Interviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Ottawa Review of Books' Menaka Raman-Wilms spoke this month with Alan Cumyn, one of Ottawa's most versatile authors. In November 2016, the Writers' Trust of Canada awarded Cumyn the Vicky Metcalf Award for his contribution to young adult literature. His most recent YA novel, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, is published by Simon & Schuster.
Menaka: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, certainly has elements of the fantastical in it, though you usually write about a very realistic world. Why the change?
Alan: I recently caught myself saying that really I’m a realistic writer, and then I realized, well, except for that book where that pterodactyl shows up in high school. It’s a big departure for me.
I think I liked the idea of just changing one element; you know, making it fantastical, and then making the rest of it as realistic as possible and seeing how the characters react. And I think, in a sense, my fiction is about the study of people. And so it can’t stray too far from what we know about society, and what we know about people. So it was just about tweaking one thing and seeing how the characters react, and then seeing what that tells us about people, and then society in general.
Menaka: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend is a YA novel – does writing for kids and teens allow you to explore that fantastical world more?
Alan: I think young people are more open to fantastical twists. And I felt more open about playing with the topic in particular in a high school setting, because I think it’s so open for satire and it’s also a universal sort of experience, because almost all of us know what it’s like to be in high school. So I certainly felt freed up to explore this more. I think setting it in high school, making it for young adults, opened me up. At the same time, I really think of young adult literature as being for adults as well, because an awful lot of adults read YA now.
Menaka: Do you approach writing for kids or young adults differently than you approach writing for adults?
Alan: Not consciously. For me, it all begins with a character in a situation: a really interesting character in a compelling situation. And if it’s a young character, they’re probably for a younger audience. You can’t really write a middle-aged character at the center of a novel for a younger audience. So in a way, the central focus of the main character will dictate how the book needs to be conditioned.
Menaka: You formally studied creative writing – what kind of impact do you think that schooling has had?
Alan: I did my masters a long time ago, more than thirty years ago, but it was a very important time for me. I got to work with a brilliant teacher, Alistair MacLeod. To learn from somebody like that, not only about what they say about your work, but also to then deeply read their writing, is very special. MacLeod’s work is a really great example of writing with heart and depth, and that’s something that I try to emulate.
That program was also my first experience with having my work workshopped by other people, and that really helped me think about writing and helped me solidify my identity as a writer. And that helped me through years of further experimentation and rejection before I actually started to get published. So it helped me in terms of knowledge of craft, but even more importantly gave me the confidence to just keep going through many years of difficultly.
Menaka: You’ve taught writing courses as well. Does that affect your writing process?
Alan: It sure does. It’s a great secret actually that you often learn much more by teaching other people. It can be so much easier to see weaknesses or drawbacks in somebody else’s writing than to see the same thing in your own writing. Then, it’s eventually not such a big step to start looking at your own writing with that distance and objectivity.
I also know a lot of young writers have tremendous creative power, but they won’t necessarily have a sense of control over where it’s going. But you learn over the years, so as a more experienced writer, you have more control over what you’re trying to do. And so there’s a balancing act that happens, an exchange of energies. I think we can all use a bit of creative power or more control of something.
Menaka: What are the most important things for an emerging writer to focus on?
Alan: I do think you have to read a lot in order to soak in as much language as possible, as much good writing as possible. And you have to build up your writing muscle so that when you sit down, when it’s ready to come out, you can just write. That helps you get a sense of your voice, and what you want to contribute.
You also have to be passionate about some subject; you have to want to write about it so that it’s interesting for other people. For a writer, I think that it’s important to just be really interested in the world.