A few months ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Canadian YA author Cathleen With for my school's magazine. Cathleen toured the province (including my city) on the BC Book Prizes Tour and was later named winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for her novel Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison (for a great review click here).
Bio: Cathleen's first novel, Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison, was inspired by her years working in the Canadian Arctic. She's traveled and volunteered all around the world, working extensively in Southeast Asia and Northern Canada. For more information, check out her website.
Against the stark and haunting landscape of Canada's Far North, fifteen-year-old Trista chronicles the events of her life from her room in the Polar Girls' Prison. Caught in the decline of sexual abuse, drunkenness, and failed motherhood, Trista tries to make sense of her past, especially the events that led her to jail. With heartfelt compassion and rare insight, the stunning new voice of debut novelist Cathleen With lends light to the hardships and suffering of the teenage girls and clash of cultures in this remote region that has never before been represented in literature.
Q: You mentioned that you've worked in the North and that's clearly affected your work. How do you think it influences you?
Cathleen With: The Canadian Arctic is a beautiful, serene and also harsh landscape. As a Vancouver girl who lived in Asia for 8 months prior to teaching up north, the landscape had a profound influence on me. I remember seeing the Northern Lights for the first time and the tears freezing on my cheeks.
Q: I read the bio on your website--you've traveled and worked all over the world! Does this influence your writing?
CW: I am currently writing about the places I've traveled. I feel strongly about social justice and abolishing child slavery. I also feel strongly about sexual abuse and how it is hidden in so many cultures--and children continue to become abused under this veil of shame and secrecy. I am only a writer, but I want to write about some of these horrors so people can be aware, help the children, and stop the cycle of abuse. I am currently working on a book about child slavery in Cambodia. I lived there for 8 months in 2001.
Q: Where are you originally from? Does that stay with you even after all your worldly travels?
CW: I was born in Vancouver and raised in Richmond. I took the bus to Vancouver almost every weekend from age 13 on, and I love my hometown. Growing up as a first born Canadian, I was greatly influenced by place and by my family's Danish culture. I also felt tied to Lulu Island (Richmond) and the marshes and dikes that surround it.
Q: Finally off the subject of travel, sorry about that... Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison is your first novel; what was the publishing process like? Roughly how long did it take your to write your book, start to finish?
CW: I started the book as a short story in a fiction class at UBC when I was doing my MFA [Master of Fine Arts]. My teacher, Keith Maillard, said, "It sounds like you might have more to say about this character, I think this is a book." And that was that--he was right! The first draft was amazingly quick--maybe 3 months and then I submitted it to Denise Bukowski, my amazing agent, then Penguin, HarperCollins and Doubleday wanted it--what a heady experience that was... And then I signed with Penguin. The rewrites were hard! They took 6-7 months. It takes a long time for a book to get in the loop to be published--usually about 2 years.
Q: Even in the short excerpt you read [at the author reading], it's clear that your MC has a very strong voice and personality. Are you two alike? How difficult was it to get inside her head?
CW: We are similar in that we both had experiences being institutionalized when younger. I had trouble with depression, abuse in my teens and I was in a psych ward, also in detox and recovery houses when I was young. I was especially intrigued by the idea that you can be doing so well--trying to get your life together--but then one night, just by making a sudden wrong choice, it all comes crashing down. I saw that happen to many friends, some of whom are now dead because they just couldn't survive their tragic lives. I also saw it up north, along with the amazing resilience that these kids had.
Q: What was your first reaction when you found out that you were a finalist for the BC Book Prizes?
CW: Pinched myself--over and over till my arm was blue!!!!
Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?
CW: Keep at it! Share with friends you trust. Take classes, get mentors, and put in that seat time. Don't over analyze or be too critical or hard on yourself: the first draft is never the best. Do what you love and the rest will follow.
There we go, my first interview! Any suggestions on authors I should try and contact (who wouldn't be too terrifying or intimidating if asked to do a blog-interview) or questions I should ask?