Treasure Island. But, like writing, I'm often prone to fits of extended creativity at ridiculous hours of the night. Right now, I'm working on a sort of self-portrait in clay, a 10" version of yours truly, complete with plaid shirt and ripped jeans. I can't wait to do the hair. It's sort of a challenge to see if I can re-create a likeness of someone in three dimensions. I'm doing myself so I don't insult anyone if I mess it up. But, if it works out, I might have to start doing little sculptures of my friends."
As to what her future plans are, Elizabeth says, "Hmm, keep in mind that you're asking a Gen-Xer with ADD for career direction. Right now I'm just trying to concentrate on getting the next book out. I'd like to do maybe one or two more YA novels at this point, and then I see myself moving into more 'young adult' (as opposed to Young Adult) themes. I'd also like to develop a couple of younger children's stories I've got, and maybe turn it into either an anthology or a series of some kind. They're mostly pretty rough right now - fairy tale type stories, dragons and swords and castles. I'm a huge C.S. Lewis fan, and the Chronicles of Narnia have been among my favourite books since I was seven or eight. A lot of my earliest writing was inspired by his and similar works. There are entire planets floating around in my head. How's that for scary? Mostly, though, I'd just like to get to the point where I'm writing creatively full-time and actually making a living at it. A tough call for a writer in Canada, I know."
Books by Elizabeth Wennick
- Changing Jareth. Polestar Book Publishers, 1999. ISBN 1-896095-97-6. Grades 7 and up.
This article is based on a series of email communications that took place between January 18 and February 29, 2000.